Why do some people always get lost?

Ars Technica » Scientific Method 2024-04-14

Scientists are homing in on how navigation skills develop.

Enlarge / Scientists are homing in on how navigation skills develop. (credit: Knowable Magazine (CC BY-ND))

Like many of the researchers who study how people find their way from place to place, David Uttal is a poor navigator. “When I was 13 years old, I got lost on a Boy Scout hike, and I was lost for two and a half days,” recalls the Northwestern University cognitive scientist. And he’s still bad at finding his way around.

The world is full of people like Uttal—and their opposites, the folks who always seem to know exactly where they are and how to get where they want to go. Scientists sometimes measure navigational ability by asking someone to point toward an out-of-sight location—or, more challenging, to imagine they are someplace else and point in the direction of a third location—and it’s immediately obvious that some people are better at it than others.

“People are never perfect, but they can be as accurate as single-digit degrees off, which is incredibly accurate,” says Nora Newcombe, a cognitive psychologist at Temple University who coauthored a look at how navigational ability develops in the 2022 Annual Review of Developmental Psychology. But others, when asked to indicate the target’s direction, seem to point at random. “They have literally no idea where it is.”

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