Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Need help finding your way? Life Kit has tips on improving your sense of direction


When you're traveling in your life, in your daily life, how reliant are you on your GPS? Do you ever get turned around in your own city or town? Researchers say that having a good sense of direction is not just something you're born with. It is a skill that you can improve. But for some of us, having a good sense of direction is easier said than done. Life Kit is here to help. As always, here's NPR's Andrew Limbong.

ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: Ben Gero is an outdoor specialist at Cleveland Metroparks, where he helps kids from the city get used to the outdoors, which includes teaching them how to navigate. So a question he gets a lot is, why bother? In this day and age of always having your phone on you, why take the time to figure out how to navigate?

BEN GERO: I just deadpan just say, like, well, has your phone ever died, especially when you're outside? And if so, like, how do you get going? Do you just kind of guess? Do you just sit down and cry? I don't know.

LIMBONG: One thing Gero suggests is getting lost on purpose.

GERO: Next time you decide to go on a walk or go for a stroll, go down a road you've maybe not walked to and see where it ends up. Maybe walk the scenic way to your favorite bodega or your bar, or where - coffee shop or whatever.

LIMBONG: And obviously, it's best to do this without staring at Google Maps. Mary Hegarty is a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and leads the Spatial Thinking Lab, where they study how we see and interpret ourselves and other objects in space. She says an overreliance on GPS as you travel can lead to a literally more narrow view of the world.

MARY HEGARTY: If you're just looking at your GPS, you're not paying attention to the broader environment that maybe, you know, gives you cues of, OK, this is on my right. It means I'm here. And when this is on my left, it means I'm here.

LIMBONG: Which brings us to our second tip, and it's use a big landmark to orient yourself.

HEGARTY: The most useful landmarks are distal landmarks, landmarks that are far away.

LIMBONG: The types of landmarks that won't work are, say, the lamp post by your house or the store on the corner because your relationship to them and where you are changes so quickly that they're not that useful as an orienting tool.

HEGARTY: But something that's in the distance, like for us, the mountains, you know, is something that's always far away. So it can - it's a better cue to orientation.

LIMBONG: So for Mary Hegarty in Santa Barbara, if she ever gets turned around, all she needs to do is find the mountain range, and she knows that that is north. For you, it could be a tall building or a big sign. It's just got to be distinct. And it helps if it's something you have a personal relationship with, says Hugo Speirs. He's a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College in London and is an expert in spatial navigation.

HUGO SPIERS: So if you're in an experience where, wow, lots of great things around you, things have happened, you've got this really positive memory, then your brain has got more flexibility to hold onto some of those memories.

LIMBONG: Associating place with memories can help you remember the big-picture stuff like distal landmarks, but it can also help you remember more zoomed-in things like street names or highways.

SPIERS: That is indeed what a lot of expert navigators do is use narratives to help lock things in - because great if you can memorize street names, but street names are often, like, completely abstract. So the tricks people use are to turn these street names into stories.

LIMBONG: It's one thing to say, oh, that's 12th Street. It's another thing to say, oh, that's 12th Street, where my buddy and I walked up to get those churros that one day. And the last bit of advice from our experts is in your day-to-day travels or if you're headed to your favorite restaurant or just another day at work, look back, and turn around. See the environment around you in a slightly new light, and you'll have a more holistic understanding of exactly where you are. Andrew Limbong, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.