Why do we get disorientated?

The following is an excerpt from the article by Tristan Gooley in Navigation News September 2012:

I enjoyed the recent contributions in Navigation News on the subject of the human wayfinding system and its software foibles.

This is a subject I am happily drawn into almost daily. I won’t enumerate all the examples here, from those who can tell north by lying on a bed to those who have a magical ability to always point the wrong way. Instead it would be more efficient for me to lay out the common conflicts that can lead to problems, as I see and hear them.

Each of us uses a mixture of conscious and subconscious natural alignment cues. The most common being the sun of course, but there are thousands of more subtle ones, from land gradient to the feel of the breeze, scents and distant sounds. On top of this we each form a cognitive map of an area we are travelling through, a very simple example being we know we are heading towards the BT Tower in London or a bank of clouds at sea.

For each individual these two processes will vary in the amount of experience and knowledge we have, how much processing power our brains dedicate to these areas and how much of this allocation is conscious and how much subconscious. A serious sense of ‘wrongwayitis’ will be induced in an individual if either the alignment cue or cognitive map system is imperfectly ‘reset’ and this is much more likely if they have been relying on a casual, but active, subconscious system.

Let’s look at some examples:

Alignment Cue:

It is very commonplace for pilots, sailors and walkers on my courses to report an uneasy feeling on venturing from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern or vice versa. It is almost equally common for these same people to report that their other half does not experience this sensation. My informal analysis of this is that those who regularly navigate for any reason have a more active subconscious alignment system based on external clues, like the sun. Their system is imperfectly reset when they change hemisphere as the sun’s direction has ‘flipped’ during the middle of the day and since it was a subconscious process it causes unease (a sensation that borders on nausea in the worst cases). Where a wife or husband does not experience this, my guess is that wayfinding is less important to them, and their system is not significantly active and therefore little or no reset is necessary.

Cognitive Map:

Imagine we are driving and our brain subconsciously registers that we have been heading consistently towards a high distant summit for half an hour. Unawares to us, our brain has decided that our destination must lie towards the high ground. If our road then takes a turn to the left, there will be an imperfect ‘reset’ in the cognitive map as our conscious brain knows we are on the right road, but our subconscious cognitive map is telling us that our destination is 90 degrees away from the direction we are driving. A feeling of unease or ‘wrongwayitis’, ensues. Have you ever felt a sense of relaxation as the road you are on returns to the direction you feel it ‘should’ be heading?

Erik Jonsson, author of ‘Inner Navigation’, cited a long term example of the above phenomenon. A friend of his reported that he had lived in Western Colorado from the ages of 4 to 10, where he could daily see a mountain range to the east. At the age of 10 his friend moved to Pasadena, where mountains are visible to the north. But his friend ‘felt’ that the mountains were still east of him. Even though they were north. This incorrect sensation lasted into his 60s!

Alignment clues and cognitive maps may seem near identical, but they are not. The sun provides independent, dependable directional information to anyone with any experience in using it. However, in each new journey there could be high ground in any direction, so this is a local familiarisation. Relying on the direction of high ground would not work on the next trip to a different location, but the sun would.
My suspicion is that this dual system is easily confused by modern landscape phenomena. If, for example, you have been driving west towards a setting sun for a time and decide you want a rest. You pull into a service station and happen to drink a cup of tea whilst facing north, towards very bright canteen lighting. I don’t think our brains have evolved to cope with this type of reset well.

Sometimes great confusion ensues and, if nobody gets hurt, no small amount of humour comes with it. So, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll offer a long quote from latest book, The Natural Explorer:

The Sioux Native American ‘Plenty Kill’ lived from 1868 to 1939 and became known as Luther Standing Bear. In his youth he remembered a Sioux scout reporting that ‘a big snake was crawling across the prairie’. This snake was the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1879 Standing Bear was playing with some friends near some government buildings when he noticed two other Sioux boys who were dressed as the whiteman dressed. Standing Bear was persuaded to come east with a government agent, who was armed with sticks of candy, and to be taught ‘the ways of the whiteman’. As he headed east with the agent and other boys, he found himself taking a train for the first time. The older boys on the train teased the smaller boys that the white people were taking them to the place where the sun rises and would kill them by tipping them over the edge of a world they all believed was flat.

Standing Bear looked at the full moon ahead of them as they headed east, it did appear to be growing larger and he worried that they were getting too close to it. Very tired, he dozed off for a while, before being woken by the older boys who said they had made a discovery. They told the younger boys to look out of the window,

‘We did so, and the moon was now behind us! Apparently we had passed the place where the moon rose! This was quite a mystery. The big boys were now singing brave songs again, while I was wide awake and watchful, waiting to see what was going to happen. But nothing happened.

We afterward learned that at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the train turned due west to Carlisle, which placed the moon in our rear. And to think we had expected to be killed because we had passed the moon.’

Some of the observations published in Navigation News cited ‘other halves’. The observant, and married, amongst you may have spotted that earlier in this article, I too have alluded to the differing experiences of two people who know each other very well and travel together. I feel it would be a little cowardly not to venture further into this terrain, even if it takes us a little off-track. In fact, I’d be honoured if this was considered the most audacious digression in the history of this august publication.

Continued: Male and Female Navigation differences.

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