Several years ago, I was visiting friends in one of the new suburbs southeast of my home, which looked like all the other new subdivisions, with the same winding streets and cul-de-sacs and houses built with the same template. When I left, it was dark and I wandered among confusing and dead-end streets a long time before I admitted defeat. When I turned on Google Maps, I found I was driving in the wrong direction, and that the exit out of this maze was only a few blocks west.
During the day, I know north from south because the Rocky Mountains are always west, and even if I’m unfamiliar with the neighborhood, I know that if I keep driving north (or south, depending where I’m at), I’ll find my way home. It’s a whole other story if I’m on the western side of the Rockies, so everything is backwards, or if I’m someplace where there are no mountains, or if it’s dark.
I’m not alone in losing my bearings as I age. A study done by a German research institute that compared younger and older drivers found that the younger people did better in navigating. The researchers found “an association between decreased navigational performance and deficits in grid cell activity,” according to the Science Daily article. Grid cells, specialized neurons in the brain that aid in navigation, fired differently in young and older adults.
“Specifically, firing patterns were less stable over time in older individuals, which indicates that these brain circuits are compromised in old age. This might be a cause of why many senior people tend to have troubles with spatial navigation,” according to Prof. Thomas Wolbers, who supervised the 2018 study.
When my dad was in his late 80s or early 90s, he got lost easily. Fortunately, my mom, who hated driving, was able to direct him to the grocery store or to their favorite restaurant. But one time, my father insisted on going by himself to meet my brother for a golf game. He got so badly lost, heading west instead of north, that it took days for the police to find his car after he abandoned it and walked to a nearby hardware store.
I have yet to get lost on such a grand scale, but I sometimes delude myself into thinking that I know better than Google and ignore its instructions, only to wind up in even more unfamiliar territory. I’ve never had a good spatial sense and yet I can convince myself that the park where I’m meeting a friend is down this street, only to wander for too long, muttering “it’s got to be here somewhere.” I’m unwilling to admit that Google knows more about my neck of the woods than I do. Google usually proves my delusions wrong, although not always.
There’s another reason I get lost. The area where I live is growing so fast that familiar markers are no longer there. The gas station and furniture store have been replaced by new condos; the field where I saw hawks flying is now a Wal-Mart; a sleek modern house now dominates the corner where an old Victorian house sat for more than 50 years. These changes are disorienting, especially when I’ve lived in the same place so long and the landscape is imprinted in my brain, so what I see when I’m on the road is not the map inside my head.
If I didn’t have Google Maps to turn to, I would have to get careful directions from friends I’m visiting or from the store I’m trying to get to. Or I would have to pull out an old map and trace the roads, just like a friend of mine who doesn’t own a cell phone. Once in the chaos of Chicago’s northern suburbs, I couldn’t get my phone to work at all, so I had to stop at stores and gas stations along the way to ask how to get to Hwy. 120 or which direction was Libertyville. Maybe in the end, all we can depend upon is the kindness of strangers.