where am i?
July 17, 2011 7:34 AM   Subscribe

i have really significant problems with spacial orientation. my sense of direction has gotten so bad that i often start walking in the direction opposite to the one think is correct; i can't read a map or gps unless i'm heading north - even if i turn the map or gps (when i can even figure out which way to turn it).

being relatively new in my current city has just made things so much worse. i get off the train and have no idea where to go - unless i've been there a dozen times in a short period of time, otherwise everytime is like the first time. knowing where the water is doesn't help unless i'm looking at the water and being on a diagonal street is a joke.

i can't use a compass, i can't use gps, i can't use a map.

going north is mostly ok, but too many turns will lose me. that's when i can find north. if i'm going south and turn the map upside down, no dice. my brain just can't adjust, can't reorient. i've spent a lot of time standing at corners studying my gps. i usually just give up and ask.

i have other problems with spacial ability, but none are really that big a deal - unless i'm playing video games or trying to park. i still have to look down at my hands to see which one does the L to figure out which way is left.

this is just a part of my brain that doesn't work. really really doesn't work. and it's getting worse.

is there something i can do to develop enough spacial ability to read a gps or map? logic puzzles? exercises? i've read similar askmes, but all of the advice was about finding landmarks or using a compass. not much help in my case.
posted by crankyrogalsky to Travel & Transportation (28 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
By GPS, do you mean a smartphone? I have an iphone and I hold it in my hand when I am walking and look to see if the blue dot is heading towards my destination or away from it and then correct for that. So, I'm often walking in the wrong direction, but only for about ten feet, not for a few blocks. I have terrible problems with both Left/Right and East/West [and like you can't remember the water or the other things that people typically use as metrics] but I can look to see if the blue dot is heading towards my destination and/or use turn-by-turn directions when walking. I'll still go the wrong way when I get out of the subway, just not for as long.
posted by jessamyn at 7:40 AM on July 17, 2011 [7 favorites]

Hi, I'm completely shit at this too. I've navigated by landmarks as long as I can remember -- I'm a walker, not a driver, though, so it's a lot easier -- and in order to figure out which side the left one is I have to visualize a car and think of the driver because somehow that's what I associate with the concept of "left," rather than an actual direction.

I'm not sure how people taught you to use landmarks, but maybe this will help: when you have free time, leave the car at home and start walking around the city and being attentive. I still don't drive because even at slow distances the car just goes way, way to fast for me to be able to sort out what's around me and, therefore, determine where I am.

As far as compass directions go, all you have to remember is the word "northeast." Just memorize that word and bring it up whenever you have to deal with directions. Why? "North, East" is the order the directions go in clockwise.
posted by griphus at 7:46 AM on July 17, 2011

I'm going to recommend practice. Specifically, orienteering. You don't actually have to participate in the sport, but a few hours spent with a map and compass really is what you want to do here. If you want to figure out where you are, the ability to use a compass is an essential skill.

I'm guessing that one of the reasons you're so bad at this is that you go out of your way not to have to figure it out. Some time spent actually doing it may be just what the doctor ordered.
posted by valkyryn at 7:57 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

If there's a place where you spend time engaged in something else that doesn't require full attention--the bathroom, in front of the stove, wherever you take conference calls, etc.-- then hang a decent street map there: it should have landmarks, street names and subway stations on it. You'll find yourself staring at it; eventually you'll start absorbing the spacial relationships. Slowly it will lose its power as a "thing." You may want to put pins marking a few destinations you know, like your office or a favorite restaurant, that are scattered around town.
posted by carmicha at 8:25 AM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have this, too. Nothing I've tried has made me better at it - to this day, when giving directions to my own home from a place I drive from every day, like work, I will accidentally say to turn right when I mean left.

I print out maps from Google with the Street View image instead of the map image, on every turn. I write down whether the even numbers are supposed to be on the driver's side or not. I pay strict attention to whether the blue dot is on the line, heading where I want to go, and make regular use of the "recalculate from current location" feature. And I practice being less upset about getting lost, since I will always, always get lost. I usually find interesting things that way.

Oh, and putting up a little sticker on your computer screen with the word "left" should help while you're playing games, if the arrow on my car's dash that reminds me of where my gas cap is, is any indication.
posted by SMPA at 8:27 AM on July 17, 2011

One thing that really helps a lot of people I've worked with to improve spatial orientation, is to become a lot more aware of sun angle. Obviously, this is a daytime technique, but it is one that quickly seems to become nearly effortless, once people get clued in to it. Great precision isn't usually needed, because awareness of sun angle is only cue we use in conjunction with others (approximate local time, and local navigation cues) to remain constantly oriented. The key to being a good navigator is not to become better at orienting yourself, it is to avoid becoming disoriented in the first place.

Even good navigators can become confused when trying to re-orient themselves, after external orientation is broken. If your default mode of navigation is to let yourself become disoriented, most of time, between decision episodes where you try to orient yourself quickly, and then make a navigation decision, you'll be making a lot of bad decisions most of your life. That can quickly develop into a bad feedback loop, and a feeling of general confusion. But, unless you have actual brain damage or dysfunction to nearly the level that can be shown via fMRI, my experience is that you can be taught to orient, remain oriented, and then navigate well, with few external aids, using the very basic kind of dead reckoning that humans have used successfully for tens of thousands of years.
posted by paulsc at 9:12 AM on July 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Use turn by turn directions. You don't want a gps which just shows you the current location, you want to be able to enter in a new place and get directions from here to there. Start out by following routes that you already know, and short routes, then branch out.

(Note that right and left confusion are not intrinsically related to being oriented/getting lost/whatever. I can't tell what is right or left unless I look at my hands, but I rarely get lost. My mother also cannot tell right from left but she gets lost all the time. She uses turn by turn directions constantly, and it has been wonderful for her.)
posted by jeather at 9:42 AM on July 17, 2011

Just to chime in: I don't drive, I walk almost everywhere; I'm relatively new to my city, so I can't avoid this, I have to do it almost everyday. If practice was the answer, I wouldn't have a question. As I said, I've read the other askmes. This isn't a laziness issue (physically, intellectually or emotionally) - it's 40 years of spacial perception problems exacerbated by a new city and no car for quick corrections.

I've got the blue dot and still get tangled up orienting with it; and turn-by-turn directions only help if I know where I start (getting off the train, there are exits on both sides of the street and sometimes on two different streets). Maps have same problem: one or two turns and I'm out.

Orienteering sounds kind of fun, ill see what i can dig up. I can try the sun angle practice - for daytime. Are there logic puzzles or something I can start with? Has anyone overcome this? Is the answer to stop fighting it and just ask for help sooner.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 10:09 AM on July 17, 2011

I have this problem too. I used to have a job where my life counted on making the correct turn/direction. Carmicha's suggestion of hanging a map on the wall where you spend time is a good one. Do place markers on the places that orient you (places you go and know, like home, work). After frequent viewing of this map and casual study you will get this map image in your head and rely on it when you are out on the trail. Trace and practice virtual travel on the map for routes you have traveled.

Learn also to study landmarks as you travel. Take notice of landmarks and surroundings you would normally ignore. Make mental notes of them as if you are pointing them out to someone. After a while your brain will record the images in memory and guide you.
posted by nogero at 10:13 AM on July 17, 2011

I can get turn-by-turn walking directions, based on my current exact location, on my android phone. I assume other smartphones do the same. That way, if you come out the wrong entrance (so very annoying, it gets everyone mixed up in new places), then you can just recalculate from where you are.

Also, yes, ask for help as soon as you are a bit confused.
posted by jeather at 10:32 AM on July 17, 2011

If this is as serious as it sounds, you may want to listen to this:


(The You are Here segment, specifically...)
posted by hamandcheese at 11:01 AM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I don't have it as serious as you do, but I understand the feeling that you are not oriented with your space, that you have no 'feeling' as to which way is which, and also I can relate to the supreme confusion in orienting the real world to a map, especially when it is 'upside down' on the map (i.e. you're heading south or whatever, and the map is always 'north is up'. i stopped trying to absorb which direction is which and when going to a new place, i plan my route based on landmarks.

so i know that when i get off the subway, i should head towards a certain landmark, and then from there head to another landmark, and so on. it's a list. i never plan to 'head east' or leave through the southeast exit or whatever (unless it's specifically marked as 'the southeast exit' making it become a landmark. i understand nogero's suggestion and i second the idea of hanging a map so that you do have a mental image of the place, but for me, that sort of thing gets memorized more as a picture rather than a conceptual map. it's helpful but not dependable.

i also try to have an idea of what i'll run into eventually if i go too far in any direction. this is particularly important to me for exiting the subway (so if i'm trying to get to york ave from the 72nd st lexington ave subway, and i run into central park or 73rd st, i know this is not right...).
posted by Tandem Affinity at 12:02 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

I am spatially dyslexic (not a diagnosis, just how I've referred to myself every since I was old enough to realize that other people could do this thing that I'm no good at), too. FWIW, I totally get that you're not lazy or in need of practice. I bet you can't move furniture or load a dishwasher? I'm no good at either.

You're profile says you live in Chicago and I don't know that city at all. But I've learned tricks to get around in my city. For instance, I know that the numbered streets increase to the east and the river separates north and south. I know that the topography (I don't know if that's the right word?) rises in the direction opposite the river and slopes toward the river. I've memorized that certain major roads bisect the city in useful ways so that if I drive for long enough I will find a road I can navigate from. And I use urban landmarks, such as tall buildings that can be seen for miles, to orient myself.

It certainly takes me longer to get places than other people because I "drive around my ass to get to my elbow." That's my mother's description of my navigating skills.

Maybe there are some Chicago residents here who can give you similar hints to navigating Chicago?
posted by dchrssyr at 12:09 PM on July 17, 2011

I definitely compensate by looking for landmarks and use street numbers as a cue. But I'd love to try to retrain the brain.

The problem with Chicago all the exclamations of "it's a grid!!" Except when it's not. And not helpful when you don't know the grid in the first place.

I don't have trouble moving furniture - BUT yesterday I was screenprinting and the top of the design was facing away from me (like looking at a map going south). When the design got offset by an inch or so, I absolutely could not figure out which way to move the shirt.

I'm a good troubleshooter - I figured out a way to fake it that worked better in the long run - but going blank just frustrates me to no end and wastes time when "oh, a little to the left" should suffice.

Also, when I look at a map, it doesn't seem like that big a deal. When I'm actually in the moment trying to orient, I'm dead in the water.

OK, no more threadsitting. But the screenprinting thing just occurred to me. Same issue.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 1:11 PM on July 17, 2011

I'm not sure if this helps, but street numbers ARE a great way to navigate in Chicago. Since they're so standardized, and marked on the street signs at intersections, I think it's pretty common for people to use them to get their bearings, especially in a situation like coming out of the subway. My father grew up in Chicago and still navigates based on having memorized which streets are which block numbers, along with the fact that even-numbered addresses are pretty much always on the north or west side of the street.

Maybe you could practice with games where you're steering something upside-down or backwards? I'm thinking of one of the old Dr. Brain games where you were making a list of directions for a robot (and then some of the robots did the opposite of what you told it, or alternated obeying and disobeying), but there must be similar flash games online, or as part of brain fitness packages. These aren't quite what I was thinking of, but something like this or this?
posted by songs about trains at 1:57 PM on July 17, 2011

I have spatial difficulties like those you and others in this thread describe - I'm fairly easily disoriented, not terribly good at imagining dimensions, somewhat lousy at parking, sometimes have to refer to my left or right. Still, I get by and I've definitely enjoy exploring. Things that seem to test my brain in a similar way are activities such as:

playing pool
sailing (which way to turn sail in regards to wind direction)
backing up a trailer
rope tying
astronomy / star charts (especially in regards to seasonal shifts and our orientation to the Milky Way)

On the other hand, while I'd still rather not be the person driving in most cases (except in the country), I'm overall comfortable with my navigational skills on foot and on bike. I was definitely definitely helped by doing lots of orienteering for a year as an outdoor instructor, and by becoming more aware of sun angle as paulsc notes. One of the reasons that orienteering helped me out tons was because orienteering is all done in relation to the absolute value of north. I didn't imagine right or left anymore as much as the cardinal directions. So, it's a matter of understanding where north is, and then figuring out what direction you're heading in relative to north. If you can get that down, you don't have to rotate that imaginary map anymore, since you understand the absolute direction you're heading. The map doesn't shift, only your direction on it. So instead of thinking right left right, you think I'm heading southeast and my next turn will be due south.

I hope that makes sense, it has a lot to do with shifting from a personal awareness of right/left to a larger "map" picture. Things that helped me at the time to cement this understanding were mostly environmental cues that are a little more difficult (for me, anyway) in an urban environment. For example, finding the north star / big dipper in the sky and constantly keeping an eye out for it helped me with concept of north. And this is gonna sound ridiculous, but when I was a kid I could never remember - the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, I'd always get it confused until one day I took a trip from Florida to Louisiana as the sun was setting, and we drove straight into the sunset and I thought, "ah-ha! the sun sets in the west!"

Lame, maybe, but it's definitely reminded me to become aware of the sun angle in my environment. Could you find a high point in Chicago to watch the sunset from and note some of the buildings and their light reflection and use that information to help orient yourself? Having a story that goes along with direction helps a lot.

In general, too, natural and environmental history is kind of your friend when you're orienting yourself in a new environment. If you can learn more about the watershed, development of the area, migratory species, plant adaptations, effect of transportation corridors on the city's development, it usually keys you to in to more subtle clues in your environment that will give you narrative clues to where you are. For example, in my town I learned that urban development had begun in the east and gradually shifted west as a new highway was built - so most of the older looking neighborhoods were on the east side of town, while as you traveled west the shopping malls and newer development started to proliferate.

I hope some of this is useful. I guess what it boils down to is that I find that doing things like rope-tying, pool, backing up a trailer tends to help out my spatial reasoning skills, but the benefits tend for me to be somewhat limited to when I'm doing those things all the time, while a more permanent shift in how I see my environment has helped my sense of direction long-term.
posted by ajarbaday at 2:04 PM on July 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to clarify, when I say that the map doesn't shift, it's because the (imaginary) map is always oriented towards the north, just as a compass is always oriented north. This was always an ah-ha moment when we were teaching kids how to line up their map and compass - they'd be trying to turn the compass and to match whatever arbitrary direction they'd laid the map and some kid would be like - no let's turn the map towards north! And then they'd get it.
posted by ajarbaday at 2:18 PM on July 17, 2011

How are you at games like this? I've been told that practicing discrete skills in this way helps, though I have patience issues that make it a pain to do any kind of experimentation personally.

(For the record, I am well below the average time and number of attempts on all three levels. I also can't tell you what room is directly above my head, even in buildings I've explored every inch of and have lived in for years.)
posted by SMPA at 2:38 PM on July 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not great at directions either (right/left are a problem) and when I'm in a new city it takes quite a while before I have even a vaguely reasonable sense of N/S. What has helped me in new cities is finding out what the large object that people tend to use to orient themselves: in Philly it was the Schuylkill or Delaware River, in NYC, the Hudson, and so on. Can you use the lake in Chicago? (I've spent no more than a couple of days in Chicago in my life so forgive me if my geographical references make no sense).

The other thing that I realized was a problem when moving from PHL to NYC was that my mental map's primary axis was E/W oriented in Philly and N/S oriented in NYC.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:52 PM on July 17, 2011

Hanging several different street maps of the city in various places is a great idea.

However, you need to draw your own maps! Get a sketch pad to use for this exercise.

Here's a page to give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Drawing maps from memory.

Here's a basic instruction on drawing maps. Pretty simple, but will give you ideas. And this.

This is a fun site.

Sit down now, and with pencil, draw what you're familiar with--say the route to the store, or to work. Put in icons or label some of your major landmarks. Try to figure out your own scale, and see if you can manage to orient the map to North.

Go out and walk your route and see how efficient your memory is. Take your map and compass with you and compare to your actual route as you walk it. Is the subway actually east (or whatever) of your house? Do you turn right (west) for the book store?

Modify your map.

Sketch as many routes as you can, and continually modify them for corrections. As you draw, modify, and use your maps, try to figure out how you remember your routes as you sketch them.

Look at your city maps, and then try to sketch out main routes to various places in your neighborhood from memory. Just because you study the map, it doesn't mean you're integrating what you see with the reality out the door. Use the city map to write out detailed directions to a place to visit near you that you've never been to before. (use google to figure out a new store or restaurant, or ask someone next door for some place close to visit, then work out how to find it on the map)
For example: from front door, turn left (north) and walk down A Street three blocks to the corner of A Street and 12th Ave. Turn right (east) and go two blocks to the corner of 12th and Main. Turn... etc Start slow, with only a couple turns and go someplace near, then branch out. Make sure you write both descriptors for your turns, and when you get to a turn, orientate your self by the sun and whatever large landmark you can see around you. Stop to really think about where you are in relation to your home, as well as to where you're going. Physically point, if that helps. At first, make sure you trace your way back, and think what turns you're making. If you go right, left, right TO the store, you're going to come back left, right, left FROM the store.

Maybe this would help?

You could try drawing or working mazes.

Good luck
posted by BlueHorse at 4:27 PM on July 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

With kids, we use jigsaw puzzles, building blocks, Lego, things like that to develop spacial awareness. Maybe pick up some Lego kits or complex puzzles (even those 3D ones) to do in your spare time to get that part of your brain going?
posted by tracicle at 4:59 PM on July 17, 2011

Apparently Oliver Sacks has a similar problem and has an apparel solution.
posted by sciencegeek at 5:13 PM on July 17, 2011

Practice widening your "perceptive envelope". I'm pretty good at spatial things, but getting off of a subway, or leaving a building through an exit I didn't use to enter will mess me up. Why? Because when I exit, I am immediately confronted with "up close" things. Avoiding people walking, a planter, a looming El track. So just take a moment to reorient yourself. Look all the way down the street(s). Figure out what street you are on. Etc. It's hard to do downtown, because everything is so in your face.

(Honestly, knowing your way around a city IS memorization. So, sit down with maps, and look for the streets you know, and match them up with other streets you know. It is easy to say "the city is a grid, durrr", but you can't find Pershing unless you already know what number it is on the grid.)

(Repeating: of all the people I know who seem to inherently know where they are and where to go all the time, every one of them is a map reader. It takes time. Just memorize the order of the streets. Y is between X and Z. Etc.)
posted by gjc at 5:15 PM on July 17, 2011

Many great suggestions above. However, on the off-chance that you have a neurological condition, you can practice as much as you want, and try and try and try, but you will NOT get better.

The specific neurological condition I have, post-polio syndrome, is mostly found in people over 50. If you had polio as a kid, and you're over 50, it's something to consider. The main symptoms are increasing fatigue, muscle & nerve pain, and mental confusion. The polio virus destroyed certain nerve cells, which rebuild but are now deteriorating sooner than the rest of the body. And one of the areas of the brain which is commonly involved is the part that tells us where we are spacially. I would walk out of an office I had just entered 20 minutes and simply not know which way to turn, unless I had made a mental, verbal note of it going in ("when I come out turn towards the purple painting"). My family thought I simply wasn't trying hard enough. It was a huge relief to find that it's actually a symptom.

I am seriously challenged by giant, 10-piece jigsaw puzzles. It really is limiting, and it's really not fun. And thank god for cell phones; now I can call and have someone talk me through a really lost situation. Just don't take it too much to heart. It's not fatal, and it doesn't say anything about you except that you don't have a clue where you are or how to go somewhere else. Eh. I can't imagine that someone with the headdress you have in your pic will let it get you down too much.
posted by kestralwing at 7:11 PM on July 17, 2011

Great suggestions here already.

I've always had a really reliable internal compass, and as I've talked with friends who have more trouble with directions, I've surfaced one key difference that might help you: just about all the time, I picture myself living and walking on a full-size, 3D map.

See if this helps within just a few blocks around your apartment, where you're comfortable with the landmarks: Let's say you live on Elm Street. Picture the words "Elm Street" painted in a gigantic font down the center of your street (so that if you were a giant space alien looking down, it'd look just like the map). Let's say that Elm Street runs east-west and your building is on the south side of the street. When you're standing at your front door, looking straight out at the street, remind yourself that straight ahead of you, THAT WAY, is north, THAT way to your right is east, etc..

If, when you step onto the sidewalk, you take a right turn to head to the market, you are heading EAST. Picture the giant space alien ("GSA") looking down at you and watching you go, from the left side of his big map toward the right side (where Lake Michigan is). When you hit a cross-street, "write" the name of that street in a huge font again down the middle of the pavement. You're walking on a huge map! When you turn left onto it, that means you're now going NORTH. Again, picture the GSA watching you walk "up" a little bit on his map. Remember that everything "above" Elm Street on your/his map is north of your house, the same north you were looking towards when you stood at your front door.

If that does anything for you, I'll try to articulate how to make it work in more unfamiliar locations (and feel free to memail me with your specific neighborhood and/or sample subway stops that throw you, if the Elm Street hypothetical is too confusing).
posted by mauvest at 7:37 PM on July 17, 2011

Firstly, Never Eat Sea Weed. Or any other mnemonic for the cardinal directions that you can remember. You say you can get North. The rest is just three more points on a circle. Mentally lay that circle on the ground, face north, think about where east is, where south is, where west is.

Secondly, for the left/right thing, I was never able to learn left and right till I was comfortable asking for, receiving and giving directions in another language. Now I think of left and right in that language, translate back into English, and it works most of the time. It's worth trying.

Thirdly, big +1 to formally learning a little navigation or orienteering theory and then practicing what you can. Do it in skilled company if possible - join an orienteering or walking group, explain your problem, go from there.

Fourthly, know that in (semi) wilderness orienteering or navigation, there are at least a dozen things that help you position yourself with respect to the landscape you're in and a good topographic map. Egs - Time of day or night, position of sun or moon/stars, prominent visible landscape features, compass direction to north, map orientation to north, compass direction of trail/road you're on, compass directions of intersecting trails/roads, available markers, time/speed since last known point, distance between intersecting trails/roads, altitude, river flow to coastlines or known inland lakes, vehicle or aircraft sightings or noise in relation to known major roads and flight paths, vegetation growth patterns, and even animal and insect behaviors and movements.

You can bring some of that stuff into the city. It may be the case that some of it is always going to be irrelevant or beyond you, but there's a damn fine chance that some of it will not. Grab hold of the stuff you can learn, and build on it.

Egs - If you are able to learn that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and you notice that the right side of your face is warm in the morning, use your NESW mnemonic to work out that you're facing north. Then mentally or physically rotate yourself through the compass to get the other directions. If you're under a flight path to your local airport, and you have a rough idea what direction that's in, build your sense of direction from that each time a plane flies over. If you're comfortable with up and down, try to build a mental picture of the local hills and valleys. Then think about whether you've been walking up or walking down over the past ten minutes or so. Relate that back to your mental map. If you are able to learn that geese fly north in early summer and south in early winter, and can see them doing it, then you've got both North and South, and you can build from there. Etc.

Finally, your expectations of yourself are likely to be a factor in this. If you tell yourself you can't do it at all, then you'll sit in a constant funk of frustration and worry and you'll never get there. If you tell yourself you have a chance at learning some of it, then you'll eventually get what you need. Good luck.
posted by Ahab at 12:33 AM on July 18, 2011

My friend has this. Very bright girl, scientist. Knows her street pretty well but that's about it. Never gets much better. She can do the routes she normally does but can never improvise or really understand how the places connect.
posted by sully75 at 8:48 AM on July 18, 2011

There is a spoken compass app out there. If I weren't in transit i'd dig up a link but search on talk and compass. Also. Remember the red pointy end is always north, and figure out how to use the dinky compass in google maps. I am so coming back to this thread later.
posted by canine epigram at 1:57 PM on July 18, 2011

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