Why do I get lost?
October 6, 2005 7:42 PM   Subscribe

I am looking for answers about why some people, like myself, have little to no sense of direction. I have always had this problem and know others in the same situation. Conversely, there are those you seem to naturally know how to get around where ever they are. Is there a scientific reason for this. I call it being directionally challenged. Causes great angst in unfamiliar places. For those of you in the same boat what suggestions do you have for staying grounded, etc.
posted by lag to Science & Nature (35 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Speaking only for myself: lack of inner ear balance. There were attempts to treat me for it when I was younger, but they failed. As far as suggestions go: take pen and paper with you, and draw maps.
posted by bingo at 7:47 PM on October 6, 2005

My sense of direction is pretty good. I'd like to think it's because I'm a visual thinker and I draw maps in my mind as I travel along routes and can tell where I came from and where I am in relation to other landmarks. I also judge distance by time x speed (it took twice as long to get to point B from A than it did from C at the same speed, so I must be twice as far). Although, if someone told me to go a mile down the road, I'd be screwed since I have no idea how far that looks.

If I fall asleep on a road trip, I get lost pretty easily since I wasn't drawing a map in my mind.
posted by idiotfactory at 7:53 PM on October 6, 2005

In my case I think it is a self confidence thing. With my back to the wall and no one else to depend on (I'm a guy, no asking) I have never found myself lost beyond repair despite having no confidence in my sense of direction.

Other people I know who seem to be able to figure out, for instance, a subway system in a strange city in a matter of minutes just don't freak out when they see a map.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:54 PM on October 6, 2005

Constantly ask yourself where you are and where other things are in relation to your position.
posted by trevyn at 7:58 PM on October 6, 2005

Hit post too soon, I should mention that those people who seem so quickly to grasp those subway systems also seem to be the only ones who tell me stories about taking the wrong train and ending up in the middle of nowhere in the exact wrong direction from that they intended.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 7:59 PM on October 6, 2005

Don't you have that floating arrow in your head that always points the way you started? Direction of sunlight/shadows works for me outdoors. It helps to turn around and look backwards occasionally, to get an idea of how things will look when returning.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:19 PM on October 6, 2005

I have this problem. For example, if I'm in a mall and go into a store, when I walk out of the store I'll start walking the wrong way. I think paying attention is the biggest thing. I'm often "in my head" so I tend more than others to get disoriented, since I'm only paying attention to where I'm going half the time. And use the sun. Rises in the east, sets in the west. Doesn't work in downtown Manhatten though.
posted by Idiot Mittens at 8:21 PM on October 6, 2005

I have a horrible sense of direction. I really think it has to do with the way that I process information. My mind is always racing a thousand miles a minute, I am easily distracted, and always thinking about several things at the same time. This leads to not paying attention, even when I think I am paying attention.

- Concentrate on where you have been and remember the names of the streets you pass.
- Look behind you to see what a road looks like should you be coming back from the other direction.
- Look above the buildings to see if there is a landmark (like a skyscraper) that can be seen from most places in a city.
- Check where the sun is in relationship to North (shadows are a good indication when looking ahead).
- Actually speak out landmarks making it easier to remember.
- Ask questions to those around you about where you are in relation to where you just were.

People who have a good sense of direction do this intuitively. You will have to do it actively. If you are like me, you will focus so much on keeping track (and it will keep you on track) that you will miss out on what you like about moving about unfamiliar territory in the first place. You will likely not notice the little things or have the interesting thoughts and associations going on in your head. It's a trade off, for me anyway.
posted by qwip at 8:23 PM on October 6, 2005

My sense of direction is usually very good, for both large-scale travel across Europe and small-scale trips round a maze, but in Costa Rica in July I found North and South were back to front. It took a while to realise it was because the sun was in the north.

If I'm stoned I can get very badly lost, so presumably there's some processing that gets disturbed by intoxication.

Our children seem to acquire large-scale directional sense only after they learn to drive, which I think was true for me too. So as idiotfactory says it seems to have something to do with making mental maps.

I would be interesting to know if people who have difficulty with directions are non-drivers. I think driving forces you to do a lot of subconscious direction-processing, and the practice in that helps the mapping ability.
posted by anadem at 8:23 PM on October 6, 2005

This is known be an area with a strong male-female difference, although there are certainly females with a good sense of direction and males without it.

Gender: Female humans and rats rely on the relation between specific landmarks and goals; male humans and rats rely more on a geometric representation.

As for mitigation - besides trying to obtain and use landmarks for directions, there are some really good GPS navigation systems out there, including ones that talk to you. If you've moved to a new area, or do a lot of driving in unfamiliar areas, buying one (less than a thousand dollars) might make a lot of sense.
posted by WestCoaster at 8:25 PM on October 6, 2005

I was born and raised in New York City, but I only learned the order of the West Side avenues at age 28. I now live in the Village and have no idea where any non-numerical street is (University? Christopher?), despite being down here for nearly three years.

I can find my way to a place reliably, even if I've been there only once, but only by sight and context.

Anyone else similarly afflicted?
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:26 PM on October 6, 2005

Don't you have that floating arrow in your head that always points the way you started?

Yes! I thought it was just me. I have this subconscious blip on mental radar that keeps things oriented, kinda like that little round scanner on Grand Theft Auto. I guess it's not that common though. My wife would get lost in a paper bag.
posted by BorgLove at 8:26 PM on October 6, 2005

I used to have this problem, which is odd since I make maps for a living. I have learned a few tricks to help me out.

Most people look at maps only to get from Point A to Point B. Try to look at the map to get a sense of how and why the city was laid out, or if it grew spontaneously. Good maps will make a distinction between major roads and minor streets with thicker lines or darker colors (red ones are usually most important).

If you look at aerial photos, you will get an even better idea of how the cities are laid out. Usually there is a reason a city is a city. Sometimes because it is on a river, in a harbour, or along a major travel route. If you look at the overhead photos along with maps, you may get a sense of "Oh, they put the factories here next to the river." or "All the expensive properties are on higher ground and away from the factories." or "The Malls are near the Interstate and are on the east side of the city because it is flatter.", etc...

Google Maps is a good resource for this as they have a hybrid feature that allows you to see the photos with maps overlaid, as is Google Earth.

eventually you will learn to group areas and figure out their relation. Get a small map and carry it with you, or keep it in the car. When you are travelling with someone else, look at the names of the cross streets/landmarks and track your progress. Look at the odometer, or set the trip odometer and remember so-and-so lives 7.4 miles down this road.

If you are in a strange place and you see something interesting, write down the cross streets and look it up when you have time. Try to remember things like , this is between the stadium and the airport.

Airports and malls are another thing. Maps are your friend. Look are how they are laid out - In a cross, Y, a straight line, square.

You can also get a Map program for a laptop with a GPS reciever fairly cheaply these days. it may be something for you to look into.
posted by Yorrick at 8:29 PM on October 6, 2005

I tend to be pretty good about having a sense of direction, and I have no idea why. I've been able to come off the subway in NYC (mostly in Manhattan, but in Brooklyn and Queens somewhat), pick a direction to start walking, and almost always have it turn out to be the right one for where I want to go.

Part of it might be that I try to familiarize myself with a map of the area, if I have exposure to one beforehand. Instead of just writing down or memorizing the exact path from Point A to Point B, I try to remember some of the other streets along the way, so that if I come across them, I have some idea of where I am relative to other streets/landmarks.

On preview, what Yorrick said.

The same goes for driving; I seem to have a knack for picking the right way, and the same bit about familiarizing myself with other roads along the way helps (if for nothing else to reassure myself that I am, in fact, going the right way).

If I had to give advice to someone, it would be to try and get something of an idea what the area you're going, and any major roads or landmarks on the way. Carrying a map might be helpful for people who can't keep track of it in their heads, so long as you're able to find at least one point you can identify (along with the orientation of the map!). And as others have mentioned, try paying attention to things along the way to make the trip back easier. Knowing a few streets you passed leaving Point A, and a few you passed arriving at Point B, can let you know if you're going the right way on the return trip, as well as when you're getting close to your new destination.
posted by Godbert at 8:36 PM on October 6, 2005

As for science? I got nothing. I do have an amazing sense of direction (it's my only skill!!), but it's all about the compass axis. I found that out because I learned I can't take the E train in Manhattan, because it's one of the few Manhattan subways that really makes a hard turn underground, from going uptown to heading East-ish. When I come up from the E after making that turn, I can't tell up from down or north from south. I'm like a kitten in a blindfold after taking the E.

So, what people are saying about the sun, and therefore the compass, makes a lot of sense. If you keep it all constantly visualized on a strange overhead grid as you travel, everything falls into place. If that gets disrupted, and you can't get reoriented, you're be-fucked. And then that's where the sun comes in. Most of us city-folk don't spend enough time knowing where the sun is, and because, at least where I live, it's so much lower in the sky in winter, we don't really know how to orient by it. But it's easy to know where it should be after a bit of practice. (Heck, come winter here, sun at your back always faces you largely north.)

(And also, when people ask me directions, I have to sort of hold out my arms, look at the sun, and put London on one side and California on the other. Only then, sometimes, can I put into words which way is which. So I guess what we're saying is: be located. (And yes, playing GTA and working on that kind of visualization might actually help....))
posted by RJ Reynolds at 8:50 PM on October 6, 2005

Growing up in Chicago, I always had an intuitive sense of where Lake Michigan was (well, once I reached about 13). I can't explain it--even though it generally wasn't visible or audible, I just kind of knew which way it was. Curiously, though, I recall being driven out to the suburbs, and after going around a few bends, I had no sense of direction at all. The city proper is on the grid plan, which probably has something to do with it.

Living in Austin, I don't have any mystical compass-needle pointing me towards a natural feature, but the town is also on the grid plan, and when I'm in the center of town, it's easy to figure out where I am. When I get farther out, where the roads are twistier, I can generally orient in relation to the nearest major road, but not always to compass points. And there are some tricky intersections I've just learned by rote, and have no idea which direction I'm heading.

Visiting other cities, I usually study a map of the areas I'll be in, and as long as I'm walking or driving, I can pretty much place myself mentally on the map. But if someone else drives me somewhere, I lose it. Which makes me think that being actively engaged in navigating is part of having a sense of direction.
posted by adamrice at 9:34 PM on October 6, 2005

There is scientific research which suggests that men are more skilled at creating spatial visualization maps and determining direction by relating their position to the map. In the same tests women were much better when given specific landmarks as directions, rather than coordinate plane type directions. This is the actual article. Not trying to cause a gender riot, just suggesting that identifying your natural strengths and weaknesses might be a place to start.
posted by sophist at 9:36 PM on October 6, 2005

A fun visualization that may help your orienting skills is to frequently imagine looking down on yourself from an aerial view. As previously mentioned, Google Maps can help with this - to get an idea of what aerial views look like, particularly in your area. If you imagine yourself in a low-flying airplane, looking down on where you actually are, and you have some familiarity with a map or aerial view of the area, you can easily determine N/S, E/W, as well as "see" what is around you, even if you can't actually see it from where you actually are. (Metaphysical enough for ya yet?) A simpler version is to merely picture a map of the US (assuming you're in the US; adjust accordingly). Focus on the region you're in, and zoom in. Picture the state, then the sub-section of the state, with surrounding towns, etc. Zoom in as far as your knowledge of the territory allows. This can help you begin to think about your position in relation to landmarks, places, towns, etc. And knowing where you are is all about your relation to known locations.

(I hope that all makes sense for someone)
posted by attercoppe at 9:59 PM on October 6, 2005

Don't try to learn individual layouts, learn the systems that govern locations. If you're in europe, once you've taken public transit in a couple of towns, you learn the patterns that can get you around on public transit anywhere. Learning how cities and roads are constructed can help you make educated guesses about where to go. When you want to go somewhere, get the big picture, don't worry too much about details, the details will present themselves as you go, but you need to remember the big picture.
Stores and shopping malls are all designed on similar principles, things are almost always in the same place, no matter which actual mall you're in. Learn malls, don't learn A mall.

And have fun!
posted by blue_beetle at 10:14 PM on October 6, 2005

Interesting question. I'm not a visual thinker/learner, I must *do* in order to understand (in most cases) and I believe that's why I have no sense of direction (and am so envious of those who always seem to know which way is East and which way is North - North to me will always be up on top, in front of me, or above me). I also have angst in unfamiliar places, am always sure or worried that I'm lost. Luckily I have an understanding and directionaly gifted husband who will drive me when needed - and I make full use of written driving directions (which must state left and right turns, never east or west turns). I'm 40yo and no trick has ever made this any better, except that I work diligently and consciously to make sure it never limits my mobility. Fear of being lost is what I've worked at overcoming.
posted by LadyBonita at 11:21 PM on October 6, 2005

I'm usually good at direction. But I've been a lover of maps since childhood. That being said, I do have the problem when leaving stores in malls. Woops, which way was I going? Also, Oxford Street in London screws me up when getting off the tubes. I think that's because the way up from the tracks is long and twists. In NYC, the way up is usually shorter and I can keep track based on the direction the train was going.
posted by Goofyy at 11:22 PM on October 6, 2005

One of the best investigations I've found into why we get lost is a book called Inner Navigation (Why we Get Lost in the World and How we Find Our Way) by Erik Jonsson. I used it for my thesis research on wayfinding.

In his book, Jonsson uncovers many points that contribute to our reduced sense of direction. Two of them include:

Sense of direction is a skill that we develop during childhood. Humans are designed to develop it over time to govern a constant environment. When we move to different environments, this development is interrupted, and a new mental model is built... sometimes conflicting with the old.

Humans orient themselves as they travel through space. This process happens best when we are exposed to the environment. Modern transportation methods (subways for example) interfere with this connection. We also work in office buildings that sometimes cut off this connection completely.

Additionally, the problem can be traced to poorly designed city plans that interfere with understanding. More on this in Kevin Lynch's seminal work, The Image of the City.
posted by Jeff Howard at 11:26 PM on October 6, 2005

This is a question that has long plagued me because I have an excellent sense of direction and my best friend gets lost 50 meters from her front door.

Some time back I read of a study where they did MRI scans of London can drivers and found that there is a particular area of the brain (the hippocampus) that developped over the course of their cab training (if you've lived in London, you'll understand this is very thorough).

Oooh - Google found it for me: Listen Read
That might start you off.
posted by missbossy at 11:30 PM on October 6, 2005

I read a similar article in college about NYC cabbies. They tend to have a significantly larger volume of posterior hippocampus grey matter compared to controls. what missbossy said.
posted by |n$eCur3 at 12:40 AM on October 7, 2005

Yorrick has some great advice. Landmarks are a pretty good key depending on the environment. I always say keep a map handy paying close attention to major streets. Many cities have numbered streets in one direction which can keep even the most notoriously lost people from staying lost. They are always oriented in one direction which helps to figure which way is north. Streets in most modern cities are typically laid in a grid from north to south and east to west.

This is the other important thing - always know the directions and getting lost will become more difficult. Carry a compass if need be. Otherwise during the day, keep note of where the sun is or where the shadows fall. This is the best way I get around Madrid, where the streets can go in any direction. As long as I see the sun during midday, it is due south.

Another way to help figure directions is by house addresses. Most cities follow a logical method. The numbers increase from south to north, for example. Familiarize yourself with the system. Many maps show the addresses of main streets so you can readily see the scheme.

The biggest thing is to stay calm in unfamiliar places. I love to get lost, but I have some good strategies for getting un-lost. Getting lost can lead to some fun discoveries. So don't be afraid about it as long as you have a map and compass on hand.
posted by JJ86 at 12:53 AM on October 7, 2005

While I think there is a certain amount of directionality that can be learned, I believe that (like all brain systems) it comes with a certain amount of level of potential. For me, the potential for finding my way is very low. I love maps, look at them all the time. I have just about every cool Googlemaps mashup linked on my del.icio.us bookmarks. I study maps before I travel. I had a compass in my car. Now I have GPS. I try to learn landmarks. I try to notice the sun in the sky, but given all of that... I still am often VERY surprised by the direction my GPS tells me to turn. I'm a Psychologist working in a Neuropsych practice where we test children, and it has been confirmed for me again and again that some people are born with innate skills in certain areas, while others are not. For the person born without the innate proclivity, there are ways to learn to compensate - very effective ways to learn to compensate, but compensating always takes much more cognitive effort than being one of those born-with-it people.

I now travel with a PDA that has Mapopolis installed on it. That alone was enough when I was living in Memphis last year. Now that I'm living in Boston (arguably one of the most difficult cities in the country to navigate), I've purchased a Holux GPSlim236. The little man knows when I take a wrong turn, and he gets me back on track. After years of trying to make myself a person who is good at directions, I have found much relief just admitting: I am powerless over my bad sense of directionality! And I just broke down and got the tools I needed to not get lost. Not getting lost is, after all, the real goal.
posted by abbyladybug at 4:22 AM on October 7, 2005

It is my inherent belief that GPS does not help you find your way as good as maps does. It actually dumbs down your spatial sense. It will tell you where you very nicely but it will only tell you that. Case in point, I wanted to find a particular street here in Madrid. I knew I was close but wasn't quite sure which direction. I decided to ask a traffic cop but he was hopeless. They use a GPS system that can get them to a specific address but not a general location like a street or intersection. The cop didn't know anything about the area without the help of his GPS!

Spatial sense is all about relationships between locations. It can be general like; A is north-northwest of B or it can be precise like; A is 1.5 miles with a bearing of N35°15'30"W. You must use it in a functional way for it to keep its usefulness. Getting around in the maze of a city is not innate, it is learned. Learning the cues that allow you to navigate is like learning a language and obviously needs to be practiced.
posted by JJ86 at 5:34 AM on October 7, 2005

I'm glad to see someone else mention this. I actually do this in MY city all the time, and I've lived here for 13 years. I will pull out of a store parking lot and head directly into the wrong direction.

I think it's a combination of a weak inner compass and a general lazy scatterbrainedness. I've also come to expect this from myself, so when other people are in the car I often get very anxious worrying that I will take a wrong turn and look silly, which contributes to the problem. I never considered it connected to an inner-ear thing - I wonder if the fact that many video games give me motion sickness is a clue?
posted by glenwood at 5:41 AM on October 7, 2005

One of the bits that I heard long ago was the people can innately use the compass embedded in the iron in their nose. It always seemed like a UL to me, but there it is on Wikipedia, so it *must* be true. :)

The bigger the schnoz you have (and I have a big one), the better you can keep a sense of direction. Therefore, men are more directional than women because their noses are bigger on average.

Post hoc ergo propter hoc carpe diem.
posted by unixrat at 6:31 AM on October 7, 2005

Anecdote: I did a lot of travelling with a female friend of mine, and we noticed that I was less likely to GET lost, but once I was lost I was basically screwed, whereas she could get lost easily but was more likely to find her way back from *being* lost.

It seemed to be that I had a map in my brain, and once I realized I was completely off that map there wasn't much I could do, while she navigated by landmarks (that I didn't even notice -- like a random billboard, or a tree, etc.), and could get back on track by seeing that billboard in the distance. Since I'd never even consciously SEEN that billboard, it didn't do me any good.

...this was when we realized how handy it was to travel in pairs where each person has a different navigational style. Prior to this she would have said that she had a terrible sense of direction; now she realizes she has a different sense of direction, which can be exceedingly useful in some cases.
posted by aramaic at 6:52 AM on October 7, 2005

I also have a terrible sense of direction, but like Idiot Mittens, I think my stems from the fact that I rarely pay attention to where I'm going. I get lost in my thoughts or space out and end up just walking aimlessly, and it takes me a little while to realize that I'm going the wrong way. When I'm in an unfamiliar place, I make it a point to concentrate on my surroundings and memorize landmarks, so at least things will look familiar to me if I wander off, and I'll be able to get my bearings.
posted by emd3737 at 7:11 AM on October 7, 2005

I'm always lost. My wife, luckily enough, is never lost. I often walk about of stores and end up going the wrong direction. Oddly enough, I can find my way around when I'm alone in my car, but that's only because I often realize I'm going the wrong way and have to backtrack. So I'm fairly good at getting unlost, but that's only because I get so much practice at it.

As for cars: I've been driving a long time. I'm worse about getting lost while driving than when on foot, but I can manage both. In order to really remember a path to something, I have to drive it several times by myself (no one else in the car to distract or help me) and force myself to concentrate on landmarks and such.

My solution? I always give myself a lot of lead time when I have to be someplace. If I have a lot of lead time, checking out the hybrid views on Google Maps helps out a lot (for leaning the layout of a subdivision or something). I can follow directions (from mapping sites, etc) well as long as they're specific and written down (oral directions are no help to me unless I take the additional step of writing them down).
posted by wheat at 7:14 AM on October 7, 2005

I have the worst sense of direction of anyone I've ever met. I'm with abbyladybug on some things being innate. When I was 18 it was obvious that my 4-year-old sister had a much better sense of direction. It's particularly frustrating since I never confuse left and right, have a great visual memory, am good at 3-d geometry, pretty much all the ingredients, but it feels like there's a brain lesion where that ol' hippocampus should be.

I compensate by (a) allowing for lots of extra time whenever I'm going someplace alone I don't know, (b) using the Sun and time of day to guess at compass directions, and when the sun is down (c) using palm trees to tell me which way South is. The latter doesn't work so well in Manhattan (where I grew up) but there the civilized people have numbered the streets. Growing up, I used to think that reliance on that had crippled my brain for other places, but my sister's experience counts against that theory.

lag, warning: in Japan they don't even name many of the streets. Not even (ahem) nominally. You should visit anyway, of course, but it will be very difficult! OTOH their public transportation is really easy to navigate (like most public transportation anywhere, really).
posted by Aknaton at 7:28 AM on October 7, 2005

I remember seeing a documentary years ago that referred to two distinct "syndromes" that will occur in children. The details are foggy now, but if I recall correctly, the syndromes in question greatly affected levels of testosterone in girls. The one syndrome seemed to create a tomboy - it was characterized by a greater than usual amount of testosterone. Girls with almost no testosterone were otherwise healthy, but the girl they showed was quite unable to maintain a sense of direction.

For example, while driving with her mother, who pointed forward and identified that direction as north, when asked the girl could not identify south. It was pretty freaky. Seeing that documentary sort of cemented my observation that men often, anecdotally at least, have a better sense of direction than women - due to the presence of more testosterone.

Now, why that is the case, I don't know! What the testosterone does for directional awareness, I am not sure...Wish I had more details, or more time to google this!
posted by Richat at 7:35 AM on October 7, 2005

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