Why do some people always get lost?

Scientists are homing in on how navigation skills develop.
Enlarge / Scientists are homing in on how navigation skills develop.

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.”

While it’s easy to show that people differ in navigational ability, it has proved much harder for scientists to explain why. There’s new excitement brewing in the navigation research world, though. By leveraging technologies such as virtual reality and GPS tracking, scientists have been able to watch hundreds, sometimes even millions, of people trying to find their way through complex spaces, and to measure how well they do. Though there’s still much to learn, the research suggests that to some extent, navigation skills are shaped by upbringing.

Nurturing navigation skills

The importance of a person’s environment is underscored by a recent look at the role of genetics in navigation. In 2020, Margherita Malanchini, a developmental psychologist at Queen Mary University of London, and her colleagues compared the performance of more than 2,600 identical and nonidentical twins as they navigated through a virtual environment to test whether navigational ability runs in families. It does, they found—but only modestly. Instead, the biggest contributor to people’s performance was what geneticists call the “nonshared environment”—that is, the unique experiences each person accumulates as their life unfolds. Good navigators, it appears, are mostly made, not born.

A remarkable, large-scale experiment led by Hugo Spiers, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London, gave researchers a glimpse at how experience and other cultural factors might influence wayfinding skills. Spiers and his colleagues, in collaboration with the telecom company T-Mobile, developed a game for cellphones and tablets, Sea Hero Quest, in which players navigate by boat through a virtual environment to locate a series of checkpoints. The game app asked participants to provide basic demographic data, and nearly 4 million worldwide did so. (The app is no longer accepting new participants except by invitation of researchers.)

Through the app, the researchers were able to measure wayfinding ability by the total distance each player traveled to reach all the checkpoints. After completing some levels of the game, players also had to shoot a flare back toward their point of origin—a dead-reckoning test analogous to the pointing-to-out-of-sight-locations task. Then Spiers and his colleagues could compare players’ performance to the demographic data.

Several cultural factors were associated with wayfinding skills, they found. People from Nordic countries tended to be slightly better navigators, perhaps because the sport of orienteering, which combines cross-country running and navigation, is popular in those countries. Country folk did better, on average, than people from cities. And among city-dwellers, those from cities with more chaotic street networks such as those in the older parts of European cities did better than those from cities like Chicago, where the streets form a regular grid, perhaps because residents of grid cities don’t need to build such complex mental maps.

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