Culture, Family, Miscellaneous, Science, Travel

Little Girl Lost

Ever since I was a small child, I’ve had difficulty finding my way.

I don’t mean in spiritual, philosophical, or political matters. I think I’m pretty well grounded in all those things, and Lord knows, I have pretty firm beliefs about them too. I was lucky to be raised in a family of smart people with strong opinions, a healthy sense of right and wrong, and a commitment to raising its children to be civilized and caring adults.

Most importantly, I realize from my current vantage point, I was given a sense of perspective about my own place in the world and I was taught that it “I was [not] the one [the world] had been waiting for,” that it did not revolve around me, that the sun did not shine out of any of my bodily orifices, and that sometimes my own wants and needs would be subordinated to those of others whose wants and needs were greater than mine. Valuable life lessons, all. (The irony for all those marching in lockstep for the right to declare themselves each a “snowflake” unique from all the others sharing exactly the same opinions and doing exactly the same thing is that my family is full of individuals. We’re all different, we’re all a bit odd, and we all revel in the fact there’s no one else quite like us, anywhere.)

When I say I have always had trouble finding my way, I mean I have always had trouble finding my way.

I try to be honest and upfront about my shortcomings, when I’m with people who may be affected by them. I start out by saying, “You know, I have a really poor sense of direction.” And they generally respond with something like, “Oh, I do, too.” Or, perhaps they say, “I understand what that’s like, my mother was always getting lost.” And then they move on.

No.

I doubt you really do understand what it’s like. I have a really poor sense of direction. My brain’s internal GPS doesn’t work. Although I don’t get lost in my own house (anymore), I’ve stayed with folks who have larger houses for several days or a week and, by the time I leave, I still can’t find my way from the bedroom to the dining room without a lot of preliminary thought, and perhaps a couple of wrong turns along the way. A couple of years ago, I spent the night in a hotel whose front desk clerk kindly upgraded my room to a “superior suite.” Big mistake. I spent half the night trying to find my way to the bathroom and ending up in the walk-in closet every time. Not kidding.

I regularly get lost in the rather small indoor mall a few miles away from my house. I’ve only been shopping there for 34 years. It had a Sears at one end, a Rural King at the other, and a BonTon in the middle. (The Sears and the BonTon are closed now.  Hasn’t helped.) Up and down the “nave” are smaller shops, my favorites being JoAnn Fabrics and Marshalls. I have to plan my expeditions there every time, so I don’t get lost, and I usually photograph my car’s position in the parking lot so I can find it when I leave. Like most people of my ilk, I am obsessive about using the same entrance and exit every time and have been reduced almost to quivering Jello status when “my” regular parking spot is occupied. How dare someone!

I could go on, but perhaps you’re starting to get the idea.

If there’s an upside, I guess it’s that my aforementioned family raised me with a hefty dose of humor and a healthy sense of the ridiculous, even when applied to myself. I don’t really mind being lost most of the time. There are maps, there is Google, and there are phone and standalone GPS’s that mitigate my fears, outdoors at least. I’m not afraid of new places, and I don’t mind exploring, at least when I’m somewhere whose language is somewhat familiar (any of the Romance Languages), or whose alphabet and street signs I can read.

I’m not quite sure what I’d do if I was dropped into the middle of Ulaanbaatar and left to my own devices. Yes. Yes, I am sure. I wouldn’t move far from the place where I landed, lest I never get back to it, and I’d just hope to have brought a good book  and some knitting with me. Not every address in the world can be rendered as the equivalent of 123 Main Street, Anytown USA 12345, and the possibilities for disaster and dragons would, pretty much, keep me frozen in place. Much as I might enjoy the experience (and I probably would), I very likely wouldn’t do much touring, absent a knowledgeable and kind host, or a friendly and reliable local guide.

Although I came to terms with my directional limitations many years ago, I’ve never stopped trying to find out why they exist. For years, I wrote it off to just the standard, “exceptionally poor sense of direction” business. When I developed a minor, but annoying, inner-ear disorder that occasionally leads to balance problems, I speculated that perhaps my internal “gyroscope” was off because of it, and that that was why I had such difficulty finding my way. But I never really found a satisfactory explanation or one which was backed up by much scientific study or replicable results.

Enter Dr. Giuseppe Iaria, a neuroscientist at the University of Calgary with a longstanding interest in the study of human orientation, spatial, and directional skills.

About 12 years ago, Dr. Iaria met what we might call his “patient zero,” a woman of overwhelming ordinariness; one who was perfectly healthy both mentally and physically. She had no brain damage, no neurological conditions, and nothing “wrong,” anywhere.

What she had was the unerring ability to get lost, every day, inside her own home and everywhere else she tried to go.

And all at once, Dr. Iaria changed the focus of his research to something he named Developmental Topographical Disorientation, or DTD. The “developmental” part indicates that it’s a lifelong condition and that it’s not the result of neurological trauma or injury of some sort.

Over the past ten years, Dr. Iaria and his group have published many studies of this phenomenon, and his team has put up a website which brings together much of his research, provides a forum for people with the problem to share their experiences, and offers a battery of tests which a person can take — the results of which feed into his research, and some of the “takers” of which, his team follow up with and make part of the studies.

I’ve taken the tests. Based on one’s point of view, I suppose one might say that I either passed with flying colors or failed spectacularly.

Part of the formal diagnostic process (which I have not been through) for this condition is an MRI. MRIs for patients with suspected DTD usually show that the parts of the brain, especially the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, do not act in sync as they do in a “normal” brain. Both these parts of the brain are important in orienting oneself to the environment, and current theory is that these “bad comms” between areas of the brain play a major role in the disorder. Dr. Arne Ekstrom, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California Davis, who also studies patients with DTD, thinks of it this way:

… his research, like Iaria’s, suggests that in patients with DTD, the problem with forming cognitive maps stems from a disconnection between the brain’s information highways. “If you want to try to get to New York and you have to transfer through the country but Chicago is shut down, it’s going to be much harder to get there,” he said. Patients with DTD may eventually find where they need to be, using other tools like GPS or finding landmarks they know, but it takes them significantly longer than someone with normal navigational skills.

There’s still much research to be done on this subject, and the search for a “cause” goes on. Current research centers on a genetic connection (I don’t see that in my family) and the studies continue.

In the meantime, I’m relieved to be part of another little Internet community, one that focuses not on politics or intellectual engagement, but which consists of folks with a bit of a problem reaching out to new friends and helping each other cope. There’s nothing wrong with finding out you’re not alone. I sort of like it. Perhaps one day, all those of us who participate in the online forum will decide to get together for an international meetup and shindig somewhere in the world.

The first challenge will be getting there. I can’t even.

5 thoughts on “Little Girl Lost”

  1. My daughter’s boyfriend had an infection around his brain a couple of years ago, and now has a terrible sense of direction at times – frequently gets lost and cannot find his own car in a parking lot. He has been getting better, but it has been a slow process. His parents have said he used to be quite good.

    1. Wow, that sounds scary, and I’m very glad he recovered. On balance (as I well know) it’s an inconvenient disability to have, but it sounds as if things could have been much worse for him. I wonder if the area that appears to have suffered long-term damage corresponds to those researched above. The brain is an amazing organ, and here’s hoping that he sees improvement as he grows older.

  2. Another fascinating post. Thank you. The brain is the most fascinating and remarkable organ. I never cease to be amazed when I succeed in remembering a name, or an incident, that I’ve not thought of for years.

    It’s so interesting how some brains are good at some things and not at others. I’m hopeless at remembering numbers and at remembering foreign languages- but can remember Latin plant names! Also, I somehow manage to remember foreign words when food or drink is involved. Go figure!

  3. As much as I respect this doctor’s work, I have to point out that Dad’s first wife also got lost pretty much every time she turned around too. Coincidence? I think not!

    You are pretty fun when you get lost though. All hail the accidental adventurer!

    1. Greetings to you! And in response, I post the email you sent out to a group of ladies who once went on a trip to Venice. We’d been asked to write about ourselves, and send the resulting output to the group. You and I decided to write about EACH OTHER. Here’s what you wrote about me:

      “Please allow me to recommend RWKJ as a highly qualified candidate for travelling companion. Travelling companions must be flexible, easy-going, and open to new ideas.
      RWKJ is very flexible. I have seen this many times as she slid halfway down her own icy hill-side as she was trying to feed several of her bunnies and kitties in the dead of winter, while wearing pajamas and slippers.

      RWKJ is also easy-going. Several times when we have traveled together she has found it very easy to go the wrong direction, which is how we have happened to meet so many nice people in the world. It’s also why I carry a bottle of whiskey in my purse.

      The whiskey is clearly why we’re both so open to new things. Especially to new bottles of whiskey. What was the question?

      Furthermore, and in closing, I have only two more things to say. One, she’s married to Dad. That means she needs a vacation. Someone should go with her. She needs it.

      Also, she puts up with me AND sometimes writes letters from the personae of some of the aforementioned bunnies and/or kitties. What could be better than having a travelling companion who, while lost someplace with you, will share a nice stiff drink and then help you write postcards home in the voice of a cantankerous rabbit with tooth problems? Now that’s a great time. And certainly memorable. Isn’t that what everyone wants from their trip?

      Well, there you have it.”

      Good times. Thanks, kiddo.

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