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I recently had a moment of panic when, lost in the rain, trying to meet my boyfriend for a movie, I noticed my phone was about to die. With my last remaining battery we frantically texted logistics. “Meet me on the north side of the street,” he wrote. “I don’t know what that means!!!” I wrote back, feeling helpless as my screen went dark. All I could do was stand in place and wait for him to find me.
As I waited, my frustration grew: Didn’t he know that my brain just doesn’t work like that? After all, my sense of direction has always been terrible. I dropped out of Brownies early in large part because I couldn’t read the compass. I get lost constantly. I even get disoriented in yoga, and often end up facing the opposite way from everyone else.
I, like plenty of others in the same boat, have always adopted a what-can-you-do attitude about it. A sense of direction is a fixed trait, I told myself — one that you either have or you don’t. But that’s not really the full story, says psychologist Margaret Tarampi, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s architecture school, who studies spatial perception. “We might have some innate sense of direction, but it is something that is trainable,” she says. “I think that’s really contrasted with society, which believes you’re either good at it or you’re not.”
To be fair, there is something “inherent” in sense of direction, the ability to orient yourself in the world, says Mary Hegarty, head of the Spatial Thinking Lab at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Unlike the traditional five senses, a sense of direction is the product of several different inputs, including awareness of body position and movement (known as the vestibular senses) and the activity of place neurons, cells in the brain that respond to specific physical locations and together light up to form cognitive maps. It’s also a matter of noticing certain visual cues that orient you to your surroundings. “Some people pay more attention to those cues, or the neurons are updated better than for others,” Hegarty says.
But you can also train yourself to pay more attention — like anything, developing a good sense of direction takes practice. “It really is something that you have to really hone over time,” Tarampi says. Fortunately, recent research has shown that a few basic strategies, many involving simple shifts in perspective, can result in immediate improvements. If you’re one of those people who’s always getting lost, here’s how to orient yourself in the world more permanently.
A lot of knowing where you’re going comes down to simply noticing what’s around you. “People who have a good sense of direction encode salient landmarks,” Hegarty says. For example, “In Santa Barbara, we have a mountain range above the city that’s basically north. That’s sort of a visual cue that you can use to gauge your orientation.” Most people know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, and (if you’re making your way through the outdoors) that moss primarily grows on the north side of trees. For less-outdoorsy types and city folk without conveniently located moss, the same principle stands: Pick a monument or something that sticks out to you in a given neighborhood — a tall building, a Wendy’s at a particular intersection — and use it as a marker.
You can also get to know the general rules that govern a city’s layout, which can be helpful even when nothing around you is familiar. When I moved to New York, for instance, my dad, who grew up here, helpfully informed me that traffic on even-numbered streets runs east. In Manhattan, even-numbered buildings are also usually on the south or downtown side of the block. Both are tidbits that could have helped me out plenty, had I ever remembered to look for them while trying to figure out where I was.
Much has been made about GPS technology and smartphones causing our collective sense of direction to atrophy, something recent studies have appeared to support. Some have suggested that the way to undo it is to ditch technology entirely and go back to paper maps. But Tarampi and Hegarty say that the problem isn’t the technology itself, but how we use it.
People with strong navigational skills build up cognitive maps of their environment very quickly, learning an area “independently of the routes between places,” Hegarty says. By contrast, she says, “people with poor senses of direction tend to travel by prescribed routes, memorizing specific pathways,” like those shown on GPS.
“You can really get dependent on these devices and don’t form the map you would have otherwise. But I think there are ways of using the information in GPS so that you actually can form a better cognitive map,” Hegarty says. One simple way is to “pay attention to where things are and relate what you see in the world to what you see in the map” — in other words, just look up more, so you can build a mental bridge between what’s on your screen and its real-life representation.
In addition, she says, try taking different paths to the same destination. This enables you to make connections between places and how they relate to each other, further building up your cognitive map. Navigation apps often suggest multiple routes; simply switching them up every so often is an easy way to get a better sense of how things connect.
“People tend to rely on GPS to walk them through life literally step by step,” Tarampi says. I’m certainly guilty of this — when I open Google Maps, I keep my gaze on the little dot indicating my location and the arrow pointing where I should walk. This leads to a lot of me emerging from the subway and walking back and forth over the same block several times, waiting for the arrow to orient so I know which way to go. This fix is so obvious it hurts: Instead of looking at the map “as a pedestrian walking through the neighborhood,” Tarampi explains, “people should look at the larger map,” to figure out which direction they are facing. Basically, zoom out. I tried this soon after Tarampi told me about it when I was late going somewhere, and it worked, saving me valuable minutes.
Learning (or remembering in the first place) strategies can help us figure out where we are, but developing a true “sense” of direction requires something more intuitive.
When travelling, “I used to feel like I was magically teleported from one place to the other,” says neuroscientist Sue Barry. But when she asked her friends who were good navigators how they always seemed to know where they were going, they couldn’t explain it either. “They would say ‘I can just feel it,’” Barry says. “I don’t think it’s magical, but whatever innate structures we have have really been developed very well.”
So Barry and her husband, also a scientist, came up with their own solution: He rigged up a magnetic hat similar to a compass that buzzed every time she turned north. After wearing the hat around town, she began to anticipate not just which way was north, but also “how things connect,” she says. She began associating certain streets and landmarks with north due to the buzz, and from there could make connections about which streets were parallel and which ones intersected.
Barry has since traded in her magnet hat for an app on her smartphone that vibrates when facing north, also developed by her husband. Alas, it isn’t commercially available, but there are magnetic belts and ankle bracelets that do the same thing, which you can DIY.
More important than the buzzing, though, is what it encouraged Barry to do: Get out, get lost, and go exploring. The magnets are a shortcut and a confidence booster, sure, but with or without a device that indicates direction, the best way to hone your navigational skills is to just go. Losing your way is the best strategy for finding it once again.