Charting your course through a building can be disorienting, especially for the GPS-reliant. Don’t blame yourself—many large structures, like convention centers, hospitals, and libraries, really are hard to navigate. “If you see handwritten signs pointing you to an exit, that’s a good indicator that it’s not a well-designed building,” says cognitive scientist Laura Carlson of the University of Notre Dame. Researchers have long studied why we get lost, but now Carlson is figuring out how we can stay un-lost in the first place.
Be flexible. People typically use one of two orientation strategies to get around: a route-based method, sort of like a mental turn-by-turn GPS, or a bird’s-eye view akin to Google Maps. Regardless of which comes more naturally, Carlson says, you should use both approaches to form a more complete mental picture of the building. So if you’re lost in the stacks, think about turning at the water fountain you passed on the way in, but also visualize the floor plan of the library from above.
Look for breadcrumb trails. When there’s no clear line of sight, navigate from object to object. Carlson says it takes two to three seconds of staring at something to fix the image firmly in your memory, so take your time and keep your eyes open as you make your way. Try paying attention, say, to all the potted plants you see en route—then retrace your steps from fern to ficus to foyer.
Watch your back. Although her research focused on the indoors, Carlson also has a suggestion to help you stay on track outside. Driving through a new town? When you make a turn, glance around to see the intersection from the opposite direction. Research has shown that humans are good at identifying familiar objects, but we sometimes don’t recognize a spot when we see it from a new perspective. If all else fails, draw yourself a map. Even Indiana Jones used one.
this article was featured in the March 2011 issue of Wired magazine entitled “Cheat with Science: Navigate the Great Indoors”