Somebody wanted to improve at finding their way around. Today, of course, the answer would be “get GPS”.

Navigation has been studied by cognitive psychologists. Aerial overviews are not what people do. Everybody is bad at relating the terrain on a map to the real world, so they conclude, though some are less bad than others. Humans mostly navigate by landmarks (mice too, it’s known, these being psychologists). I think people who are good at navigating are better at noticing and remembering landmarks and where the landmarks are in relation to each other.

About maps: Novices tend to use relative directions, left and right, and turn the map the direction they’re facing. Experts use compass directions, north south east west, and don’t turn the map. I know how to find north from the North Star (it’s so easy and so useful that everyone in the northern hemisphere should). My navigation got way better after I learned to remember the direction of north in the daytime (oooh, tricky), and now I rely on compass direction. Some are amused when they ask “which way is Sharon Hill?” to see me turn to face north so I can figure out the direction. I’ll get lost if I visit the southern hemisphere where I can’t recognize the stars. So if you want to get better at finding your way around, I suggest the traditional remedy: A compass.

Original version, October 1994.
Updated and added here January 2012.