How to improve your sense of direction

Jane Murphy 5 March 2021

Navigation skills seem to come naturally to some—but others aren’t so lucky. If you’re sick of taking wrong turns, here’s how to start finding your way…

First, a confession: I had a vested interest in researching this topic because my own sense of direction is absolutely rubbish. Take popping to the toilet in a restaurant, for example. I can find my way there easily enough because there are signs pointing me in the right direction. But getting back to my table is another story. After all, there are no helpful signs saying, “This is where you were sitting less than five minutes ago, Jane”. 

It happens on a larger scale, too: I've lost count of the number of wrong turns and dead ends I've taken on my lockdown walks over recent months. Rather than resign myself to a lifetime of sauntering into cupboards and backtracking down cul-de-sacs, though, I'm determined to give my navigation skills a much-needed boost. But is that even possible?

 

How do we find our way around?

According to scientists, people tend to navigate in one of two ways—spatial or egocentric—although the two approaches can be used interchangeably. Spatial navigators see the bigger picture and always know where they are in relation to key landmarks and compass points. They're constantly building and retaining mental maps. So not only will they be able to find their way from A to B today, but they'll be ready to repeat the journey another time.

Egocentric navigators, meanwhile, tend to rely on detailed directions and local landmarks to break a journey into instalments: walk 200 metres, turn left at the post office, and so on... One problem with learning a route by heart in this way, however, is that you can come unstuck if a road is closed or a landmark is no longer there.

Helpfully, the hippocampus—the part of the brain associated with navigation—expands to accommodate our mental maps. A much-cited University College London study discovered that the capital's black-cab drivers boast more grey matter than other drivers. Crucially, their brains appear to “grow” while they study for The Knowledge, the test which requires them to learn 25,000 street names and the locations of all major attractions. The inference? Yes, you can improve your sense of direction. You just need to work at it.

 

Why Sat Nav isn’t the answer

Nowadays, of course, it's tempting to rely on GPS rather than commit a long, complicated route to memory. But if you really want to improve your sense of direction, it's a good idea to put the Sat Nav away. In a University of Nottingham study, drivers who'd followed step-by-step GPS instructions found it harder to work out where they'd been and even failed to notice they'd been past some places twice from different angles. 

Studying a larger map and memorising the route before you set out, on the other hand, does have its benefits—not least because the amount of mental energy it requires means it's more likely to stick in your mind. Looking at Google Maps on a big screen—or even studying a paper map—also allows you to get a sense of that all-important bigger picture and how everywhere fits together. 

This is certainly something that's worked for me recently. I began poring over Google Maps and Street View to investigate parks and patches of greenery I hadn't visited before. By combining a few in one trip and plotting different routes to the same places, I gradually became more confident at navigating my way around my local area. Better late than never!

 

Don’t just look where you’re going

Staying alert is key, too. It's important to notice what's around you—in all directions. Instead of staring straight ahead, make sure you look up, down and behind you as well. This will come in particularly useful when you're doing the journey in reverse—even if it’s just finding your way back from the toilet in a restaurant. Another tip? Taking photographs or writing notes at key locations can act as cues to cement them in your memory.

Finally, try to relax when you’re on unfamiliar ground. It’s all too easy to panic if you suspect you may be lost—but this sudden burst of anxiety will only increase your cognitive load and prevent you from calmly working out which way to go. Besides, getting lost is one of the best ways to discover new places and add more detail to that ever-growing mental map—both of which will help you become a better navigator in the long term.

Ultimately, your sense of direction is a use-it-or-lose-it skill. If you only stick to the routes you already know, it’s never going to get any better. So now’s the time to start exploring!

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