Research

How do you know where you are in the world? What do you pay attention to to figure that out? Do you use landmarks, maps, the sun? Or are you lost without a GPS? My research explores two aspects of spatial navigation: 1) What types of cues and tools do people use for navigation, and why do different people use different cues? 2) What skills and abilities support navigation, and what other things might that relate to? See below for summaries of the research projects I am currently working on.

Navigation Ability

Are you an expert navigator? Do you ever get lost when you have to take a detour, or go to a new place? Research has demonstrated that people drastically differ in terms of how well they can navigate or learn a new environment. Unfortunately, there is no standard measure used by researchers to determine how good a navigator someone actually is. Instead, researchers primarily rely on self-report measures. When navigation is assessed behaviorally, testing is difficult, requires large, complex spaces, and simple data gathering can be exceedingly time-consuming in the real world. With virtual environment technology becoming increasingly accessible, we wanted to provide a tool that researchers could use to test navigation ability and compare their results across labs and populations.

Fig2Screenshots from Virtual Silcton

Along with Victor Schinazi, we have developed a virtual environment that participants explore, and are then tested on to determine how well they have learned the layout of buildings. While this environment is not yet available to the general public, we hope to make it available to labs in the coming year to provide a tool that spatial researchers can use to easily and quickly assess navigation ability. This would allow for unprecedented studies looking at the types of activities that can improve navigation ability, and differences in populations (e.g., between age groups, among the elderly, or between different types of scientists).

For more information, see my SILC Showcase, and forthcoming publication [pdf].

Slope and Spatial Learning

The world, as we know, is not flat. While the curve of the earth is probably hard to detect without the aid of tools, the slope of the terrain we walk on, is pretty easy to pick up on (which would you rather do – walk up a steep hill, or walk on a flat field?). Since this information is so readily available, it seems likely that humans would do well to use this information to navigate. But is this true? And does everyone use slope equally well? Two studies I conducted have investigated these questions. Both studies have strong implications for thinking about differences in the acquisition of spatial knowledge.

Slope and Navigation in a Virtual Environment

Have you ever given someone directions by telling them to go uphill, or known where something was by its elevation? I conducted a series of studies to determine if slope is a cue all people can use to improve learning the layout of buildings in a virtual environment. Participants learned buildings placed around a virtual environment that was either sloped in one direction, or was completely flat. We predicted that the sloped environment would be easier for everyone, but my findings were somewhat surprising. In a simple virtual environment, all participants could use the slope effectively to remember where the buildings were. However, in a complex environment, only participants who self-reported being strong navigators performed better in the sloped environment.

New_Fig_colorScreenshots from the four virtual environments used in the study.

This work has been accepted, a PDF will be posted shortly.

Slope and Sensory Modality in the Real World

While we know individuals differ in how good they are at storing and using spatial information, we know less about whether the sensory modality (vision, audition, kinesthesia, etc.) influences the accuracy of the information. In a second study, we wondered how slope was encoded in the real world. We brought participants into a square room that had no cues at all, except that the floor was sloped 5 degrees in one direction. Participants learned where an object was hidden by either seeing, but not feeling the slope; feeling, but not seeing the slope; or feeling and seeing the slope. We found that the number of errors participants made, and their reaction time in responding, when asked where the object was, was different for males and females. Females were faster and more accurate than males when they could see the slope; males faster and more accurate when they could feel the slope.

For more information on this study, see my SILC ShowcasePsychonomics poster [pdf], and forthcoming publication.

Using Analogy to Teach Contour Maps

Tool use is a hallmark of human achievement and survival. For instance, humans are not the fastest or strongest predators; but the construction of the bow and arrow allowed us to take down huge prey. In navigation, humans do not have perfectly accurate knowledge of the environment; but the creation of maps allowed us to document the spatial relationships of large areas of the environment. But just like learning how to hold and use a bow must be learned and practiced, so maps must be learned. A particularly complex kind of map, a contour map, allows the depiction of 3-dimensional surfaces on a 2-dimensional map. These maps are important for scientists to read quickly and accurately, but they are extraordinarily difficult to learn. Using a learning tool that has been shown to be successful in spatial thinking, analogy, we are designing a training intervention to teach contour maps in an effective, lasting way.  Taking into consideration what we know about differences in learning sloped environments, finding a way to teach contour maps, despite differences students might have in spatial ability, is important to improving the entrance into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics disciplines.

For more information, see my Psychonomics poster [pdf].