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THE FAIR-HAIRED GIRL in the back seat of the family car could always tell which way they were headed. On many family trips, through many moves from one of her father's Air Force posts to another, little Kimberly Baumert hardly had to look out the window to know.

They were heading north, of course.

Years later, it would dawn on her that it couldn't always be north, although it could always seem so. Life then became more complicated. Those other three directions were on the compass, but never in her gut. Or would it be the head? The seat of the pants?

It's hard to be sure. We say "sense of direction" as if to say "sense of smell," as if we might locate it anatomically. It happens that "sense of direction" is hard to find. What exactly is it? And why do some people have it while others don't?

Scientists have focused much attention in navigation studies on animals, finding many clues but no comprehensive explanation of how birds, bees and other creatures find their way home. As for humans who regularly sense a left when it should be a right and who can get lost stepping into and out of a phone booth, researchers have even less to offer in the way of certainties.

For her part, Baumert is grown up now, 25 years old, and driving her own car. She's a member of a group of indeterminate number and no organized affiliation or political presence. These disoriented folks might try having meetings, but who could say how many would find the assigned place at the assigned time?

"Point A to B, I think it's north. B to C, I think it's north, too," says Baumert, a former Maryland resident now living in Los Angeles. "I am so impaired. I am definitely directionally challenged. ... I don't think I have a firm grasp of where I'm going at all."

After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, in 1998, she did find her way to Los Angeles. Driving with a friend in her Honda Civic, she made it in seven days, no rush.

She had the American Automobile Association plot a course, she took a map of every state she would drive through and stuck to Interstate 80 west all the way to Northern California, where she picked up Route 101 south to Los Angeles.

She later found her way to a crucial job interview, but not before driving the route the night before just to make sure, and not before bringing her roommate along for the dry run, and not without leaving plenty of time for slip-ups that might result from consulting the Rand McNally of her mind.

"I'm a very visual person" says Baumert. "I picture a map."

That might be a good thing, only it's that same inner map she had when she was a kid, the one that bears little resemblance to actuality.

"I have literally been lost two blocks from my house and never known it," says Baumert. "My brain doesn't work the same way other people's work in this regard."

Perhaps. But even a brief search under "directionally challenged" finds the Internet awash in lost souls.

'These hapless souls'

"Confessions of a Directionally Challenged Woman" comes up on Baumert's personal online journal, but it might easily be confused with others.

"To call me 'directionally challenged' would be a kindness. I am simply missing whatever key chromosome is necessary to distinguish east from west from left from under," says an Internet journal keeper who calls herself SecraTerri.

"I was a little worried, though. My wife wasn't with me on this trip, and I'm the most directionally challenged person you could ever find" says Web journal-keeper Dan Knight in reference to a trip to London.

Cyberspace brims with witness, helpful tips, even gift suggestions (hand-held Global Positioning System navigator, more than $100; large ball of string, somewhat less expensive). recommends Web sites that provide driving directions for "these hapless souls, the directionally challenged."

The sheer abundance of references gives "directionally challenged" the weight of objective fact, a diagnosis of sorts. In scientific terms, however, it's not at all clear what constitutes a human "sense of direction."

In the Aug. 26, 1892, edition of the journal Science, medical doctor J. N. Hall took up the question: "Is There a Sense of Direction?" His conclusion: in animals, yes; in people, not really.

"I believe that man's ability to find his way to a given point is dependent solely upon a habit of observation, almost unconscious to be sure, in many cases, but necessary to the end in view," Hall wrote.

More than a century later, research has scarcely expanded on that notion, says James L. Gould, Princeton University professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

"I think the progress from that point has been close to zero" on human sense of direction, says Gould, who has researched navigation by honeybees and pigeons.

Gould had a hand in the work published in 1979 demonstrating that bees have a magnetic-sensing rig in their abdomens. These concentrations of lodestone crystals enable bees to detect changes in the surrounding magnetic field and to navigate accordingly.

Turns out that the same material, called magnetite, can be found in, among other animals, pigeons, migrating birds, dolphins, salmon and tuna, suggesting that all these animals have innate magnetic navigation systems.

That's hardly the entire answer, however.

No place like home

"It's very hard to come up with a clear, simple statement about what animals are doing" to find their way home, says Charles Walcott, a Cornell University biologist who has spent the last 30 years studying homing pigeons as a model of animal navigation.

Walcott and other researchers have followed pigeons by airplane, tracked their movements with radio transmitters, wrapped magnetic coils around their heads to confuse their internal lodestone compass, removed their sense of smell and transported them from their home loft in sealed containers with bottled air supply -- all to fathom their homing talent.

Dogs and cats are known for their ability to find their way home. Pigeons perform the feat with regularity and from remarkable distance. Walcott says racing pigeons have been known to find home from up to 1,000 miles away.

In a 1996 article, Walcott considers several decades of homing pigeon research, trying to reconcile conflicting results. He concludes that pigeons probably use not one but many navigational cues -- smell, sun, magnetic fields, among others -- and that a pigeon may lean more or less heavily on one cue or another depending on how and where it was raised.

His study appears in the Journal of Experimental Biology of January 1996, an issue devoted entirely to animal navigation. The issue includes such titles as "Spacial memory and navigation by honeybees on the scale of the foraging range," "Homing in Pacific salmon: mechanisms and ecological basis," and "Orientation and open-sea navigation in sea turtles."

There's nothing about humans in the issue, but then little research apparently exists on the subject.

One of the better-known experiments, published in Science in October 1980, sought to establish that people, like many animals, have magnetic homing abilities.

R. Robin Baker, a zoology professor at the University of Manchester, England, blindfolded groups of students, loaded them into vans and drove them on 10 separate circuitous trips to points up to 33 miles away from the university campus. All the subjects were told they had magnets tucked into their blindfolds behind their heads, although some had magnets and others unmagnetized brass bars.

At the end of the trip, each was asked to step out of the van. While still blindfolded, each guessed their compass position relative to the campus.

Baker reported that the results not only implied an innate sense of direction, but that it may be influenced by magnetic interference.

Gould says he invited Baker to Princeton to repeat the experiment a year later and "got no results." Walcott, who was there, says "the students didn't have a clue where they were."

For some reason, however, the same experiment produced better results a short time later at Cornell, Walcott says. Still, there was nothing near conclusive evidence of an innate human directional sense.

Baker has dissected human brains for evidence of magnetic material, says Gould, but the work was done with metal instruments, confusing the results.

Which way is north?

Michigan librarian and free-lance writer Linda Grekin attempted a somewhat systematic approach to human sense of direction in publishing I'll Never Get Lost Again in 1998. This slim book combines elements of self-help, informal survey and interviews with psychologists.

While making no claims to scientific depth or precision, Grekin rejects the notion that people who are more observant of their surroundings necessarily have less trouble with directions. She suggests that the ability to visualize how objects rotate in space may be connected to human sense of direction. Her informal surveys also detected a tendency for lack of directional ability to run in families.

The scientific evidence of a "sense of direction" is as weak as the anecdotal evidence is strong.

"I've been with people who you go tramping through the woods and ask them to point home and they're right," says Walcott, and with "others who go into a store" and can't remember which way to turn when they walk out.

"I wonder about that. I suspect there are people who are very good at this," says Walcott.

"There are people who tell me getting off the subway they know which direction is north," says Gould. No scientific experiments have affirmed this, and as far as Gould knows, none is being done.

"I don't think there's any innate sense" of direction in people, says Gould. He figures folks who seem gifted this way have "just trained themselves subconsciously to use cues the rest of us ignore" -- landmarks, position of the sun and such.

Some folks are so good at this they've made a sport of it called "orienteering," complete with organized clubs all over the world.

The idea of orienteering is to find your way from one place to another in the countryside or forest using a map and compass. In the competitive version, orienteers race to complete a course of points shown on the map. In June, the Orienteering World Cup opens in Belgium.

Kimberly Baumert won't be taking part. The flight to Belgium actually wouldn't bother her too much, as she says she travels quite a bit, but seldom alone. As one might imagine, she takes precautions.

"I've been to many, many airports in my life," she says in an e-mail. "Every time I have to catch a connecting flight I study the floor plan of the airport before we land and beg the flight attendants for connecting information ahead of time. My idea of a dream vacation is one where I'm not responsible for figuring out where anything is (which definitely includes figuring out where I am) at any time."

If it's a family vacation, that would mean having either her brother or father along, because she and her mother share the same directional dyslexia.

"I have to ask a lot," says her mother, Paulette Robinson, who teaches instructional technology at Towson University. "I have to memorize where I'm going."

Her son, Joel Baumert, takes after his father -- each is suited to technical professions and each has a good sense of direction.

"My dad's definitely one you can set down anywhere and he knows his way around," says Joel, 30, a software engineer in Davis, Calif. Joel says once he knows which way is north, "I can keep that in my head" and navigate accordingly.

He says he never has to turn a map in the direction he's going to make sense of it. He figures this ability dovetails with the kind of thinking he does on the job, which often involves "building abstract models of things in your head and moving through these to make things work."

It happens in this family that the men have the sense of direction and the women don't, but no conclusive statement can be made about the gender / direction connection. Nor can anything certain be said about the connection between strong analytical thinkers like Joel and his father, and strong direction-finders.

It's quite mysterious, really, like a sense of humor or poetry or musical composition, it only happens to be as basic as where you are and as urgent as where you're going.

Get pointed in the right direction

All is not lost. True, there's no pill, vaccine or professional therapy offering hope to the directionally challenged, but the situation is hardly hopeless. Consider the possibility of investing time, effort or money in a different approach.

A bottom-rung handheld Global Positioning System without an on-screen map will show you where you are most anywhere on the planet and can be had for about $100. More sophisticated models run up to several hundred dollars.

There are cars equipped with on-board navigation systems, but those will set you back a bit. Tough to find a new Nissan Maxima for much under $25,000, and other cars that have these options -- Lexus and Mercedes Benz, among them -- are only more expensive.

That means taking precautions as per the suggestions compassionately offered by Linda Grekin, who wrote I'll Never Get Lost Again (RDR Books; $13), a short book containing a bit of this and that on the subject -- a little amateur research, a spot of theorizing, some helpful hints.

The lengths people go to might surprise you, but then you might be discounting the unpleasantness of being lost.

According to Grekin, one woman keeps index cards with directions to places she often visits. Another woman reports that she keeps a tape recorder in the car to which she dictates directions, mentioning all the landmarks. She plays it back to herself before she reverses course for home.

Among the book's other hints:

Ask directions.

Ask again.

Wear a watch with a compass.

Carry a notebook while walking to jot down landmarks in the sequence they appear on a route.

Allow time for getting lost.

When leaving a parking garage, don't hurry away from the car. Take time to notice where you are in relation to exits, signs and such.

Practice finding your way, going farther from your home each time.

Study a map, pick out the main streets and memorize their relative positions.

Above all else, don't panic.

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