Lost Souls

Find out if you suffer from topographical amnesia.

By David BerrebyApr 1, 1992 6:00 AM


Sign up for our email newsletter for the latest science news

Tell a cop your car’s been stolen, I find, and you’re almost bound to get a rise. In New York City, where I live, it’s merely a be grateful crime (as in Just be grateful they didn’t kill you), but it’s still taken seriously. And in a place like Aspen, Colorado, you get a spectacular response. The sheriff sets up a roadblock at the county line; the FBI is notified. In Aspen the police drive snappy white Saab squad cars (Squaab cars?) and wear lumberjack shirts to match their lumberjack beards. When they hear your car’s been taken, they glower like Johnny Appleseed contemplating the invention of the chain saw.

Now, here’s what happens when a cop in Aspen drives you back to what is now officially the crime scene and, after making a couple of turns, suddenly hears you exclaim, Oh, my God, there it is! as you come across the car right where you left it: he picks up his microphone to call off the cavalry. Then he assures you that this happens all the time and says not to worry about it. But you can tell that every laid-back plaid particle of him is thinking that you’re an idiot. In a big city, what happens is ... let’s just say even less pleasant.

Believe me, I know. I’ve been through this several times, and I’ll be through it again, for the same reason that I always think I’m going north when I’m heading uphill. (I mean, north is up, right?) Which is the same reason I can’t use a map until I lay it flat and line up the map’s road with the real road I’m on. Which is the same reason I navigate around Manhattan by the following method: A. Find some large building that I know beyond a shadow of a doubt is north of me. B. Facing this building, try to envision a New York City subway map, with north (also known as the Bronx), of course, at the top. C. Recall that New Jersey is on the left in such a map. D. Wave left hand. North is ahead; west is wherever the waving hand is. With those two nailed down, I’ve got decent odds of finding south and east. Unless, of course, I turn around.

For me and my ilk, turning a corner is like pressing ALT and CTRL and DEL on the computer. Everything starts over. In the second grade I was one of those kids who believed little Mary Louise Finkel when she told me that all you have to do is turn around 180 degrees and your right hand becomes your left. (I can still see her mitten dangling seductively from its little clip, from a mysteriously reoriented wrist. Second grade was magic!)

Peace officers, take note. This isn’t my fault. It’s a brain thing.

When it’s an acquired impairment, through a brain lesion, we usually call it topographical amnesia, says Jerrold Pollak, a neuropsychologist who treats such patients as can find his office at Rhode Island Hospital in Providence. If it’s something that you’ve always sort of had and there’s no discernible brain lesion, we just call it topographical memory difficulty.

I’m coming out of the closet here (if I could just find the door). I’m topographically difficult, and I’m thinking about setting up a political action committee for my oppressed minority group. Our chant: Say it long! Say it loud! Where the hell am I? I’m lost and I’m proud! We really can’t help ourselves. It’s a brain thing.

A complex brain thing, in fact, that involves several different regions of the old noggin and may well be related to the reason the toolbox I made in junior high shop looked like something from a Dali painting, a sort of melty, crumbly thing with a handle. It may even explain why my second grade teacher once called my mother to complain that I didn’t run around enough at recess (He just sits there), perhaps even why I’d rather go to a funeral than an art museum, and why to me Mao Tse-tung will always have one redeeming feature: he invented those great Chinese suits that made everybody look exactly alike--no worrying about a look, no styles, and no colors.

This is not to say that modern medicine understands precisely what’s going on when you homing pigeon types make a left and two rights and still somehow know which way is west. That question hasn’t even been resolved for actual homing pigeons.

The more we know about animal navigation the more reminiscent it is of human navigation, says Charles Walcott, who has studied pigeons for decades at Cornell’s Laboratory for Ornithology. Like ours, bird navigation involves multiple cues and is probably conditioned by where they were brought up. For example, he says, our most recent work suggests that it may well be that pigeons growing up in different places learn to favor different systems of cues.

In a recent experiment done by Walcott’s team, homing pigeons raised a mile and a half apart in Massachusetts reacted very differently when taken to a part of the state where Earth’s magnetic field is slightly askew. Birds from one loft were totally disoriented in the anomaly, but birds from the other loft flew straight home, Walcott says. Experiments in Germany, he says, show that birds raised at ground level don’t use smell to track their location. But birds raised on the roof of the institute in the open air do.

It’s generally accepted that your average homing pigeon tells which way is north by the sun. Researchers know this because--merry pranksters that they are--they’ve raised pigeons indoors on an altered clock, so that 6:00 a.m. felt like noon to the birds, then released them outdoors and watched them flap off in the wrong direction as they took dawn to be midday. But a sense of true north isn’t the same as knowing where you are, Walcott notes. You can sense north from the sun and still be lost in the woods. Pigeons also have a decent sense of smell, a geomagnetic sense, and the ability to see polarized light and ultraviolet light and to hear extremely low-frequency sounds. They can pick up practically everything except HBO. But whether any of these things are used in navigation, Walcott says, nobody has a clue.

British zoologist R. Robin Baker suggests that sensitivity to Earth’s magnetic field is the key tool, not only for pigeons but for people as well. (His book Human Navigation and the Sixth Sense is probably the only work featuring blindfolded college students that you can find on a library’s open shelves.) Ornithologists in more-fragrant Italy have proposed that smell is the key, Walcott says. He’s a skeptic about all such monolithic proposals. This is a field where it’s very easy to be misled, he says. (Too bad all those time-shifted homing pigeons can’t sense poetic justice as easily as ultraviolet rays.)

In any event, navigation ability varies a lot from one bird to another. Every pigeon is an individual, Walcott says. One bird was very good at navigating, always headed in the right direction, but was terrible at finding the home loft. Once it reached town it would just find somebody out in their garden and flutter down helplessly beside them. It always came home in a taxi.

As with pigeons, so with people. (Makes sense. Both species walk about on two legs, dodge traffic well, and eat pizza.) Most researchers believe the sense of direction is not a simple compass in the head but a deduction made from many sources of information. You’ve got to hold some things together simultaneously and reason about their dimensions. If you can do that, you can navigate, says Byron P. Rourke, a psychologist at the University of Windsor in Ontario.

Rourke, who has made a career of studying the half-percent or so of the population that has a severe and clinical problem on this score, says it’s very rare for topographical impairment to appear alone. He calls the problem nonverbal learning disability because the same centers in the right brain that assemble a mental map are also used in math, mechanical problem solving, and other abilities that require envisioning objects in space. Good visual-spatial sense requires imagining relations that you haven’t already seen, he says, which is why people with a severe dysfunction in this area--such as patients whose brains have been irradiated in cancer treatments--have trouble dealing with novel situations of any sort.

Children born with a serious direction-finding problem, he says, talk perfectly well but instead of exploring their environment, crawling around, putting things in their mouth, and all that stuff, they tend to be quite sedentary. They’ll ask what something is instead of going over and feeling it and breaking it. In the process their psychomotor coordination is not getting developed. It all snowballs as the kids get older, he says. They become the kids who, instead of getting chosen to play second base, are second base. By the age of thirteen you have someone who can get lost in a department store.

The key to visual-spatial judgment and making new associations, Rourke says, is the brain’s white matter--nerve fibers that have acquired a fatlike sheath called myelin, which electrically insulates the nerve cell so that it can transmit impulses more quickly. (Myelin turns white in contact with formaldehyde, in case you thought somebody was taking color Polaroids of living brains.) Brain regions that aren’t myelinated (the gray matter) are crisscrossed by short, country-lane-type fibers, suitable for short hops from one neighborhood to the next. Myelin is more frequently found on long superhighway-style strands, which cross longer distances to connect separated regions of a hemisphere, or even reach across the brain’s central crease to link right brain to left.

The right hemisphere, Rourke says, has much more white matter than the left--which is, he believes, meaningful. Making associations that have never been made before is what the right brain is particularly good at doing. In my view, the left hemisphere is not the language hemisphere, it’s the hemisphere that takes care of routinized, stereotypic application of codes, whether it’s Morse code or natural language or music.

Because a lot of language skills are automatic--you don’t have to think consciously about whether to make verb and subject agree, for instance--one thing for which you don’t need white matter is bright patter. You often see what we call ‘cocktail party speech’ in patients--a high volume of speech without much content, says Rourke. They talk and talk and talk, but if you stop to listen to what they’re saying, they’re just simple declarative sentences, all over the lot, not tied together very well.

Myelinization takes place most effusively in childhood, though it keeps on until about age 40. Rourke thinks that radiation, toxins in the womb, head injuries at birth, and a variety of other injuries can lead to fibers not getting a myelin sheath and then, of course, not functioning very well. He doesn’t think it’s an inherited trait, or that there’s much of a difference between men and women on this score. He used to get more male than female patients 20 years ago, he says, only because in those bad old days a clumsy, withdrawn girl used to be called demure. Now she’s called disturbed.

One of the reasons second grade was magic is that inside all our little heads, as we learned, ran around, and explored, certain connections between parts of the brain were literally, physically being strengthened by myelin, reinforcing what we were learning. Leaving aside the cases of unfortunate people who have had a substantial brain injury, it seems that there are plenty of us more or less functional folk who just weren’t raised to be good junior woodsmen. And Rourke, it turns out, isn’t very sympathetic to us.

I think you can mimic the orientation problems of this syndrome by leading a very, very noninvolved life, he says. A lot of people just never develop their animality: neuromuscular junctions and coordination and so on. I’ve seen people who would prefer to read than do anything. And what, I wonder self-righteously, is so wrong with that? I’m not suggesting everybody should be swinging on a vine like Tarzan or something, says Rourke (whew! what a relief), but every person who’s ever thought about the mind has said that before you can be an educated person you have to be a good animal.

Well. Let us leave Rourke in his northern woods (where I imagine him elbowing polar bears aside for raw blubber between seminars on Plato) and turn to the kinder counsel of Dr. Pollak in Providence.

See, Pollak is one of us. I have a little bit of the problem, he says. It’s the reason he’s in neuropsych instead of neurosurgery. As a neuropsychologist I can study somebody’s functioning, but I would have a hell of a time getting around their brain. I would never become a mechanical engineer or a painter either.

Unlike certain Canadian exercise buffs I could name, Pollak has some useful suggestions for us bad animals, the nonclinical topographically impaired. When people start giving me directions in a spatial way, he says, I go, ‘Let’s stop right here.’ Don’t have people draw you maps. Have them say things like go until you see this sign. It’ll be near a tree, go off to the right, then make a left at the first traffic light, and go exactly one mile on your speedometer, and so on. Verbally encode the process.

And when you park your car, Pollak advises, Look around, get some landmarks. Write down how you got in, what floor you’re on. If the problem’s real bad, I suggest people put something on their car to make it stand out (perhaps a NO DAMN BABY ON BOARD sign?).

Pollak even has some words of cheer: For some people it’s probably not a syndrome but a difference in cognitive style. You can’t really say somebody is disabled or has a disease if they say, ‘Explain it this way and I understand it better.’ Take that, Byron P. Rourke!

Of course the time is bound to come when prosthetic devices become available--the equivalent of glasses or crutches for the chronically lost. I’ve often thought, for instance, that I should carry a homing pigeon around to keep myself oriented. Well, most pigeons head roughly toward home when you release them, Walcott reflects, so I suppose you could do something with that. I hadn’t thought about the necessity of releasing the bird. I imagine myself at the car-rental counter of a strange city, a gaggle of pigeons under each arm. Hmmm. Evidently Walcott has envisioned it, too. Not very practical, he says. Anyway, he says, there are pigeons that fly at ninety degrees to home for fifteen miles and then correct their course. They wouldn’t help you much.

Fortunately our era of ever smarter technology for ever dumber people already has a high-tech solution in place: a network of Defense Department satellites called the Global Positioning System. With a receiver that’s tuned to these satellites, a military vehicle can find out precisely where it stands in latitude and longitude, within about 100 yards. A number of car companies, including Mazda and Chrysler, are testing car-based versions of a civilian GPS that will represent the car as a moving dot on a video road map. As the car moves, the dot will move on a computer screen, which should solve the problem for us topographically impaired people (as long as the video map is lined up with the road we’re actually on, of course).

In the meantime I prefer to think of us bad animals as an oppressed minority group, targets of unfair prejudice and ridicule--even from nonimpaired members of our own families. My brother Alex, for example, thinks it’s endlessly amusing to ask me where I think major landmarks (home, the Chrysler Building, the sun) have gone as we move along. (But he’s 15, which is endlessly amusing in its own way, so I let it pass. Anyway I need him to find the car.)

Still, a little less ridicule and a little more understanding from you oriented people would be appreciated. It’s not like we’re asking to be airline pilots or anything. Just having a support group would be nice--perhaps a 12-Step program, or even a 39-Steps program (you admit there is a higher power; then you start to spy for it). But Pollak says there’s no cure, and anyway alcoholics and drug addicts can swear off their poison, but we topographically impaired can’t abstain--Hi, my name is Jerry, and I haven’t tried to go anywhere for three days (scattered applause).

Still, I’d give such a group a try, I guess. Just give me some really good directions.

1 free article left
Want More? Get unlimited access for as low as $1.99/month

Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

1 free articleSubscribe
Discover Magazine Logo
Want more?

Keep reading for as low as $1.99!


Already a subscriber?

Register or Log In

More From Discover
Recommendations From Our Store
Shop Now
Stay Curious
Our List

Sign up for our weekly science updates.

To The Magazine

Save up to 70% off the cover price when you subscribe to Discover magazine.

Copyright © 2022 Kalmbach Media Co.