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Lost Your Way? Blame It on the Brain’s Right Side

Julie Bawden Davis is a free-lance writer based in Orange

Although Suzanne lived in Kansas City for three years, she had difficulty finding her way around town and would often get lost.

“I became turned around the minute I arrived there and never got straightened out,” said the 40-year-old high school teacher who now lives in Orange County.

Suzanne, who asked that her last name not be used, has always had difficulty with directions.

“Everywhere I’ve lived, this has been a problem, although I’ve found some areas more confusing than others.”

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All of us know people who get lost easily. We dismiss them as careless people who don’t pay attention to where they’re going.

Our assumptions are wrong, however. People who are unable to navigate themselves have a weakness in the right side of the brain, which is the area that controls our sense of visual and spatial orientation, say neuropsychologists.

“Topographical orientation problems are caused by a weakness in the visual right hemisphere of the brain,” said Ida Stolk, a clinical psychologist in Tustin who specializes in neuropsychology.

The problem can range from mild to more severe.

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“My bias is that everyone has a certain amount of brain dysfunction and that accounts for individual differences,” said Arnold Purisch, a clinical psychologist who directs the Orange County Neuropsychology Group in Irvine. “Many people have this problem in varying degrees. There are those who have some difficulty navigating and then there are individuals who actually have brain damage and can get lost in areas that are well known to them. Most people have minimal problems, though.”

Individuals who often get lost do so because they easily become spatially disoriented.

“When they travel down a street in a new area, they will usually turn left when they should turn right and vice versa,” Purisch said. “They have to make sure they write everything down when they get directions and carefully check out maps. Diagrams also cause them problems. If they are going to put something together, they often can’t understand the diagram and will end up reading the verbal directions until they work it out in their minds.”

Direction sufferers never aced a geography class, either, although such people are often very intelligent.

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“It is frustrating,” said Suzanne, who tests well in academics and languages. “I’ve often asked myself: ‘Why are you not able to find your way around? You’re an intelligent person. It’s not that complicated.’ ”

Individuals who have this difficulty often have exceptional verbal skills, which are regulated by the left hemisphere of the brain.

“The average person has average skills across the board,” Purisch said. “But when someone has exceptional verbal skills, they often have problems in the spatial area.”

As a result, people with orientation problems generally succeed in careers such as psychology, languages, writing and publishing, and law.

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“Law is a perfect example,” Purisch said. “It is a purely analytical, verbal type of profession.”

The problem is rarely seen in people who are successful architects, engineers, mechanics or surgeons. Individuals in such professions should be able to look at diagrams and know where everything fits.

Researchers aren’t sure why one area of the brain becomes weaker than the other.

“An injury or brain infection may cause it at some point, but more often than not people are born with the weakness,” Stolk said.

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“I have found that spatial problems sometimes run in families. It could be genetic,” Purisch said. “There is also the possibility that a trauma occurred during pregnancy or birth that created biochemical abnormalities. Or there could be subtle structural differences in the brain. But at the moment our diagnostic technology isn’t advanced enough to determine this.”

One theory of early brain dysfunction may explain why some people have a weakness in the right hemisphere.

“The brain seems to have a preference for developing verbal skills over nonverbal ones,” Purisch said. “So some of the latter skills may get crowded out while the verbal skills develop to a greater extent. This could be what happens to people who don’t have a sense of direction.”

Because having a mild lack of direction is not that critical in our society, there is no prescribed method for treating individuals with the problem. Experts do have techniques for treating people with more severe spatial problems, however, and those can be applied.

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“It’s very difficult to improve one’s inherent sense of spatial appreciation by itself,” Purisch said. “Generally individuals have to learn how to compensate by using their left hemisphere better. They need to use prepositions when traveling, which the left hemisphere is so good at using, such as left and right and up and down.”

Instead of simply noting the billboard near their destination, people with weak right hemispheres must become verbally aware of it. They have to acknowledge where it is in relation to where they are going. Is it to the left, right or behind? They should read the billboard aloud and even spell words. It is helpful if as many senses as possible are involved.

Carefully studying maps improves the situation.

“When they go somewhere they’ve never been before, they should look at a map, write out the route and slowly and deliberately practice it over and over,” Purisch said. “That makes it conscious and verbal, which is very left hemisphere.”

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By using their left hemispheres, people may even strengthen the weak areas of their brains, according to Stolk. Computer programs have been developed to strengthen the brain. One program created by Psychological Software Services Inc. in Indiana shows shapes on the screen momentarily, which then need to be recalled by the person using the program.

“This helps a person develop a sense of placement and association,” Stolk explained. Another test Stolk uses consists of a set of four boards that hold nine pegs. One peg on each board is stationary. Testers pull on all of the pegs to determine which ones are intact and watch as the boards are placed on top of one another. Then they try to indicate which are the stationary pegs. Individuals with direction problems will often have difficulty with this, especially when boards are rotated.

“I panicked when the boards were turned,” Suzanne said. “I couldn’t keep track of where they were. Once I learned the pattern, it helped, but I still had difficulty. It’s nice to know, though, there is help for this problem,” she said. “Although it hasn’t caused too much trouble, it has been irritating, and I’m glad to know that I’m not crazy.”


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