Hi DarrenS, and sympathies.
First of all, unless you have professional psychiatric opinion to the contrary, I strongly doubt there is anything wrong with you or your mind’s abilities. Secondly, next time anyone comes out with those ‘lack of spatial reasoning’ lines, may I suggest you put them in a sack, jump up and down on them, and make them recite: “Browsing a few articles in the popular press does not make me a friggin’ psychologist”.
Here’s a couple of things that might help. First off, there’s a useful comparison with people who say they are always forgetting things. In many cases, this is not actually the problem. The problem is, they don’t remember things in the first place. There is a difference.
Some people, when they drive around, take notes (mentally) of the things they see and pass, major landmarks, handy things to recall and so on. As they pull in somewhere by turning right, for example, they mentally notice that they are making a right, and so it’s a cinch on the way out to know that they need to make a left (if they want to go back the way they came). What you are probably doing is failing to take this information in to start with, which is why you can’t recall it, which is why your sense of navigation is so poor.
So that’s tip #1. Try to re-train yourself. Spark up your attention a little. Don’t just let the scenery pass you by. LOOK at handy landmarks and route-fixers, NOTICE them, train yourself to develop AWARENESS of them. To begin with, talk to yourself out loud: “Big Coke billboard on the LEFT as I set off from the lights”. That kind of thing. (I guess you only want to do this when you’re on your own!) Eventally, you will get the hang of it without having to say anything out loud. In time, it will be second-nature.
Two notes on this: (1) pay attention to what YOU feel is a good route-marker. If your mind works best with street names (wordy information), notice street names. If it works best with big visual landmarks (visual/spatial information) notice them instead of the street names. Some people pay lots of attention to sounds. (2) It sounds kinda obvious, but remember you only need to notice two landmarks on any line to fix a direction. If you pass X and then Y, then anytime you are on that road again you can only pass them in one of two sequences: XY or YX. Either way, you’ll know whether you are going in the same direction you were before, or the opposite.
Tip #2. Any good book on memory techniques will tell you how to store sequential information by visualising exaggerated, memorable images in your mind. I recommend any book by my good friend Dominic O’Brien, 7 times world memory champion. Harry Lorayne is another memory expert with several books available, although personally I prefer O’Brien’s work (I find it a bit more up to date).