True North, Not Always Strong

When I was in school in England, we were taught in Geography class about patterns of human settlement. We learned that linear settlement occurs when houses and shops are built alongside roadways. Nucleated settlement occurs at roadway intersections or at significant resources like seaports or river crossings. At least, that’s how I remember it.

Linear Settlement from

I took all that as gospel and became accustomed to the higgledy-piggledy nature of British roads. They are almost never in straight lines, they are usually built around geographic features, they are often too narrow, and they are sometimes just evolved cart tracks. It was only when I moved to North America that I realized it didn’t have to be that way.

Most Canadian and American cities are built for cars, not horses, and definitely not for pedestrians. The people who were city planners back in the day were nothing if not farsighted and practical. City roads usually run north/south and east/west, with geographic wiggly bits bridged over or bulldozed out of the way. As a car driver, I appreciate the simplicity of it all . . . most of the time.

magnetic compass
Magnetic Compass from Big Era Five Project

Yesterday, I was telling my sister that I had been held up by an unusually long tailback of traffic at an intersection that is normally fluid. I wondered what was going on to cause the problem. In talking about this, I realized I didn’t know my north from my south, my east from my west. I had been on a route I had taken many times, so I didn’t need my GPS. As such, I didn’t have my Garmin in front of me with its little compass arrow telling me which way was up.

I don’t use paper maps although I still have some in my car. They are no help to someone who usually drives without a passenger to use as navigator. The nice thing about maps, though, is that they are always printed with north at the top, so you are never in any doubt about direction.

San Jose Freeway Interchange via Wikipedia

The things that frequently mess with my sense of direction are the highway interchanges. Whenever I navigate a spaghetti junction, I often wind up doubting myself. I am only reassured when I see road signs telling me that my destination is ahead of me, not behind me. Anyway, after having done a couple of loop-the-loops I thought that the line of traffic I saw was trying to turn west when it was actually turning east.

When I am a pedestrian, I have quite a good sense of direction. I don’t need to consciously find the sun or the north star to tell me which way I am going. Most of the time, I have it right somehow instinctively. Today I read that humans may have the ability to pick up earth’s magnetic field, and that makes perfect sense to me. Some people have more of that ability than others, but I don’t doubt that the theory is correct. True, even.

But I want to add a caveat to that claim. I don’t think our instinctive sense of direction works when we are in cars. Perhaps the car blocks the magnetic field. Who knows? But when we are in cars that have gone through one or more highway interchanges, there is no way that our power of magnetoreception works. And that explains why I didn’t know my east from my west in my storytelling yesterday. That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.


      1. I’m pretty sure they called it that when they built the one in San Jose, I might have recalled James Randall calling it that and forever after assumed that’s what they were called.

  1. I agree…That magnetic field is blocked when we get in our cars, especially when you want to go North and the exit options are East or West!

  2. Speaking of magnetic fields, I came across this info the other day. Who knew! “Dogs poop in alignment with Earth’s magnetic field, study finds. Dogs use the Earth’s magnetic field when they’re relieving themselves. Not only that, but canines choose to do so in a north-south axis, a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Zoology says.Jan 3, 2014”

  3. I adore your theory that being inside a car blocks humans’ ability to sense the magnetic poles (and thus have a sense of direction). This would explain a lot, actually. 🙂

Please leave a comment.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.