THE BLOG

What's a Sense of Direction Got to Do With It?

24/01/2014 11:45 GMT | Updated 25/03/2014 09:59 GMT

If grades were given for having a sense of direction, I'd fail every time. This minor fault has plagued me for as long as I've been travelling.

Well over twenty years ago, when I moved to the Big Apple, I remember confidently boarding a subway train for my first day at work, only to realise, when it was too late, that I was heading downtown instead of uptown. Worse yet, the station I exited from didn't have a cross-over platform, so I had to go outside and come back in. I was lost in translation ... in the pouring rain ... without an umbrella.

Then, nearly sixteen years ago when I came to London, I often went astray, only to ring my husband Paul once or twice a day, to find my bearings.

'I've just come out of Selfridges,' I'd say, 'and I'm not sure whether to turn left or right;' or 'I've come out of Harrods on a totally unfamiliar road. Which way do I go to get home?' ... which was then South Kensington, only a short walk away.

Soon he stopped taking my calls, so I started taking taxis. That'd teach him!

Fast forward a few years, and considering time and technology, I thought I'd finally learned my way around the capital, and not just the shops, since I hadn't had any blunders worth speaking of for ages.

Then in December, it happened again. While attempting to make my way to the Design Museum near Tower Bridge for a significant event, I became totally disoriented, even with my iPhone mapping the route.

The trouble here is that the designers of these handy apps assume that every phone-user knows how to turn north-east, north-west, and so on, as if we all have a compass in our head. Maybe we do (more on that later), but mine must be idle.

Anyhow, for starters, I wasn't even on the right side of the bridge, even though I had once frequented the Design Museum, albeit with Paul and in the light of day. At last, when I emerged on the correct side, I walked the relevant street several times before trailing other guests inside.

It turns out that before I arrived, my dear husband had been left holding the flowers he had organised for me as a thank you for supporting his business. Lesson learned, right? No!

Recently, as I set out to meet a potential PR advisor, all I had to do was come out of Waterloo Station -- an area I know rather well -- turn right and walk up the road. But since I wrongfully assumed that the meeting place -- Wahaca Waterloo -- and Wahaca Southbank were one and the same, I went in search of the latter.

Never mind that I had typed the postcode for the Southbank restaurant into my iPad, I still wandered around aimlessly until one o'clock when I called to be told that I was on the right track. I wasn't, but it didn't matter.

When my lunch date -- I use the word loosely -- texted to say she had arrived, I replied that I was disoriented and included my location, which was nowhere near where I needed to be.

After she had given me the right postcode, which I typed into my iPad, I again walked around aimlessly, without a hope of going wherever 'Siri' was instructing me to go.

In my haze, I considered calling Paul, but pride squashed this idea.

Soon, my potential PR called again for an ETA. It was only when I told her that I was near the Park Hotel that we ascertained that I was a ten-minute walk away. So, sheepishly, I hopped into a taxi and arrived at my destination feeling rather wet (remember New York?).

To make matters worse, the restaurant is opposite the Old Vic Theatre, where I go quite often from Waterloo.

What does this mean?

With the exception of episodes such as those mentioned above, I have a keen sense of being. Short of a few mishaps, I find my way around life fairly easily. It's me who has fixed the Sky Digital box twice now, by employing common sense; me, me, me who knows that the timer or alarm is going to ping, seconds before it happens; and it's me who holds colour in her eyes, according to my late mother-in-law ... show me the shade of grey you want, and I will return from the shops with the exact match.

So where is this sense when it comes to directions?

It turns out that this sense, or lack thereof, seems to be latent in grid cells in my brain. Last summer, neuroscientist Joshua Jacobs, of Drexel University, along with his colleagues, tested fourteen people who had electrodes implanted in their brain for epilepsy therapy, and learned that humans have similar 'direction cells' as animals.

Why some people's grid cells seem to be active while others' are sluggish remains a mystery, but Jacobs insists that the discovery is good news. Knowing that there are cells clocking direction means that it might be possible to stimulate inactive ones with medicine etc.

Umm ...

In the meantime, I wondered if my idle grid cells might be guiding my general direction in life. It's high time I found out and there's no time like the present; the beginning of a year. Thus, I dusted off my work plan and looked at it rather closely.

What a relief to see that although I haven't reached all my desired destinations, my routes, though not without detours, don't verge on the ridiculous, as disorientation can.

At least, I'm on the right track.

But when it comes to a basic sense of direction, I am lost, despite Siri's coaxing. Anyhow, what's a sense of direction got to do with anything? Actually, nothing, because getting there late really is better than not getting there at all.