I’ve never had a great sense of direction. I could get lost a few streets away from my house. I often wander into shops and, upon coming back out, can’t remember which way I’ve come from—left or right? Using maps on my phone helps somewhat, but I still manage to make wrong turns. Sorry, carpool friends! So why is it that some people have a great sense of direction and are great at navigating? And, if you’re anything like me, why do some constantly have no idea where they are?
Our sense of direction is derived from a complex network of interactions between our genes, senses, brain and environment. Even emotions can play a role. In fact, our sense of direction isn’t really a sense at all because it involves multiple senses!
Many people rely on sight to know where they are and where they need to go. But we also use other senses that are not part of our primary five (see, hear, smell, touch and taste), such as proprioception and vestibular feedback. Proprioception is when you close your eyes and can still touch your nose; it’s the sense of your body parts’ position in relation to your surroundings. Vestibular feedback is your sense of spatial orientation, motion and balance. Cognitive factors can also play a role in your ability to navigate. Say, for example, you’re using your phone for navigation and it dies; you may start to feel anxious. This can massively impact your sense of direction. Confidence and self-perception also play a part.
The hippocampus is a region of the brain associated with memory and involved in sense of direction. A nearby region, the entorhinal cortex has also been associated with sense of direction. There are four known types of navigation-related neurons found in these regions: place cells, grid cells, border cells and head direction cells. You can read more about them here. In short, you can think of place cells as an internal cognitive map; they identify where you are. Grid cells are the equivalent of a GPS system in our brains; they tell us about the spatial relationship of this place to other places we’ve been. Border cells respond to the presence of environmental boundaries at a specific direction and distance from us. Lastly, head direction cells, if you couldn’t figure out, are activated when our head faces a specific direction. These cells will fire electrical impulses when we enter familiar locations, with each bundle of cells relating to a specific place.
New research has shown that people with weaker signals in the entorhinal cortex struggle with navigating a virtual environment. Other studies have found that people with a better sense of direction have larger frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. Damn, mine must be tiny.
Interestingly, our reliance on GPS and smartphones may have decreased the ability to use our internal maps. A 2010 study found that older adults who regularly used GPS had less activity in their hippocampus compared those who did not use GPS. They also performed slightly worse on a cognition test. In contrast, a study involving London taxi drivers found they had significantly larger hippocampi than regular folk.
Men vs women
There appears to be biological gender differences in wayfinding abilities. A 2015 study found that men have a better sense of direction than women. The study involved navigating through a 3D maze in a virtual environment. Men in the study took more shortcuts and effectively used cardinal directions (north, south, east and west) to outperform their female counterparts.
However, Carol Lawton, Purdue University Fort Wayne professor of psychology, argues differently. She has stated the disparity in gender performance is not related to inherent skills or abilities, but instead to differences in navigation style across gender and how accommodating tests are to these differences. Lawton’s own research has found that men are more likely to rely on cardinal directions and distance measurements. Women, on the other hand rely more on landmarks. So, if a test uses a virtual environment that doesn’t include landmarks, take the maze from the above study, it’s unsurprising that men do better!
Women also have higher levels of “spatial anxiety,” which Lawton defines as anxiety about finding the way to an unfamiliar location or take a new route. Spatial anxiety is higher in people who feel more concern for their safety and so are likely to be women.
Can you train yourself to be better?
People generally have good insight into their directional abilities. So, whether you believe you’re a walking GPS or feel like you’re always in a spin, chances are it’s probably true. People who frequently get lost, please know there is nothing wrong with you and you’re not alone. And fear not: as the old saying goes, ‘practice makes perfect’. You can improve your wayfinding abilities by practicing the skill. Go out and explore places! Physical exercise also helps by improving blood flow to the brain. Mental exercises such as puzzles or learning a new language also help by stimulating nerve cells and neuronal connections in your brain.
If you’re still struggling, study maps, use a GPS or travel with a buddy. Worst case scenario…leave breadcrumbs. After all, it’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey!