Monday, July 18, 2011

How We Give Directions

We have long noted that men tend to give directions, and perceived routes in terms of an overhead map, while women tend to prefer navigation by landmarks. It's not a pure situation - I'd say it's about 80-20. My oldest son prefers landmarks, I know women who prefer overhead. But the difference is pronounced enough that when giving directions, my wife will give directions to a female, I will give them to a male.

I have not found in the scientific literature this exact characterisation, but the strongly related distinction of using cardinal directions versus landmarks is common. It may even be a more accurate distinction than the one I stumbled upon on my own.

Family history.
Jonathan and Ben are remarkably similar in abilities. Yet there was a sharp difference in the math scores of their standardised tests, which Jonathan attributes to doing poorly on spatial reasoning. As he is noticeably less comfortable with maps, this seems plausible. But we had a recent conversation that demonstrated that he has spatial memory of the landmark sort far in excess of what I can do. His memory for the layout of the church we attended 1987-91 or thereabouts was far superior to mine. In fact, I could recall only one feature of the lower floor, while he "walked about" in it effortlessly. The literature suggests were I to see it again I would find my way easily. But I am unable to recreate it. I find, in fact, that my remote memory for interior spaces is quite poor. I can only envision them by indirection: reasoning from outside appearance what must be inside, coupled with hazy recollections of single objects, building back and forth from such clues. Cheats, really. Tricks. Houses I lived in. Schools I went to. There is no interior space from my childhood that I can recreate by entering a door and walking accurately through the place.

So it's interesting that one method is considered the better by the people who make up tests, though each has places of superiority. It's not entirely arbitrary. As travel and need for distance navigation increased - and it was primarily males who made the trips - the need for this overhead mapping would be increasingly favored. It is more abstract. In terms of moving civilisation forward, it's smarter. But there is a cost, because using that ability tends to make local navigation weaker.

Landmark navigation is done much better when it is conscious, ticking off sights in the mind as they pass, but apparently a good deal goes on without effort as well. Over time, the schema builds itself. Landmark is far superior on a small scale.

One of the difficulties of navigation turns out to be switching sets, whether that is switching from landmark to cardinals or switching scale in either. For example, when going on a long highway trip I am using map/cardinal directions almost exclusively. But if I get off at an exit in search of gas or food I am thrown into a different scale. If the distance to the Cracker Barrel is less than a mile and involves few turns, I just automatically stay with landmarks, going in and out by signage, without converting it to overhead in a different scale. But as I go further down the secondary route and no Cracker Barrel has shown up, I waver, I hover between choices. I have not been creating an intentional landmark map - has my automatic landmarking been sufficient to get me back? Or should I switch to a new, small-scale cardinal? Further complicating the event might be the parking lot and entrance into the little four-business cluster which includes the Cracker Barrel, which is on an even smaller scale. Yes, I can see back where I come from, but I will get turned around twice, and as I come back to the highway, I might no longer have an intuitive sense which direction I am supposed to take it. Landmarks and cardinals have interfered with each other.

We learned the neighborhoods we grew up in entirely by landmark. My last one, in high school, I had actually already had in my overhead map before arriving, but the landmarking, far more useful on a smaller scale, overwrote the old data. The earlier neighborhoods are intimate landmark-memory sections inserted into a larger overhead now. At the fringes, my navigation-storage hovers back and forth.

If I were to color on an overhead map what childhood areas I have stored in landmark form, it would not be a circle or region, but individual streets only: between the route to my grandmother's and the route to the library there are many streets that I walked occasionally, or looked up those avenues while walking a usual route, but they are mostly stored in overhead grid in my memory. Landmarks stop abruptly at the Y, at church, at Bunny's Superette. After that it is terra incognita. At those spots I switch to overhead.

The term used in research is Wayfinding, and there are discussions of You Are Here maps, gender differences, relying on GPS, routefinding improvement, and a dozen other byways. The types of navigation are also called egocentric and allocentric, sans the connotations they have in discussions of social phenomena. I'll have some fun with these in the next post. Uh, a future post. For now, I've given all of you plenty to think about and comment on. I'll bet your guesses anticipate some of what I'll be mentioning from the research.


Der Hahn said...

I've had a horrid time with directions that only recently seems to be getting somewhat better. I regularly confuse left and right, breaking my left shoulder was a hard way to get a constant reminder of which is which. I almost always needed to mentally position myself back at my parent's farm to get a firm fix on cardinal directions, not matter where I was.

The one thing I find maddening when getting directions is *not getting the address of the destination*. Given Google maps and GPS I'd much rather be given a street address (or a nearby landmark or major intersection) as a target and figure out my own route.

Gringo said...

Several directional anecdotes follow.

I have taken 2,000 mile trips without road maps. As I knew where I was going, there was no need. Get on The 405....:)

The road for my sister's development is off a major highway. When my sister has given directions to get there, she never has pointed out that there is a mile marker for the major highway right at the turnoff for her development. That to me would be the easiest way to locate it, especially as the turnoff is in a wooded area without any distinguishing landmarks.

I find some internet directions very difficult to follow, as they say "turn right on X road" without mile indications, such as drive 4.5 miles when you will see X road. A map is easier.

When I was 5 and my sister was 7, we spent the better part of a summer at a grandparents' house in a small town. While at 5 years of age, I could walk all around the town grid and find my way back home, my sister at 7 years old would get lost. No accident that by first grade I was walking through the woods by myself to the post office, a path I discovered on my own.

When I was back in my home town after an absense of some years, I had trouble locating a friend's house on a remote road X. What threw me off, I realized later, was that a road leading off road X had once been a dirt road, but now was paved with loose stone. That change threw off my spatial memory.

Sponge-headed ScienceMan said...

Direction giving? AVI, I'm shocked you have broken into some classic Bert and I routines just about now!

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Good thought. Some of them actually serve as good introductory examples. If I were to write a book on this, I might start each chapter with a Yankee farmer giving directions joke.

terri said...

The only thing worse than having someone too much detail while giving directions is someone who gives too few details...or gets the details wrong.

I'm with Der Hahn on the important of street addresses.

People who try to give directions without knowing the names of streets drive me nuts. Invariably they say something like "take the 3rd light" and wind up having miscounted the lights.

It leaves you driving around in an unfamiliar place with no sense of the street you're looking for or where exactly you might have gone wrong.

When people are too familiar with their surroundings they forget to mention key information.

Texan99 said...

I must be allocentric, because I'm easily disoriented if I don't have a map in my head. But I give directions egocentrically (or at least bilingually), having discovered that my audience often insists on it.

I still remember the thrill of discovery when, as I child, I first mapped out the plan of my home and realized how the back hall to the bedrooms lined up behind the den wall that held the fireplace. Until then I had navigated like a rat in a maze: left, then right, then left. Suddenly the organizational principle blazed in my mind. One of my favorite assignments in architecture school was to work out and draw the roof plans of houses by observing their hips and gables from the street. Mapping is pure fun.

Once we encountered people who had managed to become spatially disoriented on North Padre Island late in the afternoon. The only entrance to the island from civilization is from the north; you can't go too far south without running into deep, soft sand that's impassible without four-wheel drive. The road down the island is straight and narrowly confined between the water and the dunes. If the location of the Gulf of Mexico to the east was not enough of a clue, the setting sun provided another one that was hard to miss. The whole trip should be about as confusing as navigating up and down the Nile River -- but they truly had no idea which way they should be driving to get back to civilization. Now that's lacking an interior map to a degree that I find hard to imagine, even frightening.

Der Hahn said...

Texan, I can sympathize with those folks as I have often found myself in a situation where I knew my directional sense was off kilter and just couldn't get it to line back up with the real world.

When traveling with a friend to Long Island and also visiting my son in Ohio I've found that I have to overcome a persistent memory that Ohio and NYC are 'east' (of my long time home state of Iowa) and it took some effort to determine the direction I needed to go relative to my current location. This was especially true of NYC which lies mostly west of Long Island.

james said...

The suburbs seem designed to randomize my interior map. "You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike." And I quickly no longer have any notion which way north is, unless I'm lucky enough to have the sun low in the sky. I remember holding a map in my hand in old town Geneva, looking at the road signs, and wondering why I couldn't find another street less than a block away.

I find that attention devoted to driving takes away from that devoted to reading street signs or counting stop lights--so often such directions wind up misleading me. Landmarks really help, provided they're distinctive ones--not "the redbrick building" on a busy street or "Where the McClusky's used to live". Of course the shape of the road is a big landmark too, which links back to the "map-centric" approach.

Sam L. said...

Old western movies: He/they live at the old Johnson place. (Johnson's been gone 20 years.)

Me, I live in the old Hildebrand house. The new one is across the street.