Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Can you acquire a sense of direction?

With a compass hat, I developed a sense of direction.

As I mentioned in the last post, I used to have a pathetic sense of direction. I couldn't find my way out of the proverbial paper bag. If I was driving and approached an intersection from an unfamiliar angle, I'd have no idea where I was. I was constantly disoriented and easily frustrated. Could I improve my direction sense?

A few weeks ago, I read a very intriguing article in the New York Times magazine. According to this article, different languages and cultures handle location and direction in different ways. To describe the location of an object, you may use "egocentric" directions, that is, you may specify a location with reference to your own body. You may say, for example, "The table is to my right." Alternatively, you may describe an object's location with respect to external cues, that is, you may say, "The table is to the north." In some languages and cultures, compass directions are used almost exclusively for describing an object's location. People who grow up in these cultures always know what direction is north or south.

Up until recently, I didn't have a clue as to what was to my north or south. I located almost everything with reference to my own body. This is not such a great way to build up mental maps of the environment since what is to your right or left changes with each turn or twist of your body.

I was pondering this problem last spring, when to my surprise, for Mother's Day, my husband Dan surprised me with a special gift - a north sensing hat! This gift was based on the feelSpace belt that was described in Wired magazine. In the feelSpace device, 13 sensors are distributed around the belt, and the sensor that faces north vibrates, thus giving the wearer a continual update as to where north is. In my hat, Dan embedded an electronic compass, microprocessor, and motor. When the front of the hat was facing north, the motor would turn and vibrate. I could hold the motor in my hand or tuck it into my hat. Every time, I faced north I'd feel the buzzing.

So I started walking everywhere with my compass hat. As you can see from the photo, my husband chose a really ridiculous-looking hat, but I didn't care. I was determined to see if I could develop a sense of direction.

The most common adaptation to any deficit is avoidance. So, if you are not good at tennis, you probably avoid playing tennis which only makes the sport even harder. I was always disoriented so I avoided going to unfamiliar places even in my own small town. In this way, of course, I never worked on my navigation skills. Now, with my compass hat, I attacked this problem with intensity and enthusiasm. Everywhere I went, I thought about what direction I was walking and then turned my head or hat one way or another to determine whether or not I knew which direction was north. For me, this was very hard work, but it paid off. After several weeks of wearing my compass hat on very familiar paths, I would anticipate the buzzing as I turned north. I even expected this buzzing when I wasn't wearing the hat. After a few more weeks, even when hatless, I automatically thought about my location with respect to compass directions and imagined my location on a mental map.  In the last post, I described people, in order of incrasing directional competence, as CLUELESS, SCOUTS, and NATURALS.  I went from being CLUELESS to being a SCOUT.

I developed certain strategies for gauging north. For example, at mid-day in the northern hemisphere, when the sun is more or less overhead, it is located to the south, so your shadow (which is very short during mid-day) points north. In the morning, north is to the right of your shadow and in the afternoon, north is to the left. I've made an illustration of this.  Maybe, if I had been a girl scout, I would have learned these clues when young, but I had to think these through while walking around with my compass hat.

I am more oriented now, and it's a great feeling. I am more confident and secure and am more likely to travel someplace new. For the first time, I enjoy big cities. I wonder too if this ability to think "allocentrically" doesn't impact life in other ways. I have a friend whom I'll call Patty who has a wonderful sense of direction. One day, when I was first working on my directional sense, Patty and I were both passengers in a car. As the car turned one way and another, I kept asking her where north was. She had to twist her body in different directions to keep pointing to the north, but she said to me, "Sue, north doesn't change. It's always in the same place." Of course, she was right. No matter, how many directions we turned in the car, north didn't move. Patty thinks allocentrically all the time, not just about spatial location, but about life in general. She always sees the big picture. Her life is not without difficulties, but she always views her troubles in a broad, global context. As a result, she approaches each situation with a confidence and equanimity that I envy and admire. So thinking allocentrically may help you in many ways - to find your way while traveling from place to place and, more generally, in the way you view your life.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

more...

Subscribe to Eyes on the Brain

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.