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Directional intelligence

I’m one of those people that can’t tell their left from their right. Well, it’s not that I can’t, it’s just that I have to think about my left hand making an “L” shape (“L” for left) and then I’m ok. Same with geographical directions, only worse. In my brain, the concept of west is tied to the concept of left, so in order to orient myself on a map or in a physical location, I need to point myself north, think of my left (for “L”) hand, associate left with west, and then east must be the opposite way. How I developed this Rube Goldbergian mechanism for wayfinding, I don’t know, but it’s the best I have.

A recent visit with my mom suggests that I may have inherited my directional difficulties from her. I certainly didn’t get it from my dad. He could find due north with his eyes closed. As an IFR-trained pilot, he probably had to. When I was younger, he’d give me directions like, “head north for two miles, turn right at the red barn, veer southwest at the V in the road, and then turn right onto County Road D. It’ll be on the east side of the road.” I’d blink at him and then retrieve a scrap of paper to translate what he’d said into a consistent terminology (either L/R or NS/EW) and make a map that I could follow. I have accepted that I will never be any good with directions and compensate for my weakness with preparation (I always know where I’m going and how I’m going to get there and if I don’t, I stop and think about until I do or let someone else lead the way) and repetition (the concept of “left” is almost natural now). But I still get burned occasionally and it can be frustrating.

Is anyone else out there directionally challenged?

Reader comments

Chris ClarkApr 19, 2004 at 7:21PM

I had a girlfriend with precisely that problem-- driving with her was (and still is) a nightmare.

I attributed it to her massive overestrogenization (since testosterone is apparently a contributor to spatial awareness)... not that I'm saying you don't have enough testosterone. :)

akApr 19, 2004 at 7:22PM

i'm not so much directionally challenged, but my problem is giving directions and understanding directions based on road names. howeever, i'm a very spatial thinker, so i can get anywhere based on someone describing landmarks to me

CourtneyApr 19, 2004 at 7:23PM

I'm not directionally challenged (my dad's a geologist, and I got his directional genes), but I do have a question for you that's related. Your directional sense itself is fairly rigidly set on your own frame of reference so you have to translate others' directions into that frame, but how's your directional memory? That is, once you've gotten somewhere, is getting there again a process of re-creating the same set of very specific directions, or once you've been someplace once (or perhaps a couple times), can you just "wing it"? (I'd also add that I don't know how challenged you really are, hence my comment about your own frame of reference. Sounds like you figured that out pretty early on, and can thus find things once you've got the directions as you need them - I think someone who is truly directionally "challenged" wouldn't even get that far...)

CoryApr 19, 2004 at 7:27PM

My gosh, yes though as opposed to right/left problems, for me it is a lack of directional or spatial memory; I can not visualize a route from where I am to where I am going. Even if I have gone that route 100 times, if I haven't been on that route very recently, I can not visualize it. I've adapted to my lack of direction by a series of compensatory efforts to avoid being lost or discombobulated. This requires a ton of energy. Since living in Salt Lake City, where one range of mountains is east (the Wasatch) and one range is West (the Oquirrh), I've been able to more quickly compensate, though I will never 'know' intrinsically where north is.

scottandrewApr 19, 2004 at 7:28PM

I've always had problems tying the words "left" and "right" to the actual directions: "At the next light, turn left [gesturing right]. No, right! I mean right." I have no clue why I say "left" when I mean right, and vice versa. My dad would sometimes shout at me with a mock drill sergeant's voice: "no, no, son, your left! Your military left!"

TaylorApr 19, 2004 at 7:29PM

Some people just have more of the magnetic "stuff" in their brain that guides direction. You're dad is probably one of those people.

Women are better at relative directions, and men are better at absolute. Hunting, gathering, etc. Men would have to go far away from civilization to hunt, and needed absolute direction (NWSE) to get back. Women would need to gather from all over, and needed to be able to find locations in relation to eachother. (Sorry, heard it somewhere, no link.)

Peter CooperApr 19, 2004 at 7:31PM

I experience people who are directionally challenged quite often, but that doesn't irritate me. What really irritates me is when those same people are also totally unaware of their own environment or where they are. Sadly I experience this with other people a lot too.

For example, I had to go to PC World in a town I was unfamiliar with, and I had no map. I called up and asked how to find the store. The only help they could provide was that it was near some other store. I asked if it was near certain routes or road numbers, and they had absolutely no clue. How can you work in a town and not know the numbers of the roads which leave it? I get the same when going to see friends' new houses and such. They seem to have no real idea of where their own place is unless they're in the car and can literally point the way.

I guess this only gets on my goat because as a kid, I used to spend much of my time reading maps, and always did the navigation on family vacations. :-) Different strokes for different folks! If those same people asked me to cook up an omelette for them, I'd be screwed.

Jon BellApr 19, 2004 at 7:33PM

"i'm not so much directionally challenged, but my problem is giving directions and understanding directions based on road names. howeever, i'm a very spatial thinker, so i can get anywhere based on someone describing landmarks to me."

I feel I have found a kindred spirit. My wife is absolutely amazed at my lack of skill with street names. Although she has trouble with right/left, so I guess we're even ;)

RobertApr 19, 2004 at 7:36PM

I think a lot of what your talking about also has to do with instinct in general. I am a very instinctual person. When driving, I'll cross a six-lane highway on a gut feeling, and it's usually right. If I try to think though, I'll make a wrong turn. My friend Wilson has no insticts, he breaks down in new territory, but for some things - his type is perfect. We went on a trip together to Spain last spring, and we rented a car. We had no idea what were doing and death was a real possibility with those drivers. But it was perfect, I just flew along at 90 miles an hour while he sat in the passenger seat and poured over a map yelling out as much information as possible, while I made split-second "decisions" based upon them. It was perfect, our strengths were amplified by the other's ability to nix our weaknesses. As far as directions go, Wilson is what I look for in a wife. But that's about it.

EricApr 19, 2004 at 7:38PM

I am always puzzled by the "drive North 30 miles, then head East until..." sort of directions. It is one thing if someone is telling you the direction on a road that only goes North or South, but it is another thing entirely if I actually need to know which way that is in order for me to get there (beyond just noticing that all of the signs are wrong for me).

That said, I am just coming up on a year now of living in Bermuda and this has done wonders for making me look like I know my directions. Since the island is only really about a mile or two ... uhh... thick? tall? upwardly... whatever - at its widest point, it is usually fairly easy to see the ocean and then know which shore it is based on some landmark (usually outlying reefs).
From there I can expertly point as if I knew all along that yes, up North there and vaguely left... err West, yeah... yeah, that's where they went and where you need to go.

Yeah, basically I'm screwed when I get back to the States on visits if I need to navigate.

peterApr 19, 2004 at 7:38PM

moving from the east coast to the west coast (or just visiting my wife's family with her), i had a huge problem equating east with heading inland. i've gotten on the highway going the opposite direction than my goal because in my mind i visualize my destination as being closer to or further away from the coast and translate closer to the ocean as east and farther away as west. luckily i've trained myself not to do this anymore, and surprisingly when i visit the east coast i don't end up having the opposite problem. i guess i'm cured!

DerekApr 19, 2004 at 7:38PM

I have a friend and former roommate who has a similar terrible time with directions, and also with directional memory. He and I used to go to the same nightclub in downtown Vancouver every week, sometimes several times. I would generally drive. On the few occasions where he did, he'd always have to ask me how to get there, even though we'd been there _dozens_ of times.

It's difficult for me to understand, and it does seem to be at least partly inherited. My dad can open a map of city once, the first time he's been there, and rarely or never look at it again for the rest of the time. I'm not quite that good, but I've been able to negotiate my way around new places pretty easily, and my sense of the cardinal directions locks in early in a visit.

That said, I was quite thrown off when I visited Melbourne, Australia. My inner compass had everything reversed, since the sun traverses the northern part of the sky instead of the south, as I'm used to. I had to reverse directions consciously, as it sounds like Jason does, but then the sun seemed to go the "wrong" way during the day. So there I got an inkling of what it's like to be perpetually confused about directions.

Incidentally, my friend was with me on that trip, and he was no more or less lost than usual, and reported no feeling of strangeness at the position of the sun.

Red WolfApr 19, 2004 at 7:45PM

The inability to deal with left and right runs in my family. It's more pronounced in some members than others, my mother and one of my cousins have it the worst.

I have a similar mnemonic device -- I write with my right hand -- that I use when giving directions, but it's something I have to think about every time. Some times the words don't appear in my head, but pointing works every time.

Left - right directionality confusion is related to dyslexia. I occasionally hit the same problem with lowercase b and d, although oddly enough, never p and q. It only happens when I have to write them, never when type. Yay for keyboards.

CatApr 19, 2004 at 7:50PM

Yep. Me, especially with the E/W thing. I blame it on all the social studies maps where North is "up."

This is the thought process I have to go through if I don't know what direction I'm facing (I live in Kentucky and work in Ohio, so if I know where the river is, I'm in good shape).

It is earlier in California than it is here, and Califorian is west of here. That means the sun is "moving" west. That means that if it's afternoon, the sun is in the west. If I can head towards the sun, that's west.

Awfully complicated, it seems, but it works for me. Unless it's night, in which case I'm screwed.

Jacob PiilApr 19, 2004 at 7:57PM

I have the map problem. I have to face north to tell where west is or at least think very hard about it. I have no problems with left or right though.
Another good pointer for which is left and which is right is where are you wrist watch.

charlesApr 19, 2004 at 7:59PM

I have a pretty good sense of direction, and I use all available information all the time to constantly update my brain's "GPS." I notice the sun, the mountains (I live in Seattle), the interstate, bridges, other landmarks, Avenues and Streets (Aves = N/S, Sts = E/W, and they are often numbered, and if word-named, they have a number associated with them, printed on a small auxiliary sign above the main one), etc.

One thing I find curious here in Seattle is how many people (even long-time residents) still give out verbose directions to their houses, even if they live in a neighborhood in one of the huge, completely numerical grids. I.e., if your address is 6401 15th Ave NW, your house is on 15th Ave NW between NW 64th and NW 65th Streets. No further directions are really necessary, as long as you can get yourself somewhere onto that grid; from there it's just a sequentially numbered x-y plane. And landmarks can make things worse; the "Texaco" station on the "corner" has likely been through many different petroleum-company iterations (I am genuinely surprised by "new" gas stations and businesses on a regular basis -- makes me question if I remember things correctly sometimes, they seem to change so fast and so much), and corners are a pretty common feature in a neighborhood built on a grid. An address is unique and unmistakable.

(Side note: The example 6401 NW 15th Ave NW would be on the west side of the street; in Seattle, odd addresses are on the W or S sides of avenues or streets, and evens are on the E or N sides. Not sure where else that sort of regularity and predictability is common. In any case, such easy numerical grid systems don't exist everywhere; on the eastern seaboard, all bets are off. I usually need at least some sort of descriptive directions in eastern-US towns.)

Oh, and hi Cory.

Chris CarlineApr 19, 2004 at 8:01PM

And I thought it was just me! :-)

Personally, I have no problems spatialising in an abstract sense, but ask me left from right and I have to carefully consider which is which. Even then I get it wrong much of the time. In the end I usually end up pointing whilst my mouth fails to make anything other than embarassing noises.

I have no sense of direction at all.

Amanda SmithApr 19, 2004 at 8:17PM

I cannot tell my right from my left without making the "L" with my left hand. My mother cannot either.

My husband still finds this totally incredible.

lukeApr 19, 2004 at 8:34PM

No sense of direction here either, though left & right are fine. I am simply dreadful at finding places when driving. When I think things through, I'm wrong. When I trust my gut and follow my 'instinct' I imagine things where they are [i]not[/i], and I'm wrong. It takes me about 6 months to remember, by heart, a vaguely complex trip travelled weekly.

It is still a mystery to me today, then, about what possessed me to take a part time job delivering pizzas.

They have this [i]huge[/i] intricitally detailed black and white road map of the area on a wall, and for my first delivery on my own, another worker kindly pointed out where the destination was, and that I simply had to take this road, then that one, then turn here (you know that turn right?) but be careful going through this area, and you'll be there in no time.

An hour after leaving, after spending many long, agonizing minutes with my street directory in front of my car's headlights (it was night and the cabin light doesn't work) I eventually found the place I was meant to deliver too. Thankfully I arrived about 60 seconds after another delivery boy who had been dispatched due to my disappearance and had already delivered the pizzas. It was about 10 mins drive away, tops. I returned to the shop to some sympathy, delivered a few more pizzas, then quit the next day.

Needless to say, I've never personally ordered from that chain again, and am overcome with guilt for my horrible inability to follow directions whenever I hear the words "extra stuffed crust".

JosephApr 19, 2004 at 8:35PM

For no reason, I've always used my feet rather than my hands to determine left from right. I mentally go through the act of kicking a football: the foot I use naturally for kicking is my right foot. So "turn left" translates into "turn to the side of the foot you wouldn't use to kick a football."

Maybe that's why I don't drive?

donald tettoApr 19, 2004 at 8:52PM

I always need to think of where my heart is (that is, when you pledge and so forth) to be able to tell left, then I work from there. It is truly baffling to me that it doesn't come naturally, as it seemingly should -- I'm getting 'faster' at it, but it is really just remembering now, I still don't feel like I "know."

AnilApr 19, 2004 at 8:54PM

Does anybody here have information on how these traits intersect with gender? I've read anecdotal information about which types of directions men and women are better at, but I'd love to learn about the current research on the topic.

lukeApr 19, 2004 at 9:03PM

It seems I also have the terrible infliciton of not being about to switch from BBcode to html and back... :rolleyes:

Shane BonhamApr 19, 2004 at 9:17PM

I always thought it was just me.

I'm pretty good with east and west, though admittedly, when called upon to figure out which is which, I form a mental image of a US map, and then try to figure out which side of me the ocean is on. This probably only works well because I have always lived on the west coast.

With left and right, though man... all bets are off. Someone once told me about the left hand forms the letter L thing, but even that takes too long because I'm never quite sure which way the L is supposed to face. Usually I resort to miming handwriting with the hand in question, and if it seems unnatural, it must be left.

lanceApr 19, 2004 at 9:26PM

I don't have that issue, but my girlfriend does. She navigates in the car by saying "turn this way" or "turn that way." That is, without actually pointing either.
I orient myself directionally (globally) on a large scale. When i lived in california, west was toward the ocean (or japan if i was feeling whimsical) and all the other directions flowed from there.
I was horribly lost for my first few months here in St. Louis tho, as i couldn't remember which way the ocean was. Apparently the river doesn't have enough presence to orient me correctly.

Sibylle SchwarzApr 19, 2004 at 9:30PM

I have to do the same "left is where thumb and and index finger shape an L" trick. Of course I can figure it out, but it never comes naturally (when I was taking driving lessons way back when, the teacher thought I was mocking him when I'd turn in the opposite direction of what he had asked me to). Give me map however and a few minutes to visualize an area in my head, and I'll find my way around anything, and will remember it, too. It's just oral directions I can't seem to handle.

I recently discovered that I have Synesthesia, in my "flavor" of it, I experience letters and numbers as colors. Apparently it's typical for synesthets to have trouble telling left from right, and often they have a poor sense of direction, so maybe that's where it's coming from?

spygeekApr 19, 2004 at 9:37PM

I'm excellent with directions and maps, which I get from my father. A few years ago, after he retired, he and my mom took a trip to rural Ohio where his aunt used to have a farm. He hadn't been there in 40 years, but he was able to drive directly to the farm without consulting a map. He even talked to the current owners and confirmed that it was the right place.

AnnieApr 19, 2004 at 9:52PM

I'm exactly the same way, but I try to keep it a secret as a rule. The problem arises when I'm driving someone who clearly understands that Kmart is across from the Honda dealership which of course means you should turn left at the intersection to get to Home Depot and they can't understand my hesitation at the green light because unbeknownst to them, I can't remember which side of the intersection will take me to Home Depot. It seems some people have a built in map of every store and it's surrounding landmarks built into their heads.

ericApr 19, 2004 at 9:56PM

My dad and I are both pilots, and we seem to share the same navigational genes. My mother, on the other hand, is horrible with directions, or plans of any kind - she can't translate them into 'real' meaning. I can't even fathom what that's like.

MaryApr 19, 2004 at 10:06PM

directionally challenged no, left/right, very challenged. i need to look at the mole on my left wrist to determine left from right.

BrentApr 19, 2004 at 10:27PM

I have no problems with directions as long as it is near a larger land mark that I would immediately recognize. As for street names, unless I have walked it or had prior street instructions repeated I couldn't tell you where the turns are. It's different not having a car (MBTA) where if you do, I had better be with you so you don't get lost.

I was the naviagator on most family trips so map reading is skill. Women in the family not so good. No reason other than the men of the family will get you where you need to go, and most of the time it was to the next rest area. As for stopping to ask for directions or turning around, NEVER! although that must be a guy thing.

One of the hallways, at my grandparents, on the steps leading to the basement, was covered with old AAA road maps from across the US. I remember spending time tracing routes from previous road trips, creating games to discover different town names, and getting familiar with the way the US roads were layed out.

ZachApr 19, 2004 at 11:09PM

While driving to downtown I made four wrong turns.

To my family I am known as "Mr. Geography" because I am so directionally impaired.

tomApr 19, 2004 at 11:10PM

Makes this remaindered link's descriptive text a bit disingenuous, dontcha think?

souloniceApr 19, 2004 at 11:29PM

Visual cues are important for me. I recently drove from New Orleans west to Glencoe, LA and it was difficult designating landmarks because of the miles and miles of sugar cane fields. I ended up having my cousins meet me outside of Morgan City and I followed them to my final destination. Directions aren't usually a problem as long as they are very, very descriptive and I have landmarks to look for.

For east/west I always visualize being back home, the mountains were always west (sun sets) and the valley was east (sun rises).

After I've been someplace once, though, I don't forget how to get there. It's not so much that I remember "turn right here, go 1 mile then left there" it's that I recall the spatial map in my head and follow that.

lisaApr 19, 2004 at 11:45PM

I couldn't find north if you gave me a compass and pointed me to the North star. I always leave myself plenty of time to get anywhere because I know I will always go in the wrong direction (even in nicely numbered Manhattan (except where it is all discombobulated).)

I do find it fascinating, that some people do have a "natural sense of direction," as if they had an internal compass. And a friend of mine proves that theory- because he has a perfect sense of direction except in certain places, where the concentration of metals "blocks" it. I've read studies about this phenomenon before, and I wish I could find a reference to one now, but a quick google search isn't bringing up anything relevant.

Tin ManApr 19, 2004 at 11:46PM

The way I learned to distinguish east from west when I grew up was by thinking of the word WE. Of course, that only works if you're facing north, which means you first need to figure out which way is north.

Also, I'm left handed, and grew up being a little hyperconscious of my handedness, so distinguishing left from right has never been a problem for me.

ShaggyApr 20, 2004 at 12:28AM

Growing up in San Jose, CA where many streets are large circles changing name 3 or 4 times, hills surround you in most every direction, and the sun never seems to stand still you'd think I'd be able to tell my left from right. But alas, my right hand makes an L too.

RobynApr 20, 2004 at 12:36AM

I have to do the exact same thing to distinguish right from left. "Let's see, which hand makes the L...oh, that's right!" Being in marching band and having to follow directional orders quickly didn't even help. How could it be so hard to remember something that (probably) use every day? Ah well, I'm screwed.

lanceApr 20, 2004 at 12:42AM

re: shaggy's comment
When i lived in San Jose i always knew what direction i was going in - i just had trouble figuring out how far from anywhere i was because of the street names. A street like camden would go for twenty miles and change direction a hundred times. Eventually i tuned my direction to that big box on top of mount umanum (sp? - all i know is it means butterfly). I lived toward the northern bottom of that mountain and you can see that big box from anywhere south of San Carlos.
In St. Louis we have streets that start at the river on the south side and proceed east and north randomly for fifty miles and change names at odd times, sometimes getting their names back, and often trading names with an entirely unrelated street. that's a pain.

greg.orgApr 20, 2004 at 12:49AM

The Japanese term for this is hoko onchi, which translates as "directional tonedeafness." Onchi is what people who can't carry a tune are. [That, and--in a country of institutionalized karaoke--lonely.]

SageApr 20, 2004 at 12:55AM

My mom's like this, but even worse... for example, if she has to make a left turn to enter a building, she doesn't remember to to make a right when exiting.

While I'm not as spatially and directionally aware as my dad, at least I didn't inherit all of my mom's genes. My only main problem right now is that I can't visualize routes from a top "map view"... I have to view them from what I see as I pass by landmarks. If I could get an overhead road map of southern California imbedded into my brain, I'd be all set.

Stefan JonesApr 20, 2004 at 2:08AM

I'm pretty good at constructing mental maps of places.

Freaky thing: I used to do a lot of business travel. Sales training. I'd fly to a city, drive to appliance stores in a rental car, teach sales people about PCs. I also got to know a few cities (Vegas, Chicago) doing trade shows.

Years later, when I *drove* to these cities, there'd be a brief, freaky moment where I connected these island-like mental city maps with the one I built on the overland journey. Like patching together pieces of a Zork map.

Mondo DynamoApr 20, 2004 at 2:51AM

Yes. My sister in law has no idea which side is right or left. Amazing that some people have a natural sense of this and others don't

PeterApr 20, 2004 at 3:11AM

I'm 30 and I still do the L thing and forget East/West (because like you said it's tied to L/R). But I never forget North/South, go figure.

I don't think it effects my sense of direction though. I never have a problem finding anything with a map. I just can't verbalize L/R very well.

rgApr 20, 2004 at 3:16AM

I highly recommend Right Hand, Left Hand by Chris McManus. It was the best non-fiction book I read all last year. One of the most interesting sections on handedness was if you blindfold a person and tell them to drive/walk/run across a huge empty field, the resulting path is a spiral. Disturbingly, he says that many pilots putting L and R on their shoes.

MelpomeneApr 20, 2004 at 4:01AM

Great topic! I always thought men had no trouble with directions / L&R because I am hopeless with directions and my partner Mike is not. My rule when driving in unfamiliar territory is that I should always do the opposite of whatever my warped instincts are telling me. However, when we travelled in Europe a few years ago (we are Australian), Mike's sense of direction was all messed up.

DanielApr 20, 2004 at 4:20AM

Hey, it's another 'me too'. But I've got a genetic advantage the rest of you lack - an extra finger. It really just looks like a little thorn coming out of the middle of my little finger on my left hand, but it's my way of telling which way is left. I am the mutant future of humanity.

mattjApr 20, 2004 at 5:18AM

Well I don't seem to have a problem telling left from right, it's when people ask me for directions to a certain place that I have a problem. I'm OK at building mental maps of cities I know but if anyone asks me to describe this map by asking me directions to the train station for example, I get horribly confused and usually send them off in the wrong direction.

NobodyApr 20, 2004 at 5:26AM

I do the same thing: find north, think left=west, right=east.
My girlfriend is worse, though: she has to find North and then think "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" (N-E-S-W).

MegApr 20, 2004 at 5:34AM

I'm the same. To work out left and right, I generally have to think which hand I write/use a mouse with (I'm a computer student. heh.) and I'm great at going "Go left!" while pointing right, which is what I actually meant. It didn't help that I grew up in the southern hemisphere and now can't use the sun to help me because it now goes the otherway around.

Yet people always expect me to do the map reading. Are they insane?

I do build mental maps of places I spend a lot of time in. I could probably still navigate my childhood neighbourhood in South Africa if I went back there but I can not give directions that involve road names (unless they're important roads). This may be because I don't drive and therefor do all my travelling on foot and road names aren't as important. I give directions with landmarks. "Carry down Oxford Road, turn [pause to check left and right]... left at the Macdonald's..."

MorrieApr 20, 2004 at 5:37AM

Travel musts, especially when driving (especially in foreign countries) for me are map, compass, and magnifying glass. In France I bought a Michelin guide, which was great, but then I had to buy a compass, because invariably I'd be heading the wrong way.

RickApr 20, 2004 at 5:55AM

I still hold up my hands occaisionally, or at least mentally picture the L on my left hand as you mentioned. However, directions themselves don't bother me at all, nor do NEWS directions... just the simple L/R dilemna here.

JoergApr 20, 2004 at 5:57AM

I picture the map of the You-nighted States. I know the East Coast is where New York is. New York is on the right side of the map.

Therefore East is right.

Weird thing is, I'm from South Africa.

GwenApr 20, 2004 at 6:03AM

I have an impeccable sense of direction (landmarks, NSEW, R-L, and whatever else you care to throw at me) -- you can plunk me down pretty much anywhere and I will navigate like I've lived there my whole life in three minutes flat, AND I'll refold the map properly. (For those of you looking for fodder for your overestrogenized survey: my sister is similarly gifted, dad has issues, mom gets there with no help but takes a really, really long time, and IME *women* are better at directions overall, and men *are* afraid to ask.)

One technique I've used with many severely directionally challenged people is associating the directions with a person. e.g. take a Gwen at the second light, take a Jason on 14th. This works best in a car, since I don't drive and am always riding shotgun, but walking directions work, too, since people seem to prefer walking to one side of their companion (like which side you like to sleep on).

I'm willing to bet there are plenty of studies out there about this and it's completely tied to learning styles (visual, aural, etc.).

pickyinApr 20, 2004 at 6:39AM

i get directionally challenged (more impaired than challenged i think) while driving. suddenly a particular landmark will look and feel very different from another junction or the other side of the road.

kellyApr 20, 2004 at 8:24AM

I have used the L-trick all my life, ever since my mom taught it to me. I have a sneaky way of holding the steering wheel so I can see the L if I need to, and when I took French, I even figured out a way to make my left hand make a "g" so that I knew gauche from droite.

I'm equally bad at compass directions, and also visualize the United States to figure out east and west. I am okay giving directions to people who are more forgiving or less "mappy" -- I tend to confuse people like your father when I refer to north as up and south as down. I'm really good with landmarks, though, building my own map in my head after I've been somewhere, that's based on visual cues, like turning at/toward a yellow house rather than left or right.

As for genetics, I've long suspected it -- my sister did the L-thing for years before we both figured out we had this problem. And my mom taught us the trick, after all. Then again, we have plenty of estrogen between us, too.

rinneApr 20, 2004 at 8:42AM

I read maps well and can plot a course without flaw. However, making the decision to turn right or left on command was not within me. When my ten year old son was the navigator for a 9000 mile road trip in 1988, he devised the "turn watch" for left and "turn bracelet" for right. It worked well. Another aspect is my inability to tell how to address the ball to hit a golf ball righthanded until I envision my days of playing baseball/softball lefthanded from 40 years ago adn switch it to put myself in the correct position. Advantage? I can read upside down and mirror, can write mirror and am extremely ambidextrous.

rinneApr 20, 2004 at 8:46AM

But I have trouble typing - "adn" instead of "and." See above.

OllieApr 20, 2004 at 8:52AM

Tonight I was quietly grateful when my osteopath supplemented his request that I turn my head to the left, with a tap on the appropriate shoulder. Perhaps he had already noticed how long it took me to translate that deceptively simple word.

I'm sure I read it is something to do with strong left and right brain connections. At least that's what I choose to recall :)

nApr 20, 2004 at 8:57AM

YES. i think it's from my father, but even when i connect 'east' with the rising sun ( it east?) i still can't figure it out. and my father has this ryoga-from-ranma-1/2-like tendency where he can't find the lot behind his house without getting lost.

dahlApr 20, 2004 at 9:15AM

I still need to use my hand to determine left or right, but I usually know exactly where I want to go. The problem only comes when I need to give someone else directions and if I don't think about it, I'll usually say right instead of left. One of the reasons I love NY is that its so easy to determine the directions because the East side is obviously East, so North must be uptown. Though I got really confused the other day when my friend pointed out a guy praying on my street the other day, and mentioned that the direction he was praying must be east, when he was pointed diagonal (i.e. NNE by New York directions - guess we're not perfect here).

BrodyApr 20, 2004 at 9:26AM

I am definitely directionally challenged when it comes to left or right. I am okay with North, South, etc.

speedwellApr 20, 2004 at 9:42AM

I had a hard time distinguishing left and right when I was a child, but I also had piano lessons from the age of 2. Finally I just worked out a method where when someone said "left" and "right," I mentally translated "down" (in pitch, the low end of the keyboard) and "up." Somehow I managed to keep this separate from directional "down" and "up."

The synesthesia thing might have something to do with it. Even now I can be "steered," like the "turn watch" and "turn bracelet," by pitch. I walked through an acquaintance's house blindfolded while he played his violin. It worked well.

waylmanApr 20, 2004 at 9:51AM

I have the L/R problem as well. I have to physicaly make the motion to write with a pen to determine which hand is my right. Good thing I'm not left handed!

However, NSEW is no problem for me. I allmost always know which way I'm facing and don't even need to first turn North, although this does help on a bad day. The only problem I have is upon waking up from a nap; riding in the car in a location I've never been before, espesially on a cloady day. I even read a map upside down with little difficulty from time to time.

Speaking of maps, I can usualy study a map once and never need it again. And once I've been to a place I can always find my way back and there again. When visiting a new city I'll study a map and then find all sorts of short cuts that many of the locals didn't even know existed.

I occasionaly have a problem with street names although it mostly has to do with numbers. I am terrible with numbers. I always get them mixed up in my head. So if I'm given directions to go from route number to route number I get a little confused. For example one town nearby has both a Route 63 and a Route 36 pass through it. Don't ask me which one is which. I have no idea.

angApr 20, 2004 at 10:00AM

I have a very good sense of direction, am good with maps, and I'm pretty sure that behind the scenes my brain is always working to orient things according to landmarks and the sun. I'm also one of those people who has figured out the fastest way to get from A to B from any point in our town.

My husband, on the other hand, is notorious among our family and friends for being a completely unconscious driver. Getting in the car with him involves a necessary zen-like acceptance of eventually reaching your destination, no matter how much time it takes. He is also not so good with directions, or with distinguishing right from left.

However, I've lived most of my life in the midwest and the only time I ever lost my sense of direction was when I went to New Jersey (where my husband is from) for the first time. I was totally confused by the non-gridded spiderweb of streets. After a few dozen visits I'm finally beginning to learn my way around.

amyybethApr 20, 2004 at 10:40AM

I'm not sure how I would tell left from right if ever lost my thumbs.

rebeccaApr 20, 2004 at 11:14AM

One time I got in a fight with my best friend because we were doing the L thing while facing each other and thus could not agree on which way was left. As I recall, we were four.

Anyway I'm logistically challenged to the point that when I'm giving directions in the car and the driver wants to know which way to turn, I'll say "left!" or "right!" based solely on whichever word pops into my head first, not which direction we actually need to go. When I realize my mistake I turn mute and start frantically gesturing in the right direction.

JessiApr 20, 2004 at 11:20AM

I had that problem as a kid. When my dad told me to turn left on my bicycle, I turned right immediately. Straight into the bushes. And I can assure you it happened more then once...

annieApr 20, 2004 at 11:34AM

Sadly, this is me. Exactly. I routinely tell people to make a right when I mean left. I also have to orient myself facing north to figure out where west is. I dread when strangers ask me for directions, or I'm asked to drive a carpool to an unknown spot. I always get lost.

JApr 20, 2004 at 12:13PM

I have a similar affliction. Actually, it's not so much a directional difficulty as a spatial/distantial misestimation. For instance, I'd say things like "it's two blocks north" when in reality, it's more like six blocks.

scribblativeApr 20, 2004 at 1:01PM

This is fantastic - I've always thought I was kind of just a bit of a freak, since I've never known anyone else who seemed to have the trouble I have of shouting "turn right!" whilst pointing left. Like a few of the other posters, I have the weird combination of being great with spatial orientation & reading maps, and excellent at navigating, but still having to do the "check-the-hands-to-see-which-makes-the-'L'" thing. If I'm the one who's driving, and I don't have to describe my navigation to anyone, I get around like a pro - it's the translation from the "map in my head" to actual words that make sense to others that's the problem.

It's extremely frustrating, and I've always felt kind of silly that I've never quite been able to get a handle on such a simple concept after 20+ years. But it's good to know I'm not alone in my dysfunction :)

Mary WilliamsonApr 20, 2004 at 1:56PM

find this discussion beguiling. I was just telling someone on Friday April 16 that when ever I travel to a new city or a part of the city I am in that I am unfamiliar with, one of the first things I must determine (and it is almost unconscious and automatic at this point) is which was is north; north in terms of the city and north in terms of "true North". I am also ambidextrous and am (not surprisingly) dyslexic. Dyslexia is a "dis" order which manifests (for me) in the memorisation and recall of sequences of numbers, directions (telling left from right, east from west) and spelling. Because it is a "dis" order the manifestations of dyslexia are not always consistent or patterened. For example: I do always seem to figure out where north is no matter where I am, however I sometimes confuse east and west and often confuse right and left and then there are those times when I have absolutely no idea where North is and then I know I am really lost.

Lloyd AlterApr 20, 2004 at 2:04PM

I have no trouble with directions but cannot tell left from right. However the worst is that I am absolutely incapable of setting a table- I cannot tell what side the fork goes on. in university I worked in a restaurant and still could not get it, I had to put a photograph of a place setting on the wall. To top it all off, I took up the sport of rowing where I am facing backwards. I have red and green tape on my oars, my boat, and sing the old "a little red port left in the bottle" song but still get confused.

mspApr 20, 2004 at 2:14PM

i don't get lost, i only get to unexpected places. i just have a walk through of where i've been. this usually only screws up in situations where roads slowly curve to be 90 degrees and i find myself going east instead of north. towns like raleigh or driving alongside rolling curvy hills often throw the walk through off. otherwise i'm usually able to completely hack my way cross country and around towns without much effort. i'm the type of person that doesn't ask directions as a matter of aimlessness. "we'll get there." i get in the car and go and have driven cross-country several times without peeking at a map. of course, that probably sounds more a consequence of memory, understanding road signs, and general enthusiasm for daisy smelling.

i'm ambidextrous tho. i always score neither-handed.

Mike HourihanApr 20, 2004 at 4:33PM

I'm directionally challenged, but only when i'm in a vehicle. I have no concept of N/S/W/E. the only way i get where i'm going is my memory of landmarks, and a uncanny nack of good guesses and feelings that i'm heading the right way. I have a pretty good spatial sense, though this doesn't seem to help me get where i'm going. I wish i lived in NY so i wouldn't have to drive, minimizing this problem substancially.

PurpleCarApr 20, 2004 at 4:48PM

I tried the "L" thing, but as I make two L's - one with my left hand and one with my right, I can't tell which L is the correct one (a bit dyslexic, I think). In fact, at times, I will begin to eat or write with my left hand and not notice until I spill something on myself or realize my handwriting is too illegible. I'm right-handed! I'm bad with directional orientation unless I have a map. I have to turn a map upside-down to orient it the same way I'm physically standing. If I can get me and the map matched up, I'm good to go. I'm the worst in my family, so I don't think I inherited it, but I can't imagine any other explanation.

alstkiApr 20, 2004 at 11:43PM

This is a very common problem, much more so than one might think. I used to run a Yahoo! club devoted to the topic, in fact.

There is good news. I have suffered with this all of my 41 years, and I can report that it seems to get better as time goes on. In my teens and twenties, I had it so bad that the L trick wouldn't even work (in my state of confusion, I would actually not recognize which hand was forming the L)... and for a while I completely abandoned any attempt to discern left and right. But in the last 5-6 years or so, it has improved, and notably in the last year. I've moved a lot and have had to learn directions in new places quickly, and I think that has helped.

Subzero BlueApr 21, 2004 at 3:51AM

I think I' more like your dad. You could put me anywhere and I'd somehow feel where the North & South, East & West are.

I think I have a very strong sense of direction.

Anyway my wife is the complete opposite :P

JeffApr 21, 2004 at 8:39AM

My wife used to think she had a good sense of direction until she met me. I think having a good sense of direction is not only inherited but a product of filling in a vacuum. My wife was good with directions in her family of origin because no one else was (or wanted to be). Once she met me, she was no longer "required" to know where she was going. She has been a much happier traveler ever since. -g

I'm pretty good at it and can not only remember how to get from Point A to Point B, even years after first traversing the path but I can do it in reverse.

That being said, I met my match when I first went to Japan. Having grown up in Southern California, the Pacific was always "west." In Japan, it's "east" and that bit of knowledge threw my internal compass into a fit. And when I went to Australia in their winter, the sun being low on the "northern" horizon also sent me in the wrong direction.

PaulApr 21, 2004 at 11:00AM

I about lost it when I read this. Yes, I have this exact same problem and I do the exact same thing (left hand L), every single time. Every. single. time. The only time I don't have to do it is if I am following a list of directions with a lot of rapid left and right turns, then I might only have to do it once at the beginning. Over the years I've just learned to look down at my hands quickly and causually anytime I need to give/receive directions.

The weird thing is, my sense of direction is fine (ie I don't get lost easily), but I just can't "remember " which way is left.

I'm 32 years old, and I just recently mentiond this to my wife. I think we were watching Monk, and she said something about having to count the spoons everytime she emptied the dishwasher. I guess I made fun of her the next time we were empting the dishwasher, and she got upset. So I told her about my little issue with left/right, and she thought I was making fun of her some more; she just couldn't believe that I was serious (although she does now).

I can't wait to show her this thread.

WilsonApr 21, 2004 at 2:05PM

Just like Rob said, I can't tell east from my elbow. Every time I walk out of a store or restaurant, I usually just turn right. I'm right about half the time, and the rest of the time, I end up someplace new.

DaveC426913Apr 21, 2004 at 6:53PM

I'm an expert at knowing my NSEW and at following a map, I have no problem with either left/right orientation, and no problem reading an analog clock (grew up with them, unlike my son).

But using a clock face as a direction-finder befuddles me.

If someone says "ahead at 11 o'clock", it takes me many seconds to mentally place a clock horizontally around me and figure out if I should look ahead to the left or ahead to the right.

kimApr 22, 2004 at 8:01PM

there's already a jillion 'me too' comments, but i'll throw my hat in the ring too. i just moved to silicon valley after living in pittsburgh my entire life. i still had trouble finding some things in pittsburgh, if i had only been there a few times or had to follow directions. is my friend, and i have a large collection of directions to remember how to get places. i've been in silicon valley for 2 months and i'm so disoriented that i'm literally scared to go some places.bleah.

Hanan CohenApr 22, 2004 at 8:23PM

Some people with ADHD don't have enough patience to listen to driving directions. So, they think they are Directionally Challanged while they are really Attentionally Challanged.

StanApr 23, 2004 at 3:13PM

I'm from Kansas and my wife is from south Texas. She pointed out something I'd never noticed: my Kansas relatives all give directions in N,S,E,W orientation (e.g., Go west for two miles, turn north...). That was foreign to her. I speculate that it's because in Kansas everything was set out on a grid by the original a land grant surveryors.

Perhaps because of this upbringing, I have a very strong sense of compass directions. One night many years ago, I was running (after dark) in an area of town I'd not been in much. I was running west on 35th street, and made a left.

I thought the street I was on was a through street to the next major E/W street, 24th. But, actually it curved ever so slightly to the right. I didn't notice the curve (because it was night and I was tired near the end of a long run) and when I got to the next major intersection, I looked at the sign and saw that it was 35th again. I was surprised.

Cognitively, I knew I needed to right to get home, but based on my mental map (that said I should be at 24th, not 35th again), my instinct was to go left. I had to stand there a minute or two and consciously readjust my mental map, which was very difficult, before I could turn right and head for home.

This was a very disturbing incident for me.

Jenny BaumApr 24, 2004 at 3:13PM

I'm from Chicago originally and just visited there recently. Without fail, everytime I go there, someone makes a comment about how great it is to live in a city where everything is laid out so well. I'm sure it is laid out well, and I can bumble my way around using landmarks, but I'm ashamed to say I never did get the hundreds thing (as in, it's 4600 west) and I don't know my presidents well enough to get around downtown, and it irks me that the highways are always East and West when on the map they really look North and South (I know that this is because of the lake, and I usually make the right guess, but still, it irks me). My dad, on the other hand, could find his way around Chicago blindfolded. I much prefer the way Manhattan is laid out (yea, numbered streets!)

I don't have much of a problem with left/right (although Kate does), but I have often had to position myself North before I could figure out which direction to head in. I also confidently head in completely the wrong direction about 99% of the time (the other 1% is just to keep people guessing).

On a different note, I often get driving directions from women that are 100% correct but that are presented in a way that makes them sound very unsure, "I think you...", "I don't know, but..." and I often get wrong directions from men who gleefully and completely confidently misdirect me.

nickApr 25, 2004 at 9:27PM

When giving directions from the passenger seat, I point left and say 'right'. The pointing is the accurate one, so whoever's driving has to be aware that the voice is not necessarily accurate, but the pointing is.

I blame the nuns who stopped me writing left-handedly.

(I can cope with West-East, though it's a bit of a nightmare when dealing with those Interstates that are meant to be running North-South, but actually run East-West for long stretches.)

kimbaApr 25, 2004 at 9:41PM

Yes, I have the same problem! I am very visual and when I give directions to someone I give them, and like to get them, by landmarks. And I find it easier to use the words 'up' and 'down' instead of left and right, although no one else ever understands what I mean by that.

I hate it when I'm driving and someone, usually in the passenger seat, gives me a command to turn right at the light when I'm within
a few feet of the intersection. Not only do I get left and right confused I don't have power breaks or steering. I like having my route mapped out in my head before I get in the car.

MelanieApr 26, 2004 at 12:26PM

I've always had problems with left / right and east / west too. But I've always chalked it up to the fact that I'm left handed in a right handed world.

When I went to take my driver's test at age 16 my mother gave me something to help me remember - she told me to remember that the driver's test guy was always right, thus I was able to remember that that was the right side of the car.

My one saving grace in life has been that I'm very good at remembering street names, so as long as I can get those, I'm good to go.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.