Architecture can bias brain’s cognitive map: Study

Architecture can bias brain’s cognitive map: Study


US: Differences among people that include spatial skills, experience, and preferred strategies for wayfinding are part of what determines whether people lose their way in buildings—and psychological scientists could help architects understand where and why people might lose track of their routes in their buildings, according to the authors of an article published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

When one enters into a new building, he/she builds a cognitive map—a representation in the mind of the objects and locations in that environment. Success in navigating in the building may depend upon what information he/she puts into the cognitive map.

“If a person paid attention to the sequence of turns along the path, then it may have difficulty to have idea about directions because he/she needs to remember to reverse the sequence, and this becomes increasingly difficult as the number of turns increases. But instead, if the person paid more attention to the objects that he/she passed, then he/she may navigate back to the front door by going from one familiar object to another without considering the sequence of turns. This strategy will work,” said Laura A. Carlson of the University of Notre Dame, first author of the article.

In some buildings, the strategies people use and the quality of their cognitive map may not matter very much. “If the building has an obvious structure, with long lines of sight, you won’t have to rely much on this internal representation of your path,” said Carlson.

Some buildings, on the other hand, make it difficult. Carlson and her coauthors, Christoph Hölscher of the University of Freiburg, Thomas F. Shipley of Temple University, and Ruth Conroy Dalton of University College, London, use the Seattle Central Library as an example. The bold building, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, opened in 2004 and won awards for its design. But visitors complain that it’s difficult to navigate.

Architects, on the other hand, may be among the class of people with very strong spatial skills, because their craft requires numerous spatial transformations, such as the need to envision 3D space from 2D depictions. One unanticipated consequence of such abilities is that they may not be very good at taking the perspective of a user with poorer spatial skills, and therefore may not be able to fully anticipate where users may have navigational difficulties within their buildings.

Architects and cognitive scientists could learn from each other, Carlson said. Architects could explain how they use building features to encourage certain patterns of movement within the building, informing research on how people move through space; scientists could contribute data on how we build cognitive maps and what strategies different people use to find their way around.