When I studied Geography in college (Remember, in my past life I made maps!), we talked a lot about “spatial awareness” as it related to understanding how things fit into a bigger picture of “space”. Not in OUTER space, of course, but just in the landscape of a community, of a country, of a planet. And it was during all of those studies that I came to realize that I have no natural spatial awareness…just like I have no natural sense of direction.
I think the two must be related, but I think most of us understand the sense of direction better than spatial awareness. In terms of no sense of direction? I am sitting at the desk of my house in a town I’ve lived in for 14 years and I still couldn’t point what direction the Space and Rocket Center is. When I’m running trails I memorize which trails to turn on and I learn distances on those trails. Some of them I’ve run 100 times. Yet, if you stopped me in the middle of the trail, blindfolded me, spun me around 20 times and then told me to go back to the car? It would be a 50/50 shot whether or not I started in the right direction. Once I got to an intersection I’d be able to pull up my mental map that I had memorized and make a good guess as to where I was, but that initial step? Would be nothing more than a shot in the dark.
I believe this also relates to how I understand size. I have to memorize numbers to give me a reference point for measuring things, my natural ability to understand the size of something is WAY off. For example, when I was in college I knew that my city had a population of about 35,000 people. I knew that Neyland Stadium (in Knoxville, where the VOLS play) held 108,000 people (back then, I’m sure it’s more now) so if you said, “How many cities of Florence, AL could fit into Neyland Stadium?” I’d easily say, “Almost 3!”
But if I did not know those 2 numbers to begin with? I would have said, “Eh…I’d say half of the city of Florence could fit into Neyland Stadium.” Because my only reference would be the size of the city itself, and while logically I knew you could cram people tighter into the stadium, I’d not be able to really grasp how many people that would make.
Donnie – in contrast – would have answered the question right on day one and could always make it back to the car in the woods, even blindfolded.
Once, in college, I gave a presentation about a GPS mapping project at a local park. I was super nervous and memorized all of my methods and data to read off in front of the crowd. But then someone asked a question I wasn’t prepared for: “How big is the park?” SHIT. SHIT. SHIT. I had no idea. I knew about how many miles of trails, but that didn’t give me a point of reference. I knew my Dad’s house was on about half of an acre of land, so I used that reference and tried to imaging how many of my yards could fit in the park.
“8 or 9 acres?”
Turns out? It was 80 acres. I was off by a factor of 10.
I have a really hard time understand how small businesses stay afloat because I have a hard time grasping how a city that FEELS small could harness enough business to profit. If no one I know personally ate at my favorite restaurant today, then how do they stay in business? Because I know a LOT of people.
I think it’s the same as how people are born with a strong sense of empathy, or how they’re bad at math. (Interestingly, I’m good a math. Just like I was good at reading/understanding maps. I think some traits I developed to balance out a natural lack of others traits.) And I really believe this concept of “spatial awareness” is related to “sense of direction” but it just doesn’t come up as much. But here’s a good test:
How many people do you think live in NYC as it relates to Alabama? I’ve learned that my natural tendency is to grossly underestimate these type of things so I probably would have guessed they were equal if I didn’t know the numbers. But you know what? There are TWICE as many people in NYC as in the entire state of Alabama. WHICH BLOWS MY DAMN MIND.
My husband? He’s all, Eh. I’d say double and entirely would be entirely unfazed. He gets it right AND is not impressed at all. Whereas I’m blown away because my ability to understand size in that kind of situation is completely off.
I’ve gotten a lot better with local distances, because I run in this town. I know my house is about 4.5 miles from Target because I’ve run that stretch before. I know two of our marathon courses locally and 2 half marathon courses, so there are several numbers and references I can use when I’m guessing distance between things around town.
BUT. If you asked me about Knoxville, a city I grew up in but never ran in and only drove in for two years before I moved? I’d be screwed. I think it was about 20 miles from my Dad’s house to my Mom’s old house when I lived there. And keep in mind – I’ve learned that my initial instinct is always too little, so I adjust. Part of me says 20 miles is NOT ENOUGH.
I just looked it up? 15 miles. And I drove that distance a million times when I lived there. And I was still like 25% off.
SO! Where do you fall? Do you have a good understanding of size? Distance? Direction? I used to think Chattanooga was SO much bigger than Huntsville because the downtown is so much bigger. But – in terms of the population in the city limits? Huntsville is actually BIGGER. (Huntsville: Approx 180K, Chattanooga Approx 175K.) Now, Metro populations are different and Chattanooga is about 528K Metro and Huntsville is like 440K Metro, but still…THAT IS WAY CLOSER THAN I WOULD HAVE THOUGHT.
How about you? Think about cities you know or acreage of parks you’ve been too and try to calculate those numbers. How close are you? Do you know how many people are in the US? How about the UK? How about on the whole planet? The only reason why I know these things is because I’ve memorized them to give me a point of reference so as to try not to humiliate myself when I’m guessing things in the future.