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Lost in Space

There is a standing joke within my family, that I could not navigate my way out of a paper bag. They smirk and simper, and shake their heads in disbelief, whenever it takes me an hour to complete a fifteen-minute drive to a friend’s house. People generally think that it must be a deliberate affectation, until they are reliant on my directions or see me in action. That is when they adopt a look of pity.

Quite often, I explain it away as a loss of concentration. I simply was not paying attention to landmarks, or was distracted and missed a signpost. The truth is, that even when I am fully concentrating, have a printed map and a sat nav aiming me towards an address, I can still get lost. I am either a spectacular failure at spatial awareness, or a roaring success at losing myself in the moment.

It used to bother me tremendously, driving around British country roads without the technology of mobile phones or GPS to rescue me. My only precaution back then, was to make sure all journeys began with a full tank of petrol. I knew that if I drove in circles for long enough, I’d eventually spot something familiar with which to find my way home. It’s not a stress-free method of travel, by any means.

Now I discover that whole branches of science are devoted to researching this very dilemma. Some scientists focus on the incredible abilities of migrating creatures, from monarch butterflies to spawning salmon. Others analyse our navigational prowess, with comparisons between city dwellers, tiny African and South American communities, and even gender differences.

One such study at the University of California, Santa Barbara, had researchers Toru Ishikawa and Dan Montello, driving students along residential routes, around twists and turns and winding hills and valleys, to see how lost they became. They probed the students with spatial awareness questions, to see how much understanding they had of their destinations. While standing at one landmark, some students could point in the direction of another, unseen landmark, or sketch a map of the area.

Despite a couple of anomalies, repetition did little to help their cause. Some could not complete this exercise even after ten attempts, yet others achieved spatial understanding after one.

While none of us can boast the same super-navigational abilities as birds, with their responsiveness to the earth’s magnetic field as a guide, it is clear that many factors are at play. Intelligence, I am relieved to discover, is not related to our sense of direction, or so Mary Hegarty and colleagues, of the UCSB Spatial Thinking Lab reports. Hegarty considered two main approaches to dealing with navigation. The first is to make a mental note of landmarks as they are passed by, maybe even glancing back in the direction you have just travelled to reinforce memories of those structures, a stratagem many animals are known to perform. This is a route-based method. It relies on knowing the area fairly well to start with. It becomes inflexible, when random and unforeseen obstacles impede progress, such as road works.

The second method is to use mental mapping. This is done either unconsciously or consciously. Memories are formed about road systems and structures in direct relation to one another. This approach can be seen as a superior method since it allows for short cuts, or alternative routes to be calculated. It is also more intellectually demanding.

Hegarty concluded that most of us use a combination of these methods to arrive at our destinations. She suggests that the reason for gender stereotyping might be the results of simple statistics. Men travel and drive more, therefore have more opportunities to practice their navigation skills. During her studies, she hypothesised that where men do outperform women on tests, it could be as a result of them favouring the mind mapping techniques. Further to this, she looked for evidence to support or refute her claims among youngsters of tribal communities isolated from technology. In so doing, she looked at studies by anthropologist, Elizabeth Cashdan, from the University of Utah, and her colleagues.

These communities, the Tsimane of Bolivia and the Twe of Namibia, were equally skilled at the navigation tests, until they reached a certain age, and then the girls feared more for their safety, and the risks involved with being lost. Cashdan attributed the differences in abilities as being less to do with skill, than to do with fear over personal safety, and sticking to tried and tested routes.

None of these studies, though, seem to have pin-pointed the cause for having a monumentally poor sense of direction. If it were a case of a defective chemical in the brain, or a vitamin deficiency rending it impossible to retain spatial information, then a cure might be found. Until then, I will have to go on my way, with a full tank of petrol, a printed google map and my sat nav, and hope that they will discover the answer before too long.

Sam Nash is the author of the thriller series, The Aurora Conspiracies, available from Amazon at You can find her at or on Twitter @samnashauthor or Alternatively, you can download her free prequel novella series from: Kindle: ePub:

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