May 18, 2020

Why Humans Totally Freak Out When They Get Lost

The psychological consequences of getting lost in the woods sound awfully similar to the emotional experience of living through this pandemic.

Lost is a cognitive state. Your internal map has become detached from the external world, and nothing in your spatial memory matches what you see. But at its core, it is an emotional state. It delivers a psychic double whammy: Not only are you stricken with fear, you also lose your ability to reason…90 percent of people make things a lot worse for themselves when they realize they are lost—by running, for instance. Because they are afraid, they can’t solve problems or figure out what to do…They feel claustrophobic, as if their surroundings are closing in on them. They can’t help it; it’s a quick-fire evolutionary response.

This Wired story feels like a timely one, even though it discusses a more literal kind of disorientation.

Current circumstances have broken many of the anchors we use to orient ourselves emotionally. Different individuals feel it in different ways, and we’re seeing this play out on an unprecedented scale.

Forests and woods are a challenge for wayfinding because they lack distinguishing features. They make you feel small and confused and vulnerable, like a small child lost in a crowd of strange legs,” writes Bill Bryson in A Walk in the Woods, his memoir of a hike along the Appalachian Trail. In forests there is no long view, which makes it like navigating in fog.

This lack of a long view is one of the most frustrating aspects of our battle against COVID-19.

We’re still so early on in our understanding of the disease, of its vulnerabilities…of our own. We don’t know what we don’t know, and the vague timelines of our possible futures are difficult to build a map around.

If you’re feeling caged, unproductive, and restless, then it may be a small consolation to know that this is a natural response, and parallels our experience of being physically lost:

It is hard to predict how someone who is lost will behave, though it’s safe to assume—as search and rescue leaders always do—that they won’t do much to help themselves…Most feel compelled to keep moving, and so throw themselves into the unknown in the hope that an escape route will appear…Morgan calls this seeing the trees rather than the forest.” It is how most of us behave when we’re highly anxious: The big picture eludes us as our cognitive map disintegrates.

Losing one of these emotional anchors is generally not a big deal, but losing all of them at once can leave us feeling woefully unmoored. Each one—our next social gathering, a big trip, the ability to go outdoors freely—is important to our map of what life is like.

What does our powerful response to being lost tell us about our relationship with space? For one thing, it shows how important it is for us to be grounded in physical reality and to have a sense of place—however much time we spend in our digital worlds, we still need to know where we are. Where we are has a big impact on how we feel. Places can frighten and excite us, and make us feel safe.

We may not be lost in space these days, but being lost in time can feel just as scary.


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