The science behind why you’re always getting lost

Do you struggle to remember your way back home from work? Professor Giuseppe Iaria explains why

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photo: Instagram via @FeliciaTheGoat
Hero image in post
photo: Instagram via @FeliciaTheGoat

Do you struggle to remember your way back home from work? Professor Giuseppe Iaria explains why

By Darshita Goyal17 Aug 2023
8 mins read time
8 mins read time

For the first 23 years of my life, I lived in the same postcode, in the same house and in the very same ground floor room in Bangalore, India. Every time my friends came home for a sleepover, my parents would ask us to be mindful of how loud we were singing while doing YouTube karaoke, because my aunt and uncle’s room was directly above mine and they slept very early. Without fail, at each instance I would wonder why my parents thought that my uncle and aunt lived right above… isn’t their room on the opposite side of the first floor? To this day, I don’t have a clear answer on the location of their room in relation to mine.

No, it’s not because I live in a humongous mansion and am unaware of what happens on the floor above mine. Everyone promises it’s the room right above mine. It has to be, how else would they hear every conversation I have beyond a whisper. It seems reasonable enough, so why has it been so hard for me to wrap my head around this fact?

Well, maybe it’s because I’m notorious in the family for having a disastrous sense of direction. Despite going to one school and taking the same route for roughly 13 years, I cannot navigate myself from home and back without fetching my phone for maps. There was once a rumour (both at home and among my friends) that I enjoy being the airy-fairy, ditzy girl who just gets lost if she doesn’t have someone to guide her. I had big damsel-in-distress energy at a time when it was very uncool to be a pick-me teenager. My father and my brother insisted that I should pay attention to the road instead of being a dreamy passenger princess: “It is just not safe to be clueless, and not know how to reach home when you’re travelling alone, especially as a girl.”

So I tried, and I tried really hard. I made mental notes of the candy store at the traffic light where you take a left, the park where you take a right (or was it another left?!), the grey house at the end of the intersection where you take a sharp turn. But it just never worked and over time I accepted my fate. When I moved to London in 2021, I started carrying a battery backup everywhere I went to make sure my phone never dies. On my most anxious days, I feel instantly calmer by knowing Google Maps is one face ID and a quick touch away.

Against popular opinion, this horrid sense of direction was not from lack of attention or an issue that is isolated to me. There are stories in VICE, The Guardian, Science Focus and Psychology Today where several other people have spoken about similar troubles. People often cite limited memory, cognitive disabilities and in more extreme cases, brain injuries to explain this overwhelming error. To my knowledge, none of this applies to me, and there are other people who feel the same without any of these issues.

To solve this mystery (and honestly, just shift the blame) I spoke to Professor Giuseppe Iaria from the University of Calgary in Canada. Professor Iaria is a cognitive scientist who has spent the last few decades researching spatial orientation, and why it varies among different people. 15 years ago, his team pioneered the concept and study on Developmental Topographical Disorientation (DTD) that explains why some of us feel more lost than others. In case you resonate with this feeling - or have someone in your life who has felt the same way - the research is a soothing reminder that it’s not your fault you get lost easily, and you’re not alone.

What is Developmental Topographical Disorientation?

Back when Professor Iaria was working at the University of British Columbia, he investigated a case where someone was unable to spatially orient themselves despite living in the same neighbourhood for years. Until this point, lack of navigation was always rooted back to a brain injury, concussion or a neurological disorder. But two years of research, several MRI scans and neuro-psychological evaluations later, the subject displayed no proof of any memory or cognitive problems. Professor Iaria explains, “While there’s some degree of variability in most people, this person was never able to create a mental map of where things are in relation to another. Research confirmed that this was a common symptom seen in people with DTD.”

Based on his studies, DTD is defined as a disorder which occurs in people when specific skills that help us build mental maps fail to develop. “People with DTD can go from point A to B to C because they don’t struggle with memory. But as humans, we can only memorise about six to seven pathways,” says Professor Iaria. “In order to overcome this limitation, nature provided a solution where people learned to create mental maps of places in relation to one another. It’s a dynamic tool that both humans and animals use. People with DTD struggle to create these maps.” This is possibly why I fail to understand how my aunt and uncle’s room is directly above mine and not on the other side of the house. (I have literally never felt more seen!)

Does DTD impede any intellectual abilities?

The short answer is nope. After conducting extensive research into the disorder, Professor Iaria discovered that people with DTD can acquire information and learn without any extraordinary challenges. From cleaning staff and workers in a tube station to FBI agents, lawyers and doctors, he met people across intellectual abilities and performance levels who have the disorder. A few years ago, the professor founded, a website to spread awareness on DTD. “Usually, people Google why they are getting lost and land on our website where they read thousands of stories very similar to their own experience,” he says.

Over the years, millions of people have visited the platform to access the tests, training materials and research prompts hosted by the team. Besides providing information, the website also aims to create solidarity for people, like me, who feel isolated in this journey of getting lost. With scientific discovery, the studies show that in some cases, lack of navigational abilities have nothing to do with a deficit in attention or an unnoticed brain injury. Professor Iaria tells us, “Today we are well known in the world for describing this condition that was never described in scientific literature before. Now labs all over the world are investigating it to bridge the gap.” He also explains that DTD is not a product of modern living, late capitalism or an over-reliance on technology.

So why do some people have DTD?

Um, unfortunately this question is still under investigation. “We don’t have the whole answer yet but we have done research that shows DTD runs through the family most times. It’s likely that you will find someone on your mum or dad’s side has a similar condition even if cultural components have prevented them from admitting to it,” he tells us. The study suggests a certain mutation alters the genes that support the formation of mental maps - presently, the team is working to understand what these genetic mutations are. Professor Iaria also highlights that people are not born with DTD. “We’re not born with spatial orientation skills that allow us to navigate large scale surroundings, we develop them between the ages of six and twelve, and up until then children can easily get lost in large environments.”

The big question: can DTD be cured?

Breathe a sigh of relief because it’s looking positive. Professor Iaria believes people can develop the ability to orient when prompted with the right tools. His team has created a free online training programme that helps individuals replicate the spatial orientation skills that children develop. Through these video games, people learn how to go from point A to B, and different levels of complexity are added with every stage.

Additionally, Professor Hugo Spiers from UCL is hosting a research study in London, in collaboration with Professor Iaria, to further understand the difficulties faced by people with DTD. Split into two parts, the investigation consists of 15 minutes of playing the researchers' award-winning video game Sea Hero Quest, and 15 minutes hunting for virtual treasure by walking along the paths of the Russell Square park. The findings will then be used to aid architects who are hoping to build better hospitals and buildings to avoid people getting lost. If you’re interested in participating in the study, find more details here.

Besides trying the training protocol, Professor Iaria recommends that people with DTD always carry a phone with them. “Try to avoid finding your way around alone at night – rely on your GPS systems if you are uncertain about locations. The most important thing is to avoid stress. While stress does not cause DTD it releases high cortisol which impacts certain parts of the brain that are important for spatial memory functions.” Also, feel free to scream “told you so” to all those people who didn’t believe you when you promised you were paying attention, says me! :)