News and Tribune


May 9, 2014

STAWAR: Promoting a lost cause

— I’ve never had a very good sense of direction. I easily get disoriented, make the wrong turn or miss them altogether.

Every time we drive to the airport, my wife Diane has to remind me not to take the Crittenden Drive exit. The problem is that I trust my flawed intuition more than sources with greater accuracy, such as Diane. I suppose it’s arrogance, but it’s hard to ignore an internal voice that makes it seem like you really know something, even when you don’t.

I come by my directional disability honestly. My father always got lost on trips and although he studied his maps diligently, directions confused him. Once while driving through Springfield, Illinois, we came to a fork in the road. My father was uncertain which way to turn and drove straight ahead, knocking over a sign proclaiming the city of Springfield.

It was a literal example of Yogi Berra’s classic advice: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Summer is rapidly approaching and this is the season with the most opportunities for getting lost. While on vacation, most Americans will be driving in unfamiliar places. It is also the time of the year for camping, hiking and other outdoor activities, all of which can lead to getting lost in the woods.

 When we took our pontoon boat to Dale Hollow Lake, we learned that boating on an unfamiliar lake is another possible way to get lost. Dale Hollow is larger than most lakes we visit, so even with a map it was hard to tell one cove from another. When we turned around to head for the dock, nothing looked familiar.

Psychologist Daniel Montello from the University of California says, “A common way that people get lost, is the environment looks different in a different direction,” He advises people to occasionally look back to visualize the area as it will look when you return.

For safety’s sake, we now keep our boat on a small lake in Daviess County. While experienced navigators use the sun or north star as a reference point, we use Stoll’s Amish Buffet Restaurant, which is at the south end of the lake. It is both reliable and delicious. As long as it is in sight, I feel secure.

Getting lost is a basic fear, since throughout human evolution it has been potentially life-threatening. Almost every indigenous culture has thus developed wayfinding techniques, usually based on phenomena such as natural landmarks or the movement of the sun and stars. This fear is so common it routinely shows up in fairy tales and dreams.

Psychology blogger Lauren Suval says that “tales that feature forests — such as Hansel and Gretel and Snow White — symbolize “a place that seeks to swallow you up.”

Typically, getting lost symbolizes anxiety, confusion and abandonment. It is also related to feelings of not fitting in and losing control.

 According to dream expert Cathleen O’Connor, dreams of being lost occur at any age. She says “School-age children often dream of being lost in school, unable to find their classroom or locker.” Similarly, adults dream about searching for their parked car or trying to find their way through a strange city or building.

Psychologist Laura A. Carlson from Notre Dame University and her colleagues have published an article that describes how people get lost in building such as libraries, hospitals and shopping malls. According to Carlson, getting lost in such buildings is related to three factors: The confusing structure of the building itself, inaccurate mental maps that people use and the inability to use effective strategies.

Unlike migratory animals that are hard-wired for finding their way, humans have a poor internal sense of direction. Studies show that when people are lost or blindfolded there is a natural tendency to walk in circles.

Below are suggestions from experts regarding ways you can avoid getting lost this summer:

1. Create a mental map of the area you are in by noting surroundings and landmarks. Occasionally, turn around to see how the territory will look on the return trip; 2. Have an awareness of the directions you’re traveling, starting from the beginning of your trip; 3. Learn to use navigational aids such as maps and compasses; 4. Also, learn about natural direction indicators such as the sun’s movements and the North Star’s position. You can make a natural “compass” by driving a stick into the ground and marking the end of the shadow it casts. After several minutes, mark it again. The shadow always moves from west to east; 5. Don’t rely on others to keep track of your position; 6. If you do get lost, don’t panic. Try to reorient yourself using a map, compass or natural feature to determine your position. Scan for familiar landmarks and call for help if necessary.

Finally, if you happen to be on a lake, just follow the scent of potato pancakes and rhubarb custard pie. You won’t be disappointed.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at

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