The Outdoor Retailer show wrapped up last week. The OR show happens every 6 months and we never miss it. It’s always in the same place, in a huge convention center downtown Salt Lake City. We use it as an opportunity to scout out cool products for RVers, and each show we tend to find at least one new thing that excites us.
If you’ve followed us for a while you’re familiar with this trade show, since we talk about it a lot. But now here’s something I haven’t told you: I spend the entire 3 days at the show completely lost.
It’s so true. I am utterly, hopelessly lost for 6 days of my life each year. The convention center isn’t set up in a recognizable shape, you know…like a rectangle. It’s more set up like a confusing “L”, but with flourishes and bends; narrowed parts here and there that give you the illusion you may have turned into the top leg of the “L” when really, you’re still in the bottom with (what feels like) no way out. It doesn’t help that the show exhibits are all over the place in random patterns and sizes giving no assistance or directional clues to help a sister out.
I should probably fess up. This problem isn’t just isolated to the Outdoor Retailer show. I am admittedly a directionally-challenged person. I especially notice it when we’re on the road in the RV, in unfamiliar settings. It isn’t totally my fault though. I blame Albuquerque.
After college, I went to a teacher job fair in Iowa assuming I’d find a teaching position close to home. Long story short, I ended up signing a contract on the spot to come teach in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I drove home from that fair giggly and wild, saying to my friend who went with me, “OMG! I just signed a freaking contract to go teach in Albuquerque!!! WHERE IS ALBUQUERQUE ANYWAY?!? Do I need a passport?!” It was the craziest thing this small-town Midwestern girl had ever done to date. A few months later, I moved to the “big city”. I spent almost two decades teaching and living there.
Albuquerque is the easiest city ever to navigate. You’ve got the mountains on your east side, and can pretty much see the whole city wherever you are. Living there, you really don’t need to turn on your sense of direction. Feeling lost? No worries! Just look up! “Ah ha! There are those eastern mountains; I know right where I am…let’s go!” It didn’t help that I left Albuquerque for Salt Lake City. Same scenario. Streets in a grid, mountains in the east, brain switched to Off.
So here’s my theory. Living in geographically-anchored-grid-based-mountain-cities caused me to stop exercising the part of my hippocampus responsible for developing spatial memory. It’s the whole use-it-or-lose-it thing. I wasn’t using it, so therefore I wasn’t building any new grid cells or place cells, which are special neurons necessary for having a highly-honed directional sense. Anyways, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Scientists everywhere are probably rolling their eyes.
Why is it that some people seem to know instinctively where to go and others (like me) are prone to getting lost? James is annoyingly great with directions. Well I should retract the “annoying” since I pretty much depend on it being my own directional mechanism sucks. I’m just jealous, because I know he doesn’t work at it at all. Research shows there’s a genetic component to our directional capabilities, and this is clearly the case with James. Yet, here’s the good news; much of it is actually learned. The brain can be trained to improve our way-finding abilities specifically by practicing the skill of finding our way, and experts offer up a few exercises we can do to make this happen. So take heart fellow directionally-challenged souls, there’s hope for us yet!
EXERCISE #1: Create a Mental Map & Quit Depending So Heavily on Technology:
Experts say devices like our GPS systems in the RV can become crutches. But come on, do we really need “experts” to tell us that? Of course they are! They inhibit our ability to develop a better sense of direction since we don’t have to do the pesky task of thinking ourselves. Since we can easily “check out” once the address is plugged in, we aren’t staying connected to where we are on Earth.
Next time you’re headed somewhere new in the RV try this. Before going, study your route and even trace it with your finger to get the lay of the land. Committing your route to memory and taking note of landmarks along the way (lakes, mountains, etc) will give you context for where you’re going to be. The brain needs exercise, too. If we depend less on technology and more on our own cognitive skills, we give our brains the exercise they need to develop an improved sense of direction.
EXERCISE #2: Be Mindful of Your Environment:
If we can stay mindful of our surroundings, it’s easier to strengthen connections in our brains to where we are and have been. I see this as an important one when out hiking or biking…or any situation where our cell phones might fail. Some suggestions to be Mindful of Your Environment are to:
1) make stops to soak in the scenery,
2) take notes and make comments out loud about what you see,
3) identify landmarks along the way,
4) physically point in the correct direction both to your destination and back to your starting point.
So basically you’re working to stay present and aware, while filtering out visual, tactile, and auditory “noise” that distracts us from our directional awareness. Meditation is a great way to improve mind wandering and “noise” distractions, so if you’re serious about improving your sense of direction and learning to be more present, practicing meditation may help.
EXERCISE #3: Test Your Internal Compass & Figure Out Where North is:
Keeping the cardinal directions in mind at all times is important if you want to maintain awareness of where you are…and is a HUGE area of weakness for me (grrr Albuquerque). Let’s do a test right now. As quick as you can, figure out which direction you’re facing. Did you instantly know? Did you have to think about it a few seconds? Or were you like me and had to stand up, look around, find the sun, look around some more, think really hard, and then go ask your spouse? If so, then you probably could benefit from this exercise, too.
Your phone most likely has a compass feature, or you could easily download one. Once you do, get in the habit of checking in with it throughout the day. Test yourself first by figuring out North, and then use the compass to see if you’re correct.
So there you have it, 3 exercises to improve one’s sense of direction. I’ve decided I’m going to practice them diligently over the next 6 months. It’ll be a good challenge for me, and I like having challenges. My big test for improvement will be the summer Outdoor Retailer show, and whether I’ll be wandering directionlessly or purposefully. Fingers crossed there’s hope for me yet!