How can I develop a better sense of direction?
July 28, 2006 3:12 PM   Subscribe

I have no internal compass and no inherent sense of direction. When I think north, south, east, west, I have to picture a map of the whole U.S. in order to remember where they all are in relation to each other. At work, statements such as "meet in the south parking lot" bring up no immediate mental image of where that might be. Is there anything I can do to not be lost all the time?

I'm actually pretty good spatially, unless the space is bigger than I am. As far as finding my way around in the world, I can read a map very well. But maps aren't always available or convenient, and it's not always possible to consult one and/or carry a compass around without looking crazy (like inside the big office complex where I work or while walking my dog in my own neighborhood, for example). Even if I do manage to find where I'm going once, I have to repeat the route **exactly** about 6 or 7 times to learn it. I almost never know which direction I'm headed without having to REALLY think hard about it. I'm not dumb, but I sure feel dumb when I'm lost. Any tips or techniques I can try to just find my way around a little bit more easily?
posted by chippie to Travel & Transportation (49 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I so have this problem! I will be interested in seeing the answers!
posted by Relly70 at 3:16 PM on July 28, 2006

Learn which way North is for your home, work, other common locations you find yourself in. If you don't know where North is, the sun is in the East in the morning, and the West in the evening. (And South-ish in the middle of the day.)

Remember the compass using this mnemonic, from North, clockwise:

Never Eat Soggy Waffles
posted by Mwongozi at 3:17 PM on July 28, 2006

Are you also left handed?

I've found that a lot of other leftys are this way as well.

I need VERY visual directions to get anywhere.
posted by k8t at 3:19 PM on July 28, 2006

I started out by trying to figure out what direction would be north all the time as a little kid.

The best thing you can do, locally, is look for landmarks. For instance, which side of your building faces north? It's easy to figure that out. then grow it. Cities are usually laid out in north/south orientations, so think about where you are in the city, turn towards where you think north is, and think about where other things should be. In Portland, where I used to live, that was very easy because there were some buildings that definitely faced north/south that were visible throughout the entire city.

From there, you'll start to build a sense that won't often fail you. Then you can add things in like figuring out which direction the sun should be coming from. If it's morning, the sun rises in the east, so if you stand with your right shoulder facing the sun you should (generally) be facing north. In the afternoon, if you stand with your left shoulder facing the sun, you should generally be facing north.

In new buildings, take a minute to orient yourself before you enter the building and look for archetectural details that are visible from both inside and out that will let you know which direction you're facing every time you face north.

As long as you have a place to start and you don't lose that place (which takes practise), you should almost always be able to figure out which way is nroth.
posted by SpecialK at 3:21 PM on July 28, 2006

I was going to recommend a handheld GPS unit to keep you on track.
posted by fenriq at 3:24 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: No, I'm not left-handed. Interestingly, I never, ever mix up right and left, like many people do. I also do rely on visual landmarks to get around.

I didn't realize I had this problem until I learned to drive in high school and my friends constantly made fun of the crazy routes I'd take to get places. I knew how to get from my house to place A or from my house to place B, but no idea how to get from place A to place B without starting back at my house.
posted by chippie at 3:24 PM on July 28, 2006

Directions don't come naturally to anyone. I was in the same boat as you until I made a real effort to know which way I was going and to develop a very simple mental map.

I started by always knowing which way something big is. Like "I know this is east because this is the way downtown." Or "I travel south to go to work." From there you begin to notice what streets are parallel to other streets. Eventually you'll usually know which direction you're going. It takes some effort at first but later you'll wonder how you got around without it. Now, I cant imagine being told "turn at the second burger king" when I was younger thats all I knew.
posted by the ghost of Ken Lay at 3:24 PM on July 28, 2006

I'm like this too. I notice it when I'm reading books and it says "Character X started to head North towards [wherever]" and I'm like but how do they know??

Interestingly, I'm left-handed too. And also from the UK where towns and cities aren't plotted in a grid.
posted by afx237vi at 3:26 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: Sorry - no answers here, as I too have the exact same problem. Frankly, I think i'm missing the portion of the brain that holds a sense of direction. I'm lost once I've made two turns.

About the only think I've learned is that a lot of people who don't have this problem have a very hard time (or simply can't) understand it. Knowing where they are and where things are in relation comes instinctively to them, and they typically can't understand how the instinct can not be there. Trust me, it's possible.

(On preview - right handed here)
posted by cgg at 3:28 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: Another way I knew I was "different" directionally is that I grew up near Chicago, and as anyone there will tell you, people love to say "toward the lake" (Lake Michigan, natch) when they want you to head east. As in, "get off the tollway and head toward the lake." But if I can't see the lake, how the heck am I supposed to know where it is? But other people somehow...just...KNEW.
posted by chippie at 3:29 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry to be the most frequent poster to my own question. But inside a building, it seems almost impossible to know which way you're headed. Go up or down a staircase with multiple turns in it, and forget it. I've tried keeping the "spinning map" or "soggy waffles" memory tricks going while in the building, and it just doesn't work.

Good suggestions from everyone--thanks! And it's good to know I'm not alone. Lost, but not alone.
posted by chippie at 3:34 PM on July 28, 2006

When you don't have landscape features to orient by, you really just have to have a sense.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 3:46 PM on July 28, 2006

According to a book from '92:
The area where the biggest differences [in aptitude between men and women] have been found lies in what scientists call "spacial ability". That's being able to picture things, their shape, position, geography and proportion, accurately in the mind's eye - all skills that are crucial to the practical ability to work with three-dimensional objects or drawings. One scientist who has reviewed the extensive literature on the subject concludes, "the fact of the male's superiority in spacial ability is not in dispute". It is confirmed by literally hundreds of different scientific studies.
Fuel for the fire. Me, I don't know.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:47 PM on July 28, 2006

You can get cheap key chains with compasses on them, or watches, or those cheap ones for the dashboard of the car. Carry one around, or put it on your desk at work, check it every once in a while, or play a game where you try to guess which direction you're facing before you check the compass. You'll get better at it over time.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:49 PM on July 28, 2006

I have this same problem, as well as not really knowing left from right or east from west [like I know them if I think about them but not otherwise]. I grew up with a Dad who sailed boats and it made him sort of nuts that I didn't know how to do this so I was always being quizzed when we were driving [in rural Mass, so no grid to speak of] "Which way are we headed now?" and I wouldn't know and it was annoying for both of us. Interestingly, I'm really good at reading maps, I'm just no good at telling people what to do if they're driving the car, "go... um ... umm.... THAT way (and then I point)"

I've learned to brute force my way through the tasks I need to know this information for and I just blow off the rest. So if people are giving me directions with east and west I'll just prompt them "Is that left or right?" and then I'll write it down. I can never remember directions that include left or right or east or west but if I write it down I can, maybe seven times out of ten at least get it right when I'm driving/walking/whatever.

I'll orient myself in places that I live or go to frequently. So at my house, I know which way the road goes and then I make sure I know all the other directions from there. So, I live on a North/South road, my house faces it and the sun sets there so my house faces West. The same is true where I work, I rememebr which way to road goes and where I am in relation to the road. I mostly live in rural areas but I'll travel in cities a lot and there I'll try to get an idea of which way the roads go so, if for example, I'm on a lettered street I'll know it goes E/W or L/R which will help me not get totally lost. I cheat in a lot of ways and look for the sun, or just look for a big road and figure I can get some landmarks from there.

When I'm in San Francisco I'll come out of the MUNI downtown and literally have to ask people which way the water is because I'm always confused. It's not that I can't remember, it's more that my memories don't seem accurate or that they seem to conflict. Usually in cities I'll aslo stick with a few big landmarks where I am going, so like "the big public library is in the Northwest corner" and then move out from there. If I have enough of these places set up, then I don't have to do the whole "go home and then back out" thing though I sympathize because I've been that way before. I literally carry maps with me everywhere when I'm in a city and stand there in the street holding them in front of me "okay if I'm on seventh and I can see A and B streets then I must be facing north which means that blah blah blah"

Anything else, like which way am I pointing when I'm in a staircase, who cares? I'll remember which corner of the basement I need to be in during a tornado, but otherwise it's just idle brainstress for me. I feel like my brain is a skipping record when I try to figure out left and right so I just usually don't and figure out why I need to know them and then figure out another way to do the same thing.
posted by jessamyn at 3:50 PM on July 28, 2006

My girlfriend has this problem. They have a $10 compass @ REI that clips onto a watch band (they also have keychains, but she looses her keys all the time), and comes with a band if you don't usually have a watch.

I'll make sure she chimes in later tonite.
posted by hatsix at 3:56 PM on July 28, 2006

I'm left handed and always have had this problem. Unfortunately I always think my left hand is my right-for-me hand.
I don't mind if I am by myself, but it is embarrassing when others are relying on you for directions or get impatient when you take the “scenic route” in the car. I’ve found memorizing landmarks in town is helpful, but not handy, of course if you are traveling. When I am in a new town I try to familiarize myself with a main drag so I can feel confident I won't get lost.

One time, late for a job interview in NYC I asked someone how to find Canal Street and they told me I was standing on it. Pretty hopeless.
posted by dchunks at 4:03 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: I am left handed and am actually the one people always turn to for direction and will frusterate my friends by using "south, north, west, east" when giving directions. It takes me about 2 days in an alien city for me to become fairly comfortable. What I do, almost naturally, is always remind myself which direction I am heading. Seriously 48 hours of driving and walking about and repeating to myself which direction I am going is all it takes. It makes everything easier too.

What helped me is the computer in my car when I was learning to drive had an electronic compass. I became incredibly used to looking at it and reorienting myself. I suggest buying something similar and force yourself to glance at it every so often. I don't think we have a natural way of knowing this, repitition and familiarity is all that will help you know directions (ie I was going south last, took x lefts and y rights and am now heading eastbound).
posted by geoff. at 4:15 PM on July 28, 2006

smartass answer: move to Boulder. The Flatirons are so overwhelmingly visible from every outdoor vantage point that you'll always know where you are well except for the extremely rare days when its too foggy/snowy to see anything at all.

ditto whomever says to learn orientation from static landmarks, after extrapolating from the sun/sky features. Once you grasp one static reference, compare other references to that one, and just keep on building.

This is how I was taught woods-worthiness growing up as a farm kid. I had a hopeless sense of direction before that (was taught orienteering at about 12 or so). I still can't tell 'left' from 'right' (have to point) but I'm a bang hand with finding things from crappy / nonexistent directions or in unfamiliar territory, and I've never been lost whilst hiking in the backcountry (yet).

Observing which way the shadows lie at certain times of day and so on, plus brushing up on your layman's astronomy so you can pick out a few key constellations at night, then learning to extrapolate direction from that really helps. From this I figured out how to visualise compass points in my head as big letters superimposed on the sky, kind of like one would see in a planetarium - it works best on a clear starry night obviously, but I can do it easily enough in daylight.

'but what if it's cloudy?'. eh, no it's not foolproof but unless you're very unlucky, you aren't living where you never see the sun. Over time you can build correlations. and 95% of the time even on overcast days you can still tell what quadrant of sky the sun is in.
posted by lonefrontranger at 4:33 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: Funny thing: I'm a lefty and have a pretty good sense of direction. And I grew up in Chicago, and developed (and still have) an innate sense of where the lake is. But put me on a Tokyo subway platform and I'll come out the wrong exit every time unless I check the signs saying "this way to XYZ." There's something about the switch between the indoor and outdoor frame of reference that messes me up.

As for improving your sense of direction, I'm not sure that's possible as such, but you can fake it:

1. Sit down with a good street map and study it. Pinpoint your regular haunts on it. This will start you off figuring out things like "oh, so my workplace is east of my favorite hotdog stand."

2. Visit some key points in your city with a map and compass. Figure out which way is which, and what direction the other key points lie in. Write it down if you need to, in whatever way makes sense to you. "When I'm facing my favorite hotdog stand, east is to my left, and that's the direction my workplace is in."

3. Figure out some important nodal points in terms of transportation (ideally, the same key points in 1, but not necessarily) and work out good routes between them. Don't worry about whether it's an "eastward" route, just figure out the route. Once you've done that, if you can figure out what nodal points are near your actual starting point and endpoint, that simplifies the navigation problem.

4. Practice, practice, practice. If this really bothers you, set aside a few Saturday mornings and visit these locations each time.
posted by adamrice at 4:36 PM on July 28, 2006

I'm in Phoenix, and I use the freeway system. The 101 runs North and South, and I know where Phoenix is relative the the East Valley, and the 60 runs East and West, and likewise, I know where I am at all times relative to both freeways.

Since all other main roads in the area orient themselves to the grid, and flow in the freeway directions, I can think about which way is East by referencing my relative knowledge of where the freeway is.

It definitely comes naturally, and in buildings, I have to think about where the freeway is.
posted by disillusioned at 5:19 PM on July 28, 2006

I think I'm the opposite of you. Right handed and I always know or at least feel like I know where North is, but I always have to think twice about left and right. I think the easiest way to gain a better sense of the cardinal directions is as previously mentioned, align yourself to a common landmark that's always north of you and go from there.
posted by nakedsushi at 6:08 PM on July 28, 2006

Many people really do know "East" and other directions basically as toward the Ocean/Mountains/whatever.

When I moved from the East coast to the West coast, at the beginning I found myself going in the wrong direction because the ocean nolonger meant East.

Several people I spoke to had also experienced confusion related to this landmark grounding.
posted by MonkeySaltedNuts at 6:13 PM on July 28, 2006

I am okay at directions, except when I was in Africa where I had no clue. This almost got me killed.
posted by Deep Dish at 6:25 PM on July 28, 2006

I have a pretty good sense of direction; if it is not an innate skill I must have learned it at an early age. I usually use the sky as my frame of reference when in an unfamiliar area. Learn how the sun and moon move across the sky and (assuming you are in the northern hemisphere) how to find the north star. Then you will probably start to notice smaller clues to direction; for example that the shadiest side of a building, tree, whatever is the north side (which is why moss is heavier on the north side of trees. If you want to get really good, take up orienteering. Even if you don't go that far, practice finding north every time you are outside and you may eventually get a feel for it with little effort. Inside is more difficult, but if you are near a window you can look outside for hints; also there is usually less area to get lost in inside.
posted by TedW at 6:28 PM on July 28, 2006

Left handed, great sense of direction. I can tell what direction north is when I wake up in a strange room. I'm not sure how.

I'd say though, if you keep getting stuck in cities, use your watch to find direction! I'm about to link to a creationist site, but hey, they're right about this
posted by bonaldi at 6:35 PM on July 28, 2006

I grew up in Chicago and can tell what direction I'm facing just about everywhere but downtown Madison, Wisconsin. Even though I know intellectually that Lake Mendota is on the north, it still feels east to me.

I've also noticed that since I got a car with GPS, I depend on it more and my sense of direction is starting to fail.

(right-handed but a "switched lefty")
posted by Joleta at 8:19 PM on July 28, 2006

I'm one of those people that always knows which direction he is facing.

I wasn't always that way, however... when I was young I had no sense of direction (nor do I believe, does anyone... I don't think inate directional ability is a human trait.)

I taught myself this way... I would make a visual in my head of where I was sitting (i.e. my computer workstation) and think of the nearest road that I was certain of the direction (i.e. running north/south or east/west with a fair degree of accuracy to the true directions)

By looking down at myself, in a mental "bird's eye view" and connecting other things around me to the orientation of that road (i.e. where other houses on my block were, which direction my work was from my current location, where major cities were in relation to me, etc.) I started getting a better sense of direction.

After doing that pretty consistently all it takes for me to orient myself outside is looking at a shadow on the ground and inside all it takes is looking down at the building I'm in, like I'm in a plane and finding the nearest road and I can tell which direction is which.

Hope that helps... but its how I went from not knowing at all, to being a pretty consistent compass.
posted by JFitzpatrick at 8:35 PM on July 28, 2006

Response by poster: Joleta, funny you should mention downtown Madison. I used to live there, and out-of-towners always commented on feeling confused, direction-wise. You know that Lake Mendota isn't true north in Madison, right? It's northish, because the isthmus runs on a diagonal between the two lakes. "East" streets downtown actually run northeast, and "west" streets run southwest. Anyway, I was as lost in downtown Madison as anywhere, further adding to the proof that some people "feel" big bodies of water nearby, and others of us have to see 'em to believe 'em.
posted by chippie at 8:46 PM on July 28, 2006

Ask for directions via street and highway names/routes. If someone uses a directional marker, ask them if that's going toward (city to the south) or (city to the north). Or ask for an address and get driving directions online. (amusing about the 'large bodies of water'. I orient towards the ocean, apparently. I had my directions down when I was on the West Coast. I moved to Western NY and I'm completely backwards. I figure it has to be that I'm somehow orienting to the Atlantic, but my brain still says "big water=West")

I'm confused, however: how could you get lost walking your dog in your own neighborhood, or in your office building? Those are a matter of familiarity, not what direction you're facing in (and if anyone gives you directions inside a building which rely on what direction you're facing, they do NOT know how to give directions. Indoors it's left/right/forward, not NESW.)
posted by Meep! Eek! at 9:00 PM on July 28, 2006

Best answer: I think that people who have big problems knowing directions typically have 2 issues:

1) They did not as children, and usually do not as adults, spend enough time outdoors to become subconsciously aware of sky light angles. It's just a personal observation, but when I ask people who have poor directional sense how much time they spent outside as kids, and what they were doing with it, I get responses that make outdoor play activities seem a pretty minor part of their growing up. On the other hand, farm kids and kids who were outside for hours every day, in all seasons, for sports, hunting, fishing, boating, or other outdoor activities, seem to be able to key off the sky as if it were second nature. Cloudy or rainy days may slow them down, but nothing short of a white fog stops them from "knowing" which direction they are headed, if they can see daylight or moonlight/stars.

2) People who feel they have poor directional sense don't try very hard at staying oriented. In this, they are like jessamyn above, and somewhat like people who are math addled. Saying to themselves, "Uh oh, this is going to involve directions? I'm bound to get lost..." at every turn, predisposes them to being lost. I've actually had pretty good luck teaching such people navigation (by sky light angle estimation, sun sighting, shadow observation, etc.) when I've had them as traveling companions for a week or two. Although they hated me the first couple of days, by the 4th or 5th day, when they were correctly "guessing" what direction they were headed, too often to be actually "guessing" any more, they got all smug and pleased with themselves. And much less anxious.
posted by paulsc at 9:12 PM on July 28, 2006

I used to think I just had an innately good sense of direction. Then I worked for a year in Berlin, where the sun goes the wrong way across the sky (I'm Australian), and I was constantly, constantly lost. So I think there's something in what paulsc says about childhood exposure to sun angles.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 PM on July 28, 2006

You can even get a compass on a necklace. I have one and completely love it. (Much better/easier than having to whip out my clunky Nokia compass every time I'm lost, which is often.)
posted by hazelshade at 11:16 PM on July 28, 2006


Then I worked for a year in Berlin, where the sun goes the wrong way across the sky (I'm Australian), and I was constantly, constantly lost.

Please explain to the class how the sun goes "the wrong way across the sky" in the Southern Hemisphere. I'm not trying to be snarky, I'm desperately interested in what you meant here.
posted by frogan at 11:41 PM on July 28, 2006

It doesn't go the wrong way in the Southern Hemisphere. It goes the wrong way in the Northern Hemisphere :-)

In both hemispheres, obviously, sunrise is roughly in the east and sunset is roughly in the west. No problem there.

In the southern hemisphere, though, the sun's track is in the northern half of the sky. So, if I were to stand facing the sun at some point during the day, and wait a while, I'd notice the sun appearing to move to my left.

In the northern hemisphere, the sun's track is in the southern half of the sky, so it appears to be moving to the right.

So, given that my inner homing pigeon expects the morning sun roughly northeast, the noon sun to be roughly north, and the afternoon sun to be roughly northwest, it gets completely bollixed up when transplanted to the other side of the world where the morning sun is southeast, noon is south, and afternoon is southwest. Not only does the sun appear in the wrong half of the sky, the bloody thing tracks clockwise instead of anticlockwise. The whole inner map turns inside out as well as back to front.
posted by flabdablet at 12:00 AM on July 29, 2006

They did not as children, and usually do not as adults, spend enough time outdoors to become subconsciously aware of sky light angles.

I agree wholeheartedly. As I mentioned above I have been comfortable with directions for as long as I can remember, but I did send a lot of time playing outside as a child. It is also interesting to hear fabdablet's remarks about northern/southern hemispheres.
posted by TedW at 3:49 AM on July 29, 2006

And for the serious inter-hemisphere traveler, night is no better, as flabdablet could also tell you. Once you get beyond the Tropic of Cancer (or the Tropic of Capricorn, depending on the direction of your journey away from your "home" hemisphere), even the stars are "wrong." Farther north in the Northern Hemisphere than the Tropic of Cancer for a man born "down under", and there are new constellations in the night sky, and no faithful Southern Cross. And for us habituates of the top of the world headed south, at latitudes below the Tropic of Capricorn (very roughly, about the midline of Brazil and Australia for the geographically challenged), we look in vain for constant Polaris, our North Star.

I love Rio, adore Sydney, and dig Johannesburg, but I am easily lost in any of them, unless I work hard at staying oriented, and I feel all twisted up even after the jet lag subsides in ways I never do up north, for just such reasons as flabdablet agrees. But nonetheless, I recommend those simpler skies, and most of the friendly folk who smile beneath them.
posted by paulsc at 3:59 AM on July 29, 2006

They did not as children, and usually do not as adults, spend enough time outdoors to become subconsciously aware of sky light angles.

This is not the case with me at all, I lived outdoors as a kid. I'm also right-handed. I've just always seen the directional thing as a sort of mild dyslexia which means I find the sentiment that people who can't do this sort of thing "don't try very hard" pretty inaccurate. I can't speak for other people but having grown up with a parent who had a major goal of teaching me navigation, if I could have learned just through effort and repetition, I would have.

There's a big difference between making your lack of direction someone else's problem and being honest about your own abilities and developing strategies to compensate for what your brain doesn't seem to do naturally. Maps, compasses, sun sighting and landmarks are all ways for people who don't naturally know where they are to figure out where they are.
posted by jessamyn at 5:38 AM on July 29, 2006

jessamyn's first post above pretty much describes my own experience.

In most cities, the numbering of the streets corresponds to some compass direction that you can be reasonably sure of; e.g. in Kansas City, the numbered streets go up in number as you head south. That's what I usually use.

But I have to admit that I really don't care. If I'm indoors, and someone tells me to walk down the hall and then turn west, I tell them that they will have to use words like 'left' and 'right' when they talk to me. I'm very up-front and unapologetic about it; there is no reason why I should have to know how the faces of the building are aligned with the poles or the equator.

Something interesting that I think nobody has mentioned. In New York City, the rules are different. Soon after I moved here, I emerged from some subway stop and asked a passer-by which way was north. She blinked in confusion, asked me where I was trying to go, then said "Oh, you mean uptown!" This attitude is quite prevalent in Manhattan; compass directions are not valid here, you have to think in terms of uptown/downtown/midtown, eastside/westside etc. reinforcing the fact that many of its inhabitants literally believe that it is its own world. On the other hand, once you get a grip on the basic geography of the island, you can pretty much stop worrying about the compass directions.

I do still get confused about which way New Jersey is, though. Fortunately I don't have to drive there.
posted by bingo at 6:43 AM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: To answer a few questions and make a few more observations:

I haven't actually gotten lost walking my dog in my own neighborhood (which I've lived in for seven years). However, I was once stopped by a carful of people who needed directions to the church at the end of my street. At the time, I was a few blocks away from the home/church block, and found to my horror that I could not explain how to get to the church, because I couldn't "see" the whole route in my head and didn't know the names of all the streets. I could only look down the street I was on and think, "Well, I know I turn right at that house next to the house where the tornado knocked that tree over." This is the problem with navigating by landmarks.

I do think I get better at this kind of thing with practice, which is why I posted this question. If I thought it was truly an inborn skill and had no hope for improvement, I would have given up.

I've also been to the southern hemisphere for vacation (I live in the northern), and had no problem navigating. But that's because I didn't use sun/stars/angles of shadows anyway and always spent a lot of time looking at maps while out and about.

Directionally-challenged readers: do you feel like you get stopped and asked for directions more than the average person does? Because I think that's true for me. I figure it's because I don't have the determined look on my face of someone who knows where they're going, and am therefore approachable.
posted by chippie at 7:03 AM on July 29, 2006

Are you female? I've heard that there are a lot of connections between gender and spatial orientation abilities. I always tell guys not to give directions to most women using cardinal directions - I know it's a stereotype, but in my experience, telling a woman to "go south on 5th" is rarely helpful.

I'm female. I have this problem bigtime. I have a compass on my key chain I sometimes use. Also, in Boston I orient myself by the Charles River, or by the Pru. In DC I use the Washington Memorial, or remember that VA is generally south, MD is generally north, etc. I just learned a few landmarks, and it helps me get around the few cities I know well.
posted by Amizu at 8:58 AM on July 29, 2006

Best answer: I couldn't "see" the whole route in my head and didn't know the names of all the streets.

For what it's worth, my job often entails parachuting into some place I've never been and finding an address fast. So I'm a veteran of asking people for directions. And this happens all the damn time. People who have lived their whole lives in a place can't tell you the name of that big street three lights down where you have to take a left at the Burger King. Often, when I tell them I'm looking for say, Springfield Street, they'll be utterly blank and then I'll find it was the next street over. Once, we were actually *on* Springfield Street.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:13 AM on July 29, 2006

"... Maps, compasses, sun sighting and landmarks are all ways for people who don't naturally know where they are to figure out where they are."
posted by jessamyn at 8:38 AM EST on July 29

jessamyn, I'd be a fool to try to tell you how your own brain works, so I won't. But on the chance this thread will have value to others who feel they have no sense of direction, as a source of help/advice, let me respond to a couple of things I see here, and extend the discussion a bit, in the vein of people who make a living at it do.

First thing about having a sense of direction that needs to be settled is whether humans have some innate mechanism for this, as pigeons do, or not. If some people can "naturally know where they are" as you put it, while others have to laboriously "figure out where they are," those born absent that innate ability would be right to feel as shortchanged as those born tone deaf. But so far, extensive research doesn't support the contention that directional sense is innate, like pitch sensitivity, color blindness or fully attached ear lobes appear to be.

Certainly, no structure analogous to the gross "magnetic grains" found in the skulls of pigeons and other birds has ever been found in a human skull. And lengthy investigations in flight training physiology for people has demonstrated that no human pilot can fly steady magnetic headings for hours with no instrument or observational clues, as pigeons can in bad weather. Every human, deprived for only a matter of minutes of outside directional stimulus, loses his ability to say with certainty, which direction he is headed. It's such a widely applicable phenomenon, that aviation pilot license classes are differentiated on a pilot's qualifications and experience demonstrated in ignoring his sensory estimations in favor of aircraft instruments, and yet, it is such a powerful, early learning for the majority of pilots, that inflight pilot disorientation is still the leading contributory circumstance to most general aviation accidents where the cause is pilot error. Something as simple as flying into a cloud layer during descent is enough to kill dozens of experienced private pilots every year, because when their visual clues about horizon and sky light angles are removed even for a few seconds, most immediately lose all orientation, and will not correct any slight turning tendency the airplane develops from becoming a fatal bank angle, even with the evidence of an artificial horizon instrument right in front of them, until it is too late. Getting an instrument rating is a big achievement for most pilots, simply because it is so difficult to overcome the mental fight to orient that most people carry on constantly, in favor of learning to trust the instruments completely, while ignoring the seat of their pants and their inner ears. jessamyn, if you really don't have a trustworthy sense of direction in normal life, you may be a "natural" instrument pilot, but you'd be the first such person I've known.

What I see in most people who insist to me that they have "no sense of direction" is one of two things:

They do have a normal reaction to a sudden loss of visual stimuli while outdoors, such as walking into smoke or fog, and immediately get noticeably nervous, while they slow their pace, or stop moving and try to orient. And, they become visibly less nervous within seconds of having sky and horizon references return, to the point of expressing palpable, audible relief in many instances. This means that they are constantly collecting and processing in short term perception and memory, the visual navigational clues everyone gets, but they may not be processing this information cognitively, to update their mental map. These people are common, and they are pretty good candidates for teaching and coaching. More about that in a minute.

The second and much rarer type of individual does not exhibit any anxiety when visual navigational references suddenly disappear, and if walking, may not even alter his gait when walking into smoke or fog, unless it is so pronounced he can't even see his feet or hands, and he thus trips or runs into an obstacle. This kind of person also shows no perceptible relief when visual sky and horizon cues suddenly return. As far as can be noted by observation, these people truly are oblivious to navigational clues from the environment, and from my experience, can never learn to navigate by any method but by following serial step directions, or by tortuous map manipulation. I have known five or six such individuals in my life, and for the last 30 years, I've kept my eyes open for them, for other personal reasons. Based on my experience, they are extremely rare people, and I think their situations may be related to other sensory and mental differences, beyond the scope of this discussion.

Presuming a person is not a member of the latter vanishingly small group, let me offer the following:

As to the amount of effort most people who feel they do have a sense of direction exert to maintain orientation, I will say that, in my experience, it is substantially greater effort than those who report having a poor sense of direction usually estimate. I say this because maintaining orientation can rapidly begin to take up noticeable amounts of a person's total mental capacity, in situations of perfect visibility and otherwise normal sensory input, if the path simply becomes twisty enough. I have seen this happen often in situations of simple tall grass or open woodland hiking, where a trail gets twisty, yet remains flat, and yet any conversation immediately drops away as people in an party of experienced outdoorsmen have to begin making noticeable personal effort to stay oriented on their well marked, and perhaps well beaten path, so that they remain on the trail. Even in urban walking situations, people with good directional sense often break out of conversations momentarily to orient, and pick up with a question or remark that shows a great deal of their attention has been shifted away to orientation, and they've dropped the thread of conversation. Since the advent of cell phone calls from people driving cars, many of us have had this experience vicariously, wondering if we are listening telephonically to someone's last moments while they check their surroundings.

In contrast, I rarely see people who claim poor directional sense dropping out of conversations while moving about, for what I've learned to recognize as the subconscious orienting behaviors typical of most people -- rapid eye scans of visible horizon, skyward glances, short focus eye movement to shadows, etc. Once you've become aware of such things, and also become aware of their absence, you don't have to be told whether a companion can find their way or not. I accept that some people may have, as jessamyn describes it, some kind of dyslexia, for lack of a better word, that makes it more difficult for them to process visual cue data, but what I see in most people that are self-identified poor navigators, is that they expend nearly zero effort trying to stay oriented. They are not trying harder, to overcome a mental processing disability, but for the most part, they are not trying at all. Many times, such people will even complain to people who are maintaining orientation, that they (the oriented ones) aren't paying enough attention to a traveling conversation. It's as if they've chosen consciously to rely on others to do their navigating, so they needn't do the work themselves, and resent those who are making the effort, since they should be able to stay on track entirely by "instinct!" So my previous comment that they (meaning the easily lost) "don't try very hard" is observation on my part, not an assumption about attitude or intellectual ability, if that makes a difference in understanding what I was trying to say.

I accept that in an industrial society a person can usually outsource orientation activities, and I say, more power to them. But my point is that the territory where "I can't" and "I'm not going to do it." meet is vanishingly small. Very few people truly "can't" in my experience, but about a fourth of the population won't if they can avoid it. And the more they avoid it, the less likely it is that they will be able to do it well or at all, if they must.

The good news is, people with a poor sense of direction can generally be quickly and easily taught such skills, and can even be coached in changing internal behaviors to become good navigators. Partly, it's a matter of teaching observational skills they may have never learned, and partly, it is teaching them to get into "scan" habits, as pilots have to be taught to see properly when learning to fly.

One of the things you learn from a good aviation instructor is that the visual acuity of the human eye is generally greater when the eye is moving. As a pilot, you use that knowledge to develop a habit of scanning the visual horizon in an organized way for traffic, alternating with scanning your instruments, until such constant, patterned scanning becomes ingrained habit. For the first 20 or so hours that you are doing it, it seems completely unnatural, as if you'll never "get" it, and you constantly miss other airplane traffic your instructor, sitting right beside you, sees minutes or seconds earlier than you can. You learn that he is not Superman, he is just efficiently seeing as good pilots must, and eventually, you learn to do it yourself. Only then are you going to be able to fly safely in airport pattern traffic situations.

I see the same thing in people who I help with ground navigation. They often need help developing the orienting habits many other people seem to learn as kids. And they need to learn what it "feels" like to give a reasonable portion of their attention and mental capacity constantly to orienting. Learning to find and use visual cues like sky light angle and shadows is easy. What most people really seem to resent is developing the kind of timed interrupt of attention that is required to remain oriented, that is analogous to "seeing by scanning" in pilot training. My usual way of doing this is by directing queued questions to them, as we go about for a few hours. "North?" I'll pop out at odd moments, several times an hour, and expect them to point in the right direction.

The first couple of days, in about an hour, most people I'm helping are ready to throw something at me, and some do. Others "quit playing," and insist they "can't." Usually, with these folks, I immediately quit orienting, too, give them all my attention, get horrendously lost with them, and let them experience the panic and frustration they are quite familiar with as they try to find our way home without aid, while I call their attention externally to the inevitable results of getting lost. Then, they either decide to start "playing" again for real, or they really do throw things at me, and I'm off the hook for traveling with them.

Those that "keep playing" through the first levels of frustration report that they sense they are doing more mentally by far than they usually would, and if I increase the novelty of a trip sharply, they become very aware of the mental effort required to keep oriented, and may ask me to slow down, so they can keep from getting lost. But usually, with a few days of coaching, most people become substantially more comfortable with personal orientation, and capable of stepping up the pace of doing it, to the point they can try it while driving a car. About that time, they are able to answer "North?" queries from me in under 3 seconds, with better than 90% accuracy, and when I point that out, they frequently fail to believe they've done that well.

So, to sum up, I think that for all but a small fraction of 1% of the human population, a sense of direction can be taught. No doubt, some people will be better navigators than others, and some will require more training, or even perhaps special education to overcome mental or perceptual differences. But I don't think lacking a sense of direction is analogous to being born tone deaf, or having attached ear lobes. Instead, assuming you can't find your way around is like assuming from high school biology and college age frustrations, that you lack the gene that lets you tie cherry stems into knots with your tongue.
posted by paulsc at 9:34 AM on July 29, 2006 [8 favorites]

You don't really say what city you live in and how you get around. I find that people who ride the bus will always know which way is north, but people who drive won't.

For practical advice, you should spend some time browsing Google maps. Look up addresses you know, and then try to recognize buildings from their outlines (Not always easy when you're used to seeing them from ground level, but still) Get the route from A to B and visualize yourself standing in front of A, and think which way down the street do you have to go to get to B.
posted by RobotHero at 4:30 PM on July 29, 2006

I choose two large streets (highways are even better) that intersect and form a pair of NS/EW axes. These roads are big enough that I almost always know where I am in relation to them (above/below/right/left). When I'm in a particular section of town, I think of the direction I'd have to go to hit one of those streets. ("Let's see, I have to go to my left to hit NorthSouth Avenue and I have to go straight ahead to hit EastWest highway, so west is to my left.")

If I'm in a situation where someone says, "I'll meet you at the north end of the building", I think about where the building is in relation to my two chosen streets and which end of the building is further away: "I'm above EastWest highway. The end of the building I'm in now is closer to EastWest highway, so the other end is to the north."

You're used to thinking of a big map of the US; this is just a scaled down version of that technique.
posted by forrest at 5:44 PM on July 29, 2006

Response by poster: Great suggestions, all, and thanks for the detail, paulsc. I think because many people who stay oriented seem to do so effortlessly, it's been a revelation to me that it does indeed require effort for them. I know that much of the time I expend zero effort keeping track of where I am--until I get lost, at which time I expend tons of effort, but with limited success. Therefore, it has always seemed to me that lots of effort produces limited payoff, when in fact less effort expended more or less constantly is what I think I need to be doing.

Here's my plan, for anyone who cares:
* obtain car compass. Partly to know which direction I'm going, and partly as a visual reminder to actually wonder which direction I'm going.
* spend more time reviewing local maps. I always use maps while on vacation, because I have no assumption that I'll know where I am. But I never look at maps of my own town/state. I'll start doing that.
* pay more attention to street names, and practice giving directions from point a to point b.

Good luck to the others who have this same problem. Please post any success you have with any of these suggestions. My guess is that different strategies will work better for everyone.
posted by chippie at 10:04 AM on July 30, 2006

No sense of direction, can't fix it. The best I can do it to study a map to realise that when I've travelling up raod X, I'm facing north, or west, or whatever. This isn't a sense of direction, though, because I still think I'm going a completely different direction.

For example, have a look at this Google map of Canberra, Australia. See Adelaide Avenue, to the left of the big circle? When I'm travelling along that road, toward the top of the map, I'm absolutely convinced that I'm travelling due north. And see Canberra Avenue to the right? The one that runs SE? It goes NE in my head (a fact I hadn't realised til I loaded the map).

It gets worse. Have a look at this map of my neighbourhood. I've lived here for years. I live in Gowrie, roughly the centre of the map. To get to the shops at Greenway (look left), I head due west. In my head, it's due south. And Drakeford Drive, which runs north-south-ish, is east-west in my head.

The closest thing I have to a fix is knowing that whatever direction I think it is, it isn't. If I rotate everything 90o in my head, it's closer, but that's really hard to do for some reason.

If it matters, I was crap at Lego, too.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 7:07 PM on July 30, 2006

obiwan: it's not you, it's Canberra. The joint is pathologically, irredeemably confusing. Bendy streets are absolute impediments to easy navigation.

I think I have a reasonable sense of direction. Put me anywhere in Melbourne, and I'll find my way to the approximate neighborhood of anywhere else without too much trouble. But put me in Canberra, and I'm lost, lost, lost, even given a map.

Having grown up in Melbourne, I now have an inbuilt expectation that the direction I'm travelling when I get to the end of a given street will be the same as the direction I was travelling when I first got onto that street. In most cases, this saves time and lets me navigate pretty well. But it fails badly on bendy streets.

Canberra is almost 100% bendy streets.

I now live in Bruthen, East Gippsland. Bruthen is northeast of the nearest large town, Bairnsdale. The road to Bairnsdale runs westward out of Bruthen, and it winds around a fair bit before arriving at the big roundabout in east Bairndsdale.

The main street of Bairnsdale also runs roughly east-west, so for a long while I took no notice of the bends in between; as far as navigation was concerned, I left Bruthen driving westward and arrived in the Bairnsdale main street driving westward, and that was that.

Then somebody explained the back way around to the far end of Bairnsdale, which usefully bypasses several sets of traffic lights. This involves turning right off the highway before getting to the big roundabout. It took me ages to figure out how that shortcut worked, because I'd been treating the Bairnsdale to Bruthen road as a straight east-west run.

In my mind, the turnoff to the back way still runs north. I still have to remind myself explicitly that when I'm on that road, I am in fact driving west, parallel to the main street but north of it. Even two years on, and even with contradictory sun angles, that road "feels" north-south.

I think chippie is right about a workable sense of direction being something that's acquired through frequent occasional attention, rather than being a purely innate thing. None of the cues are infallible, and it's maddening when they contradict one another.

Sitting down with a good street directory in front of you and recreating the routes you generally use to get from A to B is good fun. Actually exploring the shortcuts revealed by this method is fun, too.
posted by flabdablet at 8:32 PM on July 30, 2006

My mother has this, and to maintain sanity we act as though it is a dyslexia.

We started playing GO, and noticed that her perception of consequences in the vertical was much better than horizontal. Thus left-right seems to be getting tangled.

Note that a left-right mistake leads to going 180' in the wrong direction.

Leading to a quote from the comedy of life, played in Chicago:

"The lake is THAT way!"
posted by dragonsi55 at 5:11 AM on August 3, 2006

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