It's the next turn on, uh, your side.
December 26, 2014 8:28 PM   Subscribe

I have excellent spatial memory, but you'd never know it if you heard me speak. Is this as unusual as my husband thinks it is?

I recall things by thinking about where I was at the time. I won't necessarily remember a conversation if you tell me the topic, but if you tell me where the conversation took place, everything clicks. However, I have a hard time verbalizing spatial things. We have hundreds of books between three bookcases in multiple rooms, and I can fetch any one immediately, but only if I physically get it. I couldn't actually tell you where anything is. I'm horrible at giving directions if I'm in the passenger seat of a car (I have a hard time with right and left) but can intuitively get from Point A to Point B without a map if I'm driving. Basically, I have a fantastic mental map in my head, but I can't get out a word about it. There's a long history of memory issues in my family, so I'm interested to know if there's any research about this mental-verbal gap I seem to have. I'm currently in a grad program for Professional Writing, so communication isn't generally a problem for me, except for this.
posted by Ruki to Writing & Language (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure about the not being able to get it out of your head, but I definitely recall things based on location or direction. In fact, I posted this question years ago.
posted by notsnot at 9:04 PM on December 26, 2014

Episodic memory and mental maps people use for navigating along paths, edges, districts, nodes, and landmarks rather than thinking in terms of cardinal directions or sequences of turns are well-studied phenomena, so that much is quite normal. Off the top of my head, I don't have a good link for problems with verbalizing mental imagery, but mental imagery itself is a complicated topic, and people often feel betrayed by their verbalizations (e.g. Ortega y Gasset had some famous quote about language always saying too much and too little at the same time).
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:06 PM on December 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

Keywords for further reading would be "egocentric navigation" versus "allocentric navigation" (left/right vs north/south, e.g.). Spatial memory is probably the form of memory that we know the most about the underlying neuroscience of, given that it's easy to make a rat swim in a Morris water maze, and less so to find a treat under nondescript boxes.

There is evidence that things like place cells and grid cells (for which the Mosers just won the Nobel) extend to multiple dimensions, or perhaps to situations like a location on a bookshelf.

I would guess that the bookshelf example (and maybe the driving one) is guided by instinctive use of context; you know it's between several green books or below a knot of wood, but perhaps not consciously.
posted by supercres at 10:18 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't have a cite, but there's good evidence that memory is linked to place. I leave my bedroom to go get my glasses. as soon as I leave the bedroom, I forget what I wanted and come back with a cup of tea. When I reach my bedroom, I realize glasses!, etc. The research said it worked even if you showed pictures, so I should carry pictures of the rooms in my house for when I forget stuff, which is always. I have good spatial sense (I can tell if furniture will fit, can extricate the giant bookcase through the tiny doorway and down the bendy stairs, etc.) but I'm hopeless with left/ right, even though I try. I'm pretty good at directions, though.
posted by theora55 at 10:31 PM on December 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

My wife has a good spatial memory and is good at spatial visualization, but is quite poor at verbalizing "left" and "right".

These days we use cardinal directions, e.g. "I think we need to move the couch North a few feet".

I don't have a cite, but there's good evidence that memory is linked to place.

Method of Loci?
posted by sebastienbailard at 11:22 PM on December 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm very similar to sebastienbailard's wife. Good at spatial relations and visualization, and have received this feedback from others (woodshop instructor, etc.) but I consistently cannot use the correct word for left/right. I prefer cardinal directions and, when driving, "take a passenger turn" or "take a driver turn."

I did get a bit better at left vs right once I learned to drive (a few years ago, at the age of 30) but I think that was just because I had to use it more than I did before driving. It's still nowhere near ingrained, and I still often mess up.
posted by librarina at 11:47 PM on December 26, 2014

I'm very, very similar with finding my way around just fine, but being completely unable to give directions to a stranger. (The technical term for this is "living in Massachussetts." Ba-dum-ching!) In my case, it's that my internal map just isn't verbally based; it's all things like "that road that goes like this" and "the house on the corner that reminds me of the house on the next corner and I think you turn on the one that has the house that looks different, it's either two or three streets, maybe four" and "there's a weird traffic thinger up here and you do a, um, thing." I simply don't experience getting around as a collection of distances and street names.

I encounter similar difficulties when I'm trying to teach someone else a skill that is new to them but that I can do without thinking. I once tried to teach a friend to crochet, and I started out with "well, you make a slip knot and then you go like this," and she didn't know what a slip knot was, yet it was so automatic for me that I couldn't slow it down and describe it.

A lot of our physical and spatial memory just isn't verbal, I think. I doubt it's any sort of memory problem and I don't think it's related to our ability to talk or write about the things we do normally put into words.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:45 AM on December 27, 2014 [6 favorites]

It could just be something to do with the way your brain is arranged!

As a dyslexic I get excellent scores for verbal reasoning and have a really strong visual memory and sense of direction especially tied to events and related to particular feelings to the extent I can walk down streets in my mind.

However, ask me to give you directions for anywhere I don't have a personal map of and I'm at a loss,
posted by Middlemarch at 2:39 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've heard this is particularly common among creative people. No data, though.
posted by mumimor at 3:09 AM on December 27, 2014

Here's an article for you on left right confusion, which is actually not uncommon (and I have it, along with trouble remembering names, recognizing faces, etc.). Article is light, but has a number of links at the end.
posted by gudrun at 6:19 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am a very good navigator and I can give excellent directions* but I do always warn people that it needs to be the direction I point, not what I say, due to the left/right confusion issue when I am navigating in a car. I also have very good spatial awareness and am very similar to how you describe yourself, so no, it is not as unusual as your husband thinks!

* unless you're in a car asking me as a pedestrian because I don't always remember the one way streets etc as they don't apply to me on foot... That sort of thing is very context specific for me, I have to be in a car to remember it.
posted by halcyonday at 7:05 AM on December 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

Spatial navigation and verbalization involve completely unrelated areas of the brain and there are many forms of mismatch, such as verbal left/right confusion (which I believe is very closely related to dyslexia).

Of the two our spatial skills evolved first and are more developed, since our distant ancestors had to navigate a complex world long before they acquired language. This is why the method of loci is so powerful. Remembering things by language is actually a new and not very well developed skill compared to our natural talent for spatial mapping.
posted by localroger at 7:12 AM on December 27, 2014 [2 favorites]

My sister and my father are dyslexic and the whole right/left thing is useless for them. I learned to narrate my instructions for them, and talk in terms of landmarks.

My cousin has had an excellent sense of direction since she was 3 years old. I remember driving in LA with the kids and she told me, "Go down here, it's a short cut." 3 years old. Of course I did as she told me and she was 100% right.

So this sort of thing is innate, and unconnected. It is what it is.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:16 AM on December 27, 2014

Do you ever have trouble telling right from left? Many people, even adults, say that they confuse right and left. For example, 71 of 364 (19.5%) college professors and 311 of 1185 (26.2%) college students said that they occasionally, frequently or all of the time had difficulty when they had to quickly identify right from left. (citations in linked page).

Personally, I confuse words about similar concepts—so I'll say pie for cake, mittens for gloves, etc. I think saying right for left is the same kind of thing.
posted by jepler at 9:02 AM on December 27, 2014

Right-left confusion is also found in people with dyscalculia or as I call it, mathlexia. There are some reports that it also affects direction sense but I haven't found that to be true. Can't make change but I also don't get lost.
posted by fiercekitten at 9:21 AM on December 27, 2014

The brain is quite complex and there are several different types of memory as well as different types of mental processes going on here. Emotion is a kind of memory. Muscle memory is another kind of memory and something people usually find impossible to tell in words (think of trying to explain how to tie shoes -- you probably can't tell anyone how you tie shoes but you can probably show them in a jiffy and if you need to teach it, you have to intentionally slow it down and try to put it into words). So, basically, it isn't uncommon for the left hand to not know what the right hand is doing, so to speak, when it comes to brain processes. Just because one part of your brain has that information down pat doesn't mean another part of your brain has any idea how to readily access it and translate it to another form.

I suck at left-right, in part because I broke my dominant arm when I was 11 and did everything with the other hand for three weeks while my arm and hand were in a cast. For that and other reasons, I still do more with my non-dominant hand than average and I have had people ask me if I am ambidextrous. Nope, I am not. But I am more able to do some things with my non-dominant hand than is typical.

But I have a certificate in GIS -- that's basically the technology behind things like Google Maps -- and I can look at stuff on Google Maps, take a bus to the area and readily find my way around, much to the astonishment of my sons who can do no such thing. To me, the experience feels almost like I have been there before because I am so good at translating what I saw on Google Maps into a mental map of the area. I am also good at estimating by eye which pieces of furniture will fit a space and so on. So I have a lot of spatial ability, but left-right is not one of them. God help you if you need directions from me in a car. My ex used to tell me "your other right" in response to my utter inability to keep this straight.

So, Nthing the idea that no, you are not alone.
posted by Michele in California at 1:16 PM on December 27, 2014

Just another voice to say that I've got excellent navigation sense (far better than my husband) but I consistently muck up *verbalizing* "left" and "right." For some unknown reason, physically shaking the hand on the desired side helps me verbalize the correct term.
posted by laeren at 2:05 PM on December 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

FWIW, I'm the same and asked a similar question a while ago
posted by prufrock at 7:28 PM on January 2, 2015

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