Psychologists have launched a ground-breaking study into the cognitive basis of a person’s sense of direction and some of the underlying causes of serious navigational impairment. 

Led by the University of Plymouth, in conjunction with University College London, the University of Westminster, and City, University of London, the project ‘Understanding and assisting difficulties with everyday spatial navigation’ will also go on to look at how people might be better supported to improve their everyday wayfinding capabilities.

Funded by a £444,000 grant from the Economic and Social Research Council, the project will run for three years, and will see academics working with staff at the Chelsea & Westminster Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Clinic, and the charity Shine. It will involve the participation of several hundred adults, including a distinct cohort who were born with, or later developed, hydrocephalus, a neurological condition known as ‘fluid on the brain’.

Dr Alastair Smith, Associate Professor in the School of Psychology at Plymouth, is leading the project. He said: 

“Our daily lives are entirely dependent upon the ability to effectively navigate our surroundings, and this has serious implications for those who have difficulty with navigation. Although much effort is being devoted to the development of navigational aids based on GPS guidance, psychological research has demonstrated that this method can actually impair the formation of environmental knowledge in users. Our project will focus upon the cognitive underpinnings of navigational impairment, and look to develop some much-needed assistive techniques that are targeted to areas of difficulty.”

The research project will recruit around 260 people for a series of laboratory and real world tests that will cover a range of behaviours and spatial scales that we encounter in everyday life. This will include using a mobile app called Sea Hero Quest which was developed by Dr Hugo Spiers, a neuroscientist at UCL and Co-Investigator on the award. Alongside laboratory tasks, participants will undertake urban navigational exercises that will be recorded via GPS.

A sample of those participants who record the lowest scores in their exercises will then be invited to undertake a second phase of research, in which they will test different interventions designed to help them improve their navigation. The project group will look to develop targeted strategies that can be applied in clinical and everyday settings, as well producing a series of materials, to be hosted by Shine, which will provide guidance and support for different groups working with people affected by Hydrocephalus. The project will also provide a springboard for the development of similar techniques and materials to assist other groups that experience navigational difficulties in their daily lives.

“By bringing together scientists with expertise in human spatial cognition, and applied clinicians with expertise in assessing impairment and designing cognitive rehabilitation methods, we can address the fundamental lack of evidence-based remedies for people who struggle with navigation for various reasons,” 

says Co-Investigator Dr Catherine Loveday of the University of Westminster.

Dr Trudi Edginton is a clinical psychologist at City and also a Co-Investigator. She adds: 

“This combination of skills will place the team at the forefront of contemporary research into understanding and assisting daily navigational difficulties, and the outcomes will have practical implications for many sections of society.”

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