Academic journal article Colorado Review: a journal of contemporary literature

Aligning the Internal Compass

Academic journal article Colorado Review: a journal of contemporary literature

Aligning the Internal Compass

Article excerpt

The first page of the Orienteering: Sport of a Lifetime brochure reads: "With a map and compass in hand, you head into the woods. It is a beautiful day and you are about to start off on an adventure: Orienteering." At least I think that's what it says. I can hardly read the text, soggy from rain dripping from the looming trees surrounding us.

My father and I stand at the edge of the woods in a Maryland state park at noon on a Sunday, waiting to begin our day of orienteering in an effort to improve, or at least test, our sense of direction. We look awkwardly at the other people waiting, a couple dozen of them chatting as though they already know one another and wearing very serious athletic gear. Our own jeans will be wet and mud covered by the end of the day.

Perhaps irrationally, I sometimes become terrified by the idea that when the world ends and I have to flee my city, my gps may not be charged. When my father bought it for me as a gift a few years back, I quickly became dependant on it in the same way I rely upon my eyeglasses or electricity. That little screen probably saves me about forty cumulative hours a year that would otherwise be spent driving around, lost.

My whole life, I've been going in circles. While the gps seems like it's solving this problem, I'm pretty sure it's setting me up for a fall. I've heard several friends with an impeccable sense of direction say they can no longer tell north from south because they've become too dependent on the TomTom or the Garmin stuck to their dashboard. If these people, previously capable of taking on the role of navigator on road trips, can't figure out which direction to flee from the burning city when the time comes, I have to wonder what will become of me.

For years I have been under the impression that I was a lost cause, spatially. I can't read maps. I don't know which direction is which (although in the past couple of years I've started, in a sad, proud way, noting east or west when the sun is low, clearly on its way up or down). I can drive the same route a dozen times before I know which turn is mine. This makes me feel pathetic and, again, a little bit scared about how incapable I am.

As any self-help book will tell you, the first step is to understand your handicaps. I've found that this is true whether I'm reading to improve my relationship, reduce my carbohydrate intake, or assert myself in the workplace. I worry that sense of direction is different, though--maybe because there's less out there to understand. It's an elusive skill. Scientists all over the world are interested in it, but very few have come up with anything definitive to explain it, much less to help us learn our way out. It's about gravitational pull, some say. Or, It's all about cell orientation in the brain. These statements mean nothing to me, which is all right, because they're still up for debate in the scientific community. For all of the research that's been done, sense of direction is still a pretty abstract concept. What most scientists do agree on is this: On a super-simplified level, the brain needs three types of information to help us find our way. First, it needs to know where we are currently. Second, it needs to know the direction we're heading. And third, the brain needs to calibrate our "current movement state" in relation to our goal destination. (This is the exact same process that a GPS follows, incidentally, if we're breaking things down to a fifth-grade level.) Essentially, the process continually asks, "Are we going the right way?" A brain (or an impressive, expensive piece of electronic equipment) with all of these bits of information can provide an answer.

Terminology is important when discussing anything complicated, but when it comes to sense of direction, we tend to use terms interchangeably, but incorrectly. Often sense of direction gets mixed up with way finding, which actually refers to finding one's way on the open ocean, using a combination of the sun, stars, and ocean swells. …

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