Lost 2 – Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning

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:

Link to “Understanding Human Navigation”

3 Replies to “Lost 2 – Dead Reckoning”

  1. You know, I never thought about a sense of direction being a part of orienting yourself in space. It makes COMPLETE sense, I just never made that connection. I have absolutely no sense of direction, at ALL. Only by driving the same exact way over and over and over again am I able to get places without a GPS. Have me start a few streets over and I have so much trouble. I get horribly uncomfortable when I get lost.

    My Mom has been trying to teach me cardinal directions since I was about 10…I’m 24 and STILL don’t get it. She always said: the lake is north (we lived in Ohio), it’s constant…you can always figure out the other directions! How can I do that if I can’t SEE the lake? I still get lost in the area where I lived for 18 years. The other night I was on the phone with her and I was trying to figure out how to get out of the city to go back home and my GPS wasn’t picking up satellites. I said…ok, the lake is over there – so I need to turn right. She was so proud…until I told her it was because I could SEE the lake and knew I could drive through it ;)

    1. Hi Jaimie!

      It must be hard for people to whom this comes naturally to understand our difficulties. It’s funny, I don’t even know my left from my right without thinking consciously about it. I have had people try to tell me directions while I’m driving, I’m trying to regulate speed, not run into anybody and the navigator says, “turn left.” I will invariably turn right. My family and best friends know, if I am driving and one of them navigating, they need to sit in the front seat and point the direction I am to turn. I am soooooo grateful for my GPS, and my iPhone. I was as grateful to get my iPhone as I was to get my first pair of glasses when I was nine. Like, “Oh, so that’s what it’s supposed to be like!”

      Oddly. If I am at a store, no matter how sensory overloaded, if I hand over cash, I know – automatically – what my change is supposed to be. I guess that’s why humans live in communities, so we can enjoy each others talents and help augment each others weaknesses :)

  2. Left, Right, North, South, East, West – I have learned ways to remind my self these, but still – nothing ever automatic about it, and in a pinch – I will always go the wrong way. My photo recall is off the charts (especially facial which I figure has a lot to do with PTSD, but maybe not). The frustration on relying on photo recall is when they restructure roadways and you did not know! Where I live this is happening in a high rate of speed. You literally feel like you must have lost your mind. Boy is it a relief when you find out you did not.

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