The ability to represent and process spatial information is important for many common activities, such as finding our way to and from places in the environment, moving furniture, packing a suitcase, and catching a ball. We are aware that people differ in spatial abilities. We know that some acquaintances have a better sense of direction than others, that not everyone is cut out to be a pilot, and that only some people are able to visualize the complex spatial relations between atoms in an organic compound. Do all of these activities rely on a single "spatial ability" or do they depend on different types of spatial ability?
In the spatial thinking lab, we are studying dissociations and relations between different aspects of spatial ability. For example, we have studied the relations between large-scale spatial abilities used in learning spatial layout and small-scale spatial abilities, such as mental rotation. We have found that individual differences in perspective taking and spatial layout learning are dissociable from object-based spatial abilities, such as mental rotation, but also share some common variance with these small-scale abilities. We have also developed new measures of large-scale spatial abilities such as the Santa Barbara Sense-of-Direction Scale. Current research, funded by a seed grant from the UCSB Center for Creative Biotechnologies, is focused on identifying fundamental differences in neurological and cognitive processes that differentiate people with a good vs. poor sense of direction.
Recently, Heather Burte has investigated the spatial cues that support navigation and orientation in known environments. In a task called the Allocentric-Heading Recall Task, she asks participants to determine the direction from which a photograph of a familiar environment was taken and compare it to their current facing direction in the environment. Her research reveals that performance on this task depends on both spatial ability (as measured by the SBSOD) and strategy used (Burte & Hegarty, 2012; Burte & Hegarty, 2013). Specifially, she has found two distinct strategies that people spontaneously use in this task: using egocentric (body-based) vs. allocentric (environment-based) reference frames (Burte & Hegarty, 2013), and shown that performance on this task depends in part of the strategy used.
Another member of our lab, Alexander Boone, is interested in the role that environmental stress plays in spatial navigation. This question becomes highly relevant for understanding emergency building egress. Using immersive virtual environments and physiological measures, we hope to gain insights into this under-studied area of spatial cognition.
In our work on large scale spatial cognition, we use a variety of methods, including correlational and experimental studies, conducted in both virtual and real environments.
- Individual and Strategy Differences in an Allocentric-Heading Recall Task
- Revisiting the Relationship between Allocentric-Heading Recall and Self-Reported Sense of Direction
- What determines our navigational abilities?
- Spatial updating: how the brain keeps track of changing object locations during observer motion
- Spatial abilities at different scales: Individual differences in aptitude-test performance and spatial-layout learning
- Individual differences in spatial abilities
- A dissociation between mental rotation and perspective-taking spatial abilities
- Spatial memory of real environments, virtual environments, and maps
- Orientation specificity and spatial updating of memories for layouts.
- Development of a self-report measure of environmental spatial ability