Manipulating the Visibility of Barriers to Improve Spatial Navigation Efficiency and Cognitive Mapping

Manipulating the Visibility of Barriers to Improve Spatial Navigation Efficiency and Cognitive Mapping

Qiliang He, Timothy P. McNamara, Thackery Brown

Previous studies from psychology, neuroscience and geography showed that environmental barriers fragment the representation of the environment, reduce spatial navigation efficiency, distort distance estimation and make spatial updating difficult. Despite these negative effects, limited research has examined how to overcome barriers and if individual differences mediate their causes and potential interventions. We hypothesize that the reduced visibility caused by barriers plays a major role in accumulating error in spatial updating and encoding spatial relationships. We tested this using virtual navigation to grant participants ‘X-ray’ vision during environment encoding (i.e., barriers become translucent) and quantifying cognitive mapping benefits of counteracting fragmented visibility. We found that compared to the participants trained with naturalistic environment visibility, participants trained in the translucent environment had better performance in wayfinding and pointing tasks, which are theorized to measure navigation efficiency and cognitive mapping. Interestingly, these benefits were only observed in participants with high self-report sense of direction. Together, our results provide important insight into (1) how perceptual barrier effects manifest, even when physical fragmentation of space is held constant, (2) establish a novel intervention that can improve spatial learning, and (3) provide evidence that individual differences modulate perceptual barrier effects and the efficacy of such interventions.

Scientific Reports, volume 9, Article number: 11567 (2019)