“But we don’t know the way,” Piglet pointed out. “Do we?”
from Rabbit Gets Lost
adapted by Isabel Gaines
illustrated by Studio Orlando
Disney Press, 1998
I can get lost backing out of my own driveway. Okay, not really. But, even if I’ve been somewhere many, many, many times, I’m usually unsure how to get back there. And I’m better outside a building than I am inside, especially an unfamiliar one.
Does this ever happen to you? You turn onto a familiar street, but all the houses and buildings are on the wrong side of the road. You’re moving forward through time and space, but it feels like everything is going the wrong way round. It only lasts about a minute or two. But still.
When the girls and I wanted to go to the big playground in our large city park, we’d pile into the car, click our seatbelts, and take off. I’d drive to where the playground was last time, but lo and behold! it was not there. I’d try another road and another looking for it, until I gave up and told the girls that someone must have moved it. “Maybe we’ll find it the next time,” I’d tell them with as much cheer as I could muster, and turn toward The Consolation Prize, my name for the small playground near our house that always stayed where it belonged.
Just like everything else in this world, directionality lives on a continuum. And it’s hereditary. Some people, like my brother, have an extraordinary sense of direction. And like my dad. But not me. Not my older daughter, either.
Generally people are successful maneuvering through space by using two tools. One: follow a prescribed set of written (or oral) turn-by-turn directions. The other: follow a set of landmarks in a particular order. Most people navigate with a combination. Most people will remember the order of the combination. Most people can construct an internal visual map including correct north-south and east-west orientation and successfully find their way to a place, especially if they’ve been there before.
But not everyone.
Not having a sense of direction, or not having a very good one, is called Developmental Topographic Disorientation (DTD).
In severe cases of DTD, a person cannot construct a “bird’s-eye- view” map in their mind. They can’t place one landmark or street corner in relation to another, and so really don’t have a sense of where they are in space. Following step-by-step directions is a do-able exercise, but the next time, and the time after that ... those directions need to be handy.
Our brain’s hippocampus is responsible for memory, including place memory. Among other types of cells, the hippocampus has two types, place cells and grid cells. Place cells identify where we are, while grid cells remind us of the spatial relationship of this place to other places we’ve been.
Before I moved to my new town, I could call my dad and ask him to go for a ride with me. He’d tell me “turn right, turn left …” and I’d pay him back with a nice lunch. When I moved, I got lost less often. I know part of my solution was paying attention. I had to rely on myself. My dad lived too far away for a ride and lunch. But paying attention was only part of the solution. My place cells and my grid cells don’t light up as much as some other peoples’ do. My mental maps are inferior.
Now we have GPS.
And what about using GPS?
Simply put, when I use GPS I don’t need to pay attention to landmarks, street signs, or intersections at all. The patient voice lets me know when to turn. If I make a mistake she (mine is “she”) kindly lets me know she’s recalculating my route.
In a study described in nature.com, “GPS habits were associated with lower cognitive mapping abilities” and “These results suggest that using GPS renders individuals less able to form an accurate mental representation of their surroundings when they are navigating without GPS.” In other words, by depending on the GPS, I reduce even further, my ability (shallow that it already is) to make those birds-eye-view internal maps. This study suggests further, that the more a person uses GPS, the more spatial memory will decline.
My dad was my own personal GPS. Only he wasn’t quite as patient. When I made a mistake, he didn’t always use his kindest voice to recalculate. Sorry, Daddy. We did have some good lunches, though.
Some strategies to improve the activity of the place and grid cells, making mind-maps more easily created, have been shown to be effective. Paying attention is a good first step. Naming and noting a familiar landmark, say a large building you can see from many perspectives, and imagining the buildings nearby, will serve as a frame of reference.
Some tricks are available to everyone. Address numbers usually decrease as you get closer to the center of town. Even-numbered Interstate routes run east-west, while odd-numbered ones go north-south. State routes do, too. You can discover others, like the sun rises in the east. Moss generally grows on the north side of trees. And the North Star is stationary in the night sky.
Physical exercise improves blood flow to the brain. Mental exercise, like doing puzzles or learning a new language, stimulates the development of new nerve cells and connections in your brain.
One lap around my house is about 600 steps. I need five laps a day to get close to my goal. I will be warm enough. I can use those happy-face stickers I got out of the drawer a couple of weeks ago. And I won’t get lost.
-—stay curious! (and pay attention)