“How did the zebra get it stripes?” and “Can lightning occur in space?” BBC Click Radio presenter Gareth Mitchell answers life's big questions
An experiment in 1980 set out to investigate the theory that people with a knack for navigation might have a sense of magnetic North, like migratory birds. A group of students at Manchester University went on a blindfolded bus journey. Half had magnets strapped to their heads while the other half wore non-magnetic brass bars.
When they were dropped off a few miles down the road and asked to estimate the direction of the university, the group wearing a brass bar were by far the most accurate, suggesting that they were guided by some ability to detect magnetic North, which was interfered with in the group with magnetic headgear. Despite this, no research has since replicated these results, so the idea of a human ability to sense magnetic North remains doubtful.
Biologically, a good sense of direction is based on your ability to take advantage of environmental clues. Skilled navigators mentally update their geographical position by keeping track of visual evidence.
Cultural influences seem to play a part too. Non-Western societies that practise navigation without technology often have an enviably good sense of direction, like the Polowat islanders in the Western Pacific who sail canoes by the currents and stars. In Bali, where direction has a heightened spiritual meaning, ‘not knowing which way North is’ is considered a symptom of insanity.
If you’re based in Barrow rather than Bali, don’t despair: such abilities are the result of training from a young age, rather than a superhuman talent for getting from A to B. Neurologists agree that deliberately noting landmarks and turns as you move around should help to build your cognitive map of an area.
“Some people seem to attend to the environment more, just like some people attend to names more than others,” says University of Sterling neuroscientist Dr Paul Dudchenko. “This could be the difference between a good and a poor sense of direction – people who really attend to the outside world and people who don’t.”