Do Skyscrapers Facilitate Spatial Learning Under Stress? On the Cognitive Processing of Global Landmarks

  • Sascha Credé
  • Sara Irina Fabrikant
  • Tyler Thrash
  • Christoph Hölscher
Conference paper
Part of the Lecture Notes in Geoinformation and Cartography book series (LNGC)


Affective states have been found to influence peoples abilities to orient in and to mentally represent large scale spaces. For example, navigators can become stressed when searching for destinations in unfamiliar environments. How then is spatial knowledge acquisition influenced by navigators stress state during assisted wayfinding? We report an ongoing empirical navigation study in which we investigate how acute distress affects spatial knowledge acquisition during navigation, moderated by the use of different landmark types.


Spatial orientation Navigation Spatial knowledge Acute stress Global and local landmarks 

1 Introduction

Even though map based pedestrian navigation may seem very simple, people often get stressed when searching for destinations in unfamiliar urban environments. According to prior research, working memory formation is frequently impaired as a result of stress in a variety of tasks (Lupien et al. 1999). Especially when learning large-scale spaces, working memory is crucial because navigators are required to mentally integrate visuospatial information from different locations and various perspectives over the course of time. While a solid basis of prior empirical work provides evidence for the influence of acute stress on spatial knowledge acquisition during navigation, this research procured mixed results. Some studies found evidence that acute stress during navigation improves spatial knowledge acquisition (Duncko et al. 2007; Frei et al. 2016), others show that stress impairs spatial knowledge acquisition (Evans et al. 1984; Mackingtosh et al. 1975). Again other studies did not find a significant relationship between the two variables (Richardson and Tomasulo 2011). In the present study, we argue that diverging results can be partly explained by intermediary cognitive processes through which stress exerts its influence on spatial knowledge acquisition. We report an ongoing empirical navigation study in which we investigate how acute distress affects spatial knowledge acquisition during navigation, moderated by the use of different landmark types.

2 Method

In a virtual reality experiment, two groups of participants (stress|no-stress) solve three map-assisted navigation tasks in an unfamiliar virtual city. During navigation activity, participants learn different sets of landmark configurations: highlighted local landmarks along the route, highlighted local landmarks while non-highlighted global landmarks are present, and highlighted global landmarks visible in the distance (Fig. 1). The landmarks to be learned are highlighted in the virtual environment. By contrast, landmarks are not displayed on the navigation device, which aims to impede landmark learning from the mobile map. Subsequent to each learning phase, participant’s spatial knowledge acquisition was assessed in a judgement of relative direction task.
Fig. 1

Participants walk different virtual cities in three conditions. Participants are instructed to memorize the relative positions of ahighlighted local or bhighlighted global landmarks. In condition (c), participants are instructed to learn highlighted local landmarks, while global landmarks that are not highlighted are present

Based on previous work on the construction of survey knowledge (Meilinger et al. 2014), we expect larger pointing errors for local landmarks, which are experienced sequentially during navigation, than for global landmarks, which often can be experienced simultaneously from different locations and thus load less on working memory. We hypothesize that this learning advantage of highlighted global landmarks increases when participants cope with limited cognitive resources under distress. However, we expect stressed participants to narrow attention and to be less able to take advantage of non-highlighted global landmarks.

3 Relevance

Memorizing spatial information is an important ability for autonomous spatial navigation. However, detrimental effects of assisted navigation on spatial memory are recognized and agreed upon amongst researchers from different fields (Caquard 2015). Unfortunately, there is little agreement on the underlying mechanisms which lead to the observed memory impairments. We argue that the negative effects of stress on spatial knowledge acquisition have not yet been sufficiently incorporated into the debate. The present study is the first to directly investigate effects of stress states on user’s ability to mentally process and represent local and global configurations of landmarks. The expected findings will help to develop guidelines for the design of stress resistant pedestrian navigation assistance. Based on insights we gain from this study, forthcoming empirical studies considering map users’ affective states during navigation shall evaluate landmark based map design proposals optimized for spatial knowledge acquisition.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sascha Credé
    • 1
  • Sara Irina Fabrikant
    • 1
  • Tyler Thrash
    • 2
  • Christoph Hölscher
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Geography, Geographic Information Visualization and AnalysisUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland
  2. 2.Department of Humanities, Social and Political ScienceChair of Cognitive Science, ETHZurichSwitzerland

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