The Neuroscience of Navigation and Implications for Design


For the second in our series of interviews with specialists who work in fields which impact on Human Factors and User Experience design, Liv System’s Nigel Scard talks with Kate Jeffery, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College London, whose area of special interest is the neuroscience of navigation.

Kate chairs the Cognition and Navigation Special Interest Group (CogNav) of the Royal Institute of Navigation, which is a community of academics and industry professionals who are interested in how the neuroscience of navigation can be used to improve the design of built environments and technologies which make navigation easier and more efficient.

Current research interests and implications for design

Could you describe your current research interests?  Are there any recent developments in your own work or neuroscience more generally which may have implications for providing navigation assistance or for urban design?

My work as a neuroscientist is focusing on how the brain makes a map of space. When you walk around the environment and you have certain perceptions, knowledge and information that comes in and your brain is assembling all of this and using it to build a map of where you are and then remember that map for future use. We’re trying to understand the mechanics of that map, how does it work, where in the brain is it built, how does the information come in, what happens to it and where is it stored. To do that we study rats and mice because we can actually record neurons from these animals, and they make the same type of mental maps that humans do and as far as we can tell that’s something that evolved a long time ago.  We’re learning a lot about the brain from studying rats and mice and it seems a lot of what we’re learning has the potential to be useful for design, where we’re trying to make life easier for people who are navigating, to make it easier for them to find their way around.

One of the things I want to do is to try and extract, from the findings from neuroscience, things that might be useful in design. I think one of the really important things that comes out of our work is the fundamental importance of the sense of direction to building the map. Knowing which way around you’re facing is critically important to knowing where you are, and if you don’t make it easy for people to do that, you don’t make it easy for them to build mental maps. I’ve noticed as I’m walking around built spaces like train stations and conference centres, those spaces are often very difficult to orient in because there’s just not the information that your brain likes to use. For example, the spaces are quite symmetrical so it’s not obvious from just looking which way round you’re facing. There may be signs, but your sense of direction doesn’t use signs.

From studying rats and mice we’ve found that there are things that are important, like the shape of the environment or things that introduce asymmetry such as a big difference in the lighting between one end and the other.

The other thing that’s important is for there to be a very obvious linkage between spaces. If it’s easy to see how a room that you’re in relates to the adjacent rooms, for instance if there’s a glass wall between them, then it’s much easier to build a map that has lots of rooms in it. However if you’re in an environment which has lots of enclosed spaces, so that wherever you are you can’t really see your surroundings, then it’s much harder to build an integrated map. A lot of our buildings are like that. Hospitals for example: if you walk around a hospital it’s a bunch of small windowless rooms and you very quickly get confused and horribly lost, frustrated and stressed.

Where would you like to see the research findings on the neuroscience of navigation having more impact?

There are a variety of ways in which it could have impact. One of them is to inform the specifics of design but the other is the methodology of scientific enquiry. Something I’ve discovered in my dealings with architects, designers and planners is that our way of gathering information is very different. An architect will often say they design something this way for a given reason, but when I ask them where that reason comes from they’ll say it’s experience, and then when you ask them what kind of experience it boils down to something like “well I asked my architect friends and they agreed that it seemed like a good idea”. It’s passed down from architect to architect, “this type of building has this effect”, and yet it’s never been demonstrated that that is really the case. There’s a lot of scope for development of beliefs that don’t have any factual basis. I think we’re now at a point where we should be moving beyond that and where it should be possible, with our modern data collection and analysis methods – high speed computers and virtual reality –  to really test whether or not a particular idea really has the effect that people think it has, before spending millions building it.

So you’re saying there’s a bit of a cultural disconnect between the way the scientific community operates and the design community?

Yes, I think designers could learn from scientists, but it’s a two-way dialogue: the real world operators can influence science in the way that they suggest ideas and hypotheses to be tested, because there’s a lot of creativity and thinking outside the box. Scientists tend to narrow down and focus on paradigms that work well in an experimental setting, but which are not always useful.

What about people with accessibility needs, such as visual or cognitive impairments, how might we be able to better assist navigation for them?

I think neuroscience has a lot to say about that, and not just the obvious accessibility issues such as people with visual impairments, but also there are individual differences in how people process information. There tends to be a one-size-fits-all approach to design problems, assuming that everyone who doesn’t have some kind of disability are a kind of cookie-cutter stereotype, all processing information in the same way. But really, when you look at individuals, people navigate differently. Some people prefer to use a mental map and a global sense of orientation and other people prefer to use local objects and landmarks that they anchor their actions to, so they maybe don’t care so much about the overall orientation or the overall relationship between things. They rely on landmarks such as a particular shop, or set of stairs. And some people do rely heavily on signs, which of course if you have a visual impairment that’s much harder.  The trick is to find a way of layering all these different types of information in a way that different people with their different needs can use them, whilst ensuring they don’t interfere with each other. So that, for example, the signs aren’t annoying the people who are trying to build a mental map or aren’t substituting for the information that those people need.  It’s a really interesting and difficult problem: how do you meet everyone’s needs, and I think attention is focusing a lot more on that these days.

You mentioned landmarks, but don’t landmarks help people develop that overall sense of orientation?

Yes, they do but we don’t fully know which landmarks. For example, for your head direction system, which is the compass system in the brain which works out which direction you’re facing, the studies in animals suggest that system prefers to use landmarks which are a long way away because they don’t change their relative direction as you are moving around. If it’s a mountain far off in the distance it’s always in the same direction relative to you, no matter how much you walk around.  We don’t yet fully know what types of landmarks are useful for the sense of direction and what aren’t. For example, a picture at the end of a big hall… is that useful for the head direction system or not? It probably is, but we don’t have any evidence yet.

With digital navigation aids, such as smart phones with navigation apps, leading people to their destination, are there any downsides to that? Will we be losing something?

I get asked that a lot. I don’t think we know the answer yet. A lot of speculation goes on about this, people say it’s terrible, people not having to navigate for themselves, that we’re going to lose function in our brains. But we don’t have any evidence for or against that.   My own sense is that there are pluses and minuses from the point of view of your own cognitive function. It’s true that if you’re navigating with your phone you’re not attending so much to the outside world you’re not making a mental map so much. On the other hand, often when you’re trying to navigate in the real world you just get completely lost and you don’t end up forming a mental map anyway. If you have a phone, it’s helping you understand the relationships of the regions you’ve been in and so maybe it’s supporting your mental map. So, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to answer that question.  But phones aren’t going away, people will use whatever makes the process easier.  I would like to see the development of the app technology, so it works with the mental mapping system, so that the easiest thing for people to do is also the thing that helps them build a good mental map that anchors them in the real world.  If you do have a good mental map of your surroundings you feel more comfortable in it. Whereas if you don’t have a sense of your surrounding and where everything is, that’s a less satisfying, less happy state to be in. If we want people to really enjoy their urban environments, we need to help them in that.

I think when people feel lost or disoriented that can trigger a kind of stress reaction.

Yes, but stress can often be a positive thing, part of that stress is the brain saying “I don’t know where I am, and I need to switch on our mapping machine”. If you put a rat into an environment it’s not familiar with it will explore, it will become very active and explore all the little corners. Then if you take it out and put it straight back in that environment, it won’t explore nearly as much because now it knows it and recognises it. That’s all dependent on this mental mapping structure in the brain called the hippocampus and one thing that’s been found is that if the hippocampus degenerates, like it does in Alzheimer’s disease, one of the side effects is that people wander and go exploring. I think one of the possible reasons that could be is that they’re not getting the message that says, ‘I’m familiar with this environment, so I can stop exploring”.  They’re constantly in “explore mode”.

Is there any evidence of generational differences in terms of wanting to know which way is north, of thinking in terms of compass directions? 

I think it’s quite likely there is a generational difference. Those of us who grew up with paper maps… to use those maps you had to have a sense of compass directions, to line the map up correctly, whereas the phone does that for you.  So, I think quite plausibly people are losing that connection to the global directions, and I think that might make it harder for them to make larger scale mental maps.

Future technology developments

What do you see as the likely future developments in terms of navigation assistance technologies?

Well, phones will get better and better, and one improvement would be for them to work as well indoors as outdoors for finding your way around. But I’m quite intrigued by the possibilities for Augmented Reality. Instead of having your information source in a device you hold in your hand, you have that integrated through your glasses, mixed in with your perception of the world. I think that technology will come along pretty quickly.  I love technology but I do prefer when technology works with my own cognition rather than as an alternative to it: it’s more seamless and more efficient.

Do you have any ideas about how AR smart glasses might be used to assist navigation, do you think it would just be a case of superimposing arrows on people’s view or using more imaginative techniques?

Even just arrows would be a start, you could either follow the arrow directly or go exploring based on that. But for people who like compass directions it would be useful to have an arrow which told you which way was north.

Also, you could make use of the overlay capacity: so for example you could look at a building and by adjusting a setting make the building transparent so you could see though it to see what’s behind it. You could make the city “glass,” in a way. One of the things that’s confusing about navigating through streets with tall buildings is that because you can’t see past your immediate surroundings you don’t really get a sense of the broader relationships.

Also giving you information indicating what various buildings are, for example this is a museum, that’s a hospital etc.

I think in a city like London, if you could see through buildings using AR then that would be useful for being able to see landmarks such as the Shard etc.

Yes, and also with AR, if you were in a suburb with no landmarks, only streets and houses, you could create fake landmarks, such as a big monument, so that you then had something to anchor your sense of direction. There are all sorts of fun things that you could do.

We may end up spending more time navigating virtual worlds as VR becomes more widespread in the future. How might such navigation differ from navigation in the real world? Does VR offer any opportunities for new types of navigation or enhancing our navigation skills?

Yes, I think VR is going to be a really useful tool: partly for just studying people, trying out architectural designs or trying to understand what information people use. I’ve started to get interested in using VR myself to look at things like how people process the symmetry of buildings. I think it offers the opportunity to be a really useful tool in other ways also. For instance, we know that the brain’s spatial map is a really useful way of organising information in our own heads, people will often use a spatial strategy to remember things. We’re best at remembering things that happened in particular places, so if you’re trying to teach a history student something, you might create a virtual environment such as a virtual museum.

Also, you could play around with worlds that aren’t possible, such as you could fly through space or create a 4-dimensional world.  I’ve been thinking about that and whether we could make a mental map of a 4-dimensional world if we had the opportunity to explore one.

Do you mean 4 spatial dimensions?

Yes, the laws of mathematics allow for 4 dimensional spaces. So, in theory it ought to be possible to build a 4-dimensional virtual space. It would be interesting to know if we could make a mental map of a space like that.

Navigating 3-dimensional spaces

Are there any special challenges in terms of how to help people navigate the kind of 3-dimensional multi-level spaces which are common in our urban environments?

There’s been some work looking at people’s propensity to get confused in multi-level buildings, but there’s not much research on this yet. One reason might be that people don’t process vertical distances so effectively, but it might also be that often in multi-level buildings the levels resemble each other. Just as we find in horizontal spaces, where spaces resemble each other, our mental maps are confused by that. What you would do to try to stop that confusion is to try to make each level look really different, so give different levels different shapes with different directional cues. You can use different colours, but that doesn’t work that well since the spatial system doesn’t care about colours.

On the London Underground, at some large stations with multiple exits, e.g., Bank station, often you have no idea where you are going to pop up when you exit the station. How could we help people understand better the connection between where they are underground and their location at surface level?

One of the things you’re deprived of when you come up from underground is that you have no compass information, you have no idea which way you’re facing in the world at large. There are signs telling you what the different exits are, but if you don’t already have the knowledge of what those mean, it’s not very helpful. But you may know that for instance, that when I come out of this station, I want to head north, so if you had some compass information that would make it easier. Also, if you have some compass information, the first time you go into that space you could become oriented in such a way that lets you make a mental map of that space so that the next time you enter that space you have a better understanding of where you are. That’s a really good example of the type of built space that I think could be much better done, by taking into account the kind of information the brain needs. One thing that I would love to see is a compass rose at the top of every escalator. It would be interesting to start to add that sort of information and seeing if it makes people’s experience better.

Signage design

Are there any common mistakes you see in terms of signage design to assist wayfinding?

One thing is assuming people know where they’re going. For example, when you come up the escalator into the Piccadilly Circus station concourse, there are signs indicating exits for different streets, which presupposes that you know what those things mean. You may not have memorised the names of the streets. You know that you want to go north up to Oxford Circus for instance, but you didn’t know that that was Regent’s street.

Other issues with signs are, there may be too many of them, sometimes the text is too small or there is a sign as opposed to something more naturalistic that would have helped you orient more easily.

Signs have their place but they’re also very difficult to process cognitively, they rely on the language centres of the brain which are evolutionarily very recent, so it’s hard work and if you don’t speak the language or you’re visually impaired then they’re useless. So, I’d like to see a lot less signage and a lot more naturalistic design.

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