Which way is north?


I have just read an article on being lost (here) and I have to say that the people described were ‘not from Saskatchewan’. There are advantages and disadvantages to having been a prairie girl.

When we were first in Kenya, my husband used to look at a map, decide where he was going, and go out the door of the hotel and within a city block he was hopelessly lost. We couldn’t believe what had happened to him. The mystery was solved when we realized he navigated by the sun and had not corrected for being somewhere where the sun can be in the north half of the sky. I, being a prairie girl, did not get lost. I could go on with story after story (I won’t) but the weird ways in which other people navigate.

Of course, I always know which way is north. If I lose this knowledge of my bearing, I suffer from a deeply lost feeling, a type of panic. This is an abstract panic. I can know where I am well enough to manage to get where I am going, or can have a map, or can be with someone who knows where they are. I am not afraid in that sense. What causes the panic is a loss of contact with my mental map of the universe.

Well maybe one more story: my husband was in a fairly large store in Saskatchewan, in the basement. There was a sign that said, ‘Hardware has been moved to the west wall.’ He was amazed. After walking round on the ground floor, taking one of several escalators down to the basement, and walking around there, he was expected to find the west wall in a windowless basement. He was not amused when I suggested that he could have faced north and then turned to his left and walked in that direction.

The article reviews a number of ways that people find their way or get lost, whichever. I am interested in how navigation and the feeling of being lost registers in consciousness.

Every so often, Sharon Roseman rounds a bend in her suburban Colorado neighbourhood and drives into a new world. It’s a lot like the world she knows – same houses, same street names – but with one critical, maddening difference: everything in it has shifted 90 degrees. Familiar stores at well-known intersections are not where she feels they should be, and the Rocky mountains have migrated from the north to the east.

Roseman’s world has been turning like this since she was 5 years old, and the only sure-fire way to set things right is to close her eyes and spin until everything “clicks” back into place, a remedy she jokingly calls her “Wonder Woman cure”. Despite countless visits to a doctor, prescriptions and brain scans over more than 50 years, nobody has offered a diagnosis. Nobody, Roseman suspects, really believed her. Until now.

Giuseppe Iaria of the University of Calgary, Alberta, and Jason Barton at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, both in Canada, may have finally put a name to Roseman’s condition. They call it developmental topographical disorientation. While people with the disorder have no obvious brain injury or other cognitive problem, they are chronically unable to orient themselves, even in places they know well. The pair have found 400 or so people who may have the disorder, some of whom are so prone to getting lost they fear leaving the house alone.

Well just maybe one more story – When my Grandmother and her children came to Saskatchewan to join Grandfather, the children were mixed up in their directions. So Grandfather’s brother took them out in a horse and sled. He covered them with a blanket. He went round in circles and figure eights and zig-zags on the featureless prairie snow. He would stop the horse (facing north) and ask, ‘is anyone sure they are facing north?’. If anyone was, that child and only them could come out from under the blanket. This was done several times until all the children had emerged and had the correct orientation. And I believe they had it more or less for the rest of their lives.

3 thoughts on “Which way is north?

  1. I found interesting the idea that our capacity to represent new environments along with our relationship with physical space can completely alter our perception of reality. I belive that we can be walking towards the wrong direction beliving that we are going towards the right one because while we watch our surroundings we percive them altered, our brain makes it look like the path we were expecting to go trough.

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