Large-Scale Spatial Cognition

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.

Selected Publications

Affiliated Researchers

- Large scale spatial cognition

- Human navigation and acute stress

- Individual differences in spatial cognition

- Issues in the cognition of uncertainty

-Perspective taking in virtual environments

-Individual differences in spatial abilities

-Large-scale spatial abilities

Mary Hegarty’s research is on spatial thinking in complex activities such as comprehension, reasoning, and problem solving. In research on mechanical reasoning and interpretation of graphics, she uses eye-fixation data to trace the processes involved in understanding visual-spatial displays (diagrams, graphs and maps), and making inferences from these displays. A unique characteristic of her research is that she studies spatial thinking from the perspective of individual differences as well as employing more commonly used experimental methods.