Sunday, June 12, 2011

Directional Intelligence

Let me describe how I perceive direction. (I've been told I'm not normal.) I nearly always know which way is north, almost as if by instinct. I think of everything in terms of N/S/E/W, even when indoors. For example, at work, when going to bathroom, I know I'm headed slightly south of west. If I ever do get disoriented, I freak out and search for landmarks which I may know. But I try to keep this from happening. A situation which is more difficult for me is riding the subway in an unfamiliar city. When I exit the subway and get onto street level, I have to stop for a minute and get my bearings. I feel humiliated, almost freaked out. I've also gotten lost in New Mexico when hiking as a kid in dense fog. But these are exceptions, as I frequently venture off the beaten path and rarely get lost. Just ask people who have hiked with me...I know where I'm going.

If I freak out on the rare occasion I lose sense of which way is north, how do people who never know which way is north get by in life? I honestly cannot grasp this. My mother-in-law is one of those people who gets lost in Anchorage despite having the obvious navigational aid of the Chugach Mountains in the east. If she takes a route even slightly different from the route she's used to, she is hopelessly lost and may need to call me for help. Meanwhile, I actively explore new routes around town to get somewhere, not afraid that I'll get lost. And when hiking and cross country skiing, I love venturing off-trail, knowing that if I get a little disoriented, I'll probably be okay (even if I don't have GPS with me).

I often wonder if directional intelligence is something inherited or learned. I know that I was reading maps and guiding my parents around places as early as toddlerhood, which perhaps would suggest that at least some of it is inherited. But I don't think it's totally inherited. Directional intelligence comes with reading maps and knowing an area's landmarks, geography, and which was is north/south/east/west before trying to navigate in the area. Do I have a magnetic compass in my head? I don't think so. If I was blindfolded and placed in a new location on a cloudy day without any previous knowledge of the area's geography, I would be lost too. I believe through frequently reading maps and applying the maps to the real world, you can obtain directional intelligence. And no, just listening to your car's audible GPS directions, doesn't count!


  1. You certainly didn't inherit it from me. And I always thought they could fly you anywhere blindfolded and you would instantly know where you were. I suspect it is a little like perfect pitch. Some people say that either you have it or you don't. But people who don't seem to have can in fact acquire it if they become more conscious of it and practice it. So where your directionality is concerned, there probably is something biological about it (although you didn't get it from me) but a lot of it is all the practice you have had, and the attention you have paid to the process. (By the way, when you started reading maps by yourself, at age 4 or earlier, no one had ever shown you how. You couldn't read most of the labels, but you totally understood the concept and directions. You translated it all, and would drag us from place to place, following your unassisted interpretation of the map.)

  2. That's a good question. I am like your mother-in-law! I have no idea which way is North unless I'm visiting the beach (Gulf Shores)! My mom likes to tell people I "can't find my way out of a paper bag". It's true, though. I have tried to learn it...and failed. I can force myself to concentrate while hiking and looking at maps, but after a couple of hours, it's gone and I no longer remember which way I am heading. So weird to me that other people have this talent and I have to keep a small compass on my keychain! No fair:) (This is Erika, by the way)

  3. I've just been talking about this same topic to a friend who is just like your mother-in-law. I as well always seem to know my directions even in unfamiliar areas, and tend to freak out in those few-and-far-betweeen instances when I can't figure it out. Not sure why, but I love this skill!