The Critter Issue

Sense of Direction

How did we forget where to go?


I woke up in the middle of the night in Japan.

My friend Lily had sent me an email. She wanted me to read about someone named Bill Ewasko, a hiker who got lost alone in Joshua Tree, California. The New York Times Magazine article she sent me, “Tragically Lost in Joshua Tree’s Wild Interior” detailed the modern-day difficulties of finding a person who has gone missing in an unfamiliar landscape and how “lost-person-behavior algorithms” can be used to predict where we go when we don’t know where we’re going.

Some of the most widely used lost-person-behavior algorithms today are the invention of Robert Koester, a Virginian researcher who’s spent decades learning how we get lost and how we get found. By combing through thousands of past search-and-rescue operations, he has developed a series of statistical models showing how people lose their way, the sequence of decisions that led them there and how they act when confronted with the same terrain. A catalog of all the roads we thought were right.

In the desert Ewasko wrapped himself in, the roads don’t have forks. They have branching splinters. Bill Ewasko still hasn’t been found.

I thought about the trip I was on in Japan, alone. For two weeks, the most familiar voice I heard was Google Maps’ assistant telling me to “Turn right,” or “Turn left.” I wondered how I would even be on that trip without the technology. How would I wind myself through Tokyo’s maze of unmarked streets? I knew that people have been navigating cities alone for centuries without needing assistance, but I worried that I didn’t have the muscle for it anymore — that it was a muscle we, as humans have let atrophy.

I spent the rest of that night awake, researching. I learned that cattle, roe and red deer, red foxes, red-spotted newts, and frogs are all able to perceive Earth’s magnetic fields, and use that invisible information to orient themselves in nature. So too can snails, homing pigeons, brown bats, Caribbean spiny lobsters, fruit flies, a sea slug called the giant orange tochui, salamanders, loggerhead sea turtles, mole rats, ants, termites, sharks and the garden variety worm. The phenomenon is called magnetoreception.

Magnetoreception helps loggerhead sea turtles find the beaches they were born on to lay their own eggs. It helps the giant orange tochui always orient itself between North and East in advance of the full moon. It helps hungry worms to burrow down into the dirt and send their fuller selves up without losing their way. Magnetoreception helps red foxes better pounce on prey. It helps mole rats decide on prime sites for their nests. It helps homing pigeons find, well, home.

The study of magnetoreception has changed a lot over a generation. It is easy to understand why. Suggesting that animals have the ability to detect Earth’s polarities sounded like magic to many people when it was first described by scientists studying migratory birds in the 1970s.

Experiments were conducted. It turns out, magnetoreception is a result of quantum mechanics — of the electrons that reside within animal species, and how those electrons function as magnets. It turns out, humans don’t have this ability. Not anymore at least. Recent studies suggest that there is a cryptochrome protein in our eyes that, in addition to regulating our Circadian rhythms, may also sense magnetic fields. But this “sixth sense” is different than that found in the rest of the Animal kingdom. We want our bodies to know where to go the same way our bodies know how to see, how to hear, how to touch. But is that sense of direction becoming increasingly lost?

My mom drove me everywhere growing up. When it was someplace she didn’t know, she’d call my uncle, a delivery man, to ask for directions. When the directions were complicated, she’d go to his house and he’d hand draw a map.

In high school, I started printing out directions from Yahoo Maps for my mom. I’d sit in the passenger’s seat and read them aloud to her, but we’d still stop along the way to ask for help finding our way. In college, I was replaced by a small GPS with a robotic voice she’d refuse to drive without.

I spent my entire time in Tokyo with that same anonymous, robotic female voice in my ear. I thought about my mother. And my new female companion. And about the power we relinquished when we decided to hold her hand so steadfastly. I realized, in one of Tokyo’s nameless alleyways that she led me down, that I wished her voice sounded a little more like me.

I wrote back to Lily and asked: What did we lose when lost our sense of direction?