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“Where the &*$#@* am I?” Why we get lost.

I am notorious among my family for having absolutely no sense of direction. The stories they could tell (and do). One of my children’s favorites: The day it took us six hours to drop off charity-donated Christmas gifts to seven families in Minneapolis and the near suburbs. Even with a map (this was pre-GPS) and stopping frequently to ask for directions, I got lost. Repeatedly.

Needless to say, we were a carload of Scrooges by the end of the day. I later realized that in the time it took us to drop off those packages, we could have driven to Chicago — if I could have figured out how to get there.

My navigational instincts are so terrible that I sometimes purposely go in the opposite direction from the one I think is correct. If I believe I should turn right to reach my destination, I yank the steering wheel to the left. This tactic has a surprisingly high success rate. Sad, but true.

Navigational nerds
Naturally, then, when I saw the “Why Humans Can’t Navigate Out of a Paper Bag” headline on New Scientist’s website Tuesday, I clicked on it with eager anticipation. The article was, well, somewhat reassuring. In it, science reporter Chris Berdik explains why all humans have poor internal sat-nav systems.

“[A]long with our flair for language and our unparalleled intelligence, less-than-stellar navigational skills are among the things that can be considered uniquely human,” writes Berdik. “While the vast majority of animals have no trouble finding their way around, most people, when stripped of maps or signs, are notoriously bad at it.”

Some species, of course, possess great sensory advantages when it comes to navigation — migratory birds, for example, famously use the Earth’s magnetic field. Yet, as Berdik points out, even creatures without such sensory superpowers — like the dopey golden hamster — can do an end run around us humans when it comes to getting back home after being led away blindfolded to an unknown location through an unfamiliar maze.

When humans are asked to judge distance and direction in laboratory studies, we almost always make a mess of it — even when given hints of shortcuts to our destination.

“These findings … suggest that human cognitive maps pay little heed to geometric realities,” says Berdik. “Instead, we remember webs of landmarks such as the store, our office, the church where we turn left on our way home, yet have little sense of how these fit together spatially.”

Interestingly, a psychologist who studies how people behave when they get lost in the wild told Berdik that individuals with the strongest confidence in their own sense of direction are the ones most likely to get into trouble. They tend to put too much faith in their mental maps and distrust any other evidence — visual clues, even compass readings — that don’t match up with those maps.

Gender differences
Berdik doesn’t talk about gender differences in navigational styles, but from some research I’ve done myself for a book I’m writing on memory, I know that men and women tend to rely on different navigational cues when trying to reach a remembered destination. Men are more likely to use the abstract cues of geometry and compass orientations. Thus, they tend to give directions like this: “keep going straight south” or “take the road for about a mile and a half before making a 90-degree turn to the right.”

Women, on the other hand, are more likely to rely on landmark cues. They’ll tell people to “turn left immediately after passing the elementary school” or “turn right just before the house with the wrap-around porch.”

(Yes, yes. I know these are broad generalizations. Some women use the geometry approach and some men use landmarks.)

Research shows that the “male” navigational approach is faster and tends to result in fewer wrong turns, at least in the laboratory. But women remember much more of what they saw along the route.

And, hey — isn’t that what life should be about?

But back to Berdik’s article. Some scientists, he says, believe there may be a genetic component to navigation ability. They’ve already begun searching for it.

In the meantime, says Berdik, “we can take heart in the knowledge that, as a species, we have managed to find our way to the moon and back, and have sent satellites to just the right orbit so that we no longer need to think about where we are going. Show me a hamster that can do that.”

Me? I take heart in my iPhone’s GPS app.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Charles Turpin on 08/19/2009 - 12:44 pm.

    I suggest the problem with navigation is that we take it for granted. Every navagator knows there are two essentials to navigation:

    1. Plan where you are going. I find it helpful to write a sequence chart – A to B to C …. etc.
    Generally, I don’t need to refer to it after I’ve written it.

    2. Look back from time to time. It’s usually more important to know where you have been than where you are going. It’s more important to know how to get home than to get to any destination. This is especially important in forests and strange cities where the street signs use a different alphabet. The view back can be very, very different from the view forward.

  2. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 08/19/2009 - 02:09 pm.

    Long ago, I wrote about South Sea Islanders (I believe) who WAY before modern instruments or knowledge navigated the ocean by memorizing the stars in the sky and using them to steer. These would have been male fishermen who served as their families food providers. Their brains may have, during those ages or eons, adapted to handle such navigation.

  3. Submitted by Sheila Ehrich on 08/20/2009 - 12:19 pm.

    As a former partner in a soybean seed operation in southern Minnesota, one thing I learned is that there are left-right people and north-south-east-west people. Granted, the straight roads with 90 degree turns helped.

    When a trucker would call to ask for directions I would always ask them, “North-south, or right-left?” Nine out of 10 times they would know exactly what I was asking. If they wanted the north-south directions, I could give it to them off the top of my head from wherever they were. But if they wanted right-left directions, I would have to read it from a piece of paper stuck to the bulletin board or I’d mess it up everytime. I also tended to use the “turn south when you go past the school” thing.

    If I’m given right-left directions I will turn the wrong way just about everytime, even though I am very conscious of my left-right problem.

    As for a genetic component. my paternal grandpa was a north-souther, he couldn’t do right-left either.

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