Not Finding My Way

Recently I spent five days in the Pennines on a writing course. The tuition and companionship of my fellow writers were exceptionally good, and on the one evening with no scheduled activities, a group of us set off to visit a local pub. I’d been to that area ten years previously and remembered a similar outing then. This time we took the scenic route through some overgrown woods, stumbling over roots and rabbit holes in the twilight and when we reached the cosy old pub it was good to find a quiet corner where we could sit and chat. At the end of the evening most people decided to take a taxi back to our accommodation but I was keen to walk and persuaded three of my new-found friends to keep me company. “It’s much more direct going back,” I said, “I’ve done this before. We just go along the main road; it will only take ten minutes.” Half an hour later as we held our sides, puffing and cursing to the top of the biggest hill I’ve ever seen, I had to confess that I’d got things wrong and there was still a way to go. Not only had I been under a misapprehension about which pub we’d spent the evening in, but I’d also thought we were in a completely different village. Taking the woodland route had thoroughly confused me. It was ironic that my course was called Writing Place and yet I clearly didn’t know which place I was in. But then again that’s nothing new—the tiresome truth is that I’ve spent my life in a state of perpetual disorientation. 

I’ve mostly kept this to myself as it makes me feel stupid and I’ve thought that no-one else could understand how I find it impossible to judge distance or direction, or to visualise where one place is in relation to another.  I like to think I’m reasonably intelligent but my brain goes blank and simply won’t cooperate on anything to do with navigation and direction. I’m fine once I’ve thoroughly learned a route but am quickly disoriented by detours, and I’ve learned that unrehearsed short cuts are a waste of time after countless misadventures. For my first couple of years of driving in London I used to go everywhere via Kew Bridge because it was a landmark that I could reliably recognise—even when it was miles out of my way. These days, I’m almost guaranteed to turn in the wrong direction when I come out of a door, and even though I’ve lived in Southampton for more than eight years I still have to take a deep breath before driving into the centre as I frequently get confused despite using sat nav. When I get myself lost it’s annoying and sometimes scary but at least I can sort it out on my own. The bigger problem comes when I get others embroiled in wrong directions or by massively underestimating when I tell them how long a journey will take. That’s awkward and embarrassing. For years I’ve passed it off jokingly as the consequence of living at the top of a hill when I was young; that does inevitably reduce your directional options. But it’s clearly not the answer and it’s been a relief recently to read a book that provides the key to understanding my disorientation. It also raises some important issues that have implications for us all.

Wayfinding: The Art and Science of How We Find and Lose Our Way was published in 2020 and is by the award-winning science writer Michael Bond.  The front cover has quotes from The Sunday Times, Telegraph, New Statesman and Scotsman, each of which simply says ‘Fascinating.’ And I agree. In the early chapters he summarises what is known about the neuroscience of navigation and describes various kinds of brain cells that work in conjunction to help us know where we are and to plan where we’re going. Place cells, for example, allow us to recognise physical features in the environment whereas grid cells are dynamic and fire in particular patterns as we move. But what really made me sit up was the chapter on Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD). There in print was confirmation that I am neither alone nor stupid. It seems that lots of people share my profound inability to navigate but that most of us keep quiet because we’re baffled by it and embarrassed. Now though, we have reason to thank a neuroscientist named Giuseppe Iaria who is based at the University of British Columbia. He identified and named DTD, and  estimates that 1-2% of the population struggle with the infuriating problems that I recognise so well—being incapable of making a mental representation of our surroundings even in places we’ve known all their lives, struggling to find our way around buildings and even getting disoriented in our own home—all of this in people who have normal memory, perception and attention. Iaria’s research has found the majority of sufferers to be women but it’s not yet clear whether this is a robust finding or whether it’s simply that women are more willing to admit to it. He is currently pursuing the theory that people with DTD have unusually poor connections between the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex; two regions of the brain that are involved in navigation—and this explanation certainly fits with my experience of being directionally derailed—it really does feel as though I have a broken wire. I’m delighted to have a physiological explanation even if it’s still tentative and now at last I can stop believing that I’m not trying hard enough. 

Despite the frustrations, I try to keep a sense of humour and discovered a forum for people with DTD. I was grateful that it was online as I could imagine the stress that might ensue if a group of DTD sufferers all had to get to a physical location in order to meet. Many of the posts made me laugh and groan in recognition. I particularly related to what one woman said—When people do the “you know where…” I just agree and pretend I know what they’re talking about. Saves time and frustration. I do that. Then I nodded in solidarity with a man who said that he’s lived in the same town all his life but when asked for directions by a stranger it’s easiest to say that he doesn’t know because he’s a visitor himself. And I smiled when a woman mused ominously—I often wonder what happened to the people who asked me for directions… 

It’s worth bearing in mind that when you ask a stranger for directions then you stand a 1-2% chance of asking someone who is going to quite unintentionally get you lost. More seriously there are good reasons why we can all benefit from recent discoveries in the science of spatial navigation. After the age of sixty-five our spatial skills get progressively worse but it may well be that if we keep our brains engaged in navigational tasks then this can act as a defence against Alzheimer’s. There is no current consensus but it’s a field of research that’s exciting some neuroscientists. The argument is that the first areas of the brain to show signs of the disease are those where spatial navigation is driven and if you keep them in use then this might help to stop them shrinking. 

Sat nav and GPS apps don’t help the situation and may even be actively damaging our health as these days we frequently arrive at places without any real idea of how we got there. Following the blue dot on our smartphone or the voice in our sat nav does not engage the place cells in our hippocampus or the decision-making circuitry of our prefrontal cortex—the technology makes people lazy about creating a cognitive map in the same way that the use of calculators has dulled our ability to do mental arithmetic. In Wayfinding Michael Bond has some advice about how to counter this. He suggests that we should put our smartphones away sometimes and try to orientate ourselves in the real world around us. Follow your curiosity, he says, and deliberately take a different route rather than just the ones you know. I’d certainly have trouble with that but think it’s worth trying provided I stick to days when I have plenty of time to get lost. But I do like another of the suggestions for what he calls attentive navigation. When you’re going somewhere new, he says, use GPS to get there and look out for landmarks on your way. Then switch it off for the journey back. I’ve already tried this a couple of times and although I’ve made a few wrong turns I can also report some success. I don’t think I’m ever going to know what it’s like to have a cognitive map but overall the exercise has boosted my confidence and I thoroughly recommend it. Do let me know if you have personal experience of DTD. I’d love to hear about it.