I have this weird sense of direction. Deep in the secluded woods my husband will spin me around until I get dizzy, randomly stop me, then ask me which direction I am facing (we’re on hiking trips, so it’s not as ominous s it sounds). I have an uncanny accuracy within the 16 directions of the compass rose – I wouldn’t just say NE, but NNE. I’m almost* always right (as validated by our trusty GPS). [*I lose all sense of direction underground; a situation that greatly agitates me. This may not seem like much of an inconvenience, but as amateur spelunkers we often go underground during hiking expeditions. Side note: I normally do not spin around to the point of dizziness during a cave descent.]. During one test, based on the GPS coordinates, he pronounced me wrong. I was flabbergasted because my internal directional reading felt so right. About 10 seconds later the GPS refreshed and voila, I was correct. I’m faster and more reliable than the gadget. That’s about as technical as it gets – I sense the direction. Like some sort of navigational mystic. I would have been a real assest to Columbus – Chris, I sense the New World is that way. Over the years I have come to discover that this sense of direction while certainly not rare, is definitely not common. Runners, in particular, are often quite hopeless with directions. I’m sure it is some combination of inability, disinclination, fatigue, distraction, and glucose depletion.
My run club typically distributes maps for long runs. Even so, about 90% of the runners will get lost at least once during a training cycle. Packs of runners will get lost as group, not a one seemingly able to navigate through the city maze. Orienteering on the run is not an easy feat. Although frustrating, the silver-lining side of me actually thinks it is good training – getting a bit misdirected is a psychological challenge as quite a bit of mental fortitude is required to keep going when you’ve gone a klick (or a few klicks) out of the way. Running a marathon takes a lot of will, so it’s good to face some challenges during training. Expect the unexpected, as we runners are apt to say. Heck, people have gone the wrong way in races and exhausted runners have momentarily forgotten the location of the finish chute. It’s surprisingly easy to do, especially when you are following the crowd.
Sometimes the route maps will say things like “follow the blue line through the cemetery”. Sounds easy enough. Hilariously, I will enter the cemetery, point out the blue line, actually stand on it and say here is the blue line – follow this line for the next 2K, and 5-minutes later a flock will, without warning, suddenly deviate from the line. As though there are being pulled in the wrong direction by some invisible force. Never mind when we don’t actually have a blue line to follow. I even have reports of people getting lost on the return portion of an out and back route. Luckily, within each group someone with a keen sense of direction usually emerges and becomes the default compass for the group. I have come to suspect that, perhaps not coincidentally, this is the only person to ever look at the aforementioned maps.
I’m the kind of runner who becomes the default compass for the group. It is a task I embrace. Wayfinding fascinates me. However, my orienteering nature runs (ha) somewhat counter to my (mostly failed) quest to be a zen runner. Maybe next run I will leave the map at home and just go where the wind takes me. Maybe next time I will follow the group wherever they may lead. Maybe next time I need to get lost.
Are you a human compass or have you mastered the fine art of getting lost? Take the test below to calculate your sense of direction.
Title Reference: REM – Stand. From the album Green. 1989.
The Santa Barbara Sense of Direction Scale
This questionnaire consists of 15 statements about your spatial and navigational abilities, preferences, and experiences. For each statement select the number that indicates your level of agreement with the statement. Select “1” if you strongly agree that the statement applies to you, “7” if you strongly disagree, or some number in between if your agreement is intermediate. Select “4” if you neither agree nor disagree.
strongly agree 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 strongly disagree
1. I am very good at giving directions.
2. I have a poor memory for where I left things.
3. I am very good at judging distances.
4. My “sense of direction” is very good.
5. I tend to think of my environment in terms of cardinal directions (N, S, E, W).
6. I very easily get lost in a new city.
7. I enjoy reading maps.
8. I have trouble understanding directions.
9. I am very good at reading maps.
10. I don’t remember routes very well while riding as a passenger in a car.
11. I don’t enjoy giving directions.
12. It’s not important to me to know where I am.
13. I usually let someone else do the navigational planning for long trips.
14. I can usually remember a new route after I have traveled it only once.
15. I don’t have a very good “mental map” of my environment.
For Qs 1, 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 14: 1=1pt, 2=2pts, 3=3pts, 4=4pts, 5=5pts, 6=6pts, 7=7pts
For Qs 2, 6, 8, 10, 11, 12, 13, 15: 1=7pts, 2=6pts, 3=5pts, 4=4pts, 5=3pts, 6=2pts, 7=1pt
The lower the score the better the sense of direction (minumim=15 and maximum =105). In the interest of full disclosure, I scored a 20.
Ref: Hegarty, M., Richardson, A.E., Montello, D.R., Lovelace, K., & Subbiah, I. (2002). Development of a self-report measure of environmental spatial ability. Intelligence, 30, 425-447.