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Don't always depend on GPS. Your sense of direction will thank you

Cha Pornea for NPR

There's a not-so-sacred ritual I practice almost every time I drive somewhere. It happens before I put on my seat belt, check my mirror and turn on the engine. I type in the address of wherever I'm going into my phone. I have a terrible sense of direction, so without the seemingly omniscient guide of GPS — the Global Positioning System — not only would I be lost, I'd feel lost.

It makes me wonder: Is there anything I can do to improve my navigation skills? The answer is yes, say researchers who study this topic. Let go of your fear of getting lost, be observant and practice keeping "a sense of direction in your head as you travel," says Mary Hegarty, a cognitive psychologist at the Spatial Thinking Lab at University of California, Santa Barbara. "When you have GPS on, you're probably not thinking of any of that."

An over-reliance on GPS can also lead to a narrower view of your surroundings, she says. "You're not paying attention to the broader environment that gives you cues" of where you are in space — what's on your right or left and what it means to be "here."

In fact, people who have a good internal compass may have a deeper connection to the world around them, says Hugo Spiers, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. He studied the brains of London cab drivers, who are required to memorize about 25,000 street names in the city in order to get the job. And he found that once the cab drivers mastered the names, "they had a real sense of ownership of the city" — and greater power over their environment.

If you want to gain confidence on the road or be less reliant on GPS to get around, here are some steps you can take to boost your sense of direction.

Turn off your GPS and get lost on purpose

If you're not pressed for time, turn off your GPS and try to find your way around town, says Ben Gero, an outdoor recreation specialist with Cleveland Metroparks, a system of nature preserves in Ohio. He helps kids from the city get acclimated to the outdoors and teaches skills like navigation.

"Next time you go for a stroll, go down a road you've not walked and see where it ends up," says Gero. Or take the scenic route "to your favorite bodega, bar or coffee shop." This works if you're walking, biking or driving. Then see if you can make it back home without a GPS from your destination.

The goal is to get comfortable with getting lost and moving through the world without a map, he says. "We've all gotten used to the idea that we've got to go, go, go to get to our spot. What's the harm in taking five to 10 minutes longer to get back to the highway?"

Use landmarks to orient yourself

Not sure if you're north, south, east or west from home? The experts we spoke to suggest picking a few landmarks in town to help orient yourself.

The ideal landmark is large and far away, like a big sign, a highway, a tall building or a bridge "so it can serve as a better cue to orientation," says Hegarty. She uses the mountains where she lives in Santa Barbara as her landmark. No matter where she is in the city, she knows that the mountains are north.

Be curious about your surroundings

Whether you're going somewhere new or to a place you've been to loads of times, it's helpful to just turn around and see what the view looks like behind you. Looking at your surroundings from different perspectives can help you remember the details of your route, says Hegarty — and give you visual cues on "how to get back."

Understand the layout of the city

If you're trying to figure out where you are in a new place, it helps to understand the basic street layout. Many cities are arranged in a grid pattern. Washington, D.C., for example, is divided into four quadrants and has streets that run three ways: north-south, east-west and diagonally.

Other cities have streets with special naming conventions. Gero says in Ogden, Utah, where he used to live, the north-south streets are named after U.S. presidents and are arranged in chronological order starting from the center of town. "So instead of First Street, it is Washington," he says. Even if you don't have your presidents memorized, you have a general sense of which direction you need to go if you're on say, Van Buren and need to get to Washington.

Use memory tricks to remember where you are

People with a good sense of direction — like the London cabbies — know their streets. While you might not be able to master 25,000 of them, you can try an expert navigation tactic. Commit street names, landmarks and routes to memory by using "narratives and tricks to lock things in," says Hugo Spiers. This is especially helpful when street names are abstract and don't follow a logical order.

The process of connecting a story or idea to a place is called building a cognitive map. It gives you "an idea of where things are and how they're connected," says Spiers.

So as you navigate your way without a map, look around and use stories and memory devices to remember the details of your surroundings. You might say, "I'm making a right on 12th Street where I got churros with my friend that one day, then I'm heading up P Street toward the park — that is P for park."

Will these tricks turn you into an expert navigator able to locate your way out of being lost in the woods? Probably not. But you can use them to gain a better sense of ownership over your surroundings and ease any anxiety about getting lost.

The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. The visual editor is Beck Harlan. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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Copyright 2024 NPR

Andrew Limbong is a reporter for NPR's Arts Desk, where he does pieces on anything remotely related to arts or culture, from streamers looking for mental health on Twitch to Britney Spears' fight over her conservatorship. He's also covered the near collapse of the live music industry during the coronavirus pandemic. He's the host of NPR's Book of the Day podcast and a frequent host on Life Kit.