Turn, Turn, Turn

Finding your way in the world isn't easy if you lack a sense of direction.

February 17, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | By Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

THE FAIR-HAIRED GIRL in the back seat of the family car could always tell which way they were headed. On many family trips, through many moves from one of her father's Air Force posts to another, little Kimberly Baumert hardly had to look out the window to know.

They were heading north, of course.

Years later, it would dawn on her that it couldn't always be north, although it could always seem so. Life then became more complicated. Those other three directions were on the compass, but never in her gut. Or would it be the head? The seat of the pants?

It's hard to be sure. We say "sense of direction" as if to say "sense of smell," as if we might locate it anatomically. It happens that "sense of direction" is hard to find. What exactly is it? And why do some people have it while others don't?

Scientists have focused much attention in navigation studies on animals, finding many clues but no comprehensive explanation of how birds, bees and other creatures find their way home. As for humans who regularly sense a left when it should be a right and who can get lost stepping into and out of a phone booth, researchers have even less to offer in the way of certainties.

For her part, Baumert is grown up now, 25 years old, and driving her own car. She's a member of a group of indeterminate number and no organized affiliation or political presence. These disoriented folks might try having meetings, but who could say how many would find the assigned place at the assigned time?

"Point A to B, I think it's north. B to C, I think it's north, too," says Baumert, a former Maryland resident now living in Los Angeles. "I am so impaired. I am definitely directionally challenged. ... I don't think I have a firm grasp of where I'm going at all."

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1998, she did find her way to Los Angeles. Driving with a friend in her Honda Civic, she made it in seven days, no rush.

She had the American Automobile Association plot a course, she took a map of every state she would drive through and stuck to Interstate 80 west all the way to Northern California, where she picked up Route 101 south to Los Angeles.

She later found her way to a crucial job interview, but not before driving the route the night before just to make sure, and not before bringing her roommate along for the dry run, and not without leaving plenty of time for slip-ups that might result from consulting the Rand McNally of her mind.

"I'm a very visual person" says Baumert. "I picture a map."

That might be a good thing, only it's that same inner map she had when she was a kid, the one that bears little resemblance to actuality.

"I have literally been lost two blocks from my house and never known it," says Baumert. "My brain doesn't work the same way other people's work in this regard."

Perhaps. But even a brief search under "directionally challenged" finds the Internet awash in lost souls.

'These hapless souls'

"Confessions of a Directionally Challenged Woman" comes up on Baumert's personal online journal, but it might easily be confused with others.

"To call me 'directionally challenged' would be a kindness. I am simply missing whatever key chromosome is necessary to distinguish east from west from left from under," says an Internet journal keeper who calls herself SecraTerri.

"I was a little worried, though. My wife wasn't with me on this trip, and I'm the most directionally challenged person you could ever find" says Web journal-keeper Dan Knight in reference to a trip to London.

Cyberspace brims with witness, helpful tips, even gift suggestions (hand-held Global Positioning System navigator, more than $100; large ball of string, somewhat less expensive). Dummies.com recommends Web sites that provide driving directions for "these hapless souls, the directionally challenged."

The sheer abundance of references gives "directionally challenged" the weight of objective fact, a diagnosis of sorts. In scientific terms, however, it's not at all clear what constitutes a human "sense of direction."

In the Aug. 26, 1892, edition of the journal Science, medical doctor J. N. Hall took up the question: "Is There a Sense of Direction?" His conclusion: in animals, yes; in people, not really.

"I believe that man's ability to find his way to a given point is dependent solely upon a habit of observation, almost unconscious to be sure, in many cases, but necessary to the end in view," Hall wrote.

More than a century later, research has scarcely expanded on that notion, says James L. Gould, Princeton University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"I think the progress from that point has been close to zero" on human sense of direction, says Gould, who has researched navigation by honeybees and pigeons.

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