Getting Lost

No one gets properly lost anymore.

Not with global positioning systems, smart phones, Mapquest and Google Maps.

It’s a shame, really, because some perfectly good things have happened while people were lost.

Christopher Columbus set sail looking for Asia and discovered America (or so the story goes). It was less a poor sense of direction on his part, but more that nobody had figured out how to determine longitude at sea, which made for some very long road trips.

Even the best of navigators-like Henry Hudson-got lost. In his quest to find a shortcut from Europe to the Far East, he founded the Hudson River and Hudson Bay and then became so lost he was never heard from again. No one is sure if it was mutiny or murder.

I know a woman who became so lost after dropping some family members off at the airport, that they safely landed in Chicago while she was still rambling around the roads near her home in Raleigh, N.C. The only thing she discovered on her journey was that she couldn’t read a map and that it was time to buy a cellphone.

I refuse to get lost because I stop and get directions, but I can’t say the same is true for my husband. I fell asleep once on the way to a weekend spot in southern Vermont and woke up to find we were 5 miles from the Canadian border.

“We might as well go to Montreal,” I said, because mutiny wasn’t an option.

But, no, no one gets lost anymore.

We can Google our position on a rainy road in the dark, find the best diner within 6 blocks of where we are, and then go to Yelp to discover whether people recommend the burgers or the fish fry. An application on our smartphones will help us find our car in the parking lot and our GPS will give us block by block instructions on how to get home, even helping us to avoid traffic delays on the way.

What do our brains lose when we have so little involvement with our external worlds?

Research is finding that all of this technology is disrupting the one thing that our brains were meant to do well: form mental maps.

Mental maps help us figure out where things are in relation to one another. The interesting thing about these mental maps is they differ from one person to another, and they are subjective. The things that are important in my mental map will be entirely different than yours. I, for example, prefer to be told to make a right at the yellow barn and a left at the Chinese restaurant, while my husband would prefer to be told to go 1.6 miles north to make the right, and then 350 feet before making a left. (I’d be too busy counting the feet to ever make the left.)

We don’t seem to have much need for mental maps anymore, and it seems to me as if we are letting our cognitive health decline. Learning to read maps and giving old-fashioned directions should be mandatory tasks for our tech-savvy younger generation no matter how mundane it might seem. It’s important for people to learn how to orientate themselves in the world.

The GPS allows us to pass our surroundings by, without using our intuition or any sort of navigational skill. You become as passive as a cloud, without having to participate in the activity. And you don’t learn to correct mistakes because the GPS will do it for you.

Consider that the grey matter in an ordinary London taxi driver is of greater weight than someone in a control group who doesn’t drive a taxi. The reason, according to a famous study, was because the taxi drivers had spent years navigating complex city streets and their brains were duly exercised. In short, the more mental mapping we do the stronger our cognitive skills.

Getting lost is a bit of an art – one that is soon to be banished from human experience.

Getting home used to be a task we were all once perfectly capable of performing on our own.