Here's a musing familiar to most anyone who's wandered into a hallway of their new school or workplace: "I have no idea where I am."

What we commonly refer to as our sense of direction is a complex mix of the external and innate: We have to process the information we take in from our immediate surroundings or a map while also planning and then remembering how best to get from point A to B. And when our path goes astray, as it often does, we have to readjust and come up with a new route.

What goes wrong? Let's take a few steps forward and look at some of the factors that hamper our inner Mapquest, and see if there's anything we can do to better find our way to the cafeteria next time around.

Our Noggin’s Navigational System

The seeds of navigation are sown in the same regions of the brain responsible for maintaining memory, namely the hippocampus and the nearby entorhinal cortex. But while memory is intertwined with our sense of direction, it isn’t the whole picture. Over the last few decades, scientists have discovered various types of neurons particularly tuned to travel.

Throughout the brain there are head-direction cells that activate only when our heads are facing a certain direction, helping our minds develop a rudimentary compass. In the hippocampus, place cells fire off electrical impulses whenever we enter a familiar location, with each bundle of active cells corresponding uniquely to an individual place. Lastly and more recently, scientists have found evidence of so-called grid cells in the entorhinal cortex that fire in a repeatable pattern in relation to where we are in a location.

If place cells are the neural representation of an internal cognitive map, researchers theorize that grid cells are the equivalent of a GPS system. They may anchor our bodies in the surrounding environment, even if we haven’t meticulously memorized the area beforehand. Grid cells likely account for someone’s uncanny ability to master directions in the most unfamiliar of places. Indeed, a 2013 Nature study found that neurons in the entorhinal cortex activated in epileptic patients as they played a videogame that required them to travel back to a previous location.

“Without grid cells, it is likely that humans would frequently get lost or have to navigate based only on landmarks. Grid cells are thus critical for maintaining a sense of location in an environment," said lead author Dr. Joshua Jacobs at the time of the study’s release.

More recent studies have shown that people with weaker signals in the entorhinal cortex have a harder time navigating a virtual environment. And it’s theorized that patients with Alzheimer’s frequently get lost because the entorhinal cortex and hippocampus are some of the first regions of the brain that the degenerative disease decimates. Other rare neurological ailments, such as developmental topographical disorientation, and certain types of brain injuries can also permanently short out our ability to navigate.  

Is The Fairer Sex Poor At Reading Maps?

A lackluster entorhinal cortex isn’t the only commonly tossed out reason for a bad sense of direction, though.

Many studies have found that, on average, men outpace women at spatial processing — organizing and reshaping visual information in the mind to solve problems. That ability appears to lead to slightly better navigation skills.

As a general rule, though, supposedly innate differences between men and women, especially those attributed to our brains, tend to turn out to be the result of faulty logic. A 2012 review of the subject found that scientists too often rely on the convenient narrative of natural selection to explain away the spatial gap.

One prevailing theory the study authors cited is that men evolved to be better navigators because they needed to hunt far and wide to bring back food, while women could forage and gather closer to home. Those who weren’t such savvy navigators simply died out. That account doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny, though, according to Dr. Justin Rhodes, a neuroscientist at the University of Illinois and one of the paper’s co-authors.

“If you think about the story, only the males that were able to make it back passed on their genes. However, remember that those males pass on their genes to their female offspring as well. So the female offspring are also going to inherit those genes for superior navigation,” explained Rhodes in an accompanying video.

As another nail in the coffin, when the team looked at other mammal species, they found no clear relationship between males having a larger home range than females and better navigation.

Rather than an evolutionarily driven adaptation, it’s possible the difference between the sexes is a mere side effect of higher testosterone levels in males — a theory better supported by the data Rhodes and his team analyzed and one other scientists back as well.

Before any women go out and order testosterone smoothies to boost their navigational prowess, though, a February 2016 study found that an extra dose of the hormone does absolutely nothing to improve females’ overall sense of direction, though it might temporarily tweak their brain wiring.

“Our results demonstrate that testosterone had an enhancing effect on certain aspects of spatial cognition in healthy women, but that complex behaviors such as navigation, relying more on learned strategies, are not altered despite increased neuronal activity in relevant brain regions,” lead author Dr. Carl Pintzka told the Huffington Post. “These findings suggest that the male navigation advantage mainly reflects sex differences in behavioral strategy.”

Practice Makes Perfect

Rather than our biology, one of the biggest reasons for our flailing navigational skills may be the maps we use.

As external GPS units have become ubiquitous in our cars, smartphones, and even glasses, they’ve subsequently eased our reliance on the internal maps we carry around inside our heads. A 2010 study by McGill University researchers found that older adults who reported regularly using GPS to navigate had less activity and less grey matter in their hippocampus compared to those who didn’t; they also performed slightly worse on a cognition test. As a corollary, a 2008 study found the hippocampuses of London taxi drivers were on average larger than those of the general population.

"The hippocampus is crucial for navigation and we use it like a 'sat nav,'" said the lead author of the 2008 study, Dr. Hugo Spiers from the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London at the time. "London taxi drivers, who have to know their way around hundreds of thousands of winding streets, have the most refined and powerful innate sat navs, strengthened over years of experience."

In other words, it seems the most effective way to improve our sense of direction is to sign up with Uber and go to town for a few years. Or maybe just take a few more spontaneous and unguided walks around the neighborhood.