Chronically Lost? Blame Your Genes

BY Allison Loudermilk / POSTED February 2, 2010
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Maybe I had “Lost” on the brain (season premiere tonight!), but this story on EurekAlert! caught my eye. Men and women no longer have to fight over which gender needs a map and which one doesn’t. It’s genes, not gender, that could make the difference.

To establish a link between human navigational abilities and genetics researchers, led by Barbara Landau of The Johns Hopkins University cognitive science department, carried out a simple experiment. In plain sight of the subject, they hid an object in the corner of a rectangular room with all black walls. Then they blindfolded the subject, spun him or her around and asked the individual to find the hidden object. Sounds pretty easy, right? Not if you’re missing a tiny string of your genetic alphabet on a chromosome, a condition known as Williams syndrome.

Perhaps, like me, you’ve never heard of this particular syndrome. Named after a New Zealand doc of the same name, the syndrome doesn’t affect your sparkling social patter. The rare genetic disorder does, however, cause problems with puzzles, patterns and your capacity to get from point A to point B, among other things. According to the researchers, it occurs in roughly one in 7,500 live births. The individuals with Williams syndrome who participated in the study had a really hard time finding that hidden object; thus,  the thinking goes, linking genes to navigational abilities. I’m inclined to give them a break, as I have a feeling I wouldn’t be too great at this task either. But apparently we’re in the minority. Because this is a task which toddlers as young as 18 months of age could execute no sweat.

So the next time you lose at pin the tail on the donkey or argue with your spouse about where you’re going, you know exactly what excuse to use. Now if only someone will investigate which part of my genetic makeup causes me to leave the keys in the car door and the dog outside after I’ve walked her.

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