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Research into why some people have a better sense of direction (knowablemagazine.org)
167 points by Brajeshwar 42 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 206 comments

One tip I like is to set your navigation app to "north up". This way you're aware which direction (in general) you're heading towards. If you know you're going south east and there's a detour, you know you need to find a parallel street heading south-east-ish.

If translating the arrow pointing left and the next turn is down to "turn right ahead" is confusing, on Google Maps at least the top of the screen still has arrows pointing left or right how far away you are from the turn, so this info is still there.

The tip is from Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear, who does a lot of driving.

Strong agree; came here to recommend this — this is something I came up with by myself and thought I was the only one who did this; glad to find others think the same. Doing this has greatly improved my sense of direction (to much better than it was before I started using GPS/navigation). It's like getting instant feedback for your direction sense (e.g. I was driving west and just now I turned left, so I'm now driving south), and remaining oriented about where different places are wrt each other.

A couple of screenshots for anyone confused:

Before: https://media.mathstodon.xyz/media_attachments/files/112/264...

After: https://media.mathstodon.xyz/media_attachments/files/112/264...

This is probably only good for people who already have good spatial reasoning and can make the transformation on the fly from screen orientation to what you're seeing ahead of you. Many people have poor spatial reasoning skills though, and probably find the direct view more useful.

I don't think of myself as having good spatial reasoning, but it still works for me — note that if you look at the top part of the UI (in the grey box covering the map), the arrows are still relative to "you". So at least in the first few days of trying out this orientation, one could just rely on the arrows for turns, and use the rest of the map only to reinforce/build their spatial transformation (rotation) skills.

Stan Honey, who invented car navigation systems (Etak, pre-GPS), once told me that they started out with always displaying maps with north at the top. He's a sailor, and sailors have used maps with north at the top for centuries. So the car nav system just followed marine navigation.

They discovered in user testing that about 20% of the population cannot rotate a map in their head. So they rotated the map in software. Keeping the labels in normal orientation was tough. Now everybody does that.

I've never done marine navigation so how I expect it to work just comes from movies and the occasional reality TV show so how I'm imagining it works may be way off, but the impression I've gotten is that the navigator (by which I mean the person planning the route) and the driver (the person or people who execute the navigator's plan) are logically separate. They might be the same person on a smaller boat, but the processes is still separate.

The navigator uses the maps to produce instructions for the driver which will be things like sail in this particular direction until we pass that specific island then turn some specific amount and so on.

The navigator doesn't even have to look outside while doing this, and all the directions are specified by compass points, so of course a north on top map makes sense.

For a car nav system the nav system is both doing that high level planning that a ship navigator does and is doing very low level navigation for the driver, and the driver is executing the plan by looking out the window and matching what they see to what the plan calls for. Also events are happening much faster in a car, because (a) cars are typical traveling faster than boats, and (b) cars are typically in environments with a lot more obstacles, and (c) those obstacles are more closely spaced than typical ocean obstacles. For telling someone how to turn right now most people will do better with "turn 90 degrees right" or "turn left at the upcoming intersection" than instructions to change their heading to a specific compass direction.

So far a car nav system it does make more sense to make the nav device's view match more closely what the driver sees.

Ideally I'd like something that switches views depending on the situation. Say I'm driving from the Seattle to Los Angeles. When I'm cruising down I-5 a north up map view zoomed out so I can see the big picture would be great. If I decide to stop in Sacramento for gas and a snack, then switching to a smaller, current direction up, view just big enough to show my current position and the gas station when I exit I-5 would be more useful.

>Also events are happening much faster in a car,

Yea, getting off some of the interstates in Texas has situations like this.

You are traveling 60-75 MPH then you exit interstate right, then you quickly split on an capillary highway that splits to the left, then moments later split to the right again then have to get in the right or left lane for a turn depending on which direction you're heading. All while having local traffic that knows the traffic pattern fly past you where it's more than one lane. I swear it feels like one of those space fighter games where you're attempting to avoid asteroids and other ships at a fast pace.

This is a good example of accessibility tradeoff - it obviously was needed to make the solution accessible and usable for that 20%, but in the process it made it worse for at least some of the 80%..

A compass rose is pretty much the same concept as the XYZ widget in any 3D app, a reference frame. I’m wondering. Since cartography was pretty well established by the 20th century, was this really much of a debate for nav systems?

If I asked you to draw a map of the room you’re in, I highly doubt you’d orient the straight angles of the walls with respect to the angle of your body. You’d draw them along a compass rose relative to the structure. Rotating a map to your gaze is actually not very intuitive when your goal is to usually to transform the world to be outside of your reference frame.

The transformation of the map into your perspective is a last-mile problem: it’s important when you reduce your decisions to “what landmark is in front of me, and what is to my left and right?”

I think a "my direction up" would work better if the compass direction is displayed on top of the screen, like on video game/military aircraft HUDs https://eu2.contabostorage.com/2baf1d556e44458999c03b1595ea0... , or since the directions are around the "you are here" marker, the N/E/S/W markers (and its subdivisions) could be placed on the 4 edges the screen, and would move around as the phone changes its heading.

Someone else said elsewhere on this comment section, if only a navigation app would also show the position of the sun at that moment. If we already have the compass directions, the direction of the sun can be an extra UI element.

I want to say I'm astonished by this comment thread, but hey. It's to be expected these days.

I would have theoretically said the same thing that the sibling comments are about getting north to be "up". But, that is already the default (at least on my phone), but who knows for how much longer. The app quite aggressively tries to keep you from getting comfortable with this mode but instead wants to derail your sense of direction in general.

First, it was a minor inconvenience to lock your orientation, then they hid it deep inside a settings menu, before eventually removing entirely the ability to lock the map to the cardinal directions, and everyone I complain about this to acts like I'm crazy.

I've long ago given up. I don't get it.

While we're fixing this, I'd also like a "South-up" option. Maybe even "West-up" or "East-up" one.

I'm not joking. Beyond training one to think about their location in multiple orientations, it also opens your eyes to assumptions one makes about places based on their location. West Wing famously flipped the script (literally), but there's also the lateral bias to think about. Go into Google Maps and flip it 90 degrees; does your understanding of distance, shapes, and spatial relationships of "familiar" geography change?

I usually "north up" but when navigating, the navigation view gives you more of what's ahead in screen space.

I wish "north up" would do the same; I'm sure it's do-able.

My car has two screens, a big one for the overview map and a small one for the "next turn" map. I always said the big view to north up. Works well.

Did you set it up that way, or did it come that way?

If the latter what car model comes with 2 screens you can use for navigation?

Tesla Model X, the old kind with the vertical screen.

(However, please don't take this as a recommendation for Tesla cars. I would never buy another one.)

It's not doable because your current location needs to be in the center of the screen in north up mode but can be placed lower in regular mode. Also the non square aspect ratio of the phone screen means that you don't get the same field of view in all four directions.

> your current location needs to be in the center of the screen in north up mode

No it doesn't, so you just identified an easy opportunity for improvement.

Thank. You.

Yes, this is why I usually set mine to look-forward. A 360 degree north-up view is nice, but seeing more streets ahead of me shows me more possible routes if mine becomes blocked unexpectedly.

To anyone who has done some actual navigation setting a map to "north-up" seems terrible. I'm pretty sure my GPS tells me what my general heading is, not that I've ever had to use it.

If it works, it works. But I would strongly recommend that people try orienteering to learn about land nav.

Why disagree?

because in orienteering you use compass that points into the direction you are moving while the compass needle points north. then you align the map with the needle, so your map points north too, and you end up looking at the map in the direction you are moving.

My wife likes to orient her GPS map according to the direction she is heading.

I orefer North. I am the better navigator.

Related: I have spent a lot more time in youth and adulthood wandering places on my own. She of course was discouraged from doing so for the reasons the article cites.

I have the opposite preference (car direction up) despite being better at navigation than my partner who is bad and prefers north up. I also spent a lot of time wandering in woods and town on my own as a kid, and playing video games including RPGs and first person shooters that required navigation.

I have to have my map on "north up" or I get lost. I'm 60. I also grew up in the US Midwest, where there's a NSEW square grid of roads over a large portion of the region.

I think the same goes for on-foot navigation.

Anecdotally, I find that my friends that just willy-nilly rotate around their Google Maps are the ones that have the worst sense of direction. Of course you are going to get lost after one wrong turn if you throw out your frame of reference that would help to reorient yourself!

"I think the same goes for on-foot navigation."

This is the absolute opposite. You orient your map to north (generally magnetic north when using magnetic compasses). If you have your map oriented for "north up" your headings will be all wrong.

Man I miss Microsoft Soundscape (https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/research/product/soundscape/), although it has been open-sourced.

As visually-impaired I can't really make use of stuff like street signs that much. I mean, I _can_, but I have to be really conscious about it and I've never really gotten good at it. With Soundscape, you'd wear earbuds and it'd read you out the street names as you were approaching them, but the street names would be read out from the correct direction using spatial audio that was also head tracked.

So for the first time I felt like I could start using way more cues to build that map in my head. Unfortunately I discovered it far too late because about a year (I think) after I started using it, it was discontinued. Would love to see a fully device-local version of something like this.

I'm surprised this isn't integrated into the hololens. Seems like there could be a few interesting use cases.

That looks pretty cool! Bummer that it isn’t available anymore :(

One thing I don't see mentioned as a hypothesis for a factor in a good sense of direction is inner-ear ability (directional proprioception). A few years ago I met Buzz Aldrin at a NASA conference, and he told me that he thought that people with a poor innate direction sense make good astronauts, because having good directional proprioception tends to lead to serious spacesickness. The UCL game study would miss this because people can't use bodily cues when navigating online. VR sickness is quite related to this.

Anecdotally, my mother had a balance disorder, and could get lost very quickly in even familiar surroundings, while I get motion sick quite easily but have very good direction sense.

Counterpoint. I have excellent directional ability whether blind hiking through an untraveled forest, paper maps, or plotting a course. I also do not suffer any form of motion sickness on land sea or in air. Haven’t been to space but would go in exchange for being subject of an experiment so long as I can take pictures and return to earth safely.

I wonder if this applies to me. I never learnt navigation skills but I have a very good sense of direction and I'm also very quick to motion sickness in games and on boats.

I actually consider it to be slightly dangerous that I'm over confident about where I am and the direction I'm facing. It has led to be marching down the wrong track, not realising I'm on a parallel path that then sightly deviates.

Here I thought your anecdote was going to end with your mother going to space.

As a counter anecdote, I have a good sense of balance and don't get motion sickness, but a good sense of direction. My wife gets motion sickness very easily (she has a hard time being a passenger in a car) but has a terrible sense of direction.

The person with the worst sense of direction I know just has ADD (like my wife) but no motion sickness.

I don’t think it has anything to do with your inner ear. Rather, I think it’s your brain being able to process and visualize input. I have significant issues with my inner ear and yet have an excellent sense of direction.

I use a combination of visual, kinesthetic, and touch senses for balance instead of my inner ear. Sound is situationally useful. If I know where the source of sound is in a room physical world, I can use that to estimate my position and direction in that room.

Of course, it’s possible there are multiple ways to have a good sense of direction. Mine works like a map. For other people it may just be an intuitive sense using a different type of analysis.

This is really interesting. I have amazing directional awareness in real life, but the literal worse in video games.

Zork drove me nuts in this way. I have a good sense of direction and maps but I never put the map of Zork together in my head.

Same, my friends get frustrated playing Minecraft or other large open world games with me because I'm constantly lost. We walk 30 seconds or so away from the base and suddenly I'm turned around and have no concept whatsoever of which direction I came from or how to get back. Which just doesn't happen to me in real life

My wife is the same way. She has an almost supernatural ability to determine which direction is north no matter where we are. But she gets lost immediately in game worlds. Even with a minimap and player icons she is constantly getting separated and needs someone to backtrack.

I’m the opposite. I can’t tell you which way north is from my own house. It takes me quite a while to get a feel for where things are in relation to each other in the real world. But in game worlds I’m quite comfortable navigating. Even in 3d zero gravity environments like in Shipbreaker where you have to quickly reorient yourself while salvaging the ship and you’ve got to let go of the concept of up and down as absolutes. Of course, never having been to space, I have no idea if it would translate or if I’d just be a motion sick mess with no frame of reference.

Heh my kids ever so gently asked me to stop gaming with them because I was perpetually lost in open world games or so bad in a gun battle i contributed negative value to the team.

It's definitely a skill different to the physical one though, and one that needs plenty of practice - mapping your virtual world and keeping a running tally of all the objects and things you literally cant see except through a tiny box is not something that comes naturally to most.

Have you tried playing with higher FOV? Going from almost 180 in real life to <100 in most games makes you lose a lot of visual information you use to orient yourself.

I have a keen sense of orientation and direction. I don’t know my innate physical situation however I know I’m an “observer” personality. I am always aware of my surroundings and often people watching, etc. As a kid I just stared out the car window and noticed everything. Then I quickly correlated everything (I’d see a random sign and know to ask for ice cream because the ice cream shop was near, stuff like that.) However, I grew up during the paper maps era and sometimes I’d just take note of street signs and intersections because I was usually helping my mom get unlost.

My wife on the other hand I think I know well enough to say she’s completely oblivious to her surroundings and wouldn’t venture far from home without a GPS. She’s definitely not an observer (ok, sometimes of other women’s clothing if anything) but oblivious is the best word I can use to explain it.

Our 5 year old son is like me. He observes a lot and especially when on drives. It helps we never allowed screens in the car and he’s just bored, which is good. But he notices all the things around places we frequent and also likes to look at the GPS screen and tell what every indicator is.

I don’t know what my point is other than maybe some people just find it more interesting and try harder / practice more from an early age ?

Ditto. I find it really hard to understand how people get lost - it’s like “well, how did you get here?”.

As a small child I would take myself off on excursions, often through deep snow in woods with bears and wolves, or in a post-industrial waste filled with lord knows what hazards - but getting lost was never even something which occurred to me, even as I’d set off off trail, as I would just know that home is that way. I apparently wandered off by myself in Hong Kong aged 2, miles from home, only to then successfully get the right tram back with a backpack full of booty I’d collected on my adventure.

My poor parents I think became numb to it after a while - although the time in the alps had helicopters and all sorts when I nonchalantly turned up back at my grandmother’s a few hours later.

My kiddo seems to be the same. She’s all of 14 months old and can navigate her way through forest from A to B, and isn’t shy about taking a short cut rather than following the path.

My wife is having kittens. For me, it’s “yes this is what children do as I recall”.

I honestly can’t say if it’s nature or nurture - I can’t recall ever learning to navigate, and she seems to just have an excellent sense of what is where from the get go - she’ll set off in a seemingly random direction, I’ll follow her, and we’ll end up at her favourite pond, or by the mint beds, or at the truck, within which she’ll then be like “ok now you drive and I’ll scream if you turn the wrong way, we’d better be going to see auntie Maria”.

I have often been described as oblivious (I prefer "focused") and I have yet to encounter someone with a worse sense of direction/orientation than mine. I could tell endless funny stories about how bad it is.

OP mentions a study involving navigating within a game, and I have the same problem in games. I simply cannot learn my way around a "map", as far back as Doom and still today. I can eventually learn specific routes, and eventually enough of these that I can perform reasonably well, but I don't form a mental model of the map even if I've played it hundreds of times and even if it's relatively small.

But I can follow directions, and I did passably well at military "land navigation" using a map, a compass and a protractor.

I would love to better understand why this is. My best guess currently is that "oblivious" is quite important - I've tried, many times, to start noticing landmarks so that I could use them later to get to a place without GPS or directions, but I always find myself having missed everything, or having "forgotten to notice" anything. My mind wanders, I guess.

Do you have Aphantasia?

> But I can follow directions, and I did passably well at military "land navigation" using a map, a compass and a protractor.

Then your sense of direction is quite alright.

As a counterpoint I’m constantly focused on other things than what’s in front of me. I’m often absorbed in my phone or thinking over some problem in my head. But I can almost always instantaneously orient myself as long as I started out oriented or have even a vague sense of the geography of an area.

I just “know” which way to leave an elevator or train station as long as the layout and exits are sensible (NYC is sometimes hard, Paris is often impossible). Even if I’m mentally focused on other things.

Same. I don’t think I pay that much special attention. But I grew up wandering around and playing video games with navigation (shooters, rpg)

I am like you. I grew up without screens, and grew up spending a lot of time in car trips. I remember distinctly being keenly aware of my surroundings out the window, and playing games with my parents on how many exits I had left before we got off the highway. In amusement parks, I was charged with the map and navigating to the next ride (a six year old!).

Now, whenever I travel to a new place, I at the very least make sure to track the journey there so I can, by memory, journey back the same way. I make note of any distinct landmarks along my route, and pay attention to the logic of the local connecting roads, in case I must detour. I then compare that against any heuristics I have about city planning and my initial preview of the area on a map.

The trick is that this is all rather effortless and intuitive, if not instinctual. I wonder if my habits as a child, and my parents’ reinforcements of said habits, made it so.

I'm good at navigating also, I put this down to being out in the mountains, on trails and such as a young kid. I come from the southern hemisphere so I discovered I needed to re-orientate myself when I first went to the northern hemisphere which didn't take long.

I recall being in New York and for a day or so I found myself walking 180° the wrong way - going north when I was supposed to be heading south, etc. Obviously I'm navigating by the sun or the brightest part of the sky. It wasn't until I was first in the northern hemisphere that I realized this as back home I was doing it automatically without being aware of the fact.

One game I've played with myself whenever I've moved to a new area is to drive or walk until I've felt irremedially lost, and then break out the map or GPS to get back home. (I remember once or twice trying it with random dice rolls at intersections, but this didn't work as well as taking the least-familiar or most interesting-looking choice.) It's a great way to discover places you'd otherwise never visit, and is a fantastic way to give yourself a gestalt sense of the locality.

I largely credit my spatial awareness to studying maps and also learning levels in Nexuiz (the original Nexuiz, a Quake-like video game) and how teleport entrances/exits are oriented. That felt like learning a skill that at one moment just clicked and I haven't lost it since.

That and the minimap in Diablo 2. Some people can't tell left from right anymore when the car is pointing South.

I used to naturally have a very good sense of direction and orientation. That until I hit a work related burnout. The recovery from the burnout was largely okay and much of my old abilities were restored but my sense of orientation took a hit. While Im not really bad at it and I generally manage okay it is not what it used to be.

I recently moved from the southern to the northern hemisphere. My (subjectively) good sense of direction and spatial awareness was _completely_ thrown off, and it took me about 3 months to reorient myself and gain the confidence I had before. All because the sun is now in the wrong part of the sky.

I moved from the north east corner of the US to the south west corner. That threw me off. It used to be "everything in the US is to the south-west of me", whereas now it's "everything in the US is to the north-east".

I lived on the Wasatch Front for a while, and mountains always ran north-south on your East. Now I work on the Front Range, and mountains run north-south on your West.

I know the feeling you're describing.

I had a similar experience, but in the tropics, where this changes seasonally in the same place!

I got over it, and like to think I've improved my self-navigation. But it's possible I've just deemphasized shadow perception, and might be worse off back where I first developed the skills...

Yes! I moved from the US east coast (first three decades of life) to the west cost and it took about 6 months to reorient, as the ocean was now on the wrong side, which messed everything up...

I moved from southern California, where the ocean was west, to Santa Cruz, where it was south, to San Francisco, where if you're looking at water the only thing you know is you're not looking south, and that's about when I gave up.

I wish it talked more about place-naming, routes, roads, and all that.

I can't give you directions to a lot of places because I can't memorize the arbitrary sequence of route 123, then left on 56A, exit 6, then sharp right onto 9. They're just mostly arbitrary, indistinguishable roads. The numbers have some meanings [1], but it's not enough. Routes and roads should be named according to distinguishable landmarks or features, maybe in addition to their number. Birch Parkway better be dotted with birch trees. Cathedral Street better have a big cathedral that rises up above the other buildings. The canyon road flanked with sandstone should be called Red Rock Pass. These names are not only prettier than random numbers, but they're meaningful and useful.

Of course places and features change over time, but not that dramatically, and even if they do, just rename them. Constantinople is now Istanbul. We can change the meaningful names, but keep the number IDs.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Numbered_Highway...

US highway numbering was meant for machines, not people - even if the machines of the time consisted of people obeying rules and following instructions.

For many years I persisted in claiming this ability. Evidence to the contrary required me to say I formerly had it, but i tend to believe it was itself, a false belief.

I have a very rich interior model of the world and my orientation inside that model. The problem is the model diverges from reality in matters of substance like the exact meaning of "left" and "right" based on my current frame of reference, who I am speaking to, how flustered I am, and especially if I think I am holding or viewing the map upside down, evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

People keep telling me to get lost but I never do... I really need to learn this skill

I think those of us who came up before GPS and phones had an advantage in developing a sense of direction (and I'll add here a sense of orientation). I do tend to be aware of the cardinal directions and can generally point them out with reasonable accuracy when asked. Unfortunately, when I give people directions I tend to say "Just to the East of such & such" or "Go south from there" and people kind of give me a blank expression (especially younger folks who haven't navigated without a phone/GPS) and I have to figure out a different way to describe the orientation. To me it makes sense, but giving cardinal directions seems to be making less sense to people.

I think the other (related) aspect to this is being able to find some place again after you've been there once. Usually I don't need to consult a map to find a place if I've been there once, but I know people who find this difficult and will continue to consult online maps even after they've been somewhere before. So someone might ask me "how do I get to that place" and I'll reply, "we were there just last month - same place" and then I have to remember that not everyone is able to find a place they've only been to once before.

It's probably not a blank stare. Most of the time young people don't actually want non-GPS directions and are just being polite while you finish talking.

Yeah it is totally this. If someone is giving me directions like that, I am thinking, "why on earth are they doing that?", and waiting to be able to grab my phone.

Then why ask for directions in the first place?

Usually the situation is that we ask for an address, and get told directions instead.

It's always funny to me when I'm new to an area and they offer me 14 precise turns and landmarks to get to the park 2 miles away. I'm just going to plug "the park" into my maps and know precisely where it is.

Our family was heading somewhere specific in the countryside with multiple cars and our pre-GPS relatives insisted on driving as a convoy. They wanted to show us exactly where to drive instead of just agreeing on a time and a place and "see you there".

And it totally makes sense. If you don't have navigation software arriving at a specific place in a small village somewhere in the countryside where you have never been would be super stressful. They probably thought they are doing us a solid by leading us there.

Another reason for convoy driving is so when one car breaks down, the crew of the other will A) know about it, and B) be there to help. Used to be more relevant in the days of less reliable car and no mobile phones.

> I'm just going to plug "the park" into my maps and know precisely where it is.

No you won't. "Your maps" will know where it is, but not you.

What, are we being pointlessly pedantic today? Maps don't "know" anything, they're computer programs that run on your phone.

> What, are we being pointlessly pedantic today?

Being pedantic is never pointless.

> Maps don't "know" anything, they're computer programs that run on your phone.

True. So OK, should have used one more set of quotes: "Your maps" will "know" where it is, but not you.

Thanks for the heads-up.

Being pedantic is pointless by definition. If you want people to take you seriously you should ignore the small, irrelevant details instead of just being annoying.

Nobody asked.

> Nobody asked.

> > I do tend to be aware of the cardinal directions and can generally point them out with reasonable accuracy when asked.

[Emphasis added]

I know plenty of people who are at the age they should have learnt to navigate without phones and they still suck at direction.

It could just be a problem just like how 4% of the population have no ability to visualize mentally aka aphantasia

There are languages that have no relative directions. You never "turn left", you only "turn south" or whatever.

People who grow up with one of those as their first language all have absolute direction, even two-year-olds. If their boat overturns at sea in a storm, they will never doubt whether their boat blew away to the north or south. Everybody has to get it right just to be able to speak with comprehensible grammar, just the way you need to know what is past or to come.

What are some languages like that? Also does this ability mean they might have any beyond random ability to tell north and south when they were dropped to a new location, being blindfolded before? I assume there are hints like sun position depending on the day, so that could help them.

Several [1] (of many in total [2]) of Australian indigenous languages - although all native speakers tend to have exceptional spatial orientation.

Also, traditionally they're territorial over large areas (eg: quarter the size of the UK) but over the course of a lifetime commonaly travel all corners of tat area - "randomly dropped" means they'll recognise vegetation, landforms, spot shadows, see water flow trace on the ground from up high looking out .. all the natural world things that orientate people who live there in the same manner as (most) urban people navigate cities; major freeways, tall buildings, changing architecture styles from region to region.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guugu_Yimithirr_language

[2] https://mgnsw.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/map_col_high...

But I guess if they were taken from there and dropped somewhere in the northern hemisphere they would fail?

Depends - as I learned when I moved to the US at least some of my mental maps are based on where the sun is in the sky (and the sun and moon are upside down there) took me a few months for it to all turn around in my head, there are still parts of the first places I visited which are backwards in my mental maps 40 years later

In the sense of not knowing where they are in (say) germany, a country they've never visited, then "yes" they'd "fail".

They might even have to resort to pulling out their iPhone and ringing a relative who's living in Germany.

In the sense of not being able to survive in a Mexican desert if they were originally a desert dweller .. then I suspect they'd get by - ditto coastal, river, forrest, dwellers.

Survival skils transfer well enough across known similar habitats, a western desert nomad would be on the tough end of a learning curve in Alaska.

I mean that they would lose ability to tell where is north. Because theoretically, but probably not in practice they could have some sort of magnetic sense like birds are thought to have so it would translate beyond hemispheres. But unlikely since they never needed cross hemisphere ability. Also haven't heard of people developing a magnetic sense so far.

But I do think some mammals may have magnetic sense so maybe...

I specifically meant fail as in ability to determine north, not survival, put down or any sort of other negative reason to be clear.

> I mean that they would lose ability to tell where is north.

You're aware, I trust, that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, regardless of hemisphere?

FWiW this isn't a theorectical "what if" .. right from the get go Europeans were taking southern hemisphere indigenous people to the northern hemisphere:



If it is not urgent I like to get lost without the GPS and use it as a backup. Then I learn where stuff is!

The poster you’ve replied to mention that they are 53. They for sure learned to drive and move around the world for a couple decades before consumer GPS navigation solutions were affordable for hobbyists.

That post resonated with my own life. I had a passenger seat full of atlases, then later mapquest printouts, then some of the early handheld GPS solutions as soon as I could afford them. As they mention, it isn’t something that seems to be learned later in life, for me I rely on GPS because I’m hopeless without it.

You're replying to a top level comment that's presumably responding to TFA. The comment you're referring to is here:


website navigation is also a skill, apparently

> The poster you’ve replied to mention that they are 53. They for sure learned to drive and move around the world for a couple decades before consumer GPS navigation solutions were affordable for hobbyists.

Garmin portable units like the Street Pilot were available in 1998 for 400usd when the 53 year old would have been 27 years old.

By my math, that qualifies for a couple decades of moving around the world. Thanks for the confirmation!

"the unique experiences each person accumulates as their life unfolds. Good navigators, it appears, are mostly made, not born"

As the self proclaimed worst person in the world with directions, I can vouch for this. I was never taught how to find north, south, east, west as a kid, was never told to pay attention to landmarks on your way somewhere, never told to pay attention to street names, so on. And as a ultra runner my wife actually stopped coming to my races for a while bc you are expected to arrive at the next aid station around a certain time and if I wasn't familiar with the area I would get lost and she would worry that I was killed by a bear or smth. Since the advent of GPS on your wrist and such I don't get lost nearly as much. I honestly liked getting off course, being somewhere and seeing views most of all humanity would never see. But I still fail the test of 'point towards the lake' from sitting on my own couch. I can't quite make the connection in my mind, like driving I can't quite map out the entire route and often get streets confused.

That's wild to me. I don't know how you wouldn't pay attention to those things. No one told me to pay attention to landmarks, I don't understand why you wouldn't. Very interesting.

I don't because it is hard to pay attention. I have always something else I am thinking about and it overrides ability to look at buildings or landmarks. I have to put in a lot of effort to intentionally look at buildings and memorise them. But also I wonder if somehow I care less about the buildings.

When I am travelling and visiting landmarks or sights it just seems like something I do because everyone does it and people reacting to it seems like they just do it to react. I guess they do feel something. But I don't see much difference compared to being myself there vs what I could also see in Google images. So it always feels to me as if people are hyping up the fact of themselves being there. I do enjoy the sun and hot climate though so I like travelling for those reasons.

Sure, I could go into thinking how awesome those landmarks are and the history, how they were built, but I feel like I have other things to think about as well.

Btw landmarks in the navigational sense are not the same as landmarks in a tourist sense.

A tourist landmark would be “the grand canyon” or the “eifel-tower”. A navigational landmark is something like “a scrawny bush which seems to have grown leaning on that big rock with a flat top”, “the 3 story building where the middle level had a fresh coat of paint on the corner window frames”, or “corner of a park where 3 roads meet, and one of them has a deli with the picture of a prawn in the window”

Same here. I get lost all the time. I always forget to make attention to landmarks and surroundings.

I also get lost all the time.

When I pay attention to landmarks they don’t “stick”, and neither does travel time. I’ll have vague recollections, but as often as not they’ll cause issues because I’ll vaguely recollect at the wrong location.

GPS has saved my bacon time and again.

Not sure what you mean. I just mean "ok here's the McDonald's, the turn is coming up soon. Ok yup it's a right, there's the red building it's just past that."

I was never told any of that either nor was I taught that in any capacity in school. However, the key difference ive noticed is being in the moment IE paying attention to your immediate environment and not getting lost in thought (or phone) that differentiates those who have an intuitive sense of direction versus those that don't.

With that said, I don't feel comfortable when I don't know which way is north so I always try and figure that out first.

I think this is it for me. Since I was a kid, I’ve always gotten lost in thought when walking around and don’t readily absorb my surroundings as a result. Even when I actively try to do so, it’s still hard to navigate because my brain isn’t well-trained to think that way.

I’m pretty good navigating when I’m alone. If anyone else is in the car it’s like I’m on autopilot to “wherever my subconscious would like to go today.” So I use the GPS just to snap me out of it so I don’t miss turns.

when I lived in a city with an underground transit system, it was interesting how my mental map developed in a non-contiguous way.

I’d learn lots of little disconnected areas around each transit station. But it would take a long time to learn how all those little maps would relate to each other.

And each time I started realizing how two of those little “islands” were related by streets on the surface, my initial reaction was always disbelief. in my mind they were each distinct little areas and it didn’t seem possible that you could just walk from one to the other

This is such a great description of learning in general. You get pockets of information, and then BAM suddenly you can see how they relate.

I had the same experience. Even walking the same street down from one side during night and then adjacent during the day, not realizing it is the same place for weeks. The one day I had most mind melting moment xd

IMO, living in neighborhoods where the streets are not organized in a grid is the most disorienting thing.

You suddenly discover that those two places, that need completely different routes to get into are right at the side of each other. And you do that again and again, at completely random places.

> IMO, living in neighborhoods where the streets are not organized in a grid is the most disorienting thing.

Isn't it the other way around? At least in the sense of, growing up in neighborhoods where the streets are organized in a grid is the thingthat makes you the most disoriented for the rest of your life.

That's rather a description of a tendency to cut neighboring areas, rather than grid system. There's plenty of places in the world where places close to itself are close to travel between.

This is why I love doing long runs in the city. It helps me connect all the little islands in my mind together.

I got a great tidbit a long time ago, whenever you move to a new city and want to get to know it, start training for a marathon. You'll know every nook cranny and hole-in-the-wall in no time.

As an undergrad that was so me with Boston/Cambridge which, in many cases, I saw as T stops that were not really connected at street level.

I still remember one time I made 2 line changes in downtown Boston, walked about a block, and realized I was back where I started :-)

I was about to say exactly the same thing.

Early one, a city kind of feels like an old school point and click adventure. There is train station x, and to the left of one exit is this location, to the right of that exit is that location.

But eventually there is that realization: Oh wait. 15 minutes down this street is that other train station. 8 minutes down that street is a bus line which connects to the line going home. It's a bit of a rush to make these connections.

And that in turn opens up interesting options. I could just walk with people I've been hanging out with at a concert, because I'll just know how to get back home. Or from some venues, there is good food nearby so you grab that and eat while walking somewhat towards home for 20 minutes on a sunny evening.

When I moved to London the fact that cycling was my primary mode of transportation meant I quickly learned the overall distance and distribution of common destinations and landmarks in central London to a much greater depth than many acquaintances who had lived there for years.

the london tube map is a classic of this - the map is all about how to navigate the tube system, not about distances above or below ground. i moved to london about 40 years ago, and it took me a while to work this out.

You can score yourself on the quiz mentioned in the article here:


I lament the vast reduction of street signs, at least in my country, that can be used for navigation. Like a sign that says to turn left for City X 15mi away. These used to be ubiquitous- you could get between city A and B through those signs alone. Sat Nav means there is vastly less need for signposting routes between major towns or landmarks. Growing up before sat nav, even as a child passenger, these signs helped me build a mental model of what was where and possibly train an early sense of direction.

When my kid was young I’d frequently ask them to draw to scale on paper the mental maps they have of where everything in their world is. I reckon this helped form their sense of direction. If you have a youngster and not tried this then give it a go, it’s illuminating. “Point to where you think X is” also helps train a kids sense of direction through feedback loops.

Some people refuse to learn. I've always been fascinated that people forget that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west and if you can see the sun, you can have a general idea of where you are going (assuming you know roughly when noon is).

Some are just amazed that I can tell where we are going until I remind them I can see their shadows.

Tip: Having tried to communicate the same thing, shadows are easier for people to work with. They point precisely in a certain direction rather than 'that big bright ball is over there'.

Now coming up with the precise direction the shadow is pointing is trickier but usually people need little precision, maybe the 8 most cardinal directions on the compass.

The article focuses on latent ability. And goes somewhat into the classification of people who use direction vs. those that use landmarks to navigate.

There's a graphic in the article with four maps drawn from memory by different people. They say that #1 is perfect and that #4 is bad. As a programmer, I see them as connected graphs and that both are nearly a match to each other. But #4 has a different orientation and doesn't show curves in the road. But IMO it would still allow you to get to the locations marked if you turned the paper as you moved.

There are also people who have lost their sense of direction due to injury. I had a neighbor who could not go to the supermarket by themselves because of brain damage (from a car accident). They were totally reliant on a family member - or later a GPS unit just to travel as little as 3-4 blocks.

Unfortunately, you've completely missed the point of the four drawings - seeing whether the drawer could identify and use likely routes that they weren't shown. If map #1 is accurate, then I can turn right when I get to the tree and take a shortcut to the brick wall, or cut across from the lamps to the green box without going through the four-road crossroad. Map #4 will be misleading at best for understanding the whole area - if I try a shortcut from that map, I'll either get to the wrong destination or leave the original area and be totally lost.

Everything in map #4 is backwards with respect to left/right turns.

I’m in my 50’s, so when I learned to drive there was no GPS or phones or anything to help me. I liked to explore and see things, so it all had to be done by maps. So I quickly learned to oriented myself against NSEW and the roads.

Later in life I likewise got into hiking prior to GPS being widely available. That really motivated me to be aware of my environment and directions.

I am not perfect at it and can get disoriented if I’m not careful, but generally speaking I almost always have a background thread in my head keeping track of where I am and my orientation when driving.

This came in incredibly handy a few months ago when my phone died and I was picking up my son at a friend’s house an hour away I had only visited once before. It took a bit but I was able to find the house again with zero electronic aids.

I'm more careful hiking but I don't have maps from this century in my car--and don't actually know what is in there other than knowing I have a satchel with some maps in it. I should probably do an inventory one of these days.

It's really easy to depend on your phone for lots of things and then not to have a backup plan if it fails.

"It's really easy to depend on your phone for lots of things and then not to have a backup plan if it fails."

We see this so often in search and rescue. People take off on some random hike they found on an app without charging their battery and without knowing how long the hike will take them. So, sooner or later, it gets dark and they start using their phone as a flashlight which kills the battery on their only navigation device. But, ehh, since they probably don't know how to read a map or orient themselves on it or find their way back to the trail which they invariably deviated from as some point and went ahead instead of turning back. (Also, not a lot of cell coverage in the backcountry anyway and probably didn't cache the maps.)


I'll take shortcuts on very familiar easy local trails. But anything else, I'll have map, compass, headlight, water, some extra clothing, at least a minimal first aid kit, etc.

re: getting dark. I so often see people heading up a trail at 3pm or whatever. Maybe they're just planning to go up a ways but I wouldn't count on it. I've observed that even fairly experienced people can be pretty bad about establishing a sensible timeline.

People are so used to the luxuries of modern life, that even a minor inconvenience becomes life threatening.

People go on hikes with no food, a single bottle of water, and its a 13 mile hike up this mountain. Blank looks when I ask "do you know where you might get more water????"

If I am going somewhere unfamiliar, I do use a map ... but only to make directions that I internalize beforehand. I believe that this mental exercise improves your sense of direction and general orientation.

I don't merely do a "turn here onto Route X," rather I note if I will be passing a particular road on the left, if I will be going through a town, and so on. My turns are always in the "left/east onto," including both my personal orientation and world orientation. It is a little time-consuming but there is an eventual payoff.

A software complaint.

In mapping apps, why can't I get an indicator of where the sun is in the sky ? Then if there's no landmarks, or I'm at an awful intersection, or whatevs, I can use sun position to get oriented.

I'd also like some sense of zoom. Like graticules of 1k or 10k; they could even change. If it makes the screen too busy, make it just ticks on the edges.

If you have a working phone, you have a compass though.

There are ephemeris apps for photography but not sure what that adds to just getting oriented with a compass, whether on your phone or a separate mechanical device.

In my experience, the compass can be totally backwards when you're around tall buildings.

It shouldn’t, unless your phone is placed against a magnet. The earth’s spinning magnetic core is the size of the moon. Those nearby buildings will not interfere with that.

> It shouldn’t, unless your phone is placed against a magnet.

Phone cases with magnetic latches enter the room…

The phone may be using GPS for headings instead of an actual compass causing it to act that way.

Why would it do that? Digital magnetometers are cheap, low power, and ubiquitous.

And also, IME, completely unreliable. The compass in my car's sat nav never points north, and my phone's compass constantly needs recalibrating.

Some inexpensive phones don't include it due to cost reasons, it could also be bad software or a defective magnetometer in the unit.

Also I'd like an option to keep North at the top unless & until I manually twist the map. Auto-orienting away from North is extremely unhelpful nearly all of the time.

I would say I’m a good navigator. I credit my ability to easily navigate around cities to playing 100s of hours of GTA as a kid.

Whenever I say, "I probably have the worst sense of direction of anyone you will ever meet," people invariably say, "Oh, me too!"

And I say, "Really? So you are never surprised by what you see when you walk out of the building you've been working in for 20 years (you know where the exits are, you just can't figure out which exit leads to which side)? When you're sitting in a room in your house you can determine -- within, say, ten or fifteen minutes -- what room is above/below you? You routinely get lost going to places you've been to hundreds of times in your own city? There are perhaps only two or three places you can get to in said city without a GPS receiver, but that's about it. You are never, ever without a compass? Anywhere?"

Really, folks. I've been like this my whole life (I'm 53), and I have no other cognitive deficiencies that I know of. But when people talk about "mental maps," I'm not entirely sure what they're talking about. When someone says, "Oh, I know a shortcut" it's always an absolute revelation. Navigating anywhere is like being asked to memorize a 19-digit number.

Whenever I hear about greater or lesser abilities with navigation -- and how one might go from lesser to greater -- I always assume they are not talking about people like me. I really feel like I'm truly impaired when it comes to this, and I'd love to know why!

I'm the absolute opposite way. One of the stories my parents usually like to tell is when I was like 5 we were in unfamiliar city, they got lost and could not find the car for over an hour ignoring me, and when they finally listened to me I've managed to get them back to the car in 5 minutes. I can easily recollect how to get from points A to B in cities I've been once 5 years ago.

I'm like you - my mum and her sister were both infamously bad at navigation, and family stories tell how they got lost driving home from the city centre. Eventually they paid attention to two-year old me standing up in the back seat (this was before cars had seat belts in the back) saying "it's that way!". Apparently I navigated them all the way home across the city at the age of two. Now I don't know how much this was exaggerated, but as long as I can remember, I've always had near-perfect navigational skills while my mum is hopeless, so there's probably some truth to it.

Given my mum was so bad, even when I was very small, my parents would give me the map to navigate from the back seat whenever we went anywhere new. My father would usually drive, and he was a good navigator so may not have needed me, but sometimes my mother would drive. Either way, I would navigate across the country. I don't know how young I was when we started this, but probably about seven. I always loved maps.

Only when I was an adult did I discover that different people thought about navigation in different ways. Most people, it seems, navigate by waypoints. "Turn left at the Red Lion pub" and so on. Some people, including me, can navigate by absolute directions - "go north east, then west" and so on, and actually think this way. If you ask me which way is north, in the daytime I'm pretty much perfect, no matter the weather. At night or indoors, I'm good, but sometimes can be a bit off - maybe up to 45 degrees. Not sure exactly what I'm picking up from outdoors, even when it's cloudy, but I know I'm completely reversed if I visit Australia, so likely something to do with polarised light.

So is it learned? Sure, I got a huge amount of practice when I was young in pre-GPS days. But I could do it at the age of two, so probably there was some capability there from the start. Now I'm in my fifties and use GPS everywhere, mostly for traffic guidance. But I do feel I'm not as good at raw navigation as I used to be. But in the 1980s when I was first driving long distance, I'd stare at a map for a few minutes, and then drive 200 miles across England without needing to look at a map again. For those from the US, in England, 200 miles is long way and a lot of junctions! Not sure I could do that these days, so maybe it is practice. Or maybe I'm just getting old.

I have a map in my head of all the roads I've ever been down. Adding to it is a treat, I love adding new roads to it.

The limits are that I don't remember all the hundreds of Craigslist pickups I've done.

Also, I navigate by always knowing which way the CN tower is relative to my current location, I live within 100kms of it. If we go on vacation the reference location switches to wherever we're staying.

It's hard to do that - navigate by reference - if you're in the middle of medieval town with narrow streets and low visibility :)

Kids are dumb fallacy right there. Kids are gonna be better at you at some things even from 4 yo!

> But when people talk about "mental maps," I'm not entirely sure what they're talking about.

In the visual theater of my mind I can literally construct a top down view map and place myself in it dynamically. When I want to determine which exit to use, I use this mechanism and then route myself through it. It's something that /seems/ to turn on and off when I need to make the next turn decision, but if I've used it recently, it's easier to recall than it is the first time.

For a building, it's typically nailing down the elevator lobby's orientation with respect to the rest of the city around it, then building a smaller mental map from an individual floor that is also referenced to the lobby. If I need to think about how my desk is oriented to larger features in the city, I have to do two orientation and projection steps in my mind.

Anyways.. do you think visually or textually?

Data point from me. I also think I have terrible ability to remember places or directions. I feel like it is maybe because I am not paying attention to all the details. I would think I am at the very least bottom 5 percent performer.

People say something like "oh we turned from here, I remember this building". I wonder how they are remembering something like that and why I never do.

I feel many of my anxious situations in life have been where I was asked to do something where people expected me to know where to go and I just had no idea.

I think textually, but not seeing text, rather hearing it as one continous line of thought and maybe some odd less focused lines of thought in parallel.

I had a cognitive abilities test done by a psychologist. Visual memory was one of the worst percentually.

The test included I think some sort of drawing with lines and recreating it later in the test after doing some other activities inbetween.

Strongest area was abstract logical reasoning. Which was top 1 percent.

But my main concerns were memory and why I did the test in the first place.

> oh we turned from here, I remember this building". I wonder how they are remembering something like that and why I never do.

My memory is primarily visual such that I can replay a video like experience in my head of a lot of events. This extends to things like spellings which I will recall as a visual representation of the word.

How would you even have the storage room for a video. Not doubting, but just crazy to think for me. It probably must be some very deeply compressed video that gets reconstructed from objects from the internal structure somehow and then perhaps constructed runtime, meaning it won't be the same everytime.

Not like a recorded video, more like a video game, drawn on demand with vectors ;-).

For me it’s very similar to the 3D maps in games like Doom (the one from 2016) or Deep Rock Galactic.

> Anyways.. do you think visually or textually?

What about verbally?

I can't speak to that. I guess that might be owing to how visual my thinking is, I perceive verbal thinkers as reading a book in their mind, which I only now realize is a terrible metaphor.

One maybe a stupid question. If your thinking is visual, wouldn't you have to close your eyes to be able to think? Or how can you still see? Is it like augmented reality?

Actually since I think, I think by hearing a continous record of text, when I do that, it does make it hard to listen to people. I have to attune that record exactly to what people are saying and it is something I have had challenges doing my whole life. Then I have to fight, put effort in, to be able to keep it on track. I prefer watching films with same language subtitles for that reason. Then I read the subtitles and doing that my thought track is somehow in sync. But it is impossible to keep the thought track in sync with realtime voice. I could only repeat it out of sync.

If people had subtitles, on top of their heads as they were talking I could pay attention much better in social situations.

> If your thinking is visual, wouldn't you have to close your eyes to be able to think?

When I think verbally, I don't have to use ear plugs to think. Though very noisy environments make it harder. When I think visually, I don't have to close my eyes to think. But visually noisy environments make it harder. I guess that's (part of) why people sometimes stare off into space when deep in thought?

> One maybe a stupid question. If your thinking is visual, wouldn't you have to close your eyes to be able to think?

Kinda like multiple monitors on a computer. It's possible to see both at once. I do often do my best sleeping in bed at night with my eyes closed however.

But with multiple monitors you have to look at one at a time, and if you do that you won't see the others? So if you are focusing on a visual thought shouldn't you be unable to see the real world? Or you are kind of zoomed out far enough that you do, but then you are seeing it side by side with real world? But still then are one of those things more blurry depending on where you focus exactly?

It is fascinating to try and understand it. It doesn't feel like I can relate to it at all or see how it is possible.

People have talked about a disorder? where folks can’t picture things in their mind. Believe called aphantasia.


I am also like this. I had a fight once with my SO where they were upset with me for not trying to level up my navigation skills. I have a growth mindset about many other things, but I've just absolutely given up on navigation without a smartphone.

I also have a hard time recognizing faces of celebrities, but not people I know in real life.

From reading about prosopagnosia and other agnosias, I suspect there's something funny with my fusiform gyrus.

Counter data point:

I am an excellent navigator but can't recognise people I know on the street, even if I know them reasonably well. If I know I will be meeting them, and I know them well I mostly recognise them but even then I am sometimes surprised when they show up and say hello to me.

Celebrities is even worse...

(Good) navigation is not really about recognising landmarks (although that helps) but about having a mental version of the map of the place you are in, with you in the centre. Think of it like the GTA mini-map that live updates as you walk around. I think that comes naturally to some people and just does not exist for many others.

I have a hard time visualizing things when I'm fully awake. Ask me to picture my wife or my kids' faces, and I can't do it. I feel I can subconsiously visualize them with no problem, but as soon as a try to consciously do it, the picture disolves. Same with any fully awake visualization - can't quite see the image in my head - it's like it's in my peripheral vision but scoots away as soon as I look. But I can lucid dream, and do things like complex 3D mechanism design while lucid dreaming (that I can later turn concrete using CAD).

Anyway, I have no problem with navigation - I can look at a map, and navigate from the (non visualizable!) memory for ages (an hour if hiking, maybe several hours if driving), and pretty much always tell you where north is. But I still cannot bring the image of the map back into my conscious mind. The brain is a very weird thing indeed.

What does visualisation of someone face even mean. If I have to ask that does it mean I have aphantasia?

I don't think I have it, but I don't know.

Like are you seeing colors in your mind eye, because surely visualization should require it.

I am definitely not seeing any colors.

I've always linked my inability to navigate to my inability to visualize things in my head. Even in the area where I've been living for about 15 years now, I still struggle to determine routes if I don't travel them very regularly.

This afternoon, we drove to a place in the city nearby. By now, after so many years, I can guess which exit to take, but I don't know whether to turn left or right at the end of the exit until I'm at the end and recognise it from previous times I've been there. But I can't picture it in my head beforehand.

I also have aphantasia but can navigate just fine. I read a comment on here once from someone with aphantasia that couldn't navigate in the real world, but they worked in network admin and knew that layout just fine (knew where everything routed and what it connected to etc). I pondered that if they could remember cable routes, why don't they apply the same mental map to roads? Roads are fixed and have a beginning and end too! But they reckon they could not. So it's a strange problem.

I think the challenge is relating your current locatiom in a 3d environment to a top down 2d map?

The 3d environment is full of noise and info which is a lot to take in while something like routing is very simple, and you don't have to convert your own placement in 3d map to 2d.

Also routing likely has good intentional reasons why something follows the other. While roads have evolved more naturally throughout history.

Are you me? If I had been born 15 years earlier, before GPS nav, you would not be reading this because I would be dead in a ditch somewhere.

Counter data point:

I am an excellent navigator but can't recognise people I know on the street, even if I know them reasonably well. If I know I will be meeting them, and I know them well I mostly recognise them but even then I am sometimes surprised when they show up and say hello to me.

Celebrities is even worse...

I can’t remember faces of people I see say 4 times a year and who are not friends. A random parent at the school for example.

'But when people talk about "mental maps," I'm not entirely sure what they're talking about. '

For me, knowing where things are in the space around me or in the larger navigation zone is like knowing where the parts of my body are. After spending just a little time in a space, it all feels like one thing and I can mentally point to various places within that space.

I can still get turned around if I have been going through multiple corridors inside with no visibility outside, particularly underground and particularly if some of the corridors are slightly off of rectilinear. Then I can come out thinking I am facing south and it turns out to be east. However, the next time I move though that space, chances are it will all connect up in my mind and then I will know where I am and which direction is which.

My husband is a little more like you. When we exit a building, he will seemingly choose a direction at random. It almost seems like he kind of gets it but backwards and almost always goes the opposite direction. He is not as far off as you. He can learn to navigate familiar spaces but it takes him a long time.

Well, people with Aphantasia [1] don't have to have poor navigation sense.

You could try to study a map of an area you want to be in and think about where you were on it one day and where you wanted to go to.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aphantasia

I'm not quite as bad, but I'm still pretty damn bad. If you're a 10/10 on the bad-at-directions scale, I'm probably at a 7- 7.5. Any chance you have ADHD or anything along those lines?

Since I have memory, I've always had a great sense of orientation, I've moved across cities, living in Milan, Rome, Ravenna, London, Berlin and Amsterdam and even if I went for a walk on the first weeks there, I was able to sense my way back home or to where I had to go without using maps.

I thought it was due to me growing up in a city with many small streets, undocumented, some having stairs (my home town is on a hill), a labyrinth more or less, so I trained it my whole life

But I am also not scared of taking unknown small streets, I can sense, "I came from there, there was this small street on the other side so this small street should be the ending of that one"

But sometimes I find myself in deadends and have to go all the way back

> Orienteering – a sport that combines cross-country running with map-based navigation – is popular in Nordic countries. This may be one reason why people from those countries tend to be better navigators than people from elsewhere.

Or it's the other way around - orienteering is popular there because people who are good at navigation enjoy orienteering. (I was never a super fan, but like to think I'm fairly good at orienting myself in my environment.)

It can be learned as well. As a child my old man would randomly ask the same question; which way is the river? I have a pretty good sense of direction.

I've drilled friends of mine with poor sense of direction similarly over the years. The improvement over time can be pretty dramatic. I realize that some of it is natural inclination, but forcing yourself to build mental map habitually is a large part of it. Practice anything enough and you'll improve.

What made a big difference for me recently was biking more - both because I couldn't reference the map while moving and because I had to pay a lot more attention to what was going on around me while biking. I had a pretty good sense of my city before, but now even when driving I skip the GPS most times.

I’ve tried that a while back with my SO who has a very keen sense of disorientation. It was very aggravating to my SO and I quickly decided I value our relationship more than always being the one to read the map. YMMV.

> Practice anything enough and you'll improve.

Assuming you have the necessary working hardware that makes improvement possible. There are some things my brain or body is not capable of.

When I was younger, I had a remarkably strong sense of "place" -- I could drive back to any place I had driven once, and most places I had only ridden to. I could sketch out the layout of buildings I had been to years before.

Some of that remains now, but GPS has destroyed the driving thing. If I focus I can still do it, but if I'm following my phone, very little sticks.

TIL about orienteering- seems fun! Also interesting (and maybe intuitive) to see reliance on GPS correlates with diminished navigational skills.

"Internal GPS" here, but grew up navigating the deep Maine woods. Also spent time navigating a single engine over the Alaskan bush and various rally/overland races. I really like navigation, dead reck, etc. It aint wrong, takes alot of practice and interest in navigation to become fluent.

Before smartphone gps, navigation was something I was really proud of having as a skill. I could find my way around town by just landmarks and directions from those landmarks.

Nowadays that skill is entirely lost. I recall playing arma 3 and needing to use a map and compass. That was a fun exercise .

I’m very good with knowing where I am and where I’m going. It’s like a sixth sense compass I have built in. I don’t know if it was learned or what but at times it feels like a super power. Grew up without GPS but did start driving around the time it got good.

So the old adage of how to get to Carnegie Hall is doubly true - practice!

They should also correlate navigational ability with IQ.

If such a correlation exists or doesn’t exist says a lot about navigation.

An informal test:

Are there any really smart people here with credentials and credibility to prove it who are also complete garbage at navigation?

Awesome and productive suggestion. :D It seems we already have one piece of evidence but I would add: Often the people who live in the middle of nowhere are not thought of as smart, but they can drive or walk 10s or 100s of km through the wilderness and get to their destination. While those working high paying jobs in a city often use a GPS to drive anywhere off their usual route and never use any roads outside the main roads that are familiar to their route. I for example, can completely avoid rush hour going with the direction of rush hour, by taking a different road. This wouldn't work if most people in the city were good navigators (assuming they cared of course, but I would argue good navigators way-find more creatively even when they don't care much).

I have a PhD in pure math yet rely on GPS for navigating all but the most familiar routes.

I also maintain a PhD, not in pure math, I know which direction I am facing at all times and can navigate without explicitly referencing a physical map.

How close are we to developing a representative sample?

My wife has very poor navigation skills, but is currently completing her second masters out of six degrees. So pretty smart, I guess.

But she's also really dyslexic, and we've wondered if that could have anything to do with it.

FWIW: Never met a dyslexic bad at navigation, your wife is the first I've heard of and I ask every other dyslexic I've met. I'm extremely dyslexic and extremely good at navigating. Look at Google maps once and generally don't need to again, I just keep the mental image of the map in my head. Can she hold the mental photo of the map? Does she mixes up her left and right? Does she also have dyscalculia?

I have a PhD and get lost all the time. GPS makes it a bit easier, although I always have to walk a few seconds to check my direction by looking at the movements of my GPS position.

Anecdotally speaking I see no pattern. I can't see IQ predicting whether one gets lost in a telephone box or not.

What I have noticed is that basement and lab dwellers are hopeless at navigating.

My partner is a medical doctor. She can't navigate around. I don't think there is any link. Navigation was something that I was taught early and is a skill like anything else.

> credentials

The more common stereotype is a negative correlation, nerdy smart people getting lost, unable to dress themselves, etc. I say 'stereotype' because that word very strongly correlates with BS.

Still, I expect a negative correlation to intellectual credentials: Those take a lot of work doing things that usually don't involve navigation. Anthropologists I expect to be pretty good at it, and archaelogists and architectural historians are probably awesome. MDs, mathematicians - sorry.

> Are there any really smart people here with credentials and credibility to prove it who are also complete garbage at navigation?

Anecdatum: I think I'm smarter than the average bear. I have an MS and work at a FAANG. However, I'm absolute shit at navigation. Last month, I hung out with a friend who is similarly bad at navigation and we lost the car for 15 minutes.

I have no idea where I am, ever, unless I've been there literally a dozen times. Even then it's not a guarantee. If I wasn't actively paying attention I won't just passively pick up knowledge about the route.

One of my personal rules is to treat rotation as if it's an ultra complex operation only computers should do.

I won't even try to read a map that's not oriented to match reality, and I will assume I got the map upside down unless I have multiple references points to confirm(Phone compasses seem to mess up more than the actual GPS...).

I also regularly confirm direction by making sure the GPS says I'm actually going towards where I think I am.

I will check the map again after every turn, I assume that any rotation invalidates whatever nonsense I think I know about where I am.

If it's unfamiliar enough that I even think about using a map at all, I am very careful because of how many times I've gotten lost a block or two away from my destination and wound up going half a mile the wrong way following upside down maps.

This extends to other areas of life. If I have to compare any two things in different orientations I assume it's a high failure rate part of the project.

One would probably assume this causes me a lot of mental discomfort... but luckily I also have maybe a bit too much trust in computers. I can always just use my phone. If it ever runs out of battery I can ask for directions.

If I ever decide to solo hike or something like that, I will probably get a book on navigation and study as best I can, but also bring a satellite beacon.

GPS and map apps nerfed noticeably my ability to navigate-in-my-mind and a sense of direction in general. I wonder if it's a loss of a skill or just me getting older.

Not sure if related but I often imagine a map of concepts when trying to understand or remember things.

Linux kernel, software skills, career progression. All maps.

I think the interesting litmus test for having a good sense of direction - or at least one form of it - is being able to successfully navigate by car while driving, to a destination they originally saw 20 years ago, as a 10-year old car passenger. And that's for a city they hadn't driven in before.

Definitely not genetic. Folks in the same close family have diametrically opposed abilities in this line.

I blame GPS navigation for a strong dip in talent in this generation. They refuse to show you the map beyond a postage-stamp area in the immediate vicinity. Making it utterly impossible to get your bearings and make good decisions. You become totally dependent on the device.

> They refuse to show you the map beyond a postage-stamp area in the immediate vicinity. Making it utterly impossible to get your bearings and make good decisions.

I didn't realize this until I started using a Thomas Guide in the past year, and then it hit me like a bag of bricks. It's so much easier to (re)orient myself with a properly sized and detailed map. Not to mention I don't have to fiddle with Google Maps to coax it into showing me street names. I don't think Google Maps is very good at actually being a map.

While true, I do wonder if there's something more innate. My mother is totally unable to find her way around, but I've always had a keen awareness of directions. E.g. my memories and even dreams include position of things N, E, W, & S

Totally agree on the device dependence. Sometimes I'll navigate a route a few times with GPS and then try to find my way there without it, just to learn the route.

I was thinking it would be cool to make an app that helps you learn navigation. Maybe like a game to find your way to a given place, and you get hints if you're off track.

TLDR: People get better at it with experience, i.e. people learn.

tldr: Nurture has a bigger impact than nature

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