Q&A: Jeff Wise on the Psychology of Getting Lost

Jeff Wise

One of the things I love about doing the “Getting Lost” series for the Times is finding other writers who have the same interest in disorientation. One of those is my friend Jeff Wise, a contributing editor at Travel+Leisure, who wrote about the pitfalls of GPS dependency in the October issue. So, since I was curious and felt like procrastinating, I initiated the following Q&A with Jeff over e-mail. (Look for his Q&A with me over on his site, jeffwise.wordpress.com.)

In your T+L piece, you write about a Swedish couple who, due to a typo, followed their GPS system to Carpi, Italy, instead of Capri, Italy. But you didn’t say what happened when they arrived in Carpi. Did they turn around and go to the “right” place? And would you say they were lost?

I don’t actually know what they did, the story was from the AP and it didn’t give the details. It was really more of an anecdote than a full news story—which was adequate for my purposes. As to whether they were really lost—that’s a good question. I mean, they got to where they were going; it’s just that where they wanted to go wasn’t where they really wanted to go! I suppose you could say that they were misplaced.

Okay, so what’s the difference between being “misplaced” and being lost? What does it mean to get lost today?

Something has happened to us over the last generation or two. The need to produce and perform and to compete has become so deeply infused into our sense of being that we feel guilty if we aren’t busily hurrying off to our next achievement. And this is true not just in the United State, but across the developed world. If anything, the more connected we become to the rest of the time, the harder we feel we have to strive in order to stay on top. So as a culture we’ve become misplaced. By that I mean, we think that we know where we’re going, but we haven’t really given too much thought to the destination—like the Swedish couple who used satellite navigation to get them to Carpi. We’re good at getting what we want, but poor at figuring out what that ought to be. It’s better, in my opinion, to be truly lost—that is, to recognize that you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know how to get to where you want to be. When you’re lost, you have to think.

So being lost is an intellectual state? Interesting. I’d always imagined it was more emotional—that I’d feel the displacement in my gut (or elsewhere). Is there no psychological component to either getting lost or trying not to get lost?

There’s definitely an emotional component to getting lost. As I write in my book, “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” the two strongest defenses against fear are information and a sense of control. When we become lost, we lose both those things—we suddenly have no information about where we are or how to improve our situation, and that means we’re temporarily out of control of our immediate destiny. That can be very upsetting. It’s such an unpleasant mental state, in fact, that people are very good at convincing themselves that they’re not lost when they really are. They might get turned around on a hike and come upon a lake that they take to be a certain landmark, and convince themselves that it really is, even though it’s much smaller and has an island in the middle of it. This kind of denial is a powerful example of how emotion and intellect can intersect, usually to the detriment of the latter.

Hm, that definitely makes me wonder: Have I been lost and not realized it? Of course, you can’t answer that one, but how about: When was the last time you were truly lost?

I find that I usually am lost before I realize it—there’s always that moment when the reality sinks in: I anticipated finding myself in a particular place, and here I am somewhere else.

My hobby is flying small planes, and when I go from point A to point B I’m mostly relying on what’s called pilotage—which means finding your way based on the things you see on the ground. It’s fairly simple in the Hudson River Valley, where you’ve got a nice big river and mountains here and there; there’s almost always a landmark to steer by. But this summer I flew to Indianapolis, and somewhere over Ohio I realized that I was overdue for the next waypoint I was hoping to spot—an airport—and that, what’s more, all the little towns and fields and ponds looked more or less alike. That’s when it sank in: I was lost. It’s a bit more unnerving than being lost in a car, because obviously you can’t just pull over, and you’ve got a limited amount of fuel and therefore a limited amount of time to figure it all out it. So I went to plan B, and tuned into the navigational radio system.

What would you have done if you hadn’t had the navigational radio system? Or, more generally, what should people do when they realize they’re lost?

The most important thing is not to panic. Once fear runs away with you, it shuts down the cognitive centers of your brain, and then you’re really screwed. So first thing is, take a deep breath. Resist the urge to take impulsive action. Ideally, if getting lost is actually dangerous and not just inconvenient (as for, say, a pilot, or a boater in treacherous waters) you will have thought about a plan B beforehand. There’s often one fairly simple thing we can do to sort ourselves out quickly: ask for help. Unfortunately many people, and men in particular, hate to admit defeat, and would rather drive around in circles than ask for directions.

Are there psychological strategies for *trying* to get lost? Me, I have a hard time losing my way, but I keep trying to. Are there ways of shutting off my sense of direction?

Hmm, you’ve got me stumped there… You’re definitely swimming against the tide of human instinct.

How about going to a new city, not looking any maps, getting on the subway, and getting off at some random stop?

Or, drive to New Jersey…

That’s what I’ve been doing! (Minus the drive to New Jersey.) But people are always asking me why I want to do this. You get at this a bit in your T+L article, too, when you suggest people turn off GPS while on vacation. Why should they?

Serendipity. Allowing yourself to be surprised. Opening yourself up to risk, and to the particularly vibrant and memorable reward of discovering things on your own. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, I think we all need to put ourselves at the mercy of the Universe once in a while. If you find yourself wandering down some foreign street, and you spot a cute little bistro tucked away down an alley, and you wander in, and there’s a strange purple soda behind the counter, and you try it without even knowing what it’s called or what’s in it, you will have a completely different sensory experience than if you tried it because you read about it on Chowhound.

Though I do love Chowhound. There’s times when even I am not in the mood for a spin of the roulette wheel…

“Completely different sensory experience” how? Can you quantify how finding something yourself changes the experience? And what happens if, later, you find out the place is well known online?

Psychologists have found that our experience of the world—the tastes, smells, colors, and so on—result from a combination of sensory data from the outside world and of our own expectations regarding those sensations. Red wine tastes different to the average person than white wine, even if it’s really just wine wine with flavorless dye added, because we have a lifetime of expectations about what red wine is “like.” So when we move through a new world without expectations, we literally experience it in a different way. Richard Bangs, the co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek who pioneered the first descents of many rivers, told me that one of the thrills for him of going to a place that no one else had ever been was that it was “unmediated,” as he put it, by previous visitors’ accounts in books and magazine articles.

Of course, he could just as easily achieve the same effect by avoiding those earlier visitors’ writing, which is I think what your latest series of articles is about.

As to your last question, it doesn’t bother me at all if I find that something I discovered on my own turns out to be famous. On the contrary, I get a little thrill out of seeing my judgment validated. I mean, when we’re traveling we’re never really “discovering” anything. Even Columbus was finding a place that plenty of people already new about.

From China to Ireland to Tunisia: Catching Up

Apologies to you, my devoted readers! For the past two and a half weeks, I’ve been traveling in China (partly for the Times, partly for Saveur), where Twitter, Facebook and WordPress are blocked, leaving me mostly incommunicado. But despite my absence from the United States, a lot of Matt-related stuff has been going on back here.

First, my most recent “Getting Lost” story came out: “Lost in Ireland.” As usual, this was an interesting challenge to write, because it was not one of those “happy 24 hours a day” kinds of trips. Actually, those easy, happy trips are pretty hard to write up, too; where’s the drama? But the challenge for “Lost in Ireland” was to convey what’s valuable about a trip that was often fraught with loneliness and disappointment. Or rather, how you find a different type of pleasure within (and outside of) those emotions. People seem to like the story, so I guess I did alright.

At about the same time, the new issue of Afar magazine hit the newsstands, and inside was “Stereotyped in Tunis,” my “Spin the Globe” contribution. This was another challenge to write, though in a completely different way. Tunisia was a ton of fun, really easy to get around in, with excellent food and interesting people everywhere. What was tough, though, was the nature of the assignment. For “Spin the Globe,” Afar sends writers to a mystery location—in my case, I didn’t know I was going to Tunisia until I was on my way to Kennedy Airport. This seems like a brilliant idea, but as a writer looking to produce a story from my experiences, it eliminates one crucial factor: Usually, I have some goal, some reason, for going to the places I go. I want to hitchhike from one end of an island to another, or trace the life of a famous novelist, or eat as much Japanese ramen as possible. In Tunisia, with no time to research or plan, the experiences were bound to be random, unconnected, and almost impossible to assemble into a coherent narrative.

But this, then, is when travel writers earn their dough (however little that may often be). What you do here, when you get back from the trip, is turn on a filter and see what emerges. Really, the questions are: What can I discard, and what’s left over? Can I see the trip through the lens of art, and forget all that nonsense about nightclubs? Sure, I may have spent two days getting away from my main location, but maybe those were the two most important days and I should focus on them exclusively? For the Tunis piece, I chose to look at how the city’s fun and easy façade both contributed to stereotypes and made me eager to penetrate them. And the odd corollary of this was that many of my eating experiences made it through that filter, too. Alas, the article is not online, so go buy a copy of Afar right now! It’s a great magazine, and needs your support.

Coming up next week: A Q&A with my friend Jeff Wise.

Zen and the Art of Super-Long-Distance Travel

It takes a long time to get from New York City to Chengdu, China. First, you get to the airport extra-early, to avoid security lines. Then you sit on a Cathay Pacific nonstop flight to Hong Kong—nearly 16 hours in an aluminum tube that, on its journey nearly halfway around the world, often passes within 500 miles of the North Pole. Throw in another five hours at Hong Kong International Airport—not the worst place to kill time, actually, thanks to its good restaurants and generally open spaces. Two-and-a-half hours to Chengdu, then who knows how long at immigration, then a cab ride or train or bus into the city… Air travel is speedy, but it still takes forever.

And it drives many people completely nuts—particularly on those 15- or 16-hour flights. Perhaps luckily, I am not one of those people. In fact, I love long-haul flights—the longer, the better.

It’s not that I’m an airplane geek. I don’t get off on the subtle differences between Airbus models—certainly not enough to stay excited for most of a day. I don’t do mileage runs, either. And I don’t spend the flight in frantic anticipation of the adventures to come.

I like the long flights because they are the purest, most empty stretches of my life. Cut off from the world below (unless there’s Wifi, which is still rare on intercontinental flights), I read, catch up on movies I didn’t even try to see in theaters (most recently “Winter’s Bone” and “The Hurt Locker”), write e-mails and work on stories, and just generally veg out until the plane lands. In the air, nothing is expected of me. For the length of the flight, I almost don’t exist.

It’s not easy, of course. It’s taken me some time to learn to withstand the wearying effects of long-haul travel. There’s no special trick to it: I fly economy. I belong to every frequent-flier program, pretty much. I check in online. I put the pillow behind my lower back. I have a bottle of water, a book, my iPhone and headphones, and I remove my laptop from my bag before I stow it (the bag) above me. If I’m flying into a new city, I have a window seat; if I’ve been there before, the aisle. Once in a while, I get up and just walk around the plane. None of these things should surprise you—it’s the kind of advice you read in travel magazines all the time.

Perhaps the one trick I have learned—the one that’s special to me—is that I am capable of not caring. Seriously. I can just sit there, nodding off or wide awake, for a long time. I can have a crying baby at my side or a corpulent monster. But I don’t care. I think about Siddhartha (the Herman Hesse version of the character, that is), who declared he knew only three things: how to sit, how to think, and how to wait. (Or am I remembering this wrong?) If you want to travel often and over long distances, those are good things to know how to do.

But I recognize that they’re not easy for everyone. People get annoyed. They get uncomfortable. They get restless. Add in the anxiety of being in a pressurized aluminum tube 36,000 feet above the earth’s surface, and it’s reasonable to expect bad moods and a reluctance to do this all over again. But just because I recognize that this is true for other people doesn’t mean I understand it on a visceral level. Me, I can’t get so upset, so worked up about the insufferable indignities of air travel. It takes too much energy.

Nor am I the opposite—filled with wonder at the physics, engineering, and economics that make air travel possible. For me, it’s a given.

No, the flight—the journey as a whole—lets me enter this Zen state of not-caring and not-being. It’s almost a purification ritual, exhausting my body and clearing my mind before I land in a new place, ready to figure out who I’m going to be in Chengdu, or Tunis, or Ireland. I need it, and I need more of it.

An extra blanket and a mini-bottle of Scotch wouldn’t hurt, either.

Florida: Insanity From the Air

I just wanted to let you know that I am utterly blown away by this Big Picture series of bird’s-eye views of Florida. How amazing is it that satellite photos, blending the natural world and manmade alterations, can produce such art while being, on some level, artless? I guess it’s the power of cropping at work.

Q&A: Don George—On Getting Lost (and Staying Lost)

Don George in what he would describe only as "the African bush."

Last January, while I was visiting San Francisco, I had lunch one day with Don George, the travel writer and editor to whom the word “legendary” is attached as a kind of default adjective. From his stints at the helms of the travel sections of the Chronicle and Salon.com to his current gig as a contributing editor and book columnist for National Geographic Traveler (not to mention his side projects Recce and Don’s Place), he’s been just about everywhere and done just about everything.

But as I learned that afternoon, when Don offered me a ride across town to another meeting, there’s one thing he hasn’t learned to do: find his way around. In just that short trip, I had to direct him down one street and across another, in search of a place I only had a vague sense of myself. We made it, but the destination remained mysterious to Don. In fact, he told me, he has a terrible sense of direction and is always getting lost, even when he’s in a place he should know well (e.g., the Bay Area, where he lives).

Which is why, nine months later, I found Don on Skype and quizzed him about how—and why—he continues to get lost.

You’ve been traveling all over the world for decades. How is it that you have no sense of direction?

that’s a great question — one that i frequently ask myself. i think i was born with the gift of being directionally challenged. my instinct is pretty much always to go the way that is opposite of the way i should be going.  and this has served me extremely well professionally. when you get lost — when you, essentially, always go the opposite direction from the way you should — all kinds of marvelous and illuminating adventures ensue.

Such as?

one of my most magical experiences of this kind occurred in cairo. i set out to explore the city by walking, as i do every city i visit. i was headed, i thought, for a particular neighborhood that had a number of touristy attractions, but apparently i kept making the wrong turn, because as i walked, i went ever deeper and deeper into a maze of ever narrower and narrower streets. i saw all kinds of everyday, working-class shops and houses i probably wouldn’t have seen on my planned excursion. eventually i ended up walking down an alley lined with down-and-out people looking covetously at my watch. the alley got so narrow that i was literally stepping over their legs in some places. clearly i was lost and i thought that i was headed for big trouble. but then, just when i was beginning to get desperate, a young boy materialized and wordlessly took my hand. he turned me around and walked me out of the maze and into ever broader and broader streets, until he deposited me in a main square. i looked around and realized that i recognized where i was. then i turned back to thank him. in that instant, he had melted away into the crowd. so i was given two gifts — insights into the everyday lives in a part of the city i would not have planned to visit, and a saving visitation of a kind that still gives me goosebumps….

How do those wrong turns work? Or did it become a kind of thing where it didn’t matter to you anymore that you were definitely going the wrong way? In other words, were you still trying to get where you were going, or did you just say, ‘Well, might as well keep going this way, even though I don’t know where it’ll lead’?

Well, I’ve learned over the years to trust my instinct — or perhaps I should say, lack of instinct. For probably 90% of that journey in Cairo, I was still thinking that I could figure out where I had gone wrong and would be able to get on the right track to get to the original neighborhood. But at the same time, a parallel thought-track inside me was thinking, “Wow, this is really great! These are the kinds of homes real people really live in; these are the kinds of shops where they go everyday. This is helping me understand this place!” So the two thoughts exist concurrently and at some point the i-don’t-think-this-is-getting-me-where-i-planned-to-go morphs into but-it’s-delightful-and-interesting-to-be-here. I definitely do subscribe to the ‘might as well keep going this way, even though I don’t know where it’ll lead’ theory of travel. on a recent visit to kyoto, for example, that theory led me into a haunting cobblestone quarter where a shakuhachi flute concert was being delivered in a tiny temple square to an audience of neighborhood grandmothers. delightful and transporting!

How long did that instinct take to develop? Or is that how you’ve always traveled?

I’ve really always traveled that way. And because the world has always rewarded that way of traveling — even on that desparate day in Cairo — I’ve never been motivated to change. One of my favorite activities in any city is to set aside at least half of a day simply to wander aimlessly. This is a little different from getting lost — since you don’t have any particular goal in mind anyway — but the fundamental principle is the same: trust the gods of serendipity. i always discover some fascinating little historic neighborhood cafe or pocket park or odds-and-ends store, and usually people are extremely receptive to a stranger wandering their streets with a lively, open-hearted, appreciative curiosity about their lives.

Are there places you feel more at home, directionally, than others?

Not intuitively, no. But there are places where i have lived — Athens, Paris, Tokyo — or visited so often — New York, Washington, DC — that I have a better sense of direction than I normally have in a new place. But I find that I am able to get lost just about anywhere, even the area in Connecticut where I spent the first two decades of my life.

Explain to me how someone with a poor sense of direction tries to navigate—to read the landscape, so to speak. Is it that everything is a blur? Or that you lose an overall sense of which direction you’re facing? Or is it something else?

In my case, it’s kind of uncanny that if I’m trying to retrace my steps on a journey that has involved multiple turns, for example, when I come to an intersection, I almost always instinctively think I should go the wrong way. I do lose a sense of overall direction, and that can be fueled by a combination of impetuousness and trust. “I’m not sure if this is the right way, but well, let’s try it!” Of course, this has to be tempered by circumstance. If I really need to get somewhere by a certain time, i plot my path out quite carefully.

What does it feel like to be lost? Do you ever have a sense of panic, or can you maintain that Zenned-out sense of discovery all the time?

I rarely have a sense of panic when i get lost, because i know from experience that getting lost is just a prelude to getting found. I’ve always found my way (so far) — and of course, in the vast majority of my everyday life, I’m doing rote things that don’t involve the danger or romance of getting lost. but when i’m on the road (or very occasionally in my life at home) and get lost, i tend to look on it as an adventure to be savored.

There’s never been a time when your lostness was troubling—a real problem?

Well, on my most recent trip, i was driving around rural Japan on really twisty mountain roads. One day i got turned around and was trying to find the road back to my hotel as dusk was starting to descend. I began to get worried because I didn’t want to be driving those incredibly narrow and twisting roads in the dark. So that was troubling, but i know that panicking isn’t going to help the situation, so i just took some deep breaths and looked at the map and figured out what i had to do and did it — and i got back in the last light of day… I can’t recall any instance when getting lost turned into a really troubling problem.

You were saying before that in Cairo, a kid helped you find your way back to a main area. How does being dependent on other people for direction change the travel experience? Does it shake your sense of self-sufficiency? Or does it remind you that all travelers are always dependent on other people? Or something else?

It definitely does not shake my sense of self-sufficiency. In my book, self-sufficiency is an illusion that travelers maintain to their detriment and peril. One of the great lessons of travel for me has been and is the interconnectedness of us all — i love meeting people on the road and getting glimpses into their everyday lives. Getting lost and seeking help has turned out to be one way of doing this. I think this has deeply enriched my travel experiences. The anthology I edited, The Kindness of Strangers, which was originally inspired by my own experiences on the road, is full of travelers’ tales that illustrate this lesson.

Have you ever met anyone who’s more lost than you?

I have definitely met people who seem to have the same directional proclivity. And of course, it depends on the context: One of my delights has become helping people who are staring quizzically at maps — they are legion in San Francisco — find their way.

Ha! I seem to remember having to give you directions in San Francisco. Are you an expert on the place now?

That’s right! I figured we should have an adventure in my hometown…. I’m generally pretty good at helping visitors get to the main tourist attractions/neighborhoods they want to visit. When are you coming back? ;)

Don George’s new anthology, “A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World” (Lonely Planet), is coming out in mid-October.

Relativity and Travel

“Every day, people are moving; they are doing things like climbing stairs. It’s interesting to think about — are frequent flyers getting younger [because they move so much] or aging faster [because they spend so much time in the air]?”

James Chin-wen Chou, physicist, MIT, quoted in Wired

What Does ‘Getting Lost’ Look Like?

One of the coolest aspects of doing this new “Getting Lost” series is that I get to shoot my own photos. Now, I can produce a decent image or two now and then, but I’m not the greatest travel photographer in the world, so frankly it’s a real privilege to be able to do this. I’m always kind of floored whenever my photo editor accepts what I’ve shot and it runs on the cover of the friggin’ Travel section. Amazing.

Shooting a cover story, though, is not exactly the same as writing one. When you’re out reporting a story, you have a ton of random, often unconnected experiences, some of which you take notes on, others of which you forget until, when you finally sit down to put the article together, they suddenly become important events. All of which is to say that, as my friend Tom Bissell has written, travel writing is so artificial, so intricately constructed from anti-chronological fragments, that it resembles fiction writing more than any other nonfiction genre.

But travel photography doesn’t work that way—not exactly. While an unexpected or almost-forgotten experience can be re-created in writing, in photography if you didn’t shoot it at the time, you missed out. You can’t just go back and catch that same moment again (especially if you don’t have the time or budget). Someone whose job is solely to shoot can have his camera out and running constantly, but if, like me, you’re also trying to have those write-aboutable experiences at the same time, that strategy won’t work. The camera gets in the way of the actual experience.

Those are all just technical issues to be overcome. When you’ve got to both write and shoot, you find a way.

What is trickier, however, is figuring out what to shoot. With a conceptual series like “Getting Lost,” the challenge is always to find one great image—the kind of image that belongs on a section front—that communicates lostness. And that is not an easy thing to do.

For the Tangier story, I’d imagined going into the medina at twilight and finding someone standing stock still amid a whirl of moving people in robes. With a slow shutter speed, I could get a great iconic picture that would convey the feeling of being lost in the medina.

The problem was, that never happened. The crowds just didn’t move that way, and people just didn’t stop that way, especially not in the settings that would otherwise communicate the message “You are in a big medina!” Instead, the Tangier medina was often a lonelier place, quiet in parts, with single people often strolling through forgotten corners. I took a lot of such shots, and that’s what my editors eventually chose.

But there was another one I loved that they didn’t use. Or rather, they used another version of it on the spread. It’s the one you see above, of the rooftops of the medina, with a girl sitting in the corner. I love the image, but I also understand why it didn’t work for the cover—it’s the wrong shape. Here you’re seeing it in full (though small), but the cover is an actual, tangible thing: a piece of paper that will be folded in half. And when you fold this image in half, you lose the already small girl entirely. All that’s left are rooftops—the photo’s meaning itself is lost.