Orienting ourselves in space is one of the most complex activities our brains perform. It relies on a myriad of cognitive functions. Different individuals rely on different mechanisms to perform this challenging feat, everything from observation and memorization to intuition.
If you have no “intuition” for it, you must rely on complex cognitive functions to create maps in your mind. For the sensational, it can be quite a challenge.
It is the “intuition” that I find most interesting. “A sense of direction” is the primitive orientation mechanism known as “dead reckoning.” Some people have it and some don’t. And science isn’t entirely sure how it’s done.
Birds Eye View
My friend Gracie and I used to wile away hours playing “blind man.” Gracie’s family lived on a good-sized tract of land on the outskirts of a subdivision near Bossier City, Louisiana. I lived nearby while attending fourth and fifth grade. Gracie’s place was vast, with large swaths of grass and many old trees.
I would blindfold her, turn her in place, then lead her here and there, then turn her again and lead her elsewhere. I’d turn her half turns and three-quarter turns and four and a half turns. There was no way she could keep track of the route. It didn’t matter where I led her, how long she was blindfolded, how I tried to trick her, we’d get to the end and I’d say, “Where are you?” and she’d say, “South corner of the front yard next to the mailbox.”
“You cheated,” I accused.
“I did not.”
“How do you do that?”
“I just,” she shrugged, “know.”
When it was my turn, Gracie turned me, blindfolded, and led me this way and that. I felt certain that I knew exactly where I was. She was easier on me than I was on her. We started in the far quadrant of the back yard. She turned me three times, all the way around. I knew this because she stood still and spun me in place. Based on this hard evidence I knew we walked in the same direction I was headed when she placed the blindfold over my eyes. We walked what felt like half-way across the yard toward the house and turned left, then right, then turned in place two more times and walked several more steps.
“Where are you?” Gracie asked.
“Back yard, next to the tree swing.” I ripped off the blindfold. And I was…how did I get on the other side of the driveway?
It was so weird. I knew exactly where I was in my mind and then instantly, with the removal of the blindfold, I appeared in an entirely different place. It was like science fiction, this was what space teleporting must feel like. It made my skin prickle and my stomach drop. My brain came to complete attention at the strangeness of the phenomenon.
I have grown to hate that feeling as an adult. It means I turned the wrong way and now I have to backtrack, which means I’m late.
So, dead reckoning – like I said earlier – brain scientists and animal behaviorists don’t know how it is done. They have performed experiments on homing pigeons, migrating birds and recently, whales. Over the course of many years of experimentation they have ruled out visual cues, olfactory cues, memorization of the route, and alignment with the magnetic field. Dead reckoning remains a mystery.
A couple of years ago, I listened to a RadioLab episode in which my hero, Oliver Sacks, placed two magnetic balls in his pocket. No matter which way he turned, the two balls lined up – one in front of the other – with magnetic north. Sacks, one of the smartest people in the known universe, performed this experiment in an effort to get a feel for what it must be like to innately know which direction he was headed. It brings me great comfort to know that Oliver Sacks lacks a sense of direction. It makes me realize once and for all that “being lost” is not equivalent to “being stupid”.
Listen to Sack’s experiment with magnetic north:
“Lost and Found 1” (Season 2, Episode 4)
(you have to listen to about 1 minute and 50 seconds of pleading for donations, then Oliver Sacks until about 4 minutes and 30 seconds. The rest of the podcast is fascinating as well but not necessarily on this topic.)
For more information about orienting ourselves in space, and these scientists do claim to know how it’s done: