BBC 2024-02-19 10:31:22

Alexei Navalny’s team seeks answers as mother barred from mortuary

Speaking in Brussels this morning before a meeting of EU foreign ministers, the Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis was heard saying that he believes the death of Alexei Navalny is a “horrible reminder” that talks on sanctions against Moscow need to move ahead.

Quote Message: At the very least we should be talking about sanctions first of all. We did that in the past. Yes, it’s a horrible reminder, but every time an opposition member is killed in Russia, Europe had sanction packages. Now, I mean, it’s the very least that we could do and then demand of, you know, the release of his body and a proper burial that his family and the people who trusted him deserve.” from Gabrielius Landsbergis

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock also added that she hopes the EU will “decide soon on a thirteenth package of sanctions against Russia”.

Israel indicates deadline for 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 Defense 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 leave 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 there 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 warnings to Israel not to launch an offensive in Gaza’s southernmost city, where Palestinians are living in dire conditions. The US – a key Israeli ally – has said that launching an operation into the city without proper planning would be a “disaster”.

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

Baftas 2024: A dog, tears and Murder on the Dancefloor

What a night at the Bafta film awards. And we’re not just talking about Oppenheimer picking up the most prizes.

David Tennant brought a dog, Barry Keoghan showed his love for Sophie Ellis-Bextor and our favourite US star Da’Vine Joy Randolph cracked on to Chiwetel Ejiofor. We’re here for it.

Here’s some of the top moments you might have missed from the ceremony and behind the scenes.

Bring on the Anglophiles

There wasn’t a single British male up for best actor or supporting actor this year and supporting actress nominee Rosamund Pike told us on the red carpet: “I don’t have much faith in British people rallying round their own… so I was really delighted to be nominated.”

But we don’t really mind after the Brits received a lot of love from across the pond courtesy of the likes of Emma Stone and Robert Downey Jr, two of Sunday night’s big winners.

Stone started her acceptance speech for best actress in Poor Things by thanking her dialect coach. “He did not laugh at me when I had to say ‘water’ [in an English accent]. Backstage, she also learned a new bit of British slang when asked a question about “having a chinwag”.

Read more on the Baftas

  • Michael J Fox brings audience to tears
  • In pictures: Stars on the red carpet
  • ‘Oppenhomies’ Murphy and Downey Jr rule Baftas
  • Who won what at the Bafta Awards – the full list

War Horse

Meanwhile, US comedian and actor Keegan Michael-Key presented an award entirely in an English accent and best supporting winner Downey Jr said he owed his award in part to Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan’s “British sensibility”.

Not to mention fellow US star Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is a fully paid-up Anglophile. She started her career in London’s West End in Ghost the Musical and before that, studied at the British American Drama Academy in Oxford.

“I used to come in [to London] and see plays and I saw War Horse at the National Theatre, it changed my life,” she said backstage.

“It was so amazing, I called my school [back in the US] and said ‘I’m not coming back, I want to stay here.’ So you guys taught me the classics and I’m obsessed with Pinter and all that stuff.”

More Da’Vine Joy

She really is the gift who keeps on giving. Earlier in the evening, she took to the stage to collect her award for best supporting actress for her role as grieving mother Mary in The Holdovers.

As she stepped up to receive the prize from 12 Years a Slave star Chiwetel Ejiofor, she couldn’t resist telling him: “You’re so handsome.” And he did indeed look dapper in a classic black tux.

She got teary as she spoke about co-star Paul Giamatti and again when she talked about her character. “There have been countless Marys throughout history who have never had the chance to wear a beautiful gown and stand on this stage here in London. Telling her story is a responsibility I do not take lightly.” We were welling up, too.

Later, she made journalists cry with laughter when she used a well-known British word beginning with ‘b’ when asked about the odd decision to release The Holdovers in the UK in January, even though it’s set during the Christmas period. We’re sure you can guess what word we’re referring to.

Shout-out to the Oppenhomies

Best actor winner Cillian Murphy probably made his teenage sons cringe when he thanked his “Oppenhomies” in his acceptance speech but we loved it.

He’s the first Irish-born performer to win a best actor Bafta and said, “I’m a really proud Irishman, it means a lot.” He added: “People have come up to me on the street and said they’ve seen the film [Oppenheimer] five, six, seven times… it’s very humbling… and it’s been a brilliant year for cinema.”

At three hours long, six or seven times might be just a bit too much.

Tennant triumph

Host David Tennant was an all-round success this year, with his natural enthusiasm proving infectious and a genuinely funny script. And how many men could get away with a combo of kilt, sporran and sparkly epaulettes?

He also brought a DOG to the Baftas. Bark Ruffalo, geddit? Loving the canine theme this awards season. We’re only just getting over the dog from Anatomy of a Fall rocking up to the Oscars luncheon last week.

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Tennant also had fun with the Barbie crew, introducing “the ugly corner” as the camera panned to gorgeous pair Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling in the audience. Signing off the show with “Come on Barbie, let’s go party” was also a highlight.

Michael J Fox was a moment

We had hoped he would make an appearance but he wasn’t on the confirmed guest list ahead of the awards on Sunday. So it was a thrill to see Back to the Future legend Michael J Fox presenting the award for best picture. There was a standing ovation for the star, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s when he was just 29, and rarely makes public appearances.

Since then, the 62-year-old has gone on to raise millions for research into the disease and also raises awareness through The Michael J Fox Foundation. Many on social media said his appearance brought them to tears.

Saltburn’s night was bittersweet

While Emerald Fennell’s twisted thriller failed to convert any of its five nominations into awards, it still dominated the headlines as Sophie Ellis Bextor took to the stage to perform Murder on the Dancefloor. Her 2002 track has enjoyed something of a renaissance since being used during the infamous final scene of the film as Barry Keoghan’s character Oliver dances naked around his country pile.

Thankfully, Barry didn’t feel the need to re-enact his performance, staying safely ensconced in his seat. The camera did cut to him at the end though and he seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the show.

Hugh Grant’s deadpan delight

Grant may have faced some criticism after playing the role of an Oompa-Loompa in hit film Wonka but the audience were delighted nonetheless when he came up with a rhyme in keeping with his character as he presented the award for best director.

“Oompa-loompa, doompity-dee, now the best director categor-ee, Oompa Loompa doompity-dong, most of these films were frankly too long, Oompa Loompa doompity daa, but for some reason, the nominees are…”

War in the spotlight

It wasn’t all frivolous fun, however. The Zone of Interest won three awards, including outstanding British film. It tells the chilling story of the head of Auschwitz, who lives next door to the death camp with his young family.

Producer James Wilson said in his acceptance speech for best film not in the English language: “Walls aren’t new from before or since the Holocaust and it seems stark right now that we should care about innocent people being killed in Gaza or Yemen or Mariupol or Israel.”

20 Days in Mariupol picked up the prize for best documentary. Its director, Mstyslav Chernov, gave an emotional interview to the BBC’s Colin Paterson, saying that he hopes he will still be alive by the time the Baftas come around next year. His film documents a team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol as they document the atrocities of the Russian invasion.

Speaking backstage, he said: “We give voice to Ukrainians. We keep reminding the world about what is happening right now. Another city just got occupied by Russia so it’s more important than ever to be here and keep talking about this. This award is for the people of Mariupol. They have saved our lives. They have helped us every step of the way.”

Samantha Morton dedicates award to children in care

Morton, who has enjoyed a successful TV career in shows such as The Walking Dead as well as starring in films like Minority Report and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, was the recipient of this year’s Bafta Fellowship, the organisation’s highest honorary accolade.

She grew up in the care system and told the audience how important it was to for people from her background to be represented in films and TV.

“When I first saw Ken Loach’s Kes on a huge telly that was wheeled into my classroom, I was forever changed.

“Seeing poverty and people like me on the screen, I recognised myself – representation matters.”

She said she would tell her younger self: “You matter, don’t give up, the stories we tell, they have the power to change people’s lives.

“Film changed my life, it transformed me and it led me here today. I dedicate this award to every child in care, or who has been in care and who didn’t survive.”

Speaking backstage about the challenges for the British film industry, she said: “We can’t just be a service industry for the wonderful Americans… we need our own investments. But if our government only gives us a culture and sports minister rather than separating that and identifying what we do… it’s a billion dollar industry. And it’s foolish of them not to understand that.”

Matthew Perry upset

There was some consternation about the former Friends star not being mentioned in the In Memoriam segment. But Bafta said he would be included in the obituary montage for its television awards in May.

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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