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Getting Lost is my Superpower

I can get lost in places where other mortals find it impossible. I get disoriented popping in and out of the corner store. I take the bus in the wrong direction. Whenever I try to guess which way is the right way to go, I get it wrong. I've been thinking for years about ways to fix this problem. I have strategies that work. When I have to go somewhere new, I figure in extra time for being lost. I always have a map. And a compass. I find a route and I take it exactly the same way every time without ever deviating (deviating from the route is usually a disaster for me). I have a gps in my phone.

None of these strategies really solves the root problem, though. None of them improves my sense of direction.

I had heard about experiments using strong magnets in a belt or ankle bracelet which would pull you toward North at all times, theoretically giving you augmented proprioception. I am pretty sure that such a belt would not go with all of my outfits, so that's clearly not reasonable solution for me. (Proprioception is the sense of where you are in space, and one of my favorite words because it was one that I was missing for a long time.)

I've also thought about using a cell phone compass to make a vibration just for a second, every time your bearing is North, to teach you which streets you walk on go which direction.

Back in January, Radiolab did a show called Lost & Found. It aired on my birthday, as a matter of fact.

One of the segments in the show was about scientists who are starting to study people who have unbelievable gaps in their sense of orientation (some even worse than me). Conclusion: we all have brain damage. Listen to the show for more interesting details.

Another segment of the show was about languages which use cardinal points to organize things and orient instead of using left and right. A woman who lived with a group of people studying one of these languages described how, after many months of living there and studying the language, she suddenly saw herself from a bird's eye view. When she excitedly told the villagers that this had happened to her, they were all a little dumbfounded. They didn't know that it was possible to go through life without this kind of picture of the world as a natural part of your mindscape. They wondered how the poor woman had ever managed to survive childhood.

This gave me an idea for an experiment. From now on, I am going to try to stop thinking in left and right and start thinking in cardinal points. I think it might help me overcome my brain damage! I already carry a compass (and a map) everywhere I go. I've carried a map my whole adult life. I added the compass maybe 10 years ago. With a map and a compass and some calm and patience you can get unlost most of the time. If you get off the map, the compass can usually help you get back onto it.

So now, when I stop into a corner store while on a Saturday evening stroll, I won't pause in front of the door to make a mental note that the store was on my left when I went into it. Instead, I will make a mental note that I had been walking southeast.


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