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Originally published Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 12:01 AM

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Book review

"You Are Here": Why we get lost and what we can do about it

Canadian experimental psychologist Colin Ellard explains why humans so easily get lost — and offers some tips on what they can do about it.

Special to The Seattle Times

"You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall"

by Colin Ellard

Doubleday, 328 pp., $25

Oh, to be a homing pigeon! Researchers have placed them in dark boxes, driven them many miles on a circuitous route, let the birds go, and they have returned successfully to their starting point. The pigeons appear to use the Earth's magnetic field to find their way home.

If researchers took the average person and repeated the test, or even put them in a room, walked them a short distance and spun them around, the test subject typically wouldn't have a clue which way to proceed to find home.

It is one of the great conundrums that humans — the species equipped with the most powerful brain and the only species that draws maps — have such a poor sense of direction. Just think of how many times you have gotten lost or at least had no sense of which way was north. (I often wonder how the city of Seattle gets away with the signs that say "No Parking North of Here." I imagine that many people try to get out of tickets by saying they are directionally challenged.)

In his book, "You Are Here: Why We Can Find Our Way to the Moon, but Get Lost in the Mall," Canadian experimental psychologist Colin Ellard tries to show why we get lost and how understanding this phenomenon can lead to better design of spaces such as dwellings, roads, parks and offices.

Much of our problem boils down to a lack of observational skills. In many societies where people live closer to the land, they travel widely, even across open seas, by noticing subtle features such as congregating birds, star patterns or how the wind blows.

The first half of "You Are Here," with its focus on how we and other animals visualize and navigate space, is a thoughtful read, containing observations of many experiences you have probably had but not considered — especially in regard to how they affect your sense of direction.

For instance, because we stand upright we suffer from a vertically oriented view of the world that often forces us to misrepresent spaces we encounter.

The second half, which addresses spatial design, is less successful in that it doesn't truly address the topic of why we get lost. Ellard offers interesting concepts, but they feel like they should be in another book.

"You Are Here" won't prevent you from getting lost again, but perhaps it will encourage you to be a better observer, more connected to the spaces around you. (Ellard has put together a list of advice on how not to get lost, as well as fun facts about getting lost, but oddly they are not in the book. Instead they are in the handout that goes to the media. Such a succinct summation would be nice in the book.)

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Oh, well, you can always rely on your GPS unit — unless of course the batteries are dead.

David B. Williams' most recent book

is "Stories in Stone: Travels

Through Urban Geology."

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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