Trail in Namibia Trail in Namibia

Is there a sixth sense that can be used to navigate?



Studies have proved that some blind people can see things without being aware that they have seen them. Using ancient visual pathways the brain is sometimes able to make sense of information coming in through the eyes of blind people. One person in a study, totally blinded by strokes and known only as TN, even managed to navigate his way around an obstacle course and reacted to other peoples’ facial expressions, despite being unable to ‘see’ them. The study was led by Professor Beatrice de Gelder,

‘It’s a part of our vision that’s for orienting and doing in the world rather than for understanding. All the time, we are using hidden resources of our brain, doing things we think we are unable to do.’

A lot of people believe that natural navigation ability is connected to a ‘sixth sense’. Do human beings have an ability to navigate purely by instinct? This is a debate that will run and run, which is great. Part of the reason is that there will always be plenty who like some abilities to remain outside of rational analysis. This has an interesting effect, once science finds an answer for something that was previously held to be mystical, it is abandoned by the mystics who look for other uncharted territory. It is a moveable feast, but there are two sides to the table.

The Australian bushman Lindsay sat firmly on one side,

‘Sense of direction is something you enter this world with, and if it wasn’t conferred upon you as a birthright you’ll never acquire it, no matter how hard you study. I was born with this gift and it is impossible for any of us who are so gifted to explain how we do it.’

It would appear that Lindsay’s sense of direction was not matched by his modesty. This may be why the Australian Dictionary of Biography wrote the following about him, ‘Although Lindsay had his supporters, some people thought that he was opinionated and others regarded him as a bore.’[29b]

Gatty who had much greater general experience of navigating firmly believed that there was no such thing as a sixth sense. He believed that all directional clues can be rationally explained.

It is possible that the two sides are not as opposite as it first appears. It may be that what has been called by some a ‘sixth sense’ is actually just referring to a subconscious analysis of rational clues. Many of those who take an interest in the direction they are going: walkers, sailors and pilots included, have told me of a feeling of ‘wrongwayitis’ that they get when travelling in a different hemisphere from their home one – even though they were not attempting to navigate naturally. This would seem to indicate a subconscious awareness of celestial clues, especially the sun.

I had an experience that would support this idea when driving along a motorway a couple of years ago. I was not much paying a lot of attention to direction as I was only following a familiar route home along the M27. I happened to be driving east and it was late on a summer day. I had a terrible feeling of ‘wrongwayitis’ it made me feel desperately uneasy. It took a few moments to analyse it, but then it became clear that there was a strange contrast in the sky, there were dark rain clouds behind me, to the west, and clear skies ahead. The eastern sky appeared brighter and the western sky darker at the end of the day, which I am now sure caused the strange sensation.

Nature can give us other clues, without us always being conscious of it and this might be interpreted as instinct. A. H. Hudson was aware of being led by water, ‘The stream invites us to follow: the impulse is so common that it might be set down as instinct.’ There are many clues that can be used consciously, but if used subconsciously might lead some to believe more strongly in a sixth sense. There is some evidence that people can use magnestism to navigate: iron oxide has been found in the sinuses of human beings, as well as the brains of birds and other organisms.

It is not my intention to try and resolve this debate, mainly because I cannot and believe it will be in good health many decades from now, but also because it is an emotional subject. Even those that deny any sixth sense tend to become emotional in their denial. I prefer on this occasion to do the honourable/cowardly thing and to light the blue touchpaper and then retire to a safe distance.