I’ll admit straight off, I have a dog in this fight.
My sense of direction, which could at one time have been charitably described as ‘poor’, has now deteriorated to the point where it’s no longer even funny and I’m probably a danger to myself and others.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to ask directions from tourists in my own hometown. Or the number of times I’ve panicked and given people completely bogus directions because I was too embarrassed to admit I didn’t have a clue how to help them find where they wanted to go.
Have you ever lost your car in a car park? Annoying isn’t it? I lost an entire car park once. I searched for an hour on every level of the multi-storey next to the one my car was parked in.
My worst moment came on my first day in China, probably the last country in the world where you want to get lost.
Crippled with jet lag, I’d woken up at 2am after I’d decided to take a quick power nap at 4 o’clock the previous afternoon.
I took my camera and wandered around the city of Kunming for a few hours, getting some lovely early morning shots and, of course, becoming hopelessly lost.
There followed another couple of hours of fruitless searching for my hotel, with my increasing sense of panic not helped by my total inability to find a cab driver who could read the name of the hotel in my guidebook, or with whom I could communicate in any way.
In sheer desperation (I can’t believe I’m admitting this here), I used the internationally recognized arm signal for ‘aeroplane’ to explain to a cab driver that I wanted to go back to the airport, and then had to find the driver who’d taken me to my hotel the previous day and ask her to do it again. Thankfully she remembered me-one of the few times being 6’6” and bald in China worked to my advantage.
I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of people suffer from it, to greater or lesser degrees. For the worst affected, it can have major impact on their lives, with some people afraid to learn to drive or even leave their houses.
So what’s the cause? Theories abound, but the current school of thinking is that a poor sense of direction is actually a mild form of spatial dyslexia.
Although a bit of a misnomer, as it doesn’t have anything to do with words (the lexia bit) it’s characterised by a difficulty in remembering sequences, which is normally a pretty vital part of finding your way home again after an excursion.
Another symptom is that usually sufferers have lousy short-term, but excellent long-term memory. Which is certainly true in my case; I can quote great chunks of movies I haven’t seen for years, but I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday without getting a headache.
And spatial dyslexics tend to be of above average intelligence in most other areas of their lives. (I said it was only a theory).
So, is there any hope for us? There’s obviously no cure, in the same way that there’s no cure for regular dyslexics, but it is possible to train your brain to improve your sense of direction. Here are some hints and techniques that might help you out.
- Before setting out on a trip to unfamiliar territory, where you’re worried that your lack of spatial awareness could cause you problems, spend a few weeks practicing. Stroll around your hometown, but train yourself to stay focused on your surroundings, without daydreaming. Try and learn where the cardinal compass points are in relation to you at any given time. Head out in the evening and learn where the North star is, and a few other constellations.
- Time yourself as you walk and every five or ten minutes, turn round 180 degrees and try and memorise a few details that you see. This is hopefully the route you’ll be taking back home and it’s a surprisingly effective way of making sure you’re returning the way you came.
- One technique that has been proven to be very effective is to say the names of landmarks out loud as you pass them. This has been shown to imprint the memory into your brain much more successfully than just observing the features as you pass.
- When you’re somewhere new, remember your phone is your friend. If you have a smartphone, you’re carrying around in your pocket one of the most important gadgets you can have to get you out of trouble. Even if you’re outside cellular range and can’t use the GPS, you still probably have a compass. For someone like me, who thinks that north is whichever way I happen to be facing at the time, a compass is a godsend. If you don’t have a compass, you have a camera. Shoot the occasional photo of landmarks or street signs along your route, so you can refer to them on the return leg. Sort of a 21st century trail blazing.
- If you’re in an unfamiliar city and you’re hopelessly lost, just ask for help! People are generally only too happy to assist, and many’s the time I’ve been temporarily adopted by a small knot of locals eager to get me back on track. This is no time to protect your fragile ego, just ask yourself how you’d feel if the situations were reversed and it was you being asked for help by a stranded wanderer.
- Most important of all; don’t panic! If you’re feeling like you’re really lost, take a deep breath and focus. Gather your faculties and try and spot any clue in the surrounding area that might give you a hint as to where you are. Retrace your steps, checking behind you at regular intervals and try and notice if any of the landmarks look familiar.
- And enjoy the upside! We always tend to see more on our travels than people who know where they are all the time, whether we want to or not. Admittedly, we tend to see the same places over and over as we wander around in circles, but let’s not dwell on that.
Incidentally, I was thinking of starting up a support group for people like us. But where the hell would we meet?