Why do People get Lost?

Dr. Giuseppe Iaria has founded NeuroLab at  the University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Their website Getting Lost is dedicated to the science of why people get lost and how we find our way.  One of their interests is a richer understanding of Developmental Topographical Disorientation, the disorder of those that get lost very easily, including in extreme cases people getting lost in their own home.  I once knew a planner with this condition who feared going on site and dreaded a proposed office move.  When I took him on site once he was unable to describe the view in front of him.

Though orientation and navigation is undoubtedly complex, most people are able to reach their destination with little effort. This ability is produced by two primary behavioural mechanisms.

The first behavioural mechanism consists of making use of a variety of information (landmarks, body turns, distances, etc) in order to become familiar with the environment. This may either consist of learning a defined (fixed) route in the surrounding, or acquiring a more general knowledge of the environment including its layout and the spatial locations of landmarks available within it. Time spent in the environment as well as the information people decide to focus while navigating play a critical role on the ability that individuals will develop in orienting in that environment. The type of orientation that people adopt while learning and experiencing the environment mainly focuses on environmental landmarks and it is referred to as spatial memory.

The second behavioural mechanism happens unconsciously and is used while following habitual routes that individuals became very familiar with such as going from room to room in the house or workplace, or even driving from home to work along the same route for a long time. Navigation is guided by automatic motor sequences and can occur in the absence of landmarks. No explicit knowledge of turn sequences or landmark associations are required. This type of orientation is supported by procedural memory, the same memory system that produces learned motor activity such as riding a bike or playing a piano.

They don’t seem to give enough attention to the social interaction important in wayfinding.  For example we are the only primate with white eyes, we can see where our colleagues are looking and even babies have this interactive ability.  It seems to have evolved to enable early humans to undertake complex foraging rather than simply following game in a group, and point to our colleagues where the best places for food are.

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