Almost overnight, vast numbers of people now don’t know where they are and have to rely on electronic devices to find out. A bit like being in a pram, but with battery anxiety. This is new, but it is not compulsory.
Going out without the navigation facility of a smartphone may seem terrifying. But relying on it to find your way around, especially at night, perhaps after a few drinks, is far from ideal. You have to hold it out in front of you, making you a target for robbers. You demonstrate to others that you are not local, you don’t know where you are, you don’t know people in the area. Your device distracts you from your surroundings. You stand out, and look vulnerable. And you are at the mercy of your device’s battery charge levels – a particular issue at the end of the evening.
So, even if you still carry a smartphone with you ‘just in case’, it makes sense to a) acquire a sense of direction and b) learn the geography of areas you often visit. But this is not achieved by looking down…
Here are some suggestions, aimed mainly at people in an urban environment, for developing both your spacial awareness/general map-reading ability and your actual knowledge of specific parts of town.
- Acknowledge that it is possible to change your hippocampus (the part of the brain that covers navigation), and make the conscious decision that you are going to do it. With practice, you are going to move on from the “I never know where I am” mindset. Spatial awareness and visual awareness can be developed. It’s like building muscle, but probably more interesting.
- Buy an A-Z map for your local area, and carry it with you always. Use a highlighter to mark places you’ve been, roads you know. Ideally also put up a local map inside the front door of your home and mark the location of adventures with sticky labels. Best of all: mount it on soft board and chronicle your life with map pins!
- Get in the habit of looking around you – including behind you at every junction, so you always know the way back. Keep an eye out for road names and start to join the dots.
- Become obsessed with always knowing where the cardinal points are (north, south, east and west). Know where the sun will have risen, and where it will set – especially when you have just come out of an Underground station.
- On regular journeys, vary your route as much as possible. As well as introducing you to more areas, this is useful for when roads or stations are closed.
- Travel by bus whenever possible. Sit by the window (upstairs if that’s an option) and – with one finger on your map – look up every landmark, every side street that you pass. Work out what’s behind that city block: are you travelling parallel to, or crossing, a route that you already know? Does the map tell you that there is a key landmark nearby? This develops spatial awareness; improve visual awareness by looking at the details of what’s going by and committing them to memory.
- If you have to travel by train or Underground, see if you can combine this with doing part of the journey by bus, walking or cycling.
- Mix things up: if you’ve got a few minutes to spare, maybe get on or off a stop or two before or after the one closest to your starting point or destination. Take minor detours when walking, cycling or driving.
- If they’re available, start using the ultra-local maps that are often found at bus stops or free‑standing in the street.
- Ask people, on the street or in shops. Either they’ll know, or they’ll have an umbilical cord you can share for a moment, but whichever it is, it’s still a healthy moment of human interaction.
- Take an interest in the social and architectural history of the area you’re travelling through, whether it’s your daily commute or somewhere you’re going for the first time. Treat every journey as an exploration and be determined to know something new by its end.
- And all the time, know where the those cardinal points are, which direction your home is and what the sun’s doing. It’s an interesting habit.
In the countryside, as a motorist:
- Maintain the same attitude of exploration: with regular journeys, keep varying your route. This can also be extremely useful for those times when there’s a road closure. And if your car were to break down, with no phone signal, you’d be glad to know where the nearest village is.
- When going somewhere for the first time, spend a few minutes planning the route, write out directions (very clearly!), and attach them to the dashboard of your car. See how much of your list you can memorise.