Innate direction/compass sense in humans

This NYT article mentions studies comparing navigational differences between the genders. While not wholly applicable, it mentions using “remembered vectors” to navigate, which is pretty close to an internal direction sense.

What about people who have a terrible sense of direction? I couldn’t navigate my way out of a paper bag. /sigh.

I have a pretty good sense of direction, but my mom still gets lost in a city that she has lived in her entire life.

I call bullshit. There’s no conclusive study that this is anything but shit luck. Point to the North? Well, you’ve got a one in four chance depending upon how accurate you want to make it. Plus there are lots of visual clues to help you out. You don’t have a magnetic brain, nor a sixth sense.

What about people who do so after being blindfolded and driven about ?

When you find a properly conducted study that concludes there are any such people, your question will be worth considering.

Well, that’s what I was asking earlier. Is anyone on the board a, oh, neuroscientist or something that would know which indexes to search to see whether there have been any studies? I’m tempted to believe it’s bullshit, too, but would like to know whether that has been really determined.

I’ve alway had a good sense of direction…

Or at least I thought so until a friend challenged me on it. Without visual clues I was no better than chance. I’ve since read about studies that challenged the notion of some inate SOD and have now come to believe I’m just better at paying attention to my surroundings and how I got there than most.

I’m voting BS.

I was thinking a bit more about this, and I have some pretty good indirect evidence that it’s bullshit. Languages are built with prepositions with different frames of reference: I can describe the computer as “in front of me” (an “egocentric” frame of reference), as “to the left of the bookshelf” (an “intrinsic” frame of reference, based on the computer’s location in relation to another object orientation), or “north of the bookshelf” (an “absolute” frame of reference, based on the computer’s location in relation to another object).

The explanation of magnetic bacteria presupposes that the only absolute frame of reference people use is north/south/east/west. While this is true for a lot of people, it isn’t true for all.
New Yorkers, for instance, use downtown/uptown in describing locations on Manhattan. A more extreme example is the Tenejapan dialect of Tzeltal, which uses uphill/downhill as the only frame of reference (ie, “The computer is uphill of the bookshelf”).

So if magnetic bacteria don’t explain it, I don’t think there is a legitimate biological explanation beyond being able to maintain a mental map. I think people are underestimating their own abilities to do this - that ability might vary between people, but it would explain the phenomenon to some extent. It still doesn’t explain being able to “intuitively” know where to go in a completely unknown area, but my guess is that that is just selective memory, remembering the times when you guess the turn to take correctly more often than your incorrect guesses.

Well, a sample size of one certainly doesn’t make for a study, but I assure you that at least my claims are not BS. I agree that in many situations there are visual clues that could aid someone, but I’d like to know your thoughts on the following scenario.

A test subject is driven to a remote location outside of an urban area. The subject knows the destination in advance, but knows nothing of the road surrounding the destination, nor the terrain and geographic features in the area. The subject sleeps in the car for the duration of the trip, and only wakes up once the car arrives at the destination. It is night, and there is either complete cloud cover or it’s a new moon. The subject is then able to point out magnetic north to within, say, +/- 10 deg. The subject is able to repeat this “experiment” several times over a few years in different locations, and never guesses more than 10 degrees off of magnetic north. Do you still believe that that is BS?

Sorry, wrong thread…

Sure. We’re a tough crowd, sorry :wink:

I suspect a lot of it is to do with whether an individual cares about it or not.

I have an excellent sense of direction, but I have also lived in urban environments where having this wasn’t a life-or-death thing. I always know where the four cardinal directions are, but find many people don’t, and… this is important… they don’t CARE, and they don’t need to care. They know how to drive home, and that’s enough. For me, I feel weird if I don’t know where north is, but a lot of people happily don’t care, just as I happily don’t care what the barometric pressure is that day.

To carry on from Princhester’s example - whenever I’ve been in the Northern Hemisphere, I’ve had a good sense of direction, simply because I made a conscious effort to think about the sun. I think this just means I’m more anal about it, and that’s all. I was bugged if I didn’t know, so I made the effort to stop and work it out. Nothing mysterious though.

If there is a gene for sense of direction, my family is totally lacking in it. We cannot find anywhere. I’m serious. I tell people we’ll never have a family reunion because nobody would show up. We couldn’t find the place.

I get lost going to places I have been before. It’s that bad. I’ve learned the best people to ask for directions are postal workers and the police.

I’d be careful about that. I have a good sense of direction AND I’m a postal worker, but the two are unrelated. Postal workers learn places by name only. There’s nothing geographic about it. I know to sort Los Angeles to the United States, but if I thought the USA was somewhere near Sri Lanka it wouldn’t matter a jot.

Cops though, I can believe. And paramedics.

In contrast to the posters so far (sahti drunk explains if I’m wrong), I have no sense of direction. None. If I turn a corner, I can’t tell where I came from unless I specifically reason it. In a mall, I lose direction in a minute, and have to wander off out a random exit, coming into a random street, without a clue where I am, in a familiar town. I envy you.

I’m lucky I could find this thread.

I’m glad I live in a city with numbers for streets. Much less romantic than streets based on cow trails, but also far more logical. I can find my way out of a paper bag if I know the numbers and which way they’re running. :smiley:

I grew up in a city that had the latter – cow trails that became streets – and I can barely navigate there.

Either way, I don’t think I could point to North without consulting a compass. When thinking about directionality, I tend to visualize a map and orient myself to it. This can take some time to fully render in my mind’s eye, so by that point the asker has generally gone off to find themselves a real compass. :smiley: