Getting lost is a fine art that’s fading away.

I blame GPS, Waze, Google Maps and people like me who depend way too much on them.

My daughter is a human compass. Spin her around blindfolded eight times and she’ll still know which direction is north.

Me? I’m the opposite of a compass. My magnetic north points to “Lost.” I once drove the wrong direction on the interstate for two hours. I was heading to Virginia Beach with a boyfriend who dozed off while I was driving. When he woke up two hours later, he said the scenery looked too familiar. Turns out when I got back on the interstate after getting gas, I chose the ramp going west, not east.

When I bought a car, I had them install a compass so the letters NSEW light up red inside the rear-view mirror. It’s the only way I know east from west. I blame the lake effect. The cloud coverage from Lake Erie blots out the sun most days so I can’t really tell where the sun rises or sets.  

But I just read that getting lost could be a blessing. It stimulates the brain by activating the hippocampus, which keeps the brain from shrinking.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, M.R. O’Connor wrote that our brains are changing when we rely too much on gadgets for directions. 

“When people are told which way to turn, it relieves them of the need to create their own routes and remember them,” O’Connor wrote. “They pay less attention to their surroundings. And neuroscientists can now see that brain behavior changes when people rely on turn-by-turn directions.”

She quoted Amir-Homayoun Javadi, the author of a study published in Nature Communications in 2017, who discovered, “when people use tools such as GPS, they tend to engage less with navigation. Therefore, brain area responsible for navigation is less used, and consequently their brain areas involved in navigation tend to shrink.”

Ever since I went backpacking in West Virginia last fall, I’ve been trying to expand my brain and practice orienteering. “Always know in what direction you are headed,” a hiker advised. I test myself daily. And fail way too often.

I do love spreading out a paper map to find my way. I keep an atlas of the entire United States in my trunk just in case I want to hit the road and keep moving.

Everyone has a map on their smartphone, but I carry a paper one in the glove box. A few years ago, two college guys were hanging outside a local Starbucks, lost and in need of directions to get to a city outside of Pittsburgh. Their phone must have died. When I pulled out a paper map to help them, they burst out laughing. “You still use a map?” they chortled.

They stopped laughing when I reminded them, “I’m not the one who’s lost.”       

Most people depend on GPS to get them where they want to go. But how do you get to places you didn’t know you wanted to go? That’s the joy of getting lost. You stop and ask directions. You meet people along the way. You run across a peach stand on a back road or discover an ice cream stand you didn’t know existed and will return to again. You discover parts of America you didn’t plan on visiting.

Once on our annual trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, I took the wrong highway when my husband was asleep. (Yes, there’s a pattern here. If you’re riding with me, don’t fall asleep or you’ll wake up in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.) When he woke up, we were on the Lincoln Highway. His great-uncle had hiked the entire Lincoln Highway, so we enjoyed the detour, even though it took us an hour longer to get home.

What’s our hurry?

My kids use Waze – developed by an Israeli company – to speed up every journey. The GPS navigation tool helps them shave five minutes off a 15-minute trip. The app is updated by drivers to show you the fastest way to wherever you’re going and how to bypass construction or traffic accidents. But isn’t life supposed to be about enjoying the journey, not just rushing to the destination?

J. R. R. Tolkien once wrote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”

Even if they are, let’s give them credit for using their brains.

Connect with Regina Brett on Facebook at ReginaBrettFans. 2018 Best Columnist, AJPA Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary.


Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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