Directional dyspraxia, otherwise known as...
January 30, 2014 1:45 AM   Subscribe

When trying to find my way around in relatively new places all I seem to have in my head is a vast expanse of nothing

People suffering from a poor sense of direction have found an unlikely support group on a Guardian Notes and Queries page.
posted by low_horrible_immoral (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Oh man. This is me. My ability to get lost is notorious.

I can cope by using certain mnemonics -- like "a left turn is across traffic and a right turn is a curb turn" -- but I didn't realize how much I was relying on the mnemonic rather than a true sense of left/right until I moved to the UK and keep telling my husband to "turn left" when I really mean turn right because it's a cross-traffic turn.

And I have definitely described myself as lacking an internal inertial navigation system. Even on a grid pattern I have no sense of what direction I'm facing.

It's nice to see others are just as bad as me, since I somehow seem to be the only one of my friends or family!
posted by olinerd at 4:23 AM on January 30, 2014


I have worked in the same building for years but if you asked me to point in the direction of anything I can't actually see out the window I have to stop and think.
posted by fullerine at 4:50 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is one of the few reasons I regret moving out of Denver. It's ridiculously easy to orient yourself there. See mountains? You're facing west, or so close to west as to make no difference. People there will actually give directions in compass terms--e.g., "turn north on Colorado Boulevard".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 4:58 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


This is one of the few reasons I regret moving out of Denver. It's ridiculously easy to orient yourself there. See mountains? You're facing west,

That's why I find Paris to be the easiest city for me to navigate. I use the Eiffel Tower and which side of the river I'm on to sort out my direction.
posted by olinerd at 5:19 AM on January 30, 2014


"Poor sense of direction" is not the same thing as a tendency to get lost.

People navigate using a combination of two different methods — estimating distance and orientation relative to some point of reference, and routing by landmark.

The former is generally what people are thinking of when they talk about a "sense of direction" and certainly "inertial navigation system" and "an internal compass". But the latter is just as important and many people successfully rely much more on it than the former.

So a tendency to get lost may indicate a low ability on one kind of task without a compensating increase in the other, or perhaps a low ability on both.

What may be the case for some people is that they were taught or otherwise expected to navigate via the method that they have low ability for and were never made aware that it's acceptable to navigate with the other ability and that many people do. I suspect this is much more likely the case with orientation navigation than with routing/landmark navigation, although I could be mistaken. But people who have a poor orientation "sense" should be aware that they shouldn't expect themselves to navigate purely by orientation and a very large number, probably the majority, of people do not. They should try to concentrate on landmark routing navigation and see if their navigation improves.

If someone has difficulty with both, they should be aware that the notion that both of these are inherent skills that one is either born with a high ability with, or not, is probably not the case. At the very least, it's almost certainly not nearly as much the case as people tend to believe. Both of these are skills that can be greatly improved by practice. So rather than expecting that one will be able to know one's way around just because that's what normal people do, you should think about both of these as explicit skills, thinking about what it would mean to keep in one's mind a reference point for distance and direction ("okay, I've turned left, so now my parked car is over that way and about a block distant") and thinking about what it would mean to remember landmarks and retrace and repeat routes that way. And then practice those things.

In my case, somewhere deep in my childhood I internalized the idea that absolute direction, as in compass direction, was important and from then on expected that I would navigate by always knowing my position relative to some reference. Because of that, I'm better at this than many people, but not as good as some. And, anyway, I do sometimes get confused. And when I get confused about this, and because I never developed a skill at landmark routing, I become really lost. But I could be much better at landmark routing if I paid attention to it. I don't pay attention to it because I expect that my orientation sense will work.

I don't doubt that some people are just going to always have difficulty finding their way around. There are all sorts of different cognitive tasks and different people are differently adept at them. But the differences aren't inherently as vast as people usually think they are. Much of the time it comes down to what you think is important and what you have a lot of practice doing.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:32 AM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


My Reason-For-Living has this problem. We'll have stayed in a hotel for a week and she'll still turn the wrong way to get to the stairwell. She has the GPS in the car programmed for her friend's houses and the grocery store. She's a 'Sconnie, so when I give her directions I use bars as landmarks. "Go a block past the Caribou and turn left." Except I constantly get the terms "left" and "right" confused. I have to resort to "port" & "starboard."
I'm surprised when we actually arrive anywhere we intend to go.
posted by Floydd at 5:35 AM on January 30, 2014 [4 favorites]


Ivan Fyodorovich: I'm the daughter of two USAF navigators. You'd better believe they've tried everything to teach me how to self-orient and navigate using whatever methods they could come up with. And yet...

When I CAN navigate it is indeed landmark-based, but if I approach a landmark from the direction I didn't originally approach and "learn" the landmark in, then it all goes to hell. Even when I try to force myself to focus and think logically about it, I end up overthinking it and still go in the wrong direction. And the problem is that even if you do use landmarks to navigate, if you do something wrong, there is nothing inside of you to give you the instinctive sense that you're going the wrong way.

This is how I've twice ended up in Maine whilst trying to drive to other states from Massachusetts. Including a state that does not border Maine.
posted by olinerd at 5:58 AM on January 30, 2014 [8 favorites]


Oh god that thread makes me feel so much better. I am not a freak.
posted by oflinkey at 6:25 AM on January 30, 2014


Similar stuff here. I navigate by GPS and habit. If I come to a familiar intersection from a different direction than usual, I will often make a wrong turn.

Orienting myself to any particular direction inside a building? Guessing the general direction of something that I'm completely familiar with driving to? Good luck with that.


I also have the related dyspraxia issues where it comes to body movement. There are times when I just cannot follow along with exercise videos, and I struggled with martial arts and with taiko choreography. I could watch someone else perform a move ten times and not be able to figure out which hand is doing what.
posted by Foosnark at 6:33 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I CAN navigate it is indeed landmark-based, but if I approach a landmark from the direction I didn't originally approach and "learn" the landmark in, then it all goes to hell. Even when I try to force myself to focus and think logically about it, I end up overthinking it and still go in the wrong direction. And the problem is that even if you do use landmarks to navigate, if you do something wrong, there is nothing inside of you to give you the instinctive sense that you're going the wrong way.

Yup, me too! I go solely by landmarks, I don't even know what people are doing when they're orienting themselves some other way. But if I'm not on one of my usual routes, even seeing familiar landmarks for other routes doesn't help. I never get familiar with a place as a whole, I just know specific routes through/to that place. I try to compensate with lots of maps, but maps and habit are virtually my only way of getting anywhere (also, it's very hard for me to follow directions -- even if I ask, I can only get about two turns in before I'm completely confused).

It's actually infuriating to be terrible at direction, but I honestly can't fix it. My mom is the same way.

I also have the related dyspraxia issues where it comes to body movement. There are times when I just cannot follow along with exercise videos, and I struggled with martial arts and with taiko choreography. I could watch someone else perform a move ten times and not be able to figure out which hand is doing what.

Wow! I am like that, too, and never realized they're related! I played sports in school, and this was a real problem, actually. A dumb but infuriating way it came up was, my volleyball team had all these little cheers that we were supposed to do depending on what happened - I forget why we would do it now, but there was this little cheerleading or step move we were supposed to do sometimes that involved clapping and stomping. It took about three seconds to complete, and we would all do it together. Well, except me. I was playing volleyball with those same girls year round by senior year and I could *never* do that little step. I would just stand there like an asshole while they all did it.
posted by rue72 at 7:41 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


I consider myself about average at directionality, but even I was astounded when I invited a friend over to my house for the first time and the directions were so, so, so simple: go down Murray, make a left on Walker, then the second right on 139th, follow that road all the way to the end. And it ended up being this fiasco where we were on the phone for like 20 minutes as she was driving around and she literally only lived 5 minutes from me. And I thought, why the hell don't you have a GPS and just program addresses into that, if you're so bad at this?

But then I realized, I use GPS when I'm going places for the first time, BUT I also have to use a bit of directional instinct because a few times it has wanted to steer me way wrong and if I didn't have a bit of directionality telling me "how could that be?" it would have made things even worse.

I seriously don't know how the directionally-challenged get through life. I guess pizza delivery is one job that just right out, huh?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:21 AM on January 30, 2014


It is odd to read so many comments (in the link) assuming this is hereditary. My sister has this and I have what could be described as the opposite. I love navigating and maps and finding new routes between various places. Neither of our parents seem to be either extreme.
posted by soelo at 8:33 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I used to think I had a terrible "sense of direction," since I'm bad with right and left (I still sometimes have to picture a page of text in front of me and ask myself which end I'd start reading at). When people would give me "turn left, then go two blocks, then turn right" directions, I'd inevitably get lost. I really dislike following GPS navigation instructions in real time.

But at some point I realized, I'm good at reading maps, and I'm good at picturing myself as a little dot on that map, and figuring out which way I need to turn to make the dot follow the route I have in mind to my destination (and I never have to think about whether that direction is what is conventionally known as "right" or "left.") Now, in my family, I am the "good" navigator. I never use GPS (because I hate it!), can usually find my way back to anyplace I've been more than once (or only once if I was paying attention) or plan a new route on the fly, like to explore new areas and buildings to populate the map in my head. Just don't ask me to give directions. (Then turn, um, left, I mean right... I think.)

So anyway, when I was teaching my mom computers a long time ago, I realized that 1) she is the opposite in terms of how she approaches navigation, which is very much as a list of instructions 2) this is also how she approaches doing things on the computer. She memorizes a series of clicks and if a shortcut gets deleted on her desktop, she feels helpless, because all she has is that list of instructions in her head which started with "click on this icon." Whereas I liked "tree" views of the file system, and tend to think of them like maps, and to view shortcuts as, well, short cuts...

It makes me wonder to what extent "computer literacy" and "map reading skills" are related.
posted by OnceUponATime at 8:51 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Radiolab did a pretty informative and entertaining episode ("Lost & Found") about this very phenomenon. All three stories that make up the episode are worthwhile, and you can listen to them individually via the link.
posted by hootenatty at 8:56 AM on January 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


It's an eternal source of merriment that my father is fantastic at giving directions and following directions to a destination, but cannot get himself back home. He somehow can't think in reverse. My mother, on the other hand, has high directional confidence and can usually just brute force find a way to and back from any place, directions or no.

Here in Hawai'i, nearly everyone gives directions using "mauka" (mountain) and "makai" (ocean) and very rarely uses compass directions. It's lovely and I find it easy to figure out. Who knows if the streets are running true East or SSW or whatever, because nearly everything follows the topography of the island, so giving directions with reference to the topography of the island is just sensible.
posted by spamandkimchi at 9:47 AM on January 30, 2014


I have this problem, but only when I play Counter-Strike.
posted by neckro23 at 11:00 AM on January 30, 2014


This AskMe from a couple years ago is where I first read that having a bad sense of direction (I do) is correlated with not having stereovision (I don't much, maybe a coincidence, it's hard to say).

It makes me wonder to what extent "computer literacy" and "map reading skills" are related.

This is super interesting but I bet it depends a lot on the interface -- of both the computer and the map.
posted by clavicle at 11:09 AM on January 30, 2014


I have this problem, but only when I play Counter-Strike.

Yeah I cannot find my way around video game worlds at all. I can only play games like Halo or L4D if I can follow teammates.
posted by olinerd at 11:11 AM on January 30, 2014


See mountains? You're facing west, or so close to west as to make no difference.

I grew up on the east coast, with the ocean on the "right" side.
The fact that it is now on the "left" since I've moved West is a source of endless confusion to my brain.

That said, I'm really very good at finding things, and navigating in general.

I'm absolutely crap, however, at _giving_ directions. I don't know street names, or the names of landmarks, and I can't tell you how many blocks or miles to go.

If I go somewhere, I just... go the right way without thinking of it.
Translating that to someone else is difficult.
posted by madajb at 11:36 AM on January 30, 2014


I have this problem, but only when I play Counter-Strike.

I got lost in a mapless area of AC3 last night for what was probably only about 10-15 minutes but what legitimately felt like 10,000 years. At one point I got so irritated I had to crawl underneath my couch and sulk.
posted by elizardbits at 11:55 AM on January 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Two things to love here:

1) Fascinating subject.

2) Intelligent comments on the Guardian site.

Great FPP.

(My own experience is the opposite of dyspraxia; for some reason I can point to magnetic north within ten degrees of accuracy, even if you march me around in circles down in some windowless, byzantine sub-basement. I don't think I've ever been "lost" in my life. Go figure.)
posted by sidereal at 11:58 AM on January 30, 2014


I must admit when I saw the Guardian thread I had the same reaction as some of the respondents - relief that I'm not the only one. And this thread and the askme thread linked to above has further reassured me.

What I've realised recently is how my lack of direction sense geographically affects my thinking too. I ALWAYS go for the thesis/antithesis/synthesis approach - with no 'join' in between - so any way of thinking that resembles a kind of journey gives me great difficulty. When a part of the reasoning has been 'passed through', I can't seem to access it any more. It's as if I have no concept of space between notions.

And of course, reading novels that have geographical descriptions are always a bit of a chore, particularly houses. When Mrs de Winter gets lost in Manderley, so do I :)
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 12:29 PM on January 30, 2014


I navigate using NSEW, use the sun, can ride out in a new area in the fog and come back to the trailer with all the cows, and generally do great with maps.

Put me in a hospital or other large building--you'd better send out the Mounties.
posted by BlueHorse at 5:49 PM on January 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


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