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Why Getting Lost is Good For You

How we've distanced ourselves from our innate ability to find our own way


(This article appeared previously on Rewire.org)

If you have a good sense of direction, life is a lot easier. You know where you are and where you’re headed — and if you’re turned around for a second, you can generally get your bearings and find what you seek.

At least that’s the way I see it — but I’m the guy who glances at a map once and innately knows how to get to a destination with minimal hassle. It’s always been an asset on road trips and adventures in new cities.

If we know we can learn everything from our phones, we’re less likely to ask for help from other people.

In fact, I can only remember one time that I was truly lost — in the twisting, flat streets of Seville, Spain. I was wandering back to my Airbnb after a meal and took a few scenic detours on the way. All of a sudden, I was in the middle of a tangle of alleys and six-way intersections with few signs and no major thoroughfares.

I started to panic and circled the neighborhood, only to wind up in the same intersection again and again. When I became convinced I was trapped in a horror movie, I admitted defeat and pulled out my phone — and GPS told me I was three minutes away from my apartment.

I was unsettled — and annoyed that my previously infallible sense of direction had gotten twisted — but it turns out that feeling lost, and learning to navigate through the world’s unknown areas, are essential parts of humanity. That’s what New York University professor and author George Michelsen Foy argues in his new book, Finding North: How Navigation Makes Us Human.

Foy’s book is a personal history, scientific exploration and cultural study of navigation, from sailors with sextants to the mathematical principles behind GPS to the brain functions of mapping and directions.

More pressingly, Finding North dives into the risks of our reliance on GPS as a navigation tool and the potentially damaging effects it can have on our brain functions.

The End of Dead Reckoning?

You might remember the news story last year about the American tourist who typed the name of an Icelandic road into his GPS system and wound up driving 270 miles to a fishing village on the island’s north coast — when his actual destination was far to the south, in Reykjavik.

While the tourist, Noel Santillan, made the most of his wrong-turn trip — he told an Icelandic news site, “I did enjoy the scenery on the way. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. And the horses!” — it turns out that a simple spelling error caused him to drive halfway across the country. Why didn’t he turn back when he so clearly wasn’t in Reykjavik?

Foy argues that reliance on GPS navigation encourages us to ignore “dead reckoning,” the reasoning-based form of navigation that sailors still use. As he said in an interview with New York University, “If you’re walking to a restaurant on Ninth Avenue in New York, and you remember that it’s roughly a five-minute walk, once you’ve walked for 10 minutes you know you have to go back and check.”

It’s the same when you’re finding your way to the bathroom in the dark — you’re subconsciously measuring your footsteps and how long it’s taking.

Even GPS systems use the same functions: By using the time it takes your signal to reach different satellites, your device computes your exact location. Foy makes the point that by listening to these devices, which are capable of grave error, we learn to ignore our intuitive sense of direction and silence the question, “Shouldn’t I have gotten there by now?”

Foy, writing in The Daily Beast, provided some other examples. “In Alaska, a driver, also mindlessly obeying a device, steers his car off a dock, straight into Prince William Sound. In California, a child dies in Death Valley because of a GPS mistake.”

While most GPS errors aren’t life or death, think of a time you got into a cab or app-based ride service: You know the way home down to the fastest shortcut, but your driver plugs it into the phone anyway. Your ride is longer, more expensive and frustrating for you. In fact, Foy argues that using GPS over time can have even more costly effects.

Use it or Lose it (Your Brain, That Is)

Foy consults with scientists and researchers in his work to discover the brain functions at work in navigation. He learned that the hippocampus and amygdalae, which are responsible for sense, memory and location processing, are disused when we engage with GPS tools and other passivity-inducing screen devices. In short, GPS may allow us to accurately drive to a location, but we have no idea where we are.

“Robotic reliance on GPS-type electronic aids, and associated disuse of the navigational centers in our brain, increase our likelihood of contracting neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, according to researchers such as Véronique Bohbot at McGill (University),” Foy wrote.

There are also social costs: If we know we can learn everything from our phones, we’re less likely to ask for help from other people. “In a fundamental way, it removes us from the most deeply human process of all,” he wrote.

He’s insistent that getting lost is a central part of how we grow as people, whether we get lost in a city or lost in a question. By using higher reasoning, intuition and the lessons of memory, we find our way, literally and figuratively.

Foy is not a Luddite, but he does recommend caution and moderation when letting our smart devices find the way for us. Smart devices might be inescapable now, but we can find at least a few minutes to stash them in a pocket and go for a stroll. You might get lost — but at least you’re being human about it.

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By Alex Gaterud
Alex Gaterud is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor.

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