Different ways of finding your way

i-d31a300113390b1cd92caebbabf12aa7-route1.jpgi-eca0cf2af9fc3ac4445c7dff7d8aab70-research.gif Learning to navigate through an unfamiliar environment can be a difficult challenge. Could you find your way through the crowded, narrow streets of the city depicted at left -- especially if the signs were in a foreign language (bonus points if you can identify the city in the comments section!)?

If you do have to get around in a new place, what's the best way to learn? People have different preferences -- some prefer to look at a map first, while others orient themselves using landmarks. Is one method better for you? I prefer maps; nothing's more frustrating to me than getting directions from someone who likes to use landmarks: "first you go past the gas station. Then look for a little flower stand on the right. After you pass that, then take the second left." I'd much rather have someone tell me to "go north on Main Street, then head east on 3rd Avenue." That is, until my recent vacation on Swan's Island, Maine. None of the streets on the island had signs, and the houses weren't numbered either. When I presented one of the locals with the address of the place we were staying, I was greeted with a blank stare. Only when I told her what the house looked like and the owner's name was she able to direct me where I wanted to go -- using landmarks, of course.

So is one method better than the other -- or does personal preference matter? Do people who prefer to use landmarks learn better that way? Alexa Fields and Amy Shelton have developed a study to try to answer those questions.

Previous studies have found no difference between whether an area was learned with landmark-based navigation or map-based navigation, but these studies required participants to learn the space with as many as seven separate trips through it. Fields and Shelton believed that if participants had fewer opportunities to learn about the space, then they might find differences between the two types of learning. The researchers developed two three-dimensional virtual environments for study: a park, and a zoo. Here's a top-view of the park environment:


Participants were shown through the environment once by an experimenter who identified all the landmarks in the environment (slide, tower, carousel). Then they were asked to study it on three virtual "trips" through it, following the path indicated by the arrows on the diagram. In the "map" condition, observers saw the environment only from above. In the "landmark" condition, they were transported through the 3-D environment as if they were walking through it, again, following the same path.

Next they were tested on their knowledge of the environment: they were asked to imagine standing at one of the landmarks, facing another, and then point in the direction of a third landmark (for example, "imagine you are standing at the slide, facing the swingset. Point to the carousel.").

Finally they were tested on a wide array of spatial skills, including mapreading, mental rotation, and imagining the perspective of another (the tests they took weren't identical to the ones I link here, but you get the idea...). They were also asked whether they prefered to orient themselves via maps or landmarks.

The results? Pointing error was significantly smaller when participants had seen the overhead (map) view rather than the walkthrough (landmark) view -- 39 degrees versus 44 degrees. Preference for landmark- or map-based navigation did not affect the results: even if you prefer the landmark approach, you still learn the environment better with maps. Men were better at the task than women, and certain spatial abilities led to better performance in the tasks. Interestingly, spatial perspective was the most important skill in both landmark- and map-based learning, but while mental rotation was more important for map-based learning, spatial span, or the number of different objects you can recall, was more important for landmark-based learning.

So certain skills might help you become a better map-learner or landmark-learner, but they're not going to override the overall superiority of using maps to learn an environment, at least for this task.

One big problem with this type of study is that environments can be very different. Perhaps in a different setting, landmark-based learning would be more effective. Both map-based and landmark-based navigation have their advantages, as demonstrated in my Swans Island example above.

How do you prefer to navigate? And can you identify the photo above? Let us know in the comments.

Fields, A.W., & Shelton, A.L. (2006). Individual skill differences and large-scale environmental learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 32(3), 506-515.

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I think it depends on the environment which type of navigation is easiest. Maps of course have an advantage because they give you knowledge of the entire environment in one look, whereas what the authors call "landmark" view does not. The thing is, their map view still has the landmarks, too, so I think it's sort of cheating. Real maps just have street names, not all of the landmarks you'd hope to find.

I find that street names and directions are helpful when the scenery is uniform and the streets make sense (gridlike, not too curvy.) However, landmarks can be helpful when they are distinctive and streets are too complicated and poorly marked to help. Maine is definitely the type of place where landmarks are the most useful.

I am all for the map. With a map in an unfamiliar city (if the streets have signs) I can find my way around easily and quickly build up a "mental map" of the place copying the printed map in my head and relating it to the landmarks, so after a few times I don't need a printed map anymore. But if I don't have a printed map to start with, it can take me ages to learn my way. I am useless at recognizing and using landmarks without the help of a map.

I do a lot of hiking. I always prefer to get a map first, preferably a full topo map. And even when hiking books have a description, I prefer to draw on my hiking map and read the topographical symbols to orient myself.

I find it takes about 3 trips in an area before I feel comfortable enough to bushwack.

I too will go for the map, but then I'm male, and that's to be expected. I've seen reports of studies that say men tend to use maps and map-type directions while women tend to use landmarks.

Mapmaking is one of the greatest human inventions. More information can be conveyed in less space with a map than with any other visual means of communication.

I'm also one of the lucky ones. I seem to have a natural compass built into my brain. Even on a dark, cloudy night, I can tell you with pretty good accuracy where north is, no matter where I am. If I've ever been to a place, I can alwways find my way back to it, although that may involve some trial and error.

To quote Daniel Boone, "I ain't never been lost, but once I was bewildered for three days." ;-)

An interesting question comes to mind, though - why would we humans have brains that are good at map reading? Most animals would never encounter such a thing as a map, (except maybe birds?) and would be forced to navigate solely by landmarks.

To be able to take an abstract representation from an unfamiliar viewing angle and turn that into a conceptual representation seems to be a rather niche skill, and yet seems to be more instinctive than taught (I may be wrong in this) - any thoughts on evolutionary origins?

I use maps initially, but when I'm actually moving through the space I note landmarks so I can find my way again. So it's a combination of both. This technique worked for me in Budapest, a city where I didn't speak the language aside from a few words and phrases. Nonetheless, I wandered around alone and rarely got lost. Budapest has very good signage that is easily comprehensible even if you can't read the text.

I agree with the first commenter that it depends on the nature of the space to some extent. I work at an arts festival in Seattle every year and a big part of my job is giving directions. Seattle Center has streets, sort of, but the signage is very poor, especially in large crowds. So I direct by landmarks: "Hang a right at the drum circle and then take the first left. Look for the really weird sculpture." And so on.

Peter Morville's Ambient Findability has some intriguing thoughts on the subject. He's starting from the perspective of information systems design, but a lot of what he has to say applies to maps, urban spaces, and the like.

By Genevieve Williams (not verified) on 22 Aug 2006 #permalink

It's Malta isn't it??

By Georgina Lawrence (not verified) on 22 Aug 2006 #permalink

To find my way to a new place? Map. Definitely. And I'm female, though one data point does not a trend make. I can't stand even being given street directions. Look, I have a map, so just give me the address and I'll find what I think is the best way to get there, thank you very much. I do a 'flythrough' of the map in my head, visualizing the lefts and rights required.

But on a repeat trip - say usually by the third time I go to a place - I'm remembering more by landmarks than by the original directions. Therefore I suck at giving directions to anyone else.

I was going to say Paris, but now I'm thinking somewhere in one of the Scandinavian countries... perhaps Stockholm.

Anyhow, I definitely prefer a quick look at the map, and once I'm familiar with the mapping, I will begin to associate landmarks with "home points", or places I'm very familiar with that I can orient myself with, and use as a starting or ending point. I also can then connect the various "home points" and make my own map, a web of very familiar areas.

Belonging in the "map-oriented" group myself, but believing that others are more comfortable with other ways of navigating, it was interesting to learn that both categories suceeded better when shown the map, albeit only in this kind of staged environment. I would love to see this done with other environments as well.

I also wonder if they looked at sex as a variable - the conventional wisdom is that men (on average, of course) are more oriented towards spatial representations and women are more "intuitive".

As to the picture, I don't think it is Stockholm or Scandinavia - partly because of the architectural style, but mainly because nearly all cables are in the ground in those cities, and you never have the kind of aerial mess you see in this picture. Since San Francisco is out, I would go for Seattle or the Mediterranean, perhaps Italy or southern France.


Map reading was the onyl badge I ever won in Scouts.

San Juan, Puerto Rico?

No, I did not look at the blog. Indeed, being relatively new to Cognitive Daily, I have to admit I wasn't even aware of it...

What gave it away was a detail in the second photo: the turret on the fort, hanging out over the drop to the ocean, which must have fascinated me as a ten-year old boy to the degree that it has stuck in my memory for 35 years after my one and only trip to Puerto Rico. After that memory was triggered, I googled for pictures of San Juan, which confirmed my hunch.

I often have a dreams in which I am in a familiar city which I have not been to in a while (e.g,. Belgrade). I have to get to a specific place in the city. I start out by relying on my mental map, but this being a dream, I get lost because the city has changed. Then I ask for directions and try to use the "go left, then right, than two blocks straight..." type of information, but also get lost. Then I start looking for landmarks, which gives me an initial hope, but in the end gets me totaly lost - I may end up outside of the city altogether. At that point, my goal is to return to the city, so I start orienting myself by checking the position of the Sun in the sky against the time on my watch, or look for a tree with some moss on it....then I wake up frustrated at being lost.

I think I use the same hierarchy/order of methods in the wakeful life, and am pretty good at finding my way around unfamiliar cities. I am wondering if that hierarchy is more universal than just mine. After all, ants use landmarks, but bees and birds have mental maps of their environments.

I prefer maps to start and after orienting myself, I find landmarks sometimes help. I was in Russia last year where everything was in Cyrillic. I had both an English language map and a Russian language map. I found the Russian language map to be more useful. Even though I wasn't familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, I could learn to recognize "words" and match them to the map. The English language map was nearly useless.

In Venice, my husband used the map. We had to make our way back to the same place about 3 days in a row through the very convoluted streets - I could easily retrace our steps after the first trip, but after 3 trips my husband still didn't recognise where we were any of the time & would have been completely lost without me (or the map). He simply didn't remember having seen the landmarks before, while I could do it quickly & easily, without having made any effort at memorisation. To get to places the first time though, I am indifferent between directions & maps.

I also find I recognise places I went to once or twice as a little girl, maybe twenty years later without having had any reminders in the meantime, and without any memory of where the places were. Perhaps it is related to visual memory?

By Isabel Dallas (not verified) on 13 Nov 2007 #permalink