Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Sense of Direction
Name: Meryl
Status: educator
Age: 40s
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: 1999-2001

To whom it may concern:

I am an artist/educator who is making a non-commercial web site about my body of digital images entitled "Deep Research", a surreal exploration of the New York Public Library as an underwater environment. One of the pieces in the series is about "Finding Direction"; it was photographed in the Maps and Globes collection of the Library.

I have been searching the www for information about why some people seem to have a sense of direction (in the physical rather than spiritual sense) and others, like myself, do not. I would like to know what scientific reasons, if any, effect a person's sense of direction. Do people have a natural sense of direction? Are there ways a person could improve or impair their sense of direction?

If you can give me insight to this matter, it would be greatly appreciated. I would also like to know if I might include your answer as part of my project, or link my project to your answer.

Thank you for your consideration.

Meryl Meisler
NYC Public School grade 6-12 Digital Art Teacher


I have also wondered about this question and have found a way to explain it away! The sense of direction I am speaking of is not the one that allows a person to tell the north from the south, blindfolded! I do not know about humans' ability in this sense, but know that some animals (such as migrating birds) are quite capable. I have read about this somewhere (Scientific American?) and believe that this is an active research area.

However, the sense of direction I have in mind is the one, for example, that allows some people to drive back to their camp ground after driving (or walking) in unfamiliar areas for the first time. I think this ability is like the ability of some to solve puzzles faster or to estimate the bill at a restaurant or at a supermarket checkout counter. When I drive, I rely on the casual observation of the scenery, the sun/sky, and a passive memorization of how many left or right turns I have made. If I am not the driver, I typically won't pay much attention and I would be clueless about directions. I think these are learned habits with a little bit of innate ability to memorize and mentally visualize what we see and do.


Dr. Ali Khounsary
Advanced Photon Source
Argonne National Laboratory
Argonne, IL 60439

Click here to return to the General Topics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory