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I never get it wrong, but only because I always have to think about it (north and south too, sometimes, when I'm in a place I'm unfamiliar with). Yes, I mix up left and right too (comes slightly of being ambidextrous).




I have problems with left and right and often have east-west problems as well, precisely because I tend to visualize the world as a map with north at the top. I generally don't have problems with actual directions -- I always know that I want to go this way or that way -- it's just that often, especially if I'm under pressure and don't have time to stop to think, I assign the wrong name to the direction in question.

What's much more troubling to me about that paragraph is that nobody in the SF Chronicle editorial chain caught the mistake. The region at that end of the bridge is called the East Bay, for pete's sake.

Park Viewer

I have a good sense of direction and prefer navigating roads or maps using the cardinal points ("Go north on 16th St." rather than "turn left at the gas station") but I do confuse east and west sometimes. It most commonly happens when I'm on the west coast of the US - I grew up on the east coast, and therefore the ocean and the coastline are associated with "east" to me.

I went to college in the inland Pacific Northwest; every time I went home for a break, we had to drive to a larger coastal city. There were a couple of times that I tried to get on the highway headed eastbound, because in the mental map I have of "where I live", the coast is to the east. At least it was for the first 18 years...


It doesn't happen often, but sometimes (maybe 1% of the time) even when I'm thinking east, I end up typing west or vice versa. I'm not sure why my brain/hands do that, but I've also noticed that I'm not the only one.


hmm. In the broader scheme, north and south are more fixed to the nature of the globe. You can continue moving east forever, but if you continue going north eventually you'll start going south again. I still always associate north with being a little colder and south with being warmer in my head (I've only lived in the northern hemisphere) even if it is obviously too small of a scale to make a difference.

Maybe these little mnemonic cues give north-south and edge over east-west.

W. K. Lis

There are north and south poles, in which once one reaches them, they start to go in the other direction. However, there are no east or west poles, meaning there is no point or destination to reach, we just keep on going.

Moore Michael M

I had trouble, and sometimes still have trouble, with compass-type navigation upon moving back to Portland after many years in NYC. The orientation of Manhattan is so simple -- uptown is north, downtown is south, the Hudson is west and the East River east. I had difficulty getting used to Portland's downtown being "west" (for me, as I live in NE), and I would instinctively think of heading over the west hills as traveling "north," even though I knew I was heading west.

It's not that I get lost or confused about where I am or need to go, but there's a difference between knowing your direction and feeling it intuitively. After four years, I still can get a bit scrambled when pressed unexpectedly to give compass-type directions, like pointing north and saying "You need to go east about 2 miles." The moral is, don't ask me for directions, except in Manhattan.


I'm someone who lives in the Pacific Northwest, and who visits the Far East quite a bit. Doing so, of course, involves flying west to reach Asia, and flying east to come back to the United States.

Dang brits and their silly prime meridian... :)


I think reason for greater E/W confusion versus N/S is that people imagine the compass in their heads as though it were perpendicular to the ground. Because of this north go up, and therefore against gravity and out of our range of motion. South is going with gravity down toward the floor or ground. East and west on the other hand are simply going from side to side to non-distinct location.

Admittedly, this seems abstruse. But it's one of those things that's just weird enough to be true. Also, north usually means colder and south, warmer, at least in the northern hemisphere. East and west doesn't have that general feature.

Ed O

A person's brain may be nailed to the compass, but there are other environmental cues and associations that people might use to assist compass/directional wayfinding that can sometimes throw this into confusion. Similar to Park Viewer's east/west coast experiences, I've lived all my life in Sydney, on the east coast of Australia and east has always been towards the sea and west always away from the sea. Approaching the coast, north is to the left and south is to the right. Of course all this was turned upside down when I visted Perth on the west coast - where in the first couple of days, I did get north and south mixed up a few times when I was near a beach or had the sea in sight. For me, the east=sea and sea=east association is strong, and it's interesting how when I hear about Perth's Eastern Suburbs, I always imagine the beach-side suburbs - which of course is the opposite. I can imagine there may be other myriad reasons why people could sometimes get their directions mixed up, especially in unfamiliar environments.


I almost never get lost, but I frequently mix-up left and right. I just know "go this way, then go that way." I tend to give directions by pointing, which confuses people. Actually, I'm not very good at giving directions, really - I'm very good at navigating, but I sort of use my own internal compass that quickly assembles the pieces of a place together.

I don't get east/west confused very much, but I have, at times. The most notable example, actually, was when I was on the West Coast. Being from New York, I automatically think of the ocean as "east." I never even realized I did this until I was in California and would catch myself thinking "OK, I have to go east" to get to a place near the ocean, then correct myself.


Like others with costal frames of reference, I started getting east-west confused on moving from Oregon to Massachusetts. I'm back on the left coast now, but seem to remain somewhat muddled on the matter.

Jim Harvie

Do people who mix up east and west also mix up left and right?

Ony politically.

Alan Robinson

I surprised myself once. I'm a physicist, and I was the top student in my high school. I had hoped to go through Physics 12 with a perfect or near perfect grade. My first quiz for Physics 12 was on vectors. The first question had a vector pointing east, going to the right of the page. The next question had a vector pointing west, to the right of the page... There went my goal. I had to wait until my first year university course to get a 100%.

On the ground, North was the uphill direction, east and west were directions where the terrain tilted to one side or the other, plus the ocean was west. There is no way I'd get lost north of the Fraser River. Since moving to flat Chicago, I have had more difficulty reconciling my cardinal directions, especially [E] and [W].

This is all for a kid who drew maps at 1.5 years of age. Jarrett, this is a very common problem and I'm surprised that you are surprised.


I know a lady who used to edit a small rural weekly called Rural Roots in Prince Albert, SK. She once mixed up east and west and said Shellbrook was east of Prince Albert, when it's actually west. An elderly lady came up to her in church and punched her in the arm for it - it actually hurt quite a bit. Anyway, she never mixed it up again.

Sometimes those trivial mistakes evoke not-so-trivial responses from people.


of course, once you find yourself in Montreal, you'll realize that when they tell you to go North from a certain intersection, you better not consult the compass, or you'll end up waaay west of where you wanted to go.

The Catholic church even used this feature for a poster on public transit - the poster presents a blank map of the island, oriented like most other maps in Western culture, thus confusing the Montrealais, as they are used to a differently oriented mapping of their island (same problem when you try to square google maps printouts when comparing them with maps on transit).

The caption of the commercial was
"Lost? - Find yourself again"(translation mine)
It marks only one spot - the oratoire St. Joseph.

(too bad I couldn't find a picture on the net)

of course, being European, I have witnessed how perceptions of East and West have changed since 1989. The Czech Republic fought for being recognized as the Central European country they always were geographically, while Austrians had to rethink their orientation. And Vienna has to be one of the least compass-conscious cities I know. In our daily lives, I only know two instances where we actually use compass directions, both of which are in relation to major freeways.
Instead of using "North of the Danube" we have "Transdanubia"as one of the major referents, and, of course, having such a clearly defined center, we usually use that to orient ourselves.

*incoherent rambling off*

Tom West

I have a very strong mental map of my local area. It's the little compass symbol on it sometimes has east and west the wrong way around.

If you look at the Greater Toronto area, the street grid aligns itself parallel/perpendicular to the lake, which means grid north (away from Lake Ontario) deviates more and more from true north as you go around the curve of the lake.


In the southern hemisphere, I'm perfect, altho on occasion I say "east" when I mean "west" (I do this with many related words too; including "east" and "north" or "brother" and "sister").

In the northern hemisphere, I just say random things.

Likewise, when traffic drives on the left, my "left" and "right" are fine. Now that I live in a country those words are meaningless to me for navigation purposes. I've always thought of a left turn as "with the kerb", so to speak, even before I drove, even when walking.


I would suggest that the reason people rarely mix up north and south has to do with basic facts of human spatial cognition - we evolved on the surface of a planet, where the most fundamental fact about our physical environment is gravity, i.e. the distinction between up and down. The up-down distinction is hard-wired into our brains, deeply instinctive.

We are taught from a very early age to associate "north" with "up" (the "north is up" association is a totally arbitrary convention of course, but one that's pretty ingrained for anyone in our culture who's ever been exposed to maps). I live in Vancouver, for example, and I've never heard someone here say "I'm going up to Seattle", or vice versa. Up means north (unless there's a major hill involved, in which case "up" can mean, well, "up".)

Left and right, on the other hand, are concepts we have to learn - there probably was no obvious evolutionary advantage in having the instinctive ability to distinguish the left-right spatial axis, like there was with the up-down axis and the forward-backward axis. The left side of a hungry lion is pretty much the same as the right side, but there sure is a difference between the front side (where the eyes and teeth are) and the back side.

So the left-right/east-west distinction probably uses a different part of the brain, which is probably why so many people have to stop and think for a second to keep them straight.


I spent the first 27 years of my life in New Jersey, and live in Portland, OR now. For some reason, I-84 always throws me off from the airport when I meet family and give them directions back to my place in inner SE. I can't explain it, but I always want to go "east" from the airport to get towards downtown, even though I know it's west. Same thing when I take the 9 Powell bus out towards Powell Butte or to the taco trucks past 82nd, for some reason I always tell myself I'm going west when I know I'm going east.

And in my previous life, I drove for a living for 9 years. Heh.

It's gotten to the point where I take long, uncomfortable pauses when giving directions to people just to ensure I don't screw up east and west.

The latest major east-west confusion incident I can remember was on a nasty, foggy day in November a few years back when my mother came in for a visit, and when we got out of the airport I told her to get onto 84 East, where we drove for about 20 minutes and made it to like Troutdale before I realized we were going the wrong way. Of course, if I could have seen the mountains I would have known, but we could just barely see 500 feet ahead of us on the road that day.

I've also never confused north and south. Funny thing from Rod Browne's comment above - back in Newark, we always went "down the shore". Of course that was because it was south. Although strangely enough, we went "up the city", even though Manhattan is pretty much due east from Newark, and much of it is marginally south of Newark, as is much / most of Brooklyn. Hmmm, never thought about that before...


I grew up GLUED to an Atlas we had at home and for the longest time I would associate the Atlantic Ocean with East and the Pacific with West. Therefore, to go from France to Spain I'd say you had to go Southeast. I think like a lot of the people here, it depends on what you use as a marker when you learn what cardinal directions are.

I think that makes for an interesting idea of how when I say "Eastern Suburbs" to someone from Seattle or Melbourne may have a different idea than someone from Saint Louis or Paris. Just the mention of "East" brings to mind varied connotations immediately.

What I have found interesting is how many people from the midwest can tell you at any given second what direction is north when they are out in the middle of the country, while most city people rely on their grid and thus can't figure it out as quickly in the middle of the country.

Alon Levy

The mistakes on the SF Chronicle could be just plain typos. I've made similar typos myself - not with directions, but with forgetting to insert "not" in front of adjectives I wish to negate, getting a national capital wrong, etc. (I once wrote a long rant about thinktanks that said something like, "If a thinktank and an academic study disagree, a good rule of thumb is that the thinktank is always right." The intended adjective at the end of the sentence was "wrong.")


I have never had a problem with north and south, except for when I went to school in Hamilton, Ontario, after living most of my life in Toronto. In Toronto, I got used to the lake and downtown being south, and "uphill" being north. In Hamilton it's the opposite (and the "uphill" is a prominent geographic feature, an escarpment face). Screwed me up for the better part of a year. I had to navigate thinking "upbound" and "downbound".


I dont think it's the person confused about the direction, it's simply information being lost between the brain and the hand.

Hasnt it happened to you when you think something but type something else? I recetly typed "too" instead of "two". I obviously know the difference...but it's what came out for some reason.


I notice when people use up and when they use down in giving directions. Uphill and close range always delivers 'up'. As in, I'm going up to the shops. Downhill is 'down'. North over long range is always 'up'. Like I'm going up to Canada. And south is 'down'. But what about if you are driving from Canberra south about 200km to the mountains? Maths and physics types use down. People with a more general sense of direction use up. You can use it to classify people!

John W

Strange coincidence. I just read recently that there were some cultures that had no sense of behind or in front of, so everything was related to compass directions. (ie He is standing north of the tree, rather than he is standing behind the tree). They had no choice but to be always aware of which way was east or west. (Maddeningly, I can't remember where I saw this - and only in the past week or so I'm certain).

Ted King

FYI - SFGate.com has a feedback page but they sometimes fail to act on the reported bloopers (e.g. Canadian super coin, lamb caption on a piebald goat, compass twist). Also, I'm unable to confirm a possible Polish custom of putting south at the top of their maps.

Basic info. : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Map
Fun : http://northerngesture.com/

Robert Wightman

You moved from the northern hemisphere to the southern and have never sen anyone mix up north and south? When I travelled to South Africa and Australia just about everyone I was with pointed to the sun and noon and said "Look to the South." I am from Toronto and no matter what city I am in the water is "always" to the south because that is what I am use to. Lake Erie is South of Cleveland; the Pacific Ocean is south of Los Angeles.



The East Coast/West Coast thing explains your confusion. To those of us from the East Coast, the ocean often = east. This seems pretty ingrained. FWIW, I grew up near NYC and I never heard anyone say "up the city," just "to the city." Maybe its a New York thing?

However, one "up/down" thing I have noticed is people saying "up" when they are going to the country, even if the place is straight west or even south. My mom frequently uses "up" for pretty much any rural destination in Pennsylvania, even though much of PA is actually south of the NYC region. It kind of bothers me, I must admit. I've always been of the up = north, down = south school.


I meant New Jersey thing...hah.

Joseph E

When I visited Brisbane for 2 weeks, after living on the west coast of the United States for the 11 years of my life up to that point, I was always reversing E/W and N/S due to the flow of the river and position of the ocean. It didn't help that the Brisbane river reverses directions with the tides.

Here is Southern California, many residents confuse South with West in Long Beach and Orange County; the ocean is directly south here, and in parts of Orange County, but is usually West in most parts of the southern coast, and is mentally associated with West by most visitors.

Chief Clerk

I've suffered all my life from some left-right confusion, when giving directions in a car I have to pause to remember which is which. East and west I think are actually more present in my mind but most drivers would be confused by that!
As to urban layouts, for conceptual confusion I'd suggest Hobart. The CBD has a rough grid pattern, BUT at 45 degrees to the cardinal points.


One more vote here: while I have good spacial awareness, I sometimes get the words confused.
I learned left from right a bit later than my classmates (due to ambidexterity as someone mentioned above), and to this day have trouble coming up with the right word for the direction I mean.
But I am not alone. :)
On a regular basis, I hear someone say something like "go down this aisle here, then turn to your left. Your OTHER left." Because, of course, the person they were talking to turned right rather than left. I see it all the time: I tell someone the thing they want is on their right, and they turn left. It seems to be a problem everybody has sometimes, I just have it a bit more often than most.

I remember when I first started driving and learned how many of my friends were clueless about their position in space: If they knew how to get from A to B and from A to C, it was quite likely that the only way they knew to get from B to C was via A, even if B and C were a couple of blocks apart. People were amazed at my ability to navigate a route between two points quickly.
I tried to help others learn to do what I did naturally: when I drove people places, I would ask them occasionally "quick, which way is north?" They'd usually give me a blank stare, so I'd point north for them. At the mall. In their driveway. At school.
As near as I could tell it didn't work.

The only time I suffered north-south confusion was in the house I grew up in. For some reason, if my mind the floorplan of a house has the front door at the bottom of the page, which we all know is where south goes, but the front door of the house faced north. So if I didn't take a second to think about it, if you asked me which way was north I'd point to the back of the house.


Like some others have said, for me its a coastal thing. I grew up on the east coast and since moving to the west coast a year ago i find myself frequently mixing up east and west. Ive always thought of east as "toward the ocean" (even though on Long Island, where i grew up, south was the direction of travel towards the ocean, but i mean in a global sense). Now to go towards the ocean, I go west.

Richard Masoner

"Me, I never mix up either one."

Be careful; you're guaranteed to screw it up now. You may want to read up on illusory superiority, i.e. the phenomenon that says you rarely notice your own mistakes.

Jarrett at HumanTransit.org

Richard.  My impression of the strength of my internal compass is based mostly on the absolute mortal panic that I feel whenever I'm no longer sure where north is.  This sometimes happens in complicated underground rail stations that are full of non-right angles, but it's very rare and therefore always noticeable.  Otherwise, my brain seems to make spookily accurate mental maps, with north at the top.  One of the weird geeky skills that got me started in this business was that I could go to an unfamiliar town, drive around for half a day, and then go into the client's office and sketch an accurate map of their city on the whiteboard, talking about streets and landmarks as though I'd lived there for years.

None of which is meant as bragging.  It's such a weird skill that on balance it's more alienating than endearing.   It probably serves more to identify me as some kind of alien -- like a Borg-controlled former human with GPS implanted in his scalp.

Ted King

Jarrett - You probably have a biological version of the old naval DRT systems that pre-dated SINS and GPS. I have something similar except it's keyed to bakeries, delis, bookstores, and libraries. That's why I think of the San Francisco section of BART as the library train - most of the stops are within a block or two of a library.

DRT - Dead Reckoning Tracker
SINS - Ship's Inertial Navigation System
GPS - Global Positioning System (US)/ GLONASS (Russian)

Michael M.

John W., above, may be referring to the aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr. From the Wikipedia entry for linguistic relativity:

"For example the Australian language Guugu Yimithirr only uses absolute directions when describing spatial relations — the position of everything is described by using the cardinal directions. A speaker of Guugu yimithirr will define a person as being "north of the house", while a speaker of English may say that he is "in front of the house" or "to the left of the house" depending on the speaker's point of view. This difference makes Guugu yimithirr speakers better at performing some kinds of tasks, such as finding and describing locations in open terrain, whereas English speakers perform better in tasks regarding the positioning of objects relative to the speaker (For example telling someone to set the table putting forks to the right of the plate and knives to the left would be extremely difficult in Guugu yimithirr)."

Steve Munro

I'm glad to see several posts from directionally challenged compatriots living around Lake Ontario. Growing up in a city where Lake Ontario occupies the half circle where more city would be if this were inland, I have very strong sense of north and south. From my home, I can see across the lake and somewhere my brain "knows" that it has a south side. However, when I am actually there, I have to force myself to spin the mental map around.

As for Chicago with its lake to the east of downtown, that's just plain wrong. Oddly enough, I don't have the same problem in Vancouver, but they have mountains to give other directional cues.

Another variation on this, and on navigation in general, is that in Boston, the concept of giving directions with compass points is quite foreign to the locals. They will tell you to go down this street until you come to such-and-such square, then bear left down to so-and-so's corner, go past some landmark, and ta-da! you've arrived. My orthoganally organized mental map just melts with that sort of directions.

All this is in aid of the idea that how people navigate will probably vary immensely depending on the geography and customs of where they grew up.


Uh-oh. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis seems to be rearing it's head... :)


Hah, this post poses an interesting physiological of how our cognitive mapping works. Growing up I never had much good directional sense, I knew up and down, forward and back but left and right was a crap shoot (still not perfect). Also N,S,E & W were totally alien concepts. Eventually I got that beach = close enough to west (grew up in California) and now living in Chicago I get confused from time to time because I expect water to be west - which it just isn't anymore.

Eventually architecture school taught me where south is and I've gotten smart enough to figure directions out based off of that fairly easy.

So I guess some people have a better absolute idea of the compass but other people like me have to associate it with things and when those things are changing the task gets complicated!


My guess would be this somehow relates to disagreement between reading and speaking.

In general, reading goes from top to bottom and left to right. Therefore, one looks at a campus and reads: North, South, West, East.

However, most people would recite the cardinal points by heart as North, South, East, West, which is top-bottom-right-left. (I just googled "north south east west" and "north south west east" to check on this impression, and got 1.680.000 and 634.000 hits, respectively.)

So, one always gets North and South in the same order despite reading or reciting, but East and West swap places between reading and speaking, and this may generate some confusion. But this is just my two cents.

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