STEADY progress is being made in understanding how the brain knows where we are and where we are going. Only last year, a Nobel Prize was awarded to scientists who identified brain systems that map space and place.
At University College London, scientists have also demonstrated that an area in the brain involved in spatial cognition, the posterior hippocampus, is enlarged in London taxi drivers.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the exceptional navigational skills of London cabbies. Starting a new job or travelling for work can be exciting but also tiring and the last thing you need to worry about is getting lost.
While most people use phone maps and GPS, it can be more efficient and less distracting to navigate without relying solely on technology. Here are some tips:
Several years ago in Italy, my husband set off on an early morning walk from a hilltop villa to break through his jetlag. Nine hours later, he crawled back to the villa exhausted having spent the better part of the day circling the radially symmetric town walls, from which vantage point all hills looked the same.
Because he was only planning a quick stroll, he had set off without paying attention to the name and address of the villa. Obvious as it sounds, always take note of the address where you are based or heading.
Business cards are ideal where location is critical, where language is an issue or Internet coverage is sketchy. If you are driving, consider planning your route in advance.
Scientist Randolf Menzel studied young bees taking orientation flights marked by frequent changes in direction. When their hives were moved, the young bees still in this orientation phase were much better at adapting to the new location of their hive compared to the older bees. It was inferred that the young bees used orientation flights to form mental maps of their new environment.
When you start your new job, don’t stick to the first route you try; make your own orientation flights. Use your senses or, if you get lost regularly, consider taking photos. What are the major landmarks, areas and routes to and from work? Which way is the wind typically blowing in the streets? Where are the streams of people around your office heading?
Reduced ability to imagine the relative placement of rooms on successive floors has been noted in people with poor spatial skills, so make note of the floors above and below your own. Look out of the window and orient yourself to the world outside: where does the sun rise and set relative to your new workspace?
During the Professional Association of Diving Instructors natural navigators course, scuba divers are instructed to make regular visual checks behind them.
In an unfamiliar underwater environment, things can look different on the outward and return journeys, so such checks are essential. Divers are also taught not to rely on ephemeral landmarks such as fish (they swim away).
Similarly, on the way to a new workplace, take the opportunity to look back in the direction from which you came and don’t rely on ephemeral landmarks such as parked cars.
Back in 1960, educator Jerome Bruner reported asking children to identify ideal locations for cities in the United States, based only on looking at maps containing physical features and natural resources but no place names.
The children learnt that cities aren’t randomly distributed across a map, but can be understood in terms of urban needs such as transport and communications.
Most cities have their own logic. Rather than simply memorising points and paths, enhance your spatial memory by making sense of your environment. How has the topology and history of the area affected the layout of the streets and buildings?
What was the architect thinking?
Cognitive psychologist Barbara Tversky showed that people have a tendency to create mental maps by straightening paths and aligning structures, so modern buildings — with their curves and organic forms — may confuse.
Floor plan connectivity has also been shown to influence wayfinding in virtual reality studies. How intelligible is your own office? Is it a maze of cubicles or does it have highly intelligible structure with major connecting hallways?
If you regularly get lost, consider mapping a simple skeleton plan of your workspace. Plot each room as a point and draw links between connecting rooms. The heavily connected nodes are typically the ones with the most traffic, except in buildings like casinos where low connectivity can be intentional.
Indoor navigation systems
If you continue to find yourself in the wrong place, look out for the new indoor navigation apps. Israeli start-up Shopcloud has developed an app called Inside, which allows users to track location based on their phone’s sensors. Singapore’s YFind created a Wi-Fi-based app that has recently been acquired by Ruckus Wireless and is now known as SPoT.
Try these strategies to hone your sense of direction.