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Getting Lost Is Totally Human. Try It

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Getting Lost Is Totally Human. Try It


Getting Lost Is Totally Human. Try It

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Say you're driving on a winding country road or hiking in the woods. Maybe you know the territory, maybe you don't, and at some point you get a little turned around - not lost, exactly.


Although, come to think of it, maybe you are lost, completely disoriented, an experience we'd all love to forget - unless you study such things for a living. Then you'd want to write it all down in a book. NPR's David Greene - who showed a very good sense of direction in this chair the last couple of weeks - has our story.

DAVID GREENE: The new book we're speaking of is called "You are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall."

Professor COLIN ELLARD (Psychology, University of Waterloo; Author): Let's get lost.

GREENE: The author is Colin Ellard. He's a psychologist who's fascinated by how humans get around in the wild and, really, anywhere in the world. So that's where we take him, out of the studio, onto the streets to show us some tricks that we can use to find our way.

Prof. ELLARD: Okay, who's got the GPS?

GREENE: He's kidding. We don't have a GPS. But we do have a map.

Okay. So we're at Argyle and Allison.

Prof. ELLARD: Right there.

GREENE: And we're trying to get into this chunk of Rock Creek Park.

We want to walk from this residential street in Washington, D.C. to find this nearby patch of woods. No problem. We're guys. This is what guys do. Except as we walk, we get to talking about GPS systems, as a matter of fact, and suddenly I am not exactly sure where we are.

Prof. ELLARD: Using GPS, (unintelligible) one second, because I literally don't know where I'm going.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GREENE: Already? Okay. This is really sort of embarrassing. Okay. And Argyle's…

Prof. ELLARD: See, this is not embarrassing at all. What we're doing is human. It's absolutely human, because here we are. We're not here at all. Right now, we're up in space talking about GPS satellites.

GREENE: So that was a distraction? Us chatting right there…

Prof. ELLARD: Yeah. Yeah. And that just has to happen for a couple of seconds and you can be completely lost.

GREENE: And we humans are good at getting lost, because we're good at being so many places at once. As your feet wander down the street, your brain might be thinking about outer space or maybe your vacation in Vegas. So it's easy to zone out about where you actually are.

Now you can train yourself to be more conscious of your surroundings. For example, if you want to remember where you parked the car, Ellard says you can make up a story about something nearby.

Prof. ELLARD: Let's look around here. Just, you know, this house that we're looking at across the street. It's an interesting house. There's almost like a Romeo and Juliet balcony on the second floor…

GREENE: Yeah, it really is.

Prof. ELLARD: …with sliding doors. You know, immediately that kind of conjures a story that, you know, you can imagine Juliet.

GREENE: Juliet out on the balcony.

Prof. ELLARD: So that little snippet - we've talked about that for 10 seconds. Are you ever going to forget that house now?

GREENE: Probably not for a while.

Prof. ELLARD: Yeah.

GREENE: And this is where I should mention that Colin Ellard and I are not alone. My editor has joined us for this walk, and she's a woman, her gender not in a relevant detail, which we learn when we come to a fork in the road.

GREENE: So we are going this way.

Prof. ELLARD: No, we're not going that way.

LAURA KRANTZ: We're going that way.

Prof. ELLARD: Then we'll make a - yeah, we're going that way. That was my thought exactly.

GREENE: Without the help of any map, our editor Laura Krantz has found the right way to the park.

KRANTZ: Do you want to know how I knew?

GREENE: Please.

KRANTZ: No outlets. David's going to run right into the park.

Prof. ELLARD: Did she sound a little smug to you there? Just a little, maybe?

GREENE: Well, never mind. She saw the no outlet sign, and I guess figured the park was just beyond it, which led us to pose that inevitable question to Colin Ellard: Are men and women actually different in the way they navigate?

Prof. ELLARD: I see that in the contrast of my wife's style navigation and mine. The best example is that some time ago I called her on my cell phone and I said meet me at the northeast corner of King and Queen Street. And her response was don't tell me north (unintelligible).

GREENE: That's exactly what my wife says. And it…

Prof. ELLARD: She says tell me what you can see, right? Look across the road, what's there, and then I want to know where you are.

GREENE: (unintelligible) women are less able to sort of know directions, cardinal directions, north, east, south.

Prof. ELLARD: Yeah, it's - yeah. I wouldn't make a grand-sweeping generalization and say that men do the compass and women do landmarks, but there is a tendency for the mean kind of navigational style for women to be more towards the landmark end of things and the mean style for men to be more towards the compass direction things.

GREENE: Finally, we step out of civilization and into these lush woods. To test our sense of direction, we purposely veer off the dirt trail and walk several hundred feet into a stand of tall trees.

Prof. ELLARD: When people are walking through a dense vegetation like this, it can even be difficult for us to know that we're walking in a straight line. You can easily make really quite remarkable turns while still thinking that you've walked in a straight line.

GREENE: And what would the implications of that be? I would sort of keep thinking to myself, well, I'm going in the right direction.

Prof. ELLARD: That's right. So you're well off course. People are reluctant to admit to themselves that they don't know where they are. There's often a tendency for people to actually speed up in their movement. So you might say, if I just make a left turn here and go, then I'll be back to home base. And then when you make that kind of decision, you start to…

GREENE: You really want to be right.

Prof. ELLARD: …you start to march. And then if you're marching in the wrong direction, then you're farther away faster.

GREENE: And what would the right answer be? At what point are there some good decisions that you could make to get yourself back?

Prof. ELLARD: Once you're lost, the best decision is always to stop.


Prof. ELLARD: Stop.

GREENE: That's right. It's that same old rule that we learned back in scouting. Unless you're running from a bear or some other danger, just stay put. Now Ellard also tells me that one of the hardest tricks for humans to learn is that sometimes and in some places it's okay to get lost, at least for a little while.

Prof. ELLARD: One of the things that we see all the time - and I'm as guilty as anybody else of this, and I fight the impulse in myself - is that anxiety about not knowing where you are. A lot of the time it's not necessary, and there's nothing wrong with having the experience of losing our way for a bit and understanding how it feels and paying careful attention to what we do about it.

GREENE: We've been wandering around with Colin Ellard, professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, and that would be north. His new book is called "You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall."

I'm David Greene, NPR News.

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