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New Yorkers try to find North

  The NY Times has an interesting article on spatial sense:


As readers here may know, I have myself almost no spatial sense. I have lived in the townships around here for over twenty years, and yet when we drive the twisting roads, I continue to be surprised at what we come upon. Who knew THIS was HERE? (My wife, that's who.) I believe it is actually a disability, and has got me in trouble, but it's not an evident one.

The comments to the article were good, too. One says that he depends on the small amount of iron present in the human nose, and says we could train ourselves to find north by slowly turning in a circle (presumably soemwhere without visual clues to north) until we feel a tickle in the nose. Here's another:

Stephen Levinson at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, The Netherlands, has for years been studying languages where one is required to use cardinal direction to describe spatial layout: in such languages one says things like “the knife is north of the plate”. In order to use such languages, speakers must have a very good sense of direction. One such language is Guugu Yimithirr, spoken in Northern Queensland, Australia. Needless to say, speakers of such languages have almost perfect dead reckoning. Clearly this is an ability that humans can develop. Whether it’s innate (and therefore atrophied among speakers of languages like English that don’t have such strict requirements in describing space), or is trained in speakers of languages like Guugu Yimithirr is unclear.

— Richard Sproat 

What a nice trick to use in a made-up fantasy-novel language.  


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 18th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
Oh, goodness, I have a terrible sense of orientation and very little spatial sense. When I used to travel for work it became a half-joke with my teammates that if I ever suggested going one way we'd be better off heading the other direction.
Jun. 18th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
Apropos little, here in Chicago, most natives give directions by using the cardinal directions rather than telling someone to turn left or right. After initial problems in orientation, my wife decided she likes it better. When she first moved up here, I would give her directions and she would ask how she could know which way North was. I would explain that in Chicago, the lake is always East. She pointed out that she couldn't always see the lake, but I would patiently explain that whether she could see it or not, it was always East.
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:06 pm (UTC)
In San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, my wife and I were trying to find places (travel bureau, etc,) and would show our city map to people and ask them to point it out. They ignored the map entirely (as though not actually perceiving its use) and told us "Go fifty meters north, then 300 meters west, and 100 meters north." We didn't know which way north was, or how long 50 meters would be. It turned out that the city was oriented on a north-south grid with blocks 100 meters long and an alley at fifty meters. If you could figure one direction by the sun or whatever, you were good. Supposing you knew the rules.
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:13 pm (UTC)
I lived in South Hadley and Amherst for years, and recently went back for my college reunion, and I was amazed (again) at just how much the roads there are a maze of twisty passages, all alike. I have no spatial sense at all, either, though.
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:16 pm (UTC)
I might remember wrong, but in my brief study of Arabic, I learned that right & south were the same, etc. for the other points, so I asked the teacher if this had to do with facing east. He wasn't sure what I meant. Nor was I, I bet.
Jun. 18th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
I ran across something similar in Central Asia. My Russian language teacher in Tashkent was mystified when asked how to say things like "the train station is north of the school". Her generation (she's probably in her mid 40's now) were never told how to read maps in school, or even allowed to look at them. If you had a map or knew geography, you were clearly a spy. She couldn't conceptualize something being north, east, etc. of something else. She thought of directions in terms of landmarks - that is, "if you're at the school, walk towards the restaurant and beyond that, there's the train station." So wierd. She thought it really amazing that map reading was a standard part of American school children's curriculums.
Jun. 18th, 2010 04:28 pm (UTC)
I haven't heard of any evidence that humans have internal magnetic compasses (though some birds do), but a few intrepid cyberpunks have had a tiny magnet implanted in a fingertip, which gives them an ability to sense electromagnetic fields-- they can feel electric wires behind a wall, for example. It's probably not sensitive enough to be able to tell directions by, but maybe someone will figure out how to do that.
Jun. 18th, 2010 06:00 pm (UTC)

I remember reading in some anthropological tome that the Maori can always point to the exact position of Venus in the daytime sky, when it is supposedly invisible to even the telescope-aided eye.
Jun. 18th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
this article would seem to imply it's innate - http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7575459.stm
Jun. 18th, 2010 08:18 pm (UTC)
Okay, that does it. I am a genetically incomplete human and will apply for benefits to offset my disability. Or get my my insurance to pay for a GPS implant.
Jun. 18th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
sense of direction
i call it being "directionally challenged"

i think Trotsky somewhere speaks of his "geographical imbecility". it may have something to do with handedness.

Jun. 18th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
Re: sense of direction
Wonderful that Trotsky couldn't tell east from west -- which often correlates with not being able to tell left from right.
Jun. 18th, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
I blame my poor sense of direction on growing up in Toronto, where nearly all the streets are a grid pattern and the water is at the bottom south. I had a terrible time in Halifax, which is similar except the water is to the east -- I was constantly getting turned around.
Jun. 19th, 2010 01:29 am (UTC)
In my fantasy project of last year, I had a problem reconciling the otherwise meaningless English words North, South, East, and West for my pet languages for a culture that had content in its words, so I used the fact that it took place on a moon of a brown dwarf and always had one hemisphere facing "The Pyre". The brown dwarf was a secondary of a small yellow star, so I also had regular day/night cycle. I called the directions Upward (for away from the Pyre), Downward, to Morning (for toward the rising of the primary star) and to Evening. This added such niceties as place names; the Morningside Pass, Upward Saraea, the Empire to Morning, etc. I think the unique cultural grounding it gives makes up for the reader's initial confusion.

Speaking of New York and problems with direction, I noticed when watching the film Deep Impact that they had the tidal wave hitting Manhattan from the west, where it would have come from New Jersey and the rest of the continent rather than from the ocean to the south (and southeast).

Edited at 2010-06-19 01:29 am (UTC)
Jun. 19th, 2010 04:24 am (UTC)
The "up" and "down" made me this of this article, though in fact it turned out to be unrelated:
People making travel plans may unwittingly heed a strange rule of thumb — southern routes rule. In a new experiment, volunteers chose paths that dipped south over routes of the same distance that arched northward, perhaps because northern routes intuitively seem uphill and thus more difficult, researchers suggest.

Volunteers also estimated that it would take considerably longer to drive between the same pairs of U.S. cities if traveling from south to north, as opposed to north to south, [...]

(A funny thing about this is that the north-arching and the south-dipping routes have the same net "climb". So perhaps they're showing not just that we fuse north-south with up-down, but also that we're short-sighted?)
Jun. 22nd, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)
Reminds me of the line from the film version of "The Two Towers" improvised by John Rhys-Davies as the voice of Treebeard: "I like heading south. It always feels like walking downhill."
Jun. 19th, 2010 05:44 pm (UTC)
I have no such innate sense but need visual markers. When I get out of the subway and have to walk in a specific direction I need to see something I recognize (from habit or directions provided) to walk in the correct direction.

Sometimes it's easy to know which way is north or south in NYC if you have the Empire State building in view.
Jun. 19th, 2010 10:12 pm (UTC)
This is supposed to also be a Male v. Female thought process thing, only because "females" have less spatial awareness, or so it is claimed.
I must be one of the exceptions, apparently, being able to see in 3D in my mind, plot directions, and find my way with or without a map. My mum could not find her way out of a phone booth without a map, and then she wouldn't know how to read it.

I suspect that the ever-increasing neighborhoods of cul-de-sacs and meandering roads make people less and less aware of direction, as opposed to years ago, when roads mainly all ran N-S and E-W, barring the dogleg needed to re-align N-S latitudes along the longitudinal lines of an Earth map.
Jun. 19th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
Roads in places that were significantly developed before the invention of the automobile tend not to be strongly aligned to the compass. The obvious exception is designed road-grids, as in Washington (DC), Manhattan north of 14th street, or the Midwest, where major and minor roads align to the surveyors' grids. It was very disconcerting when I moved from central Ohio to central North Carolina and lost the easy orientation of the Midwest.
Jun. 19th, 2010 10:24 pm (UTC)
Ah, wonderful! I had heard decades ago that there were Australian aboriginal languages which used compass points instead of "left" and "right", but that's the type of thing which is hard to google.
Jun. 20th, 2010 10:39 pm (UTC)
oregon vortex
the oregon vortex here twists magnetic and physical and psychical directions, a result of the collision of the continent of Mu with N. America at Mt. Shasta, that local streets are all off-kilter with the cardinal directions and with each other. even I-5 takes the only 90 degree turn in its 1500 mile straight shot down the west coast. it's true, you can see it in night-time satellite photos. right where I-5 takes that sudden turn, like it's running from something, that's where i live. for directions, i just keep track, moment to moment, of where i am and what time it is. where to find a good meal at any hour of the day or night? i leave that to the city people.
Jun. 21st, 2010 03:09 am (UTC)
As a pilot who learned celestial navigation back in the days when it was actually taught in flight schools, I fell in love with the "navigational stars," their incredible predictability, and their wonderful names - Deneb, Arcturus, Spica, and, of course our North Star, Polaris, just to name a few. Give me a sextant and a clear view and I can, to this day, tell you where I am on the planet. Spatial/locational disorientation, in my view, is merely a convenient excuse for not paying attention to the basic elements of knowing what you're doing. Call it intellectual laziness. Years ago I flew a single engined Piper Cherokee from Oakland (CA), to NYC, by simple pilotage, no sophistcated electonic aids, and was never more than 5 miles off course. Then I turned around and wandered back to CA by the reciprocal course. There were, of course meteriological delays and diversions, but nothing of note, and I was never "lost."
I live in the wilderness outside of Moran, Wyoming, and I'd be dead if I lacked some primordial sense of "situational awareness." I not only need to know exactly where I am when I venture into the forest, but I also need to know exactly what is going on around me. Two months ago I was treed by a griz, and last week a 70 year old guy was mauled to death while hiking in Y'Stone by another ursus horribilis. I lived & he didn't - perhaps I heard something or saw something he didn't see coming. Whatever...
I'm an old Liberal educated in a Liberal Arts school that despised practicality. We held the Business school in contempt, and Business students as virtual Neanderthals. Well, so much for our hubris.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )