navigational skills

Finding your way out of a paper bag…?

I used to drive my mother crazy when I was growing up because, way past when I should have known better, I’d refer to going ‘up’ to Washington, D.C., where I grew up, when in fact I was already to the north of it and technically would been traveling ‘down’.  Once I started driving and reading maps I made drastic improvement.

Some of us always get lost while others know exactly where they are.  The difference is in our brains, but science has shown that we can improve our navigational skills. If it makes you or your loved ones anxious that you have no sense of direction, there’s hope!

Recognition and spatial memory are very important in navigation.  Other types of memory, located in the hippocampus, are also important, like grid and place cells that create a cellular map of the places you’ve been and how you got there.  Using either the hippocampus or recognition and spatial memory, our brains try very hard to find our way. Some brains have more success than others.

To work on improving our sense of direction, we need to improve our spatial memories.  One way is with activities that involve brain teasers like identifying a place (with a landmark or photo of the place) then looking at the coordinates on a map.  By combining those two actions we train our spatial memory.  Another way is to exercise which increases blood flow to the brain.  Studies have shown that exercising increases the size of the hippocampi and spatial memory. Finally, our diet can improve spatial memory.  A study of grade school children who ate oatmeal for breakfast showed that they had improved spatial memories.  Many studies have shown that eating foods rich in antioxidants improves blood flow to the brain.

Here are other tips:

  • Have a sense of where you are.  Pay attention to how you got there, landmarks you passed and in what order.  Make mental notes like to “turn left before the candy shop. If you are a passenger in a car it’s easy to get distracted.
  • If you travel a great deal and need to navigate well, carry a pen and notebook with you to write notes about your location.
  • Learn to read maps and use a compass.  In competitive circles this is called orienteering.
  • Tell stories about what you’re seeing en route.  A narrative might help you remember the route better.
  • Learn to automatically notice where you park your car so you won’t get lost finding your way back to it, or use a location device.  See our earlier article on finding your parked car.
  • Allow yourself to get lost once in a while.  You will find your way home eventually.  You can even use a crutch like your GPS or your phone to guide you back.

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