05 October 2007

Not all those who wander are lost … except when it comes to me.

Seriously. Worst sense of direction ever. Generally, the only people I know who are as bad as me are either directly related - my grandmother (although presumably she’s now getting directions from Saint Peter) and one sister (the other sister and my brother are not cursed.) I do have a coworker who seems to be as badly off as me, but that’s it. Three people, in my whole life, get lost as badly and as easily as me. I can’t really give you any examples because that kind of thing tends to be best exemplified by specific local scenarios. If I tell you that the first time I was in London I wasn’t much bothered by the fact that the traffic was all going in the opposite direction from what I was used to, does that help? I couldn’t really tell the difference.

I think part of my problem is that I’m a little right-left dyslexic, I don’t have any strong ingrained sense of which is which. In dance class I always had to hold my hand out to make the “L” to figure out which was left and which was right. (Of course, if you flip your right hand over so the palm is facing up, both hands make an L. Not helpful.) Later, taking driver’s ed made me so nervous I used to write “L” and “R” on the back of my hands for an easy reference – one less thing to think about. I took my test that way too, and passed. (It was in Massachusetts, after all.)

It’s an odd problem to have – most of the time it makes no difference to my life. It adds some complexity to timing arrivals to, say, job interviews (my usual formula is to figure out how long it would take a normal person to get there, allowing for traffic, and then to add 50% to that.) You’d think with all the travelling I’ve done that it would be an issue, but all tourists are semi-lost. I can read a map just fine, and tourist areas are pretty well marked. I do have some trouble translating from a map to the area around me. (My best friend and I went to Yurrop the summer we were 19. On the train to new cities, I would read the guidebook and figure out what district the fleabag hotels were in, together we’d navigate public transportation and then when we got outside to the actual ground, I would hand her the map with a star for our destination, and she’d get us there. Heh.)

But like I said, unless you’ve recently moved to a totally new place, it’s not an everyday issue – I usually don’t get that far outside my neighborhood and most of my errands are work, home, supermarket, yoga – local. So not something that I’m really investing a lot of time and effort into solving. However, I was reading this Gord Hotchkiss column where he talks about how you navigate the search landscape, and draws an analogy between finding your way around online and finding your way around in meatspace (heh heh, I love that retro phrase lately. So 2002!) I don’t think the analogy quite holds up, if only because my experience is so different. Remember the path to where my stuff is saved on various hard drives, or remember how to replicate the searches I did which eventually landed me on that cool t-shirt website? No problem. And I can get around supermarkets, too.

But Hotchkiss talks about, and links to, a paper talking about special cognition and how people (and robots) process that. The paper breaks it up into three types of knowledge – there’s landmark, which is, um, finding your way around using landmarks; then there’s route, which is using a series of landmarks (like when you always take the same route to your grandmother’s house because it’s the one you know, even though there might be faster/easier ways to get there); and then there’s survey, which is where you combine landmark and route knowledge to create an abstract spacial map in your head that explains how all these things relate to one another. This is where I fail. I’ve lived in Somerville for 2 years, and I am JUST starting to be able to deviate from my routes (usually when there’s no time pressure and no one else in the car with me, because I still get lost a lot).

You know what else I suck at? Rotating objects in space. I couldn’t have hacked it as a chemist. I actually took an IQ test a while ago (no, I’m not a genius … I’m sure this is shocking news, but take a deep breath and try to get over it. Also, not an online IQ test, this was a two day series of tests in an office. I did indeed have Rorschach tests – I remember seeing a lot of twinned animal images in them) The IQ test results (besides that I wasn’t a genius) pointed out that I’m much weaker than normal in rotating objects in space. (Also the IQ results pointed to me being much more of a risk taker than normal. What, not everyone elopes at 23 and then moves to New Zealand without any job, work permit, place to stay or person to call? Not everyone thinks this is a fun idea?)

IQ tests are deeply flawed (I am totally a genius! just not in the ways that they measure, which are heavily math-science and learned-knowledge oriented) as are SATs – some of the same flaws; I know that the SATs have been shown to have cultural biases towards the test-writers, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that IQ tests have some of the same problems – for starters, they don’t measure much in the way of creativity - your ability to write a sentence isn’t taken into account. Neither is humor.

And my comments on SAT flaws aren’t due to not-a-genius sour grapes; I did stupidly well on the SATs, so well that my SAT scores pointed to me being a lot smarter than the occasional As and mostly Bs on my report cards, which meant a lot of colleges saw my application and read a little “danger! This student doesn’t live up their full potential” into it. Which is maybe why I got negged EVERYwhere except my safety, which eventually led to going to university in the UK. ANYWAY. I think the reason I did so well on the SATs was mostly due to a great deal of practice in taking standardized tests, a good all-around education, and sharing the cultural history of the SAT test writers.

Uh, where was I going with this… oh yeah. SAT and IQ tests are totally flawed, but the IQ rotating-objects-in-space thing does seem to tie in with later-in-life difficulties getting around. My little problem with directions didn’t become an obstacle until I’d moved away from home and had to find places on my own (my mother has a weird genius for giving me directions to places I’ve never been, because she knows what landmarks I will know). And the most valuable part of articles I linked to is that they gave me a little more context, and language to frame around the specific difficulties I have with navigating day to day. I wouldn't say it's held me back - I have strategies in place - it's just sometimes hard to explain to people exactly what the problem is - I get accused a lot of "not paying attention", which really isn't true, but I couldn't explain that before. Now I've got the language to help me frame an argument. Small victories. It's what life is all about.


Lisa said...

I wonder where I fall in that spectrum. In a car, or on foot -- anywhere outside -- I have a great sense of direction and can navigate with the pros. But inside, in an office or, say, the stacks of the large college library where I work, I get hopelessly lost instantly. Which is always fun at the end of job interviews when I need help finding my way back to the reception desk.

My theory is that outdoors I automatically keep my eye out for landmarks, but in a large office situation -- doctor, interview, work -- I have other things on my mind. Either that or I'm just selectively deficient.

Cara deBeer said...

I guess I'd say your passive short term route memorization isn't so hot. I always need directions back to reception in job interviews, too.

Leah said...

I went for a job interview a few years back and the route from my potential (and eventual boss') office to the director of HR's office was upstairs around the back down the hall confusing. At the end of the interview the HR director told me if I could find my way out I had the job. Ta da!