give me some direction
July 1, 2009 5:31 PM   Subscribe

Which way is West?

Here's a weird one for you all. I have a strong sense of direction, meaning whenever I'm in a location I "see" it in a certain way that identifies east, west, north, and south. However, while it's a strong sense, it's often completely wrong! I've been noticing it a lot lately because I've moved into a house where the sun rises in the west and sets in the east. At least, that's how this sense insists that I see it. Does this happen to you? Does this sense have a name? Is there any way to fix it? I've been living here since February and I still get lost now and then, because I just can't get my mind to fit this place into the surrounding world. I come out of the neighborhood to another place where my sense is accurate, and suddenly the world spins. Freaks me out.
posted by crazylegs to Grab Bag (34 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, I had the same trouble at my mother's house in College Park, MD. I lived there for six years and visited occasionally for another 14 years, and was 90 degrees off that whole time. I could recalibrate, but only by a conscious effort, and it always slipped back again.
posted by Bruce H. at 5:43 PM on July 1, 2009

It may be because you oriented yourself according to the street or the front door of a previous house, or some other landmark. Is there a similar landmark in your new house that faces the opposite direction? Go out on a clear night and find Polaris. Remember your position with reference to your new house. That's north.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 5:43 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Leave a compass or two near some windows so every time you look outside, you can reconfirm that, yes, that's north.
posted by mdonley at 5:48 PM on July 1, 2009

When I moved from the East coast of the U.S. to the West coast, my normally excellent sense of direction got completely frakked up. Living in the East, my mental image was of the sun rising over the ocean (even if I couldn't actually see the ocean from where I was), and I generally knew where that was. Then I moved to California, where the sun sets over the ocean. Oy.

It's reset itself, thank god. I tried to help the process along by memorizing some landmarks, intersections, etc. But I still sometimes say things like "Walk east on [street]..." when I mean west.

But this is something that happens to you even when you were living in a place you were familiar with? It hasn't cropped up just since you moved?
posted by rtha at 5:48 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

This has happened to me periodically for as long as I can remember. In some locations I get it right, in some I get it wrong. In some locations I can change how the place "looks" at will.
posted by crazylegs at 5:52 PM on July 1, 2009

I have no idea if this has a name, but I've experienced this before in two ways. First, I grew up on the east coast of the US, near the ocean, so ocean always equals east to me. When I visited Seattle I was constantly confused and would turn the wrong way while driving because the ocean was to the west.

The other way it's happened is when I have gotten it stuck in my head that a particular landmark is oriented differently than it really is, and every time I come across it, I find it disorienting. For example, I keep thinking that a particular restaurant is going to be on the left, and it ends up being on the right. To resolve this when it happens, I spend a bunch of time driving (or walking) around the surrounding area, and study the map, in order to fix my mental map.

I otherwise have a very strong sense of direction and I think that is what makes it so disorienting. I have friends who can't read a map and they don't seem to know or care which direction is which.
posted by cabingirl at 5:53 PM on July 1, 2009

This happened to me when I moved from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere - I had to consciously remind myself for about a year that the sun would be in the south in the middle of the day, not the north, and that west and east were therefore the other way round compared to the sun.

Mostly I did this by looking at my watch whenever I was trying to work out directions, ie "if it's 4pm and the sun is on my left then I am facing North", or "It's 11am and the sun in on my right, so I am facing roughly east"
posted by girlgenius at 6:07 PM on July 1, 2009

Could some other cues be throwing you off, such as odd angles to the streets or highways near you? I'm completely off with directions since moving to my current city, and that's based on cues from the highways in the area. Let me give you an example:

Here in Ass-Crack, TX (Sorry, that's Corpus Christi, TX) State Highway 358 is designated as East/West. The other name the highway is known by is Padre Island Drive, but it is designated as North/South.

Driving west on 358 you intersect Interstate 37, which is North/South. When you're heading west, you'd expect a left turn to mean you'd be pointed south. Not here... turning left from 358 Westbound puts you on I-37 Northbound, and it isn't because of a 270-degree ramp -- it's a 90-degree turn. To complicate matters, you're actually traveling due west at that point. (See the map if you don't believe me: Google Maps -- Corpus Christi, TX)

Anyway... that, combined with the tendency of streets to run perpendicular to the shoreline of the bay (which has about four distinct angles) makes my sense of direction worthless around here. Could something like that, but more subtle be at play where you are?
posted by ElDiabloConQueso at 6:07 PM on July 1, 2009

(Disclaimer: I have a pretty bad sense of direction in general, though I always *think* I know where I'm going)

There's an area right around where I work in which my north and south are flipped. East and west are totally fine, but north and south always confuse the hell out of me. It's gotten to the point where I go the opposite way I think something should be, just because I know I'm always wrong.

I was trying to tell someone how to get to a restaurant I eat at on a weekly basis, and I couldn't even say for sure which way to go.
posted by natabat at 6:08 PM on July 1, 2009

Sense of direction has two parts: 1. the observations you make that lead you to make assumptions about which is which - such as, the ocean's over there, the sun rises there, etc. 2. A sense of trajectory and distance travelled.

So it's possible to have one of these completely screwed up and still be great at the other. When you're trying to find your way back from a friend's house for the first time, you need the second one, and the first one probably won't be of help. It's the second one we normally call "sense of direction." The first one is really a sense of cardinal direction. Which is different, as it doesn't make any reference to your position at all.

When you confuse one with the other, you confuse yourself about where West is. Your body is telling you "My memory for trajectory and distance travelled tells me that West should be over there." But it may not be. What's important in telling the cardinal directions is observation alone, not this "sense of direction," which is totally relational.

Or a compass. That works too.
posted by Miko at 6:10 PM on July 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

These are all great answers. However, what I'm really talking about is something more instinctive and less based on exterior cues than what most people are saying here. I have this sense even in a place I've never been before, where I don't know any of the landmarks. I can be standing in a place and a certain direction will "feel" west and the opposite will "feel" east, as though my brain is positioning me in relation to the planet. It would be a great skill except that, as I said, as often as not it's totally wrong!
posted by crazylegs at 6:19 PM on July 1, 2009

Interesting, I wish I had that ability! Maybe you should carry a compass with you, a small one to fit in your pocket. Then whenever you get a feeling about the direction you're in, you can whip out the compass to check and see if you're correct. Over time, this might help you to be right more often than wrong!

It seems like it's kind of like how some people have absolute myself when it comes to the piano. I can tell when a musical note is A, or B, or C-sharp for example, because the note "A" sounds like "A", and the note C-sharp sounds like "C-sharp." I can't explain it, really. I am usually correct about 90% of the time, but I can be off by a half note. And I can only do it with the piano. Maybe that's similar to what you feel when it comes to direction.
posted by starpoint at 6:27 PM on July 1, 2009

as though my brain is positioning me in relation to the planet.

Sure, your brain is trying, but your brain's information isn't complete. It's highly prone to error because it's trying to do rough calculations based on your movements, and then trying to rationalize them by applying those calculations to your present environment. But the rough calculations are not accurate enough. To override that sense that feels so certain, you have to intentionally stop and take notice of the world as it really is, based on observation.

I used to do some environmental education and this was one of the skills we worked on - really observing the environment. Standing still, watching, and reasoning to discover the cardinal points. It's not innate. It has to be trained in to people. In fact, one thing you learn in survival training is that if you're going to set out walking, you really need to walk in planned segments, stopping and re-planning after each finite set of movements, and mark your travels, because when human beings don't do that, they almost invariably walk in large circles. We think we have a sense of direction, but unless you are practiced at building your knowledge of directionality based on observation, it's pretty much useless.
posted by Miko at 6:28 PM on July 1, 2009

Think about this: it's so easy to confuse the human brain about sense of direction that a standard trope in a movie or book about kidnapping is driving or walking the victim around in a winding path so they are no longer able to use the trajectory sense at all.
posted by Miko at 6:31 PM on July 1, 2009

There has been lots of scientific study of this, apparently, within the field of environmental psychology. Googling "sense of direction" and "wayfinding" or "cardinal points" results in a lot of paper citations like this that would, no doubt, be interesting and helpful. Paid access, though.
posted by Miko at 6:38 PM on July 1, 2009

I think I have what you're talking about. My thing is north though. I feel like I have a gyroscope in my head and I just always know where north is. If we take a long trip, I am able to keep track of where N is without trying. I'm usually very accurate.

But several years ago when I moved for a few years to a city that had a completely wacky street system, I was completely thrown off. Like you, even in my own house I was completely turned around.

I also cannot orient myself in the Coachella Valley. No matter where I am, if I think "that way is L.A., that way is north" etc., I'm wrong.
posted by peep at 6:58 PM on July 1, 2009

I have an excellent sense of direction, at least in this part of the world that I've lived my life. There are still some places that I get turned around, and the only solution I've found is either repetition or a map.
posted by rhizome at 6:59 PM on July 1, 2009

I have experienced this, actually, and while I don't know the name, what helped me was getting a map and referencing where north was in relation to different points in my daily life - home, work, friend's house, and so forth. Over time, my sense of where north was in relation to these places developed (within my neighborhood, within my town), extrapolating to wider areas. Now it's pretty instinctual.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 7:22 PM on July 1, 2009

Interesting . . . If you were dropped into an unfamiliar indoor shopping mall, would you still have a strong sense of the cardinal directions? Are you more apt to be right or wrong when indoors? I usually know which way is which (and fairly accurately), but all bets are off in large enclosed spaces. And in Madison, Wisconsin, which If I didn't have GPS in my car I would never find my way around, no matter how many times I've been there.
posted by Joleta at 7:45 PM on July 1, 2009

Alternatively, you can wear a belt.
posted by Nerro at 7:56 PM on July 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I can be standing in a place and a certain direction will "feel" west and the opposite will "feel" east, as though my brain is positioning me in relation to the planet. It would be a great skill except that, as I said, as often as not it's totally wrong!

One of the things I learned by having once gone mad was that feelings of certainty, while tremendously compelling, are in general not reliable. Reality checks will often blow even the most cherished beliefs out of the water.

Are you also one of those people who can look at somebody else and just know what their life story is and what they're thinking? Because that doesn't really work, either :-)
posted by flabdablet at 8:18 PM on July 1, 2009

Maybe you're experiencing magnetoception? I know other animals have built-in navigation, but the jury's still out on whether or not humans do as well.
posted by Thoughtcrime at 9:19 PM on July 1, 2009

Happens to me, too. I grew up in a city where downhill=south, quite consistently, so now wherever I am I tend to assume the lowest point in any given geographical area is the southernmost point, which of course is often not the case. Maybe you have some similar "rule" that your brain learned in your first home, and you're now unconsciously trying to apply it too broadly.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:27 PM on July 1, 2009

Where I grew up, in Michigan, I was very good at always knowing my directions. In general, in the NYC area, this also worked. Worked well in LA, too. And my many places between. Then I moved to Buffalo, and that's where it went bad, and also, where I discovered why. I call it "conceptual map".

It's a simple concept. Some of us have maps in our head. These seem to tend to be simplified, maybe not unlike vector maps, only simpler. What I realized, that made the concept clear, was that Lake Erie was, by mental definition, "north", when in the US. Trouble is, in Buffalo, it is, in fact, west! Further examination of my thoughts revealed that Lake Erie was mapped as a line (since nothing in the water mattered to that mental map). There was south of the line (US) and north (Canada).

Oh, another thing that did cause me lots of problems, was trying to drive on the expressways and parkways on Long Island. Nothing is more problematic than seeing signs that say "West New York City", if you're from anywhere west of NYC. America's conceptual map (at least for the fly-over states) is square, and the only thing east of NYC is ocean. Far too many times I got on the road going the wrong direction due to this confusion. But that wasn't about my internal compass, it was about words.
posted by Goofyy at 11:52 PM on July 1, 2009

When my directional sense gets something wrong like that, 90% of the time it's because the roads that go to the place are at weird angles or something. Usually I can fix it by consciously thinking about what direction I'm facing as I travel the roads--i.e. whenever there's a turn, I reorient myself. I'll take note of which turns "feel" wrong, and mentally correct myself whenever I take those turns in the future. Usually this fixes it after a few trips.
posted by equalpants at 1:52 AM on July 2, 2009

Many studies have proposed over the years that all kinds of animals (birds, bats, salmon to name the most cited using Google) have an internal compass which they use for migration. Why not humans? A lot of these articles suggest there is something in the body's chemistry that picks up magnetic fields. On a personal note, I have a sense of direction but wonder how good it would be if I were blind since i believe I feel direction by visual cues. I think the suggestion that you try out your sense of direction in an enclosed mall is a good one.
posted by birdwatcher at 4:29 AM on July 2, 2009

Equalpants' experience meshes with mine. I tend to view roads as being NS or EW. And my head counts up turns (subconsciously) to keep me oriented. If a road curves or goes diagonal, I have a hard time keeping it straight.

Also, I'm pretty sure I subconsciously presume that numbered streets are EW and that numbered avenues are NS.

It also doesn't work indoors for me- I remember my "route" through the building so I can get back to where I came in, but that doesn't mesh to NSEW unless I think about it.
posted by gjc at 5:11 AM on July 2, 2009

As a pilot, I have always been fascinated with the ways in which we navigate, and have come to realize that there are two primary ways: some of us depend on a sense of direction and distance, and some of us rely on landmarks. Some research suggests that females tend to excel with landmark-based navigation, while males are predominantly direction-and-distance. In my own family I know this to be true; outside, I know instinctively which way is North, and which way I need to go to get to my destination. Once I step inside, however, say into a mall, I'm lost after two turns and have to rely on my wife or daughters to get where I'm going, or find a map.

It sounds like your navigation is a hybrid: you have an innate sense of direction and distance, but it is skewed by the landmarks in your immediate environment. Try this: make the sky your primary point of reference. Remember that (in the Northern Hemisphere) the sun always rises in the northeast, passes due south at noon, and sets in the northwest. At night, get a feel for finding Polaris, the north star, by using the Big Dipper or Cassiopeaia. When you feel yourself getting dragged into a terrestrial-based orientation, immediately go to the sky for reinforcement. When you go to a new area, try to focus on the sky for the first few days until your landmarks "adjust" to reality. Try to keep the sky in mind as you walk, even if you don't want to keep looking up. When I'm walking in a new or unfamiliar city, for example, I keep reminding myself that my shadow generally points north if it's anytime near midday, and make appropriate adjustments for early morning or late afternoon. If it's cloudy, try to discern which part of the sky is brightest; if it's near sunrise or sunset, where are the clouds orange-yellow?

By gradually making yourself more "sky-aware", I believe you'll have an enviable sense of direction.
posted by dinger at 6:23 AM on July 2, 2009

Seconding flabdablet.

I feel as though I always know where north is, in a way that feels as though its a "sense", i.e., as though I could just materialize somewhere and know it for a fact.

But I have become more convinced recently by having a GPS in the car, that if anything, it's more like an old inertia-based navigation system coupled with resets based on sun position, etc., i.e., that it is actually based on my relative movements as I perceive them. A kind of instinctive dead-reckoning system. The sense organs we know about (i.e. not magnetoception) seem well equipped to handle this, yet approximate enough to explain our confusion.

This has been brought home to me by the fact that the road outside our house, which runs Northward, curves round gradually to the West, then back Northward. When I am on the westerly stretch, I cannot bring myself to accept it is anything other than pointing North. The gradual curve seems enough to fool my "inertia-based" system.

The "sense" I have that it is pointing North is so strong, that even looking at my GPS and seeing otherwise is not shifting the perception.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 6:38 AM on July 2, 2009

Many studies have proposed over the years that all kinds of animals (birds, bats, salmon to name the most cited using Google) have an internal compass which they use for migration. Why not humans?

We're not a migratory species.
posted by Miko at 7:16 AM on July 2, 2009

Some research suggests that females tend to excel with landmark-based navigation, while males are predominantly direction-and-distance.
Tend to, maybe. I'm a glaring counterexample to this.

I for one was really really troubled by using the NYC subway system, to the point that I'd feel slightly anxious and disoriented when I came back above ground. My sense of direction normally does a great job of telling me approximately how far I've gone in which direction (barring, as a lot of people have said here, streets that are at really weird angles), and having moved without any visual clues as to distance and direction really throws everything off. My friend who was with me, who doesn't have much of a sense of direction to speak of, was completely unfazed and always just set about matter-of-factly finding clues as to which direction was which. So I can understand your frustration with losing a rather useful - and maybe more importantly, orienting - sense that you could rely on in other cases.

Oliver Sacks apparently kept really strong magnets in his pockets that would sort of tug when he changed direction and they reoriented to north - he was trying to train himself into a sense of direction. I wish I could find a cite right now, but I know it was on an episode of RadioLab...
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:19 AM on July 2, 2009

Some research suggests that females tend to excel with landmark-based navigation, while males are predominantly direction-and-distance.

Some does, but a lot doesn't. When I was looking at the abstracts of the scientific papers on sense of direction, some found a gender correlation with wayfinding strategies, but many didn't. There was one such study about 15 years ago that was widely printed in the popular press, the one about landmarks vs. trajectories, and that seems to have cemented as truth in people's minds, though it wasn't conclusive according to other studies.
posted by Miko at 8:16 AM on July 2, 2009

I have another version of this: I make grids in my head that have up-down-left-right in them and don't really pay attention to cardinal direction as such. Many times up is north, but if I were somplace where water was south, water would still be up or left. The funny part is that in Brooklyn, where I live, some streets are "up-down" in one neighborhood and "left-right" in another (for Brooklynites, and example is Bedford: up-down in Williamsburg but left-right in Bed Stuy). I am okay at spinning them usually, and this makes it easy to give directions as take a left/take a right, rather than "go north", which I prefer.
posted by dame at 8:32 AM on July 2, 2009

It would be a great skill except that, as I said, as often as not it's totally wrong!

I play golf like that. I'd win the Masters if I weren't so lousy.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:11 AM on July 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

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