Showing My Geography Dork Side

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.

7 Comments

  • Bobbie

    I am horrible with maps, directions, everything! I think that’s why I hate NYC so much (even with a map). I know if I head in the wrong direction I’ll know it by the time I get to the next cross street, but it still terrifies me.

    Thank God for google, smart phones, GPS’s, etc.

  • supertiff

    The best way I can explain how terrible I am with spacial recognition is to admit this: when I read “think about cities you know or acreage of parks you’ve been to and try to calculate those numbers,” I could seriously feel my brain disconnect from what I was reading. I can’t even TRY to think about that stuff, let alone think of the right answers. I think I’m bad at that type of understanding partially because I have very poor depth perception. Like, horrible depth perception. I convinced one day I will meet my end while trying to go down a staircase. I have to hold onto the rail AND look at the stairs. And it still feels like a miracle every time I don’t fall.

  • heidi

    Me! This is exactly me! I am damn good at reading maps but I have no sense of direction and am the absolute worst guesser about space and people out there! I mean at least as bad as you and maybe worse. I like to blame my issues with Geometry on this too.

    And supertiff, I too find it a miracle if I don’t fall going up and down stairs. It just seems like such a precarious thing getting everything lined up just right, and balance, and…. I don’t know why more people don’t fall!

  • Fraulein N

    I’m terrible at estimating size, but I really notice this when it comes to volume. Like when I try to estimate if I can get all the leftovers from THIS pot into THAT container. Disaster. And when I do get it right, I’m totally just guessing and crossing my fingers that it works.

    Like a couple of the commenters, I think I might have crappy depth perception too, which would explain why I’m always running into walls and smacking my knees on doorframes. Like, Oh, I thought I had a lot more clearance room there!

  • Brenda

    I grew up in Texas which is huge! It can take all day to drive from one side to the other or top to bottom. I learned to read a map when I lived there. My first husband was in the Army and we lived in North Carolina for 5 years. It took me a long time to figure out that it didn’t take all day to drive from one side to the other in NC or to the beach in SC. It only took a few hours. I still can’t really estimate distance/time when looking at a map–I live in NM now. I know how long it takes to drive to work or Walmart but if I have to go some where I’ve never been, I always over estimate the time and get there way early or way late. I have no idea how to figure out acres.

  • Kate

    I’m good with direction but not how many people live here or there. I’m awesome at volume though, I could professionally pack, but, I’m absolutely blind to age. I can’t tell by a face more then the most broad age range for adults. Kids I’m fine with? Super odd