ExSpaND: Exploring Spatial Navigational Differences

Research Team

Plymouth researchers

Dr Alastair Smith (PI)

Dr Tara Zaksaite (RF)


External researchers

Dr Trudi Edginton (CI): City University London

Professor Catherine Loveday (CI): University of Westminster

Professor Hugo Spiers (CI): University College London

About the project

Spatial navigation is a fundamental component of our daily lives, from retracing a familiar journey to work through to exploring a city that we are visiting for the first time. Effective navigation requires a complex synthesis of psychological abilities, including our perception of the environment, directing our attention to useful parts of it, and our ability to remember those features for future journeys. Because of this complexity, it is no surprise that people can experience difficulty with navigation, and this can take a great toll on quality of life, psychological well-being, and employability. Whilst many people experience difficulty at some point in their lives, such as old age or when receiving chemotherapy, other people experience lifelong impairments, and their needs are rarely recognised or met. In this project, we will provide a full understanding of individual differences in navigational ability, in both typical adults and a vulnerable population. We will also test new methods to assist people experiencing difficulties with daily wayfinding.

We will first recruit a representative sample of adults with Hydrocephalus, a common condition associated with an excess of fluid in the brain. This condition is anecdotally known to have a very large impact on navigational ability which, in turn, adversely affects the daily lives of people and their carers. However, scientists have not produced a full account of this issue, nor have they characterised the underlying cognitive abilities responsible. Participants will complete a battery of experimental tasks designed to assess a broad range of navigational abilities. Importantly, the tests will take place both in the laboratory and the real world. Performance across these tasks will be related to basic cognitive abilities, which will enable us to understand both the variety of strengths and weakness present in this group, along with the basic cognitive skills that underlie them.

Difficulties with everyday navigation are not confined to vulnerable groups - there are great individual differences within the typical population. The scientific literature currently lacks a comprehensive and contemporary study of normative individual differences in navigational abilities, which can pave the way to understanding and assisting difficulties across populations. A large representative sample of typical adults (N=200) will complete the same battery of tasks as the individuals with hydrocephalus. This will provide a full characterisation of strengths and weaknesses, alongside a greater understanding of the skills that underlie them.

Finally, we will develop and test new cognitive methods to assist people experiencing difficulty. No such methods currently exist, and while much effort is being devoted to the development of navigational aids based on GPS guidance, psychological research has demonstrated that this method can actually impair navigational performance in users. We will invite people from both of the preceding stages who had the most difficulty on our tasks, and they will take part in a study that compares two different methods. These strategies will be compared to a general mindfulness strategy, and we will assess which have the most positive effect on route-learning a week later. We will later follow-up participants' daily navigational experiences, along with their quality of life, to assess the longer-term benefits of intervention.

Together, this work will provide an important step-change in our understanding of a fundamental daily behaviour, in both typical adults and a sizeable vulnerable population. It will also spearhead an evidence-based approach to rehabilitation that can improve the daily experiences of individuals experiencing navigational difficulties. This will pave the way to a future programme of interventions that will be applicable to a broad variety of groups whose lives are affected by wayfinding problems.

Get involved!

To improve our understanding of differences in navigational skills, we invite you to play a fun game called Sea Hero Quest and fill out a short questionnaire. This game is played on an iPad or a personal mobile device. To take part, you have to fill in a consent form, download the game, play the selected 10 levels, email your data to the researcher, and fill out the short questionnaire online. 

Email tara.zaksaite@plymouth.ac.uk to get set-up! 

Note that you must be 18-65 years old to take part in this research. 


Funding related to this project

Alastair Smith (PI): Understanding and assisting difficulties with everyday spatial navigation

Economic & Social Research Council: £355,091

ESRC project reference: ES/P011632/1