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In his 2010 book, Why People Get Lost, neuroscientist Paul Dudchenko considers the cognitive processes involved in wayfinding and how these processes can get disrupted. From rats running through mazes to expert navigators scaling mountains, he argues that individuals get lost when their brain’s compass becomes disoriented. Here, he explains why that happens, how the experience of getting lost can improve your navigational skills and why disorientation can be distressing or thrilling.

How do we get lost?

In 1987, scientists experimenting on rats discovered that specific neurons fire when an animal faces a certain way. Humans have the same basic brain structure as rats, so the assumption is that whatever neurons are doing in rats, they’re also doing in humans. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that people do have a sense of direction—if you close your eyes, you aren’t instantly disorientated. We get lost when this internal sense becomes detached from the real world, which gives us a sense of heading in a direction that we’re not.

Does this mean our internal map is not anchored to reality?

Yes. That’s why it’s difficult to get lost in an environment you know—it’s usually anchored to familiar landmarks. If you close your eyes, your map can drift a little, and that process can continue until it becomes totally decoupled from reality. However in the presence of familiar landmarks, the decoupling is quickly corrected. It can be distressing, though, if you get disorientated and see a familiar landmark that feels like it’s in the wrong place.

So why do people enjoy getting lost in some situations?

People like to push themselves. When you do a maze, for example, you’re not sure which way you’re facing, then suddenly there’s a reveal, which doesn’t cost you much. But if you’re in the hills, for example, the stakes are higher and you start to panic. In an uncontrolled situation, we have an emotional reaction to the phenomenon of getting lost.

Do we have an innate sense of direction or is there some advantage to frequently being exposed to disorientation?

Broadly in psychology, there are two views of the world: one, that you’re born with certain abilities; the other, that your abilities develop through experience–whether you grew up in the city or country, for example. Generally, it’s a combination: some innate capacity is certainly there. But your reliance on navigation influences your capacity to maintain orientation. Some argue that the difference between an expert navigator and someone who isn’t is simply that the experts pay attention to their surroundings.

Can our ability–or inability–to navigate be manipulated in any way?

People don’t behave randomly—space constrains behaviour. We are now becoming more aware of the flow of people, especially in places like airports, where design decisions can allow people to get around more easily. A situation where it hasn’t been applied enough is with people suffering from dementia, who have damage to the brain area associated with the neural compass. The design of nursing homes is often not the most conducive to finding your way around—for example, long hallways where every door looks the same. An environment can be easy or it can be hard to navigate and this has real implications for places like nursing homes as well as for broader urban planning.

"People don't behave randomly—space constrains behaviour."

  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Filip Dujardin
  • Words:
    Debika Ray
  • Photography:
    Filip Dujardin

"People don't behave randomly—space constrains behaviour."

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