To be do you always get lost? Maybe you have trouble remembering a route for a trip you’ve taken countless times?
Or do you have trouble finding your way, even in places you know well, such as the building where you work?
If your sense of direction is embarrassingly nonexistent — and it’s a problem you’ve had since childhood — it could be related to topographical developmental disorientation, or DTD, a condition that researchers in Canada suggest affects up to 2 percent of the population.
The same Canadian team also recently created a series of online diagnostic tests and is currently working on a virtual reality program to help people with the condition.
Interestingly, most people with the disorder are competent in every other area of their lives and have no cognitive limitations.
They just seem to suffer from what amounts to ‘directional dyslexia’, meaning their navigation skills are impaired or, in some cases, completely missing.
“People with DTD have all kinds of different careers — they’re lawyers, teachers, cleaners, and writers,” said Professor Giuseppe Iaria, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Calgary who first identified the condition.
If your sense of direction doesn’t exist, it could be due to topographical developmental disorientation, a condition that affects up to 2% of the population (stock image)
‘They lead very normal lives and often have no discernible memory or attention problems. The problem is that they are absolutely incapable of making mental maps of their surroundings, something most people do without even thinking about it.
“Normally people can mimic a pictorial representation of their route in their minds, but people with DTD don’t have this ability.”
A leading specialist in spatial orientation, Professor Iaria discovered DTD in 2008 after a colleague asked him to assess a woman lost in her own home.
After intensive testing, he concluded that the middle-aged professional woman had no neurological damage or cognitive deficits caused by dementia or brain injury.
Instead, he believed she probably had a problem with brain connectivity — how parts of the brain communicate and work together.
He concluded that the woman’s different brain regions did not make the numerous connections necessary for good navigation and orientation skills.
This was later confirmed by MRI studies involving other people affected by DTD.
The individual brain regions appeared to function normally, but when it came to navigating, they simply didn’t connect with each other.
‘Navigation involves several areas of the brain, including those responsible for perception, attention and memory,’ explains Professor Iaria.
‘After extensive research, we found that in people with DTD, all of these areas functioned well individually, but could not connect well to make cognitive maps.
“These people are doing well in their lives. They really shouldn’t be ashamed.
“We don’t know what causes DTD, but the condition appears to be highly heritable — so if you have DTD, it’s likely that someone in your family also has a really bad sense of direction.”
Of course, there are other reasons why people can get lost, such as severe attention problems and age-related memory loss, but Professor Iaria’s work focuses on people who function well in all other ways, apart from their poor navigation skills.
A team of Canadian researchers have created a series of online diagnostic tests and are currently working on a virtual reality program to help people with the condition (stock image)
To help people with the condition, he and his team of scientists at the University of Calgary have created an online community forum, Getting Lost.
It is clear from those posting on the site that DTD can be a huge source of anxiety and stress with some members admitting they have serious problems following the basic instructions.
Others admitted to blindly following strangers for fear of getting lost – a woman from the US East Coast said she often told people she was from Los Angeles, on the West Coast, because she was so ashamed she couldn’t get around her navigate your own neighborhood.
Almost everyone on the forum relied heavily on Google Maps and other navigation apps to get around, even in places that should have been known.
Professor Iaria and his team have recently developed several interactive tests as part of the diagnostic process.
This showed that people with DTD have a blind spot with spatial orientation, meaning that they have a limited ability to see how objects, such as buildings, relate to each other.
They also have trouble recognizing landmarks from different perspectives or angles.
“How we navigate is one of the most intensively studied areas of neuroscience,” said Hugo Spiers, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London.
“Spatial orientation is unique in that it is absolutely unrelated to intelligence or any other ability. Unfortunately DTD is not something you can go to the doctor for.’
While there’s no answer to DTD, the University of Calgary team has just developed an intensive 12-day computer program that takes place in a virtual city called Centerville.
The goal is to try to develop participants’ navigation skills — and establish connections between the otherwise disconnected regions in the brain.
With this form of brain training you sit for hours behind a screen, immersed in the virtual world.
The program starts in a virtual apartment. From there, the contestant has to make his way to different destinations in the city, starting with the corner shop.
If they don’t get there by the shortest and most logical route, they have to repeat the journey until they find ‘the right way’.
The program has so far only been tried with young volunteers with normal orientation skills to improve their navigation skills, but Professor Iaria believes it could also be helpful for people with DTD.
“The training program could help anyone with navigational difficulties, although in reality it will likely have a greater impact in children who have been identified as having poor sense of direction, as the brain is still developing at that young age,” he says.
The next phase is for the researchers to test the program on older adults with DTD.
The hope is that the virtual reality tests will eventually make it easier for them to form mental maps back into the real world.
For more information, visit getlost.ca