BBC 2024-02-19 04:31:17

Israel sets deadline for ground offensive in Rafah

Israeli war cabinet member Benny Gantz has warned that unless Hamas frees all hostages held in Gaza by 10 March an offensive will be launched in Rafah.

It is the first time Israel has said when its troops might enter Gaza’s overcrowded southern city.

Global opposition is growing to such an attack in Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Earlier, the UN public health agency said a key Gaza hospital had ceased to function following an Israeli raid.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it had not been allowed to enter Nasser hospital in Khan Yunis, north of Rafah, to assess the situation.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) entered the complex on Thursday, saying intelligence indicated hostages taken by Hamas were being held there.

The IDF has described its operation in Nasser as “precise and limited”, accusing Hamas of “cynically using hospitals for terror”.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Gantz, a former defence minister, said: “The world must know, and Hamas leaders must know – if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere, to include the Rafah area”.

Ramadan – the Islamic holy month of fasting – this year begins on 10 March.

Mr Gantz added that Israel would act in “a co-ordinated manner, facilitating the evacuation of civilians in dialogue with our American and Egyptian partners to minimise civilian casualties”.

  • ‘Without painkillers, we leave patients to scream for hours’
  • Relief and guilt after Gazans find safety in Egypt
  • Netanyahu vows to press ahead with Rafah offensive
  • Latest ceasefire talks not very promising, says Qatar

The Israeli war cabinet consists of the country’s top security officials. It was formed several days after Hamas-led gunmen attacked Israel on 7 October, killing at least 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages. Hamas is still holding about 130 hostages in Gaza, Israel believes.

Mr Gantz’s reference to Egypt may serve to heighten speculation that Israel expects some Palestinians to cross out of the Gaza Strip and seek shelter on the Egyptian side of the border, where the authorities appear to be building a large walled enclosure for this purpose, says the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams.

But Israeli officials have yet to give any details of an evacuation plan, he adds.

With exactly three weeks to go before the start of Ramadan, reports from Rafah say that a few people are leaving, heading west towards the coast, but that most are still waiting, unsure what to do.

Despite international pressure, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to launch a ground assault on Rafah to eliminate Hamas gunmen there.

Egypt and some other Arab countries have repeatedly warned that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would risk pushing many Palestinians into Egypt – which they consider unacceptable. Saudi Arabia has vowed “very serious repercussions” if Rafah is stormed.

Internationally there have been many calls for Israel to refrain from storming Rafah, where Palestinians are living in dire conditions. Israel’s offensive against Hamas since 7 October has reduced much of the Gaza Strip to ruins.

More than 28,400 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed and more than 68,000 wounded since the war began, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.

The ministry says at least 127 Palestinians have been killed and 205 others injured in the past 24 hours.

Despite the continued fighting in Gaza, efforts to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas have been taking place in Cairo in recent days – although Qatari mediators said progress was “not very promising”.

Mr Netanyahu said he sent negotiators following a request from US President Joe Biden, but added they did not return for further discussions because Hamas’s demands were “delusional”.

Hamas has blamed Israel for a lack of progress towards achieving a ceasefire deal.

‘Without painkillers, we leave patients to scream for hours’

Doctors across Gaza have described operating on patients without anaesthetic, turning people with chronic conditions away, and treating rotting wounds with limited medical supplies.

“Because of the shortage of painkillers we leave patients to scream for hours and hours,” one told the BBC.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has described the state of healthcare in Gaza as being “beyond words”.

It said 23 hospitals in Gaza were not functioning at all as of Sunday – 12 were partially functioning and one minimally.

The health agency said air strikes and a lack of supplies have “depleted an already under-resourced system”.

  • WHO says Nasser hospital, raided by IDF, not functional

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) says Hamas “systematically uses hospitals and medical centres for its terror activities”.

In a statement to the BBC, it said the IDF “did not ‘attack’ hospitals, but rather entered specific areas… [to] neutralise Hamas’ infrastructure and equipment, and apprehend Hamas terrorists, while acting with great caution”.

It said it was allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, including medical supplies.

Aid organisations, including the WHO, say there have been “repeated access restrictions and denials”.

Warning: This article contains details some readers may find upsetting

Hospitals stretched

Many of Gaza’s hospitals are overcrowded and have limited equipment, healthcare workers say. There are reports that some hospitals in southern Gaza are operating at over 300% of their bed capacity.

Four field hospitals have been set up in Gaza, with 305 beds combined, according to the WHO.

On Sunday, it said the Nasser hospital in southern Gaza was the latest facility to become non-operational, following a raid by Israeli forces.

The IDF said on Sunday night it had found weapons at the hospital, as well as medicines with the names and photos of hostages on them, and had apprehended “hundreds of terrorists” hiding there. “Hamas continues to put Gaza’s most vulnerable citizens in serious danger by cynically using hospitals for terror,” it earlier told the BBC.

  • Why are Israel and Hamas fighting in Gaza?
  • Israel-Gaza war: Death and Israel’s search for ‘total victory’

Staff at nearby hospitals say the operation at Nasser has put extra strain on them.

Yousef al-Akkad, director of the Gaza European Hospital in the southern city of Khan Younis, described the current situation there as the “worst we’ve faced since the beginning of the war”.

“This situation was severe before, so what do you think it’s like after receiving thousands more who’ve been displaced and are now staying in the hallways and the public areas?”

He said the hospital did not have enough beds for the patients needing treatment, so staff were laying sheets over metal frames and wood, and putting “a lot of patients on the floor with nothing at all”.

Other doctors from across the Gaza Strip described similar situations. “Even if there is somebody with cardiac arrest or cardiac problems, we put them on the floor and start to work on them,” said Dr Marwan al-Hams, director of Rafah’s Martyr Mohammed Yusuf al-Najjar Hospital.

A Hamas political committee appoints directors of public hospitals in Gaza. In some cases, these directors were in place before Hamas took control of the Strip.

Medication and supplies

Doctors say they are struggling to work with limited medical supplies. “We cannot find a drop of oxygen,” one told the BBC.

“We’re missing anaesthetics, supplies for the ICU, antibiotics and lastly painkillers,” said Dr al-Akkad. “There are a lot of people who were severely burnt… we don’t have any suitable painkillers for them.”

One doctor confirmed that operations were going ahead without anaesthetic.

A WHO team said they recently met a seven-year-old girl at the European Gaza hospital who was suffering from 75% burns, but unable to receive pain relief because of short supplies.

Dr Mohamed Salha, acting director of northern Gaza’s Al-Awda hospital, said people had been transported for treatment there on donkeys and horses.

“The catastrophe is when the patients’ wounds are rotting, as the wounds have been open for more than two or three weeks,” he said.

He said doctors there had performed surgeries by the light of headtorches because of electricity shortages.

Staff separated from families

The WHO says there are around 20,000 healthcare workers in Gaza, but that most are not working “as they are struggling to survive and care for their families”.

Dr al-Akkad said the numbers of staff and volunteers at his hospital had grown, partly because of people displaced from other areas coming to help. But he said it was not enough to cope with the volume of patients and types of injuries they were receiving.

Following bombings, he said injured people come to the hospital “looking like kofta” – a dish with ground meat.

“The same person comes with brain injuries, broken ribs, broken limbs, and sometimes losing an eye… every injury you can imagine, you can see it in our hospital.”

He said one patient could need five or more specialist doctors to deal with the range of injuries.

Some of the doctors who have continued working are separated from their families.

“My family has been away from me for more than three months and I long to embrace them,” said Dr Salha in northern Gaza, whose family have sought safety in the south.

“My consolation is that I am here serving children, women and the elderly in receiving health care and saving their lives.”

No room for chronic patients

Doctors told the BBC that people in Gaza with chronic conditions had “paid a big price”.

“Frankly we don’t have any beds for them or any potential to follow up with them,” said Dr al-Akkad.

“For anybody who does dialysis four times a week, now he does it once a week. If this guy was doing 16 hours a week, it will be one hour now.”

Some women are giving birth in tents with no medical support, while hospitals that provide midwifery services say they have limited capacity.

“In one department a person dies and in the other department a new life is born. Children are born and there is no milk for them. The hospital provides one box of milk for every child,” Dr Salha said.

People are coming to hospitals with diseases that have spread in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

“There are sicknesses and we can not find any cure,” said 54-year-old Abu Khalil, who has been displaced to Rafah in southern Gaza.

“We need to go out from dawn and get in a queue and maybe you will find 100 people in front of you. You go back empty handed.”

Additional reporting by Muath Al Khatib

More than 60 shot dead in Papua New Guinea ambush

At least 64 people have died in an ambush in Papua New Guinea’s remote Highlands region.

The victims were shot dead during a tribal dispute in the Enga province over the weekend, a national police spokesman told the BBC.

The Highlands area has long struggled with violence, but these killings are believed to be the worst in years.

An influx of illegal firearms have made clashes more deadly and fuelled a cycle of violence.

Police started collecting bodies at the scene near the town of Wabag – roughly 600km (373 miles) northwest of the capital Port Moresby.

“This is by far the largest [killing] I’ve seen in Enga, maybe in all of Highlands as well,” Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary Acting Supt George Kakas told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).

“We’re all devastated, we’re all mentally stressed out. It’s really hard to comprehend.”

Police received graphic videos and photos purporting to be from the scene, showing bodies loaded onto a truck, say media outlets.

Escalating tribal conflict – often over the distribution of land and wealth – led to a three-month lockdown in Enga last July, during which police imposed a curfew and travel restrictions.

In August last year, the violence made international headlines after graphic footage involving three dead men circulated online.

Governor Peter Ipatas told ABC that there had been signs that fighting was about to erupt again ahead of the ambush.

With up to 17 tribes involved in the most recent escalation, it was ultimately up to the security forces to keep the peace, he said.

“From a provincial perspective, we knew this fight was going to be on and we [alerted] the security forces last week to make sure they took appropriate action to ensure this didn’t occur.”

Security more broadly remains a key concern for PNG. The government last month declared a state of emergency after major rioting and looting left at least 15 people dead.

Australia – one of the country’s closest allies – said news of the killings was “very disturbing”.

“We’re providing considerable support, particularly for training police officers and for security in Papua New Guinea,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said in a radio interview on Monday.

Why India’s wildly remote islands are trending

India’s coral islands of Lakshadweep piqued tourists’ interest after Prime Minister Modi visited last month. But can the islands’ fragile environment handle the growth in tourism?

When you are about to land on India’s archipelago of Lakshadweep in the Arabian Sea, 490km west of the closest Indian city of Kochi, you’ll see shades of blue all around. The narrow strip closest to the white beach, lined with hundreds of coconut trees, is light blue. A little further into the sea, the water is turquoise, while the deep sea is emerald blue.

“It’s mesmerising, really,” said Shradha Menon, a geologist from the Indian Institute of Technology, who visited the islands three times in the last two years to study their carbon sedimentation. Each time, she was one of just a handful of outsiders on the 36-seat plane from Kochi to Lakshadweep, carrying island residents and government officials posted there.

But recently there has been a lot more interest in the islands from Indian travellers after Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lakshadweep in January 2024. Pictures of him walking on the white beaches and snorkelling in its crystal-clear waters were uploaded on his official account on X (formerly Twitter) and his YouTube channel, garnering hundreds of thousands of views. In his message to the public, he said, “The beauty of Lakshadweep can’t be described in words. To those who like to visit beaches and islands around the world, I urge them to visit the Lakshadweep.”

Since then, the archipelago has been thrust into the spotlight. Google searches for “Lakshadweep” soared to the highest they’d been In 20 years, according to The Economic Times. Travel articles suddenly appeared in mainstream media outlets, and YouTube videos and Instagram reels flooded the internet. MakeMyTrip, one of India’s biggest travel booking portals, claimed a 3,400% increase to in-platform searches for Lakshadweep after Modi’s visit.

The phone lines of Lakshadweep’s Society for Promotion of Nature Tourism and Sports (SPORTS) that handles tourism in the territory have never been busier. From one or two tourist inquiries a day, they have been getting at least 10 a day since last month, said Abdul Samad, one of SPORTS’ two water sports instructors who helped Modi snorkel in the island in January. Meanwhile, Cordelia Cruises, which has been sailing from Mumbai, Kochi and Goa to Lakshadweep since September 2021, has witnessed a 2,500% increase in booking queries since Modi’s visit. New beach and water villas are already being planned on the islands of Suheli and Kadmat, Samad confirmed, and India’s finance minister Neermala Sitharaman even mentioned Lakshadweep in her budget speech on 1 February while talking about better connectivity to India’s islands to grow tourism.

A blip in the Arabian Sea, Lakshadweep’s 36 islands include 12 atolls, three reefs and five submerged banks. Its 10 inhabited islands have a population of about 70,000, mostly reliant on fishing and coconut cultivation.

The pristine, white-sand islands are not like other beaches found along India’s coastline. Lakshadweep, which means a lakh (100,000) islands in the Sanskrit language, are the only atolls in India and lie just above sea level, explained Vardhan Patankar, who has worked in Lakshadweep for 15 years and is conservation director of GVI, which facilitates conservation projects around the world. These atolls are remnants of ancient volcanoes that erupted and then gradually sank to just above sea level, growing a ring of corals that jut out of the ocean’s surface. “Lakshadweep, which is just a few metres above the sea level, is protected by the coral reefs,” said Patankar.

Like most islands in the world, Lakshadweep has been impacted by climate change. According to The Lakshadweep Research Collective, the archipelago’s land cover is rapidly shrinking due to coastal erosion, with the loss of an entire island (Parali 1, in Bangaram atoll) recorded in 2017. The islands have witnessed four major ENSO-related temperature anomalies (a climate phenomenon that causes variation in winds and sea surface temperatures) in the past two decades, together with three catastrophic cyclones within the last few years, resulting in widespread coral bleaching.

According to current, conservative predictions of scientists, Lakshadweep will submerge in the sea by 2050

“According to current, conservative predictions of scientists, Lakshadweep will submerge in the sea by 2050,” said Patankar. “If there is added pressure on the island due to tourism and other development projects or industrial fishing, it could be disastrous to the islands and its ecology, hastening the submergence.”

To temper the impact of increased numbers of tourists expected on the islands, SPORTS say they will continue to restrict numbers using a permit system. They are also inviting cruise ships and yachts to sail to the island, claiming that this will reduce the numbers of people staying overnight and thus control the amount of waste generated and preserve the already limited ground water.

However, scientists believe the chances of large ships damaging the island’s delicate coral reef wall, which prevents storm surges, can’t be ignored. Nor can the high carbon footprint generated by high-end villas being built on the island or the damage caused to the reef during construction. Patankar also fears that once resorts are built on the land, the scale of commercial fishing, which presently is minimal in the island, will also increase to cater to the food needs of the tourists.

“Tourism growth on the island has to be highly regulated and must be able to sustain the ecology of Lakshadweep,” added Menon.

For travellers who visit Lakshadweep, it’s important to travel lightly. Luckily there are myriad low-impact activities on offer.

Lakshadweep is one of the best places to snorkel and scuba dive in India due to the atolls’ shallow waters and abundance of marine life and corals. “The visibility underwater is exceptional and as a result the reef looks spectacular during snorkelling and diving sessions,” said Patankar.

While underwater, you may see snappers, groupers, moray eel, butterflyfish and black botched sting rays. Green sea turtles are also easily spotted, sometimes even from the beaches. Then there is the fascinating yellowmask surgeonfish that changes colour, from yellow to purple, as it reaches adulthood.

Lakshadweep is that beautiful, serene island where life seems to slow down and where a surreal sense of calm descends upon you

The night sky is another spectacle due to minimal light and air pollution. “I have never seen so many stars, constellations and shooting stars in my life as I saw in my three-day trip on the island,” said Shalina CV who visited Lakshadweep with her family in September 2023. She added: “Lakshadweep is that beautiful, serene island where life seems to slow down and where a surreal sense of calm descends upon you.”

Another not-to-miss adventure is night fishing. Tourists can join fishermen on a boating expedition and try their hands at the less wasteful pole-and-line fishing to catch skipjack and yellowfin tuna. A couple of government-run dive centres also offer kayaking, wind surfing, parasailing and other watersport activities.

There are also many homestays run by locals that provide clean and comfortable accommodation, such as Abdul Rahman Homestay (+91 8547 660 936) and Feroze Homestay (+91 9447 747 458) on Agatti island, or Kinak (+91 9447 474 332) on Kalpeni island. A few locals have also started private tourism companies, like Landiago, whose owner Shabab Ahmed takes tourists to visit the Juma Masjid on Minicoy Island or to an old lighthouse here. Booking trips with the locals ensures that the money goes directly to Lakshadweep’s economy, plus it means they can share their unique knowledge and understanding of the islands.

“I think the island will be safest in the locals’ hands. Working with them to empower and strengthen their ability to protect the islands is the best hope for the islands and its ecology,” said Patankar.

Green Getaways is a BBC Travel series that helps travellers experience a greener, cleaner approach to getting out and seeing the world.


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Do some people have a better sense of direction?

Some people can strike off on any journey with no guide except their ‘pigeon senses’. How do they do it? And can this ability be learned?

Ralph Street loves maps. Appropriately for someone with his surname, he studied geography and town planning. And well before that, his parents regularly took him out orienteering – a sport that involves racing between two points using a topographical map and a compass.

“I don’t really remember a time before orienteering,” Street reflects. “My parents took me orienteering the first week I was born.”

Street refers to this as free training, as he now competes internationally as an orienteer, from his home base of Oslo in Norway. But these elite skills have also been useful in everyday life. Street remembers a childhood trip from London to Glasgow, with friends who deferred to him as they realised his knack for getting around the new city. In general, he tries to be diplomatic when he has a difference of opinion with another person about the correct way to go. “I’m usually right, but… we might do their thing first and [then] realise they’re wrong.”  

Other orienteers also report better spatial memory than average. But competitive orienteers have an unusual amount of navigation practice. In fact, the latest neuroscience and psychology research suggests that there are plenty of ways for ordinary people to improve their spatial skills.

Why some people are better at getting around

Street took up the sport of orienteering at the age of nine. As his experiences suggest, childhood exposure shapes people’s comfort and confidence with navigation. Kids having the opportunity to move independently around varied environments matters here. “Experiments with non-human animals suggest that passive motion is not that good because you don’t basically pay attention,” says Nora Newcombe, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

People who grew up outside cities, or in more spatially complex cities (think Prague rather than Chicago), also appear to be better able to navigate as adults. This is related to the distances travelled and the variety of areas traversed.

Even as adults, “we do have good evidence that people who range more widely around their environment” have better spatial skills, says Newcombe. Going straight back and forth between the home and the workplace doesn’t cut it.

In many societies, girls and women have limited opportunities to practice their navigation skills, and this is thought to be a key reason for the myth that women are innately worse at navigation than men. Women sometimes consider themselves to be worse navigators than men even in studies where their performance is the same, due partly to gendered stereotypes. (Older men are the group most likely to overestimate their navigation abilities.)

Overall, gender inequality is associated with gendered differences in navigation ability. This points to the role of culture in creating such differences (or the perception of such differences). “People tend to overestimate the effect of gender, and also they tend to assume that the effect of gender is somehow independent of cultural factors,” says Pablo Fernandez-Velasco, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at the University of York and University College London.

One way scientists can test a person’s sense of direction is using a kind of virtual maze (Credit: Getty Images)

Indeed, anthropology research suggests that in more gender-egalitarian societies, gender differences in navigation ability vanish. One relevant study, from 2019, concerns the Mbendjele BaYaka people in the Republic of Congo, who hunt and gather food in the rainforest without using tools like maps or compasses. Research participants were very accurate overall in tests of pointing accuracy, with no differences between men and women. The scientists attributed this to the similar distances travelled (and spatial experience gained) by women and men in this society.

Haneul Jang, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, recalls one yam foraging trip with a BaYaka woman, when the two wandered off from the main group and ended up in the middle of nowhere in the forest. Jang’s Global Positioning System GPS was unable to help find trails, but her BaYaka companion “immediately looked up, checked the sun and started to walk in one direction, and soon after we found a trail”. 

Gender also has a cultural influence on whether girls are steered toward certain occupations where navigation is critical. Through pointing and model-building tests, Newcombe’s research has found that experienced geologists have higher navigational competence than experienced psychologists. This link to the fields of science, technology, engineering and medicine (Stem) chimes with what Street has noticed in his own community: that many orienteers end up in fields like engineering, maths and physics. (He himself works in IT.)

Related to the effect of education are income and privilege, and global research suggests that a nation’s GDP per capita is linked to average navigation ability.

How brains handle navigation

How does all this get processed in the brain? One element is cognitive maps, which are essentially mental models of space. Researchers continue to debate what shape cognitive maps take: for instance, whether humans create representations of maps in their brains to navigate, or if they are graphs.

“The map view basically says that there’s an overall common framework that we’re trying to fit new information into. And the graph view says, well, we can’t really even do that unless the new information is attached to some node in the graph,” says Newcombe. This may seem like a very academic distinction, but “it influences our view of whether or not people can combine local spaces and can infer new routes that they have very little information about,” she explains.

The cognitive map is believed to reside in the hippocampus, a seahorse-shaped region of the brain involved in memory. Neuroscience research has shown that the structures around the hippocampus also play key roles in orientation. For instance, the entorhinal region has been described as the site of the “goal direction signal”.

Using aids such as maps may lead to a dependence on navigational help (Credit: Getty Images)

Along with knowing which direction you’re facing and the direction of your destination, being able to identify permanent landmarks is implicated in good navigation. This ability to recognise stable landmarks has been linked to activity in the retrosplenial cortex, which forms part of the wrinkly outer layer of the brain. 

The brains of highly skilled navigators look different to those of others. One of the best-known examples comes from London cab drivers, who take years to acquire what’s reverentially referred to as “The Knowledge”. These cabbies’ brains show growth in the hippocampus.

Though there are various orientation and direction tests, there’s no gold-standard psychology test of navigation skills, especially across cultures. There are major research gaps in how certain cultures view and pass on information about navigation, let alone how those skills might be assessed in some sort of standardised way.

“The traditional [test] is something like a virtual maze,” says Fernandez-Velasco, which isn’t necessarily adapted to how wayfinding works in different environments and cultures. For instance, while Western navigation tends to privilege visual cues, certain other cultures are more attentive to cues based on smell, hearing, or other senses. “It’s hard to capture all of this with the same test, especially with the same test that tends to be very biased towards what we consider good navigation in the Western context and perhaps in the urban context.”  

To improve the state of knowledge overall – as well as to help preserve types of navigational knowledge at risk of fading away, such as wave piloting in the Marshall Islands – Fernandez-Velasco says there are important questions for navigation research around “how to engage with local collaborators” and “consider non-colonial knowledge systems”. (Read more from BBC Future about what we can learn from the ancient art of wayfinding.

How to become a better navigator

Misconceptions abound about human navigation. “One myth is that you think you cannot improve,” Newcombe says. Fernandez-Velasco agrees: while their brains show less plasticity, adults can definitely still learn these skills.

Newcombe is also bothered by people considering navigation abilities irrelevant in the era of GPS. Phone batteries can die and systems can make mistakes, as suggested by accounts of people driving into bodies of water on the advice of their GPS.

Navigational aids like maps, compasses, rock art and stick charts are types of ‘cognitive artefacts’ – useful in many cases, but they can lead to a dependence. “Sometimes when you’re using a cognitive artefact, you’re offloading your cognitive abilities to that cognitive artefact,” Fernandez-Velasco says of GPS, especially. “That itself might have some negative effect on your ability for navigating over time.”

People can train themselves to better notice environmental cues like the wind, Sun and slopes, whether they’re in rural or urban settings. “There are cues that a lot of people don’t pay attention to,” Newcombe says. Pursuits like sailing and scouting can help. Street encourages people to join their local orienteering club

Not everyone will have the resources or opportunities to participate in these kinds of activities, but some principles can be put into practice while simply walking or wheeling around. For one thing, getting better at navigation requires changing our relationship with risk. “A lot of people aren’t willing to explore because they’re afraid,” Newcombe says. “Lots of adults have quite a lot of spatial anxiety. Basically, they don’t want to waste time, but also they are afraid that something bad will happen.”

People who spend more time exploring their environment tend to be better at navigating (Credit: Alamy)

In a vicious cycle, that anxiety can worsen navigation, as anxiety takes up the mental space needed for spatial tasks. “If you make people anxious in the lab, their ability to navigate seems to deteriorate,” says Newcombe. Yet where safe to do, getting lost occasionally serves our sense of direction overall

While cultural variation makes it difficult to provide universal tips for improving navigation, in general, “the more you move, especially in ways that are slightly challenging, the better you’ll become at navigation,” Fernandez-Velasco says. “Part of the problem is that people who are bad at navigation sometimes are unconfident and avoid situations that involve navigation, so there could be this negative feedback.” 

For people who can’t imagine wayfinding without a phone app, there are still ways to exercise spatial skills with this tech. Don’t let Google Maps always decide your route, Street says. 

Change the settings where possible, Newcombe suggests. The default on many apps is that “wherever you’re going is straight ahead, which is a terrible way to learn. I totally advocate keeping north on the top all the time.” As well, “keep zooming in and zooming out so you can both see the fine-grained information you need to navigate, but also see the landmarks.”

Getting an optimal amount of sleep may help too. One global study found that for participants aged 54 and older, sleeping seven hours a night was linked to the best performance in a navigation game.

So while an orienteer in Norway and a forager in the Republic of Congo might have different ways of getting around their environments, the good news is that they – and you – can continue to hone these skills over a lifetime.

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