A sense of direction


Finding directions is a trial for some. My wife — and no, this isn’t a wife joke — has trouble understanding the compass points. We lived just a few blocks south of Northern Avenue.

“How can it be south?” she asked. “If it’s Northern Avenue, it must be north.”

Another time I asked her, “Which is further west, California or Hawaii?”

“From here?” she asked.

Such answers dazzle me, because I have a preternatural sense of direction. I don’t take credit for this; I was born this way, the same way some people are born with a talent for music or with a photogenic face. When  such things were handed out, what I got was a sense of direction.

I have surprised even myself at times. When I was in third grade, the class took a bus trip to visit a nature preserve in northern New Jersey. Some 30 years later, revisiting my old haunts, I decided to find the nature preserve and drove right to it, no false turns or missed clues.

A few years ago, driving through Ontario, I saw a side street that looked as if it might lead to the motel my family had stayed at during a vacation we had made when I was in the 10th grade. I turned and found the motel, very distinct because in addition to the usual motel units, it had a two story stucco house attached to it.

I have wondered many a time about this sense of direction and tried to figure out its mechanism. For many, when they take or give directions, they use a kind of linear description: Go three blocks, turn left at the church, go another two blocks and turn right at the gas station, continue for four miles and look for a house with a red SUV in the driveway.

For those people, they are always traveling in a straight line forward. They may take a turn at a landmark, but they think of themselves as continuing to face forward and move in that conceptual straight line.

For me, and those like me, however, there is a starting point and an ending point and they remain aligned, as with the stars, or on a map, and I can negotiate any number of turns or diversions and never lose track of that map pin stuck into that place. It is as if I can always “see” them there, no matter how many buildings or miles intervene.

The mechanism for this I have not previously much thought about, but now, I have come across at least one aspect of what makes a sense of direction. It begins with one’s autonomic nervous system.

With eyes closed, I can touch my fingertips together. This is no great act; most anyone can do it. But doing it requires that I rely on my inner sense of where my body is. I know, spatially, where I extend to — i.e. the limits of my palpable being. Even without seeing, I can sense where my skin is and where I fill that sack of skin. We all, to greater and lesser extent, have that sense.

It is true that our “sense of ourselves” isn’t always accurate, in fact, it is grossly distorted — hands, tongue and head feel much bigger than they actually are — at least by the measuring tape.

It is not really the body which is distorted, but the “space” which our body fills. We move more precisely concerning those areas which seem large out of proportion. We can distinguish two very close points on our tongue yet cannot tell a much greater distance on our backs. It is as though we occupy, psychologically, a relativistic space — an Einsteinian universe with warps and curves in its substance. It is not just that my head feels larger than my back, it is that the space occupied by my head is larger — the increments of that space feel evenly distributed across my body and since there are more of those increments in my head or hands, they feel correspondingly bigger. The squares in the graph paper I might use to chart my body are drawn with warped lines.

A similar sense of position is felt in a room. The space of the room exists almost as a solid or “anti-solid” in which I determine my latitude and longitude. I feel closer to one wall than another. This is not merely a measurable phenomenon — I feel it.

In fact, my “felt being” includes not only my autonomic sense of myself, but also my sense of the walls almost as a projection of my skin. I can feel everything that goes on inside the room — accurately place proportions (is it 2/3 of the way across the room? 4/5? 5/6?) But what is outside the room is normally beyond thought, and unless actively thought about, does not exist.

Of course, I can go outside and look — but then I only change one room for a larger — the outdoors.

Sitting at my desk, I can throw a wadded up first-draft over my shoulder and have it land at the base of the far wall without looking — my autonomic sense of my position in the room tells me just how far to throw it.

The room, in a real sense, is just a part of me.

If I close my eyes and turn my head, I still know my orientation in the room; I still know the directions of the four walls.

This same sense of orientation exists when driving or parking a car. I know by pure feel how far behind me the car extends. Even though I cannot see the back bumper, I nevertheless don’t crunch into the car behind me when backing into a parking spot.

In my car, I have become a centaur, and my automotive rump is just as real as my carnal one.

I believe that this same autonomic sense, projected to a vaster landscape, is the root of a good sense of direction.

A person with a good sense of direction translates these instructions into spatial understanding. If he forgets the written instructions at home, he may still find the house with the red van.

The person without this sense of spatial orientation is lost without the step-by-step.

My brother has told me that when he is a passenger in a car, it is as though he entered an elevator and when the car finally stops, the door opens and he gets out. For me, with the spatial sense, I always feel, not only when the car turns right or left, not only how much off “straight” my internal gyroscope has been turned, but also how the space — the very large space — I am driving through has been altered, much the same way as I know — feel — my changed orientation in a room when I walk from one side to the other.

As your projected body limits change as you move from small room to larger, so the land I feel oriented to changes as I enter different kinds of terrain. And as I leave territory I am familiar with and enter that which is new. In a new city, my territory — my personal space — can be very small indeed: a few square blocks. But at home, my personal orientation easily covers 30 miles or more. And accurately.

At times, traveling through Montana or Nebraska, I feel secure in a “felt space” of hundreds of miles.

This space that I feel can be just as distorted as my simple body sense. Often the nearest 200 yards seem the biggest, like my tongue. The direction I am going in seems larger and more clearly defined than the space at 10 o’clock or 2 o’clock — which space is useless for my travels.

At any given moment, I can point to New York or Lake Superior. I don’t usually have to think first, which direction is North and then imagine in my head a map of the U.S. and figure from that where the Big Apple is. I am always aware of where north is, and east or south or northwest. I point as quickly to Los Angeles — thousands of miles away — as automatically as if asked to point to the front yard of my home from its living room.

In a sense, the map of the U.S. exists constantly inside my head and I know, without actively concerning myself with it, where on that map I am, where that little arrow is with the tag: “You are here.”

That map is, as in Steven Wright’s joke, “life size.”

I can visualize it spreading out and covering the actual land. In a sense, I drive on that life-size map, and never have to fold it up and stuff it in the glove compartment.

Envoi: When European mapmakers first began orienting their maps with north at the top, it was a new convention. And they found a neat little glyph to designate the directions. For them, there was a four-way divide: North, East, South and West. It could be subdivided into northeast or southwest, and further turned into such arcane weather forecast terms as east-northeast or south-southwest. A good glyph can include all these.

But I am reminded that not all cultures thought in terms of the four cardinal compass points. Many American Indian cultures had six directions, not four. They included North, East, South and West, but also Up and Down. Surely up and down deserve as much respect as north and south. They are as real, and work the same way as a directional framework, with ourselves always at the crossing of the moveable axes.

I am now in the habit of considering that there are really seven cardinal points, because while the original six compass points extend outward from the axis mundi of ourselves, there is the seventh, which is Inward. If, as I believe, all directions must needs reference our individual positions on the grid of the planet, the central point inward is as meaningful as those star rays outward from us. It is a two-way street.

So: North; South; East; West; Up; Down; and In — where it all happens.





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