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After asking this question (Why would a compass not work in my world?), I've been spending too much time thinking about navigation and direction - specifically, what innate sense of direction might my human character be capable of?

My character flies dragons, so navigation is a handy skill to have, especially when flying over places with few landmarks, or having no visible sun or stars to work with. My ideal scenario is that she has a navigating ability that has passed down through generations - perhaps all of her family have it too, perhaps none of them seem to present it, but it's something that her ancestors had and were known for, so she's inherited it from them. I'd also like it to be a very unusual trait. Maybe a few families have a certain predisposition for it, but it's seen as quite a rare, special thing. For example, I've read of languages that refer to cardinal directions rather than 'left' and 'right' and so on, but I'd prefer this heightened sense of direction to be limited to only a few people, rather than being widespread through all speakers of a certain language.

She lives in a world where steampunk-level technology is developing (it's more advanced and more prevalent in bigger towns and cities), but I'd really like to avoid using tech to solve this problem if at all possible. I've heard of experiments where people had to wear tactile compass belts that vibrate in order to help with wearers' sense of direction, which is super cool, but I'd prefer it to be an innate characteristic rather than an item that helps with her navigation.

The other thing to contend with is the world she lives in. She lives in the world described in my previous question, which, thanks to L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica's answer, is now populated with large magnetic ore deposits, making a magnetised compass basically unusable. I'm guessing then that human magnetoreception wouldn't work? (Aside from the fact that human magnetoreception is kind of a contested topic...) There is magic in the world, but it's more for the existence of the occasional mythological creature than for reality-bending stuff, so I'd prefer not to rely on that.

So, with all of that, why does my character have such a good sense of direction? I'd prefer things to be based mainly on reality if at all possible - I'm fine with stretching things a bit though, like the magnetoreception idea, but would like not to get too wild if I've got an option. If not, handwaving it is.

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  • $\begingroup$ Shrug. I have a ridiculously good sense of direction. Aboveground, underground, at sea at night in overcast... I can point north accurate to within about 10-15 degrees. I may not have the faintest clue where I am, or how to get out of there, but direction has never been an issue to me. $\endgroup$
    – user79911
    Nov 12 '20 at 8:46
  • $\begingroup$ "populated with large magnetic ore deposits, making a magnetised compass basically unusable", That makes human magnetoreception unusable as a compass. I suspect it makes magnetoreception easier for general navigation. Navigation by eye in a desert is hard, because your eye sees nothing unique, but easy with mountains, due to large obvious unique structures. Navigating with magnetoreception would be tricky on earth, due to only having two obvious structures (poles), but magnetic ore deposits provide numerous closer structures, making navigation far easier. $\endgroup$ Nov 12 '20 at 23:23

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The Same Way Sea Turtles Do

Your character has an innate feel for the planet's magnetism called magnetoreception just like many real world animals do. But, instead of using the world's magnetism like a compass the way migratory birds do, she uses it like a GPS system the way sea turtles do. Large deposits of magnetic ore would be like familiar beacons that your person could subconsciously feel out. So, not only would your character know their direction at all times, they would know their exact position in their environment too.

Even if you were far from home and did not know the landmarks you would you could still feel yourself between several unknown landmarks, and by feeling how they approach/recede as you move will tell you if you are going in a straight line kind of like how keeping eyes on distant mountains makes it easier to go straight than trying to stay oriented in a dense forest where you can only see what is right in front of you.

There is strong evidence that the human body already has a natural compass built into it: a ferrous tissue somewhere in the head (probably behind the nose) that tells us which way we are oriented. In your world, this biological structure would still evolve, but how our brains interpret the information would be different. The structure would have to be more sensitive to be able to feel not just the direction of magnetic pull, but the shape of the magnetic attractor too. This way one could feel out distant magnetic landmarks to map out where they are in their heads.

As a side note: if your people are strictly human, this would not be a very likely adaptation for a female hero to have. In humans, this ability appears to be more sensitive in men; so, it would be comparatively unlikely for a human woman to have. On the other hand, this could be her "heroic attribute". If this sense of direction is already something that is only ever seen in a handful of men, for her to have it would be completely unheard of and remarkable to those who witness it. ...or it could be that the dragon has turtle like magnetoreception and that dragon riders rely on the dragon to know where it is going more than her own senses.

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  • $\begingroup$ What if people mined the ore? Then their senses would go wonky. $\endgroup$
    – Someone
    Nov 10 '20 at 20:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Someone You should read the part of the linked article that talks about AM radio... most of us already have a pretty wonky magnetoreception from manmade interference. Mining would probably be much less of a big deal than AM radio. Sure, familiar landmarks may slowly change over time, but it can take a mining operation decades to significantly change the size and shape of a major ore deposit. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 10 '20 at 22:23
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    $\begingroup$ An interesting phenomenon on earth relevant for the OP could be an aboriginal tribe, which do not use left/right in their everyday language but always use cardinal directions like north/south. This is only feasible if the speaker always knows where north is. See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guugu_Yimithirr_language and linked papers. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Nov 11 '20 at 8:57
  • $\begingroup$ I think that you are unnecessarily overextending the concept of magnetic sense as described in the article. Because of how a dipping needle (magnetic direction and inclination) works, there is no need to postulate an exceptionally sensitive ability and some unexplained map of ferrous ore deposits (especially of places they have never been). A true GPS-like direction sense could be built solely from magnetic direction and inclination combined with a view/sense of where the sun (or the north star) is. Combining the difference between the magnetic dipole and earth's position is enough. $\endgroup$ Nov 11 '20 at 13:26
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    $\begingroup$ @RBarryYoung The OP stipulates there are no visible sun or stars and that compasses don't work because they just point to the closest ore deposit instead of North. To navigate in this environment, you can't just know which way your "compass" is pointing, but you must also be able to identify what landmark it is pointing at. Being able to get a feel for the shape of deposits help with this. This answer assumes large deposits that can be felt over long distances so that they are like GPS satellites that you can triangulate your position between. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 11 '20 at 19:00
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This is a bit of a cop-out answer...

I'm one of those people who tend to know which way they're pointing - but it's not perfect. If walking through a cave tour, I can properly identify "North" most of the time.

Why can I do it? I haven't the foggiest idea. Compare this to my wife, bless her heart, who has trouble recognizing "North" in a new area until she can commit landmarks to memory.

Just to add magic to the mayhem, I can also "witch" pipes (not water, pipes, and it doesn't matter what they're made out of). I can generally determine how deep they are but am very precise with where they are. Do I know how I can do that? Nope, not the foggiest.

I bring this up because, sometimes, you don't need to actually explain anything. Unless the explanation for the ability is critical to plot development (e.g., the bad guy figures out how your heroine's ability works and uses that knowledge against her), detailed explanations often get in the way of a good story more than they enrich it simply because it gives people something "not quite right" to latch onto.

Why is this important?

After Larry Niven wrote his first Ringworld novel, students at MIT ran the math and discovered it was unstable.

A measure of how seriously people take the science of the Ringworld – and how daft it has driven them – comes in a story from the 1971 World Science Fiction Convention, when excited students from MIT apparently crowded out the venue chanting: "The Ringworld is unstable!" (Source)

Niven solved the problem by writing a sequel that addressed the instability. But my point remains: if you give someone something that can be determined to be wrong without a good reason, they'll figure out it's wrong and can be charmingly (in hindsight only) brutal.

Conclusion

So, while this is a bit of a cop-out answer, everything in your world doesn't need to be explained. Unless you absolutely must — don't explain it.

Sometimes I think about Petracola Fularatormus, the angel wing clam.

Beautiful.

This river is the only place on the earth they are found. Underwater they glow in the dark. Now the amazing thing is that modern science cannot explain why.

There must be a reason.

My theory is that they do because they can. (Dirk Pitt and Eva Rohas in the movie Sahara)

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    $\begingroup$ Sometimes I worry that something in my work needs an explanation. Then I remember that the current best answer to 'why do we need to sleep' is 'because we get sleepy'. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Nov 10 '20 at 9:07
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki While 9/10 WB questions can be answered this way, there's an occasional question that should be answered this way. Yes, the OP is asking about the mechanics of their world - but more specifically they're asking about the mechanics of a single character. This Stack's primary purpose is to answer questions about worldbuilding - but it has a natural second purpose to help people learn how to build worlds. That includes learning how to judge when the detail is too small. (*continued*) $\endgroup$ Nov 10 '20 at 15:58
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    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki And just to cap the discussion: if every WB question should be answered then no WB question should be closed. Except there are lines we don't (and shouldn't) allow people to cross. IMO (and I readily admit it's only MO), details about how one, specific character "operates" in the world should always be unexplained unless necessary for the plot. That level of detail is almost always bad writing. Dr. Seuss: “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” $\endgroup$ Nov 10 '20 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ Reminds me of a story about the making of Star Trek. People complained that the teleporters could never work because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, so the writers decided to include references in the script to a "Heisenberg compensator". When asked how that device worked, the response was "very well, thank you." $\endgroup$
    – Seth R
    Nov 10 '20 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ +1 to this, because my dad can likewise find his way blindfolded in a snowstorm, whereas I can get turned around in a city I've lived in for years. We'll go on a hike and come to an overlook, and he will literally point in a random direction and say "our house is that way." Learned or innate? Don't know, but he's always right. Additionally, I know from my linguistics background that some peoples don't use relative directions, e.g. to the left or right of the speaker/listener- they only always use absolute cardinal directions. This must be learned as a part of growing up in that culture. $\endgroup$
    – automaton
    Nov 11 '20 at 17:37
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She can see polarized light. And so she can always see the stars.

Light scattered from the daytime sky is polarized. Starlight is not. If you can distinguish the two types of light (as can some insects and birds) you can pick out stars against the bright sky.

https://calgary.rasc.ca/daystars/index.htm

On cloudy days her ability serves a built in sunstone, which (I like to think!) helped Vikings navigate on very overcast days. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunstone_(medieval)

If there is a serious storm and thick clouds she still might get lost at night. If she had to navigate on such a night she would try to get above the clouds.

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    $\begingroup$ I love the built-in failure mode. Similarly she wouldn't do well underground, or inside buildings, and may as a result be wary of them -- even unconsciously. Character development and plot hooks await! $\endgroup$ Nov 12 '20 at 16:39
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Practice, study, and hard work

With practice, humans can learn to be exceptional navigators. Eg A London cab driver needs to know:

The six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the putative center-point of London marked by an equestrian statue of King Charles I, takes in some 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, and how to drive them — the direction they run, which are one-way, which are dead ends, where to enter and exit traffic circles, and so on. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. Examiners may ask a would-be cabbie to identify the location of any restaurant in London. Any pub, any shop, any landmark, no matter how small or obscure — all are fair game. Test-takers have been asked to name the whereabouts of flower stands, of laundromats, of commemorative plaques. One taxi driver told me that he was asked the location of a statue, just a foot tall, depicting two mice sharing a piece of cheese. It’s on the facade of a building in Philpot Lane, on the corner of Eastcheap, not far from London Bridge.

Your character has a backstory of getting lost. Of spending nights in the freezing wind and rain near death because they took a wrong turn. They've learnt subtle landmarks, star patterns, cloud and wind patterns. They've learnt the subtle sounds that can tell them how far to the nearest coast. When the sun hits them they can use that orientation instinctively to give exact orientation and time of day.

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Humans already are capable of innate direction, and those people who speak a language which encodes it — most famously Guugu Yimithirr, though there are others — seem to always know which way is north. The assumption is that the language forces people to pay attention to this, so they unconsciously hone the skill. See Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher, for what this tells us about linguistics, but for your purposes, you just need to know that this is something we already can do, so long as we get practice from early childhood.

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  • $\begingroup$ Came here to say this! $\endgroup$ Nov 10 '20 at 12:41
  • $\begingroup$ To add a non-linguistic mechanism: my mother grew up in farm country, where most everything was on a grid aligned with the cardinal directions. Thus, directions were always "turn East at ..." or "it's 2 miles North of ...". She can about always tell which direction North is without thinking; I grew up in suburbia, and have no clue. Though, strong grids that aren't cardinally-aligned can still throw her for a loop on occasion. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Nov 10 '20 at 20:40
  • $\begingroup$ Your farm country has grids? That seems very strange to me, @minnmass. I'm Irish, and almost nothing in this country is laid out on a grid, certainly not farms or rural roads. $\endgroup$
    – TRiG
    Nov 11 '20 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ This is the right answer - that humans in some cultures already can, and do, live in permanent habit of knowing which way is North. $\endgroup$ Nov 11 '20 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ @TRiG (et al.): look around USA's midwest (eg., Iowa) on Google Maps. Outside of medium-ish sized towns (and, sometimes even then), it's almost recursively grid-based. $\endgroup$
    – minnmass
    Nov 11 '20 at 15:07
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Willing to have this idea shot down, but:

  • within the parameters of the world, magnetic-based navigation isn't a thing, because of all the magnetic ore deposits,
  • and she flies a dragon, which isn't your typical mode of transport, and allows her to get quite some distance away from ground level.

Could she feasibly have some sort of magnetoreception but only be able to use it when she's flying at some altitude, away from all the magnetic ore? This might explain why compasses don't exist in her world, because there's no point in using them at ground level, and people don't really fly in the sky all that much so haven't needed them there. Might also be a cute thing for character development, if she gets lost all the time at ground level, but suddenly has epic directional ability in the sky.

I have no idea about whether magnetoreception could actually be of much use in a human, or be an inherited trait, or even work in a human without serious side effects (especially with all that ore around), so all of this speculation might be kind of pointless. Very much up for discussion if anyone has any ideas!

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She has been trained to do so since childhood, by the other dragon riders.

The Polynesians got very good at navigating on the open sea, because they live on the part of the globe that only has a few specks of land between the huge ocean. They did (and still do) this by watching the stars, birds, ocean currents, and even by dead reckoning, which is a technique where you know where you are just by mentally 'counting' the amount of time you spent going in different directions. They never even used compasses.

As for why not everyone can do this, it takes a lot of time and specialized training to do it, so nobody would learn it or even be able to get a tutor, unless they were really going to use the skill. Also, dragon riders might want to keep these techniques secret, as part of internal rivalries or maybe just to keep the common people from using dragons. I'd also imagine that the time spent flying a dragon for training would be very expensive, and you need real-world experience to learn this.

Some sources:

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    $\begingroup$ Hello Togame, welcome to Worldbuilding! This was a good first answer. We appreciate the insight and hope to see more as you participate on the Stack. When you get a moment, please take our tour and read the first couple of bullets in our help center to get a feel for the site. Cheers! $\endgroup$ Nov 10 '20 at 21:46
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Good memory, sharp senses and spatial skills

Robert Downey Jr. played the role of Sherlock Holmes in a movie. There is a scene in which he is kidnapped and taken to an undisclosed location. Upon arrival he knew not only where he was but also the path they had taken. He considered smells, sounds and counted the turns.

If your protagonist has been around, she can fell the most subtle details of places with all her senses. In flight, she can tell where she is going by the intensity and direction of the wind - the atmosphere has its own currents, much like the ocean and specially when far away from the ground.

Underground, she can do some inertial navigation by counting steps and taking into account the angle of each turn.

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Humans have built-in accelerometers. All that is needed in order to be able to tell direction and position is to have a built-in integrator in their brains. Whether we do or we don't have such a built-in integrator is a matter of dispute; but we do know that some people are much better than others are navigating through densely wooded terrain, for example.

(As an unrelated but equally surprising ability, it was only in recent times that humans were shown to be able to echolocate. Maybe we are also able to compete with homing pigeons and we don't know it yet.)

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  • $\begingroup$ This is very much along the lines of an idea I had for this question. Essentially, she'd be a genius at proprioception, which is the ability all humans have to tell how they've moved their bodies. $\endgroup$ Nov 11 '20 at 19:09
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Human Magnetoreception

Perception of where you are often relies on multiple datapoints. Having magnetic ore deposits be super prevalent makes a compass useless since it points towards the closest/strongest reading. If however your heroine can sense them she isn't limited to a "seeing" a single one at a time but rather will be able to tell that she just passed a strong one on the starboard and there's a smaller deposit they'll be coming up upon soon. Much like knowing the location of trees, buildings and landmarks allows one to navigate, she would be able to get a sense of where she was just from the quantity/strength/location of deposits near her.

This could lead to interesting plots points as desired as many things could interfere with this from weather, solar flares, or mad scientist experiments or even deliberate action from the antagonists if they know she has this ability. Heck, maybe they don't even know, they have some device that historically was effective at confusing her family's spacial perception due to improper shielding and when they "fix" it to work better it doesn't stop it anymore.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good point on interference. While this is very similar to my answer, acknowledging interference pretty much underlines why you may not want to leave it unexplained. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Nov 10 '20 at 18:49
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When you mentioned that there was magic in the land, I immediately thought, "ley lines". If there are strong ley lines in this world, e.g. concentrated channels or streams of magic or magical energy, then your character could just be highly sensitive to them. Different lines would have a different "feel" to them, like being able to discern small differences in acoustic tones or flavours or scents. Once she was familiar with the ley lines in her normal flying range, she would be able to sense them and immediately orient herself with a subconscious "map" based on her memories of those lines. That same talent would allow her to immediately and unconsciously start to become familiar with new regions as soon as she starts visiting them. This would be especially functional if the ley lines had predictable qualities to them that would allow her to infer their nature or orientation even on first exposure to them, e.g. lines that flow north/south "feel" similar to each other, but noticeably different from lines running "east/west", and lines that run north-east/south-west would feel like a combination of both. Other possibly qualities could be lines that flow over or through mountains, or large bodies of water, or desert-like environments, large forests or grasslands, etc.

Essentially, she ends up with a "feel" for the world and her place in it, where the indicators are only sensible to her with her special sense of ley lines (and a brain capable of instinctively processing the data from that ley sense).

In fact, there could easily be others who sense ley lines, but only at a much less refined level, e.g. they can feel it when they are standing in the path of one, but not much else. What would make your character extra-special is her savant-level ability to interpret what her ley sense is telling her, combined with, perhaps, a much-better-than-average ley sensing capacity (akin to being a "supertaster").

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You dismiss the idea that this is based on her language using cardinal and not relative direction because you want this ability to be limited to only a few rather than widespread

This does not follow

If the language in question is dying, your heroine could easily be one of the last remaining native speakers, and so one of only a very limited number of people (the rest of whom may be too old or frail for adventuring) with this skill

She obviously would need to speak at least one other language (that of her neighbours), but this is not unusual; the average human of our world is multilingual, and was even more common in the past

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You've got flying Dragons and potentially advanced steampunk, so we're already happily sitting in fantasy land. The ability to know where things are could simply be an innate characteristic that the character themselves neither understands or can explain, but they just trust it.

Such an ability can be seen in Tristran Thorn in both the Stardust film and novel. Tristran knows where everything is in the land beyond the wall, because he's the rightful king. But how the ability works is never explained, it's just used to let Tristran know his way around a country he's never been to before.

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She can sense the matrix

Many scientists are confident that we are living in a simulation. You claim that there is magic in the world, in fact she is living in a simulation and magic is nothing more than the ability to manipulate the simulation in ways that are outside the realm of normal activity.

Her sense of location is nothing more than awareness of the matrix. She need not understand nor be aware of this awareness herself. It could just work for her - just as others have claimed in their comments. Spooky.

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You ruled out the planet's magnetism field but why not use any of the other cosmological fields?

Consider for instance https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zNVQfWC_evg&feature=youtu.be&app=desktop

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