Getting Lost – It’s Human Nature!

you are here.gif“Where is that mile marker?!”–I was hot, sweaty, and suffering from quarter-sized blisters at each heel. Just the day before, my boyfriend and I had embarked on an impromptu backcountry camping trip and were now, after a fun weekend, returning to our car–a six-mile-long up-hill trek. Getting lost in the Shenandoah National Park did not sound like an appealing end to our adventure.

Fortunately, with the help of a map, and a relatively well-marked trail, all mile markers were eventually accounted for, and we were able to navigate our way to and from our campsite — MUCH to my relief.  Perhaps I am worrisome by nature, but my sense of direction has gotten me in trouble a few more times than I’d like!

However, according to behavioral neuroscientist, Colin Ellard of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, my “spatial intelligence shortcomings” are actually nothing to be embarrassed about, and totally human. Dr. Ellard was recently interviewed on the radio talk show, NPR, concerning his new book:  You Are Here: Why we can Find our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall.

Ellard’s You are Here investigates this particular weakness in human beings through a fascinating exploration of human navigation. According to Ellard, humans are good at getting lost. This may be simply because they are good at being several places at one time. Humans’ advanced cognitive abilities allow our minds to travel freely, separate from our physical surroundings. And so, while our thoughts may wander to what’s for dinner, or a catchy song, our feet can continue walking down the road. This powerful cognitive resource is a major component of what separates us from animals and, while it clearly can be of great benefit, it is also our downfall in the world of navigation. Our minds drift elsewhere and, well, we end up lost.

Ellard suggest that, ironically. this loss of connection with the physical world has only been amplified by innovation and modern technology. Now that our world is filled with tools such as Google Maps, and iPhones, and mass transit that allows us to move vast distances comfortably without glancing at a map, we are at risk of even more disconnected from our surroundings–only causing more spatial disorientation and disarray.

And so, Ellard states, we are being out-navigated by most of the animal kingdom. What can we do about it? Ellard advises us to become more spatially aware, and therefore less likely to get lost. The easiest way: create a story about your surroundings. With each bend in the road and intersection, take note. Ellard calls this re-engaging with space in a “playful way.” Sure, use your GPS, but don’t just focus on the display, use your technology in more creative ways!

Have you had an “Uh oh, where am I!?” moment recently? How spatially aware do you think you are? Let us know!


Kirsten for My Wonderful World


Images courtesy Random House

4 thoughts on “Getting Lost – It’s Human Nature!

  1. Glad to hear you like the blog, thanks! Please let us know if you have ideas for topics you’d like to see covered.
    Sarah Jane

  2. I’ve had a few situations this spring/summer where I’ve gotten off trail while hiking. The interesting thing is that it always happens when I am traveling on “easy” terrain. I guess thats where your mind wanders off a bit. When I’m doing something more technical and challenging, I never loose track of where I am. During backcountry ski trips, for example, where descending the wrong chute might mean serious injury (or worse), I find that I am 100% “dialed in” to my surroundings at all times. In these situations, however, you are always thinking about the task at hand, and the mind rarely wavers.
    A tip I’ll pass along… when hiking below treeline, you should turn around every few minutes and take a look at how the trail looks when you are coming in the opposite direction, pick out landmarks, etc. This makes the return trip (on an out & back hike) a lot easier.
    And the most important thing… ALWAYS carry a map and know how to use it, even if you think you know exactly where you are going.

Leave a Reply