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Get Lost! It’s Good For You

January 31st, 2020 by dk

You should get lost. It’s good for you. I’ve developed disorientation into an outlier art form. But now there’s science to show what exactly you can gain by losing your way.

I admit I started getting lost when it was much easier to do. Whenever I was visiting a new place for more than a few days, I created a regimen for myself. I would wake early, usually at the first light of day, and set out for parts unknown. I would carry a map, but no other wayfinding devices. (Phones were still connected to walls back then.)

I would wander for an hour or two, observing absolutely every thing I could. Does the neighborhood have more cats or dogs? Are they well fed? Do residents wake up to open a door (for a pet or a newspaper) or do they pour their cup with coffee first? Are businesses mixed with residencies or are they kept separate? Are city workers awake before their constituents, to clean the streets and collect the garbage and patrol the busy corners?

Nowadays I carry my phone, but I turn it off. These early hours are sacred. I’m allowing myself to be completely curious, which requires as little certitude as possible. I’m meeting this new place where it’s at. Moving the place to match my preconceptions instead seems impossible and absurd.

I turn this way and that, according to no agenda whatsoever, or to follow the agenda of those I haven’t met. Cats lead me to fishmongers. Dogs show the way to schools and playgrounds. Women with empty carts take me to fruit markets. Men may be leading me toward the central district or away from it, depending on their footwear.

After daily life around me begins to repeat itself, a rhythm emerges. And then it quickens. Only when I can feel a hurried pace do I look at my map to start retracing steps.

Returning to where I began involves more uncertainty, but now it’s mixed with memory. Is that the overflowing garbage can I saw dogs nosing around? Is this brightly colored door the same one I noticed earlier? I keep wandering, with miscalculations in one hand and a map in the other.

Eventually, I reach my first determined destination of the morning. Next day, I do it again, in a different direction. In less than a week, I’m placing parts into patterns. I’ve met the place and begun knowing it.

Here’s where this journey takes a surprising twist. Brain scientists have learned that exercising spatial memory stimulates the hippocampus. Being alert to unsorted stimuli can ward off dementia, but you’re also strengthening your inner guidance counselor.

The hippocampus uses the same strategy — spatial awareness — for navigating a street grid or a career path. “Where do I want to go and how can I get there?” It’s the same question — whether literal or metaphorical — and the brain uses the same skills, strengths, and training to answer it.

When you’re remembering where you were, or determining who you’d like to become, you’re building this part of your brain. That’s why you should get lost.


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at

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