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.

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