SILC Showcase

Showcase April 2013: Lab-based exchange projects supported through our Thematic Network in Spatial Cognition (TNSC) via an NSF SAVI award supplement

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Lab-based exchange projects supported through our Thematic Network in Spatial Cognition (TNSC) via an NSF SAVI award supplement

SILC recently was awarded a SAVI supplement from NSF for international networking to help create a global community of spatial cognition researchers. One goal of the grant is to support five researchers each year to engage in a lab-based exchange. We have selected the following five individuals for visits in the first year. Congratulations to all five! Here are their projects.

Design Intentions in Urban Planning and (Re)construction

Awardee/Collaborator: Mehul Bhatt, University of Bremen, Germany

Host/Collaborator: Helen Couclelis, University of California, Santa Barbara

Figure 1

Aim. This research aims at initiating a broad-based dialogue on developing a framework for modelling and reasoning about design intentions in the context of urban planning, people-centred design of urban environments, and geospatial urban dynamics at arbitrary time-scales. The temporal scope of our urban narratives encompasses generational change, and extends all the way to the scale of everyday ‘life in the city’.

We investigate the underpinnings of an interdisciplinary ontology of design intentions encompassing not only functional, economic, and logistical considerations, but more importantly, also with respect to social and humanistic values, and human responsibilities and rights from the viewpoint of an anticipated ‘future urbanism’. We propose to embed the ensuing research considerations within the framework of ‘universal design – design for all’ principles.

Approach. The study will elaborate on the ontological and methodological aspects of incorporating design intentions in urban planning, and will also identify interdisciplinary synergies with concrete use-cases and urban design objectives occurring in that context. We especially focus on sociologically-driven design and planning objectives relevant to the chosen case-study; aspects such as health and well-being, socio-economic segregation, disparity in resource distribution will be emphasized. Founded on the established framework, we seek to identify a range of analytical capabilities that urban planners and engineers could consult in the pursuit of urban design goals, optimising design outcomes, and for analysing the impact of design choices in the real world. Our study will draw upon empirical evidence-based research in environmental and social psychology.

Interdisciplinary Scope. The research builds on our respective interests, expertise, and ongoing projects on the topics of urban geography, geospatial modelling, spatio-temporal dynamics, spatial cognition and computation, design, and computational design analysis. Our research spans urban geography, social science, design, cognition, and environmental psychology.

Impact. The research aims to deliver a scientific manifesto underscoring the essential “why” and“what for” questions seeking to inspire engineering-based development and implementation of computational models and assistive technologies for urban design, and governmental policy formation and decision-making. The outcomes will set the stage for small-scale research and development activities, e.g., especially serving as a basis for the development of technologically oriented work in urban planning and design.


Mehul Bhatt also acknowledges the support of the German Research Foundation (DFG) via the Spatial Cognition Research Center (SFB/TR 8) co-located at the University of Bremen, and the University of Freiburg, Germany (

Spatial Exploration in Individuals with Left Neglect

Awardee/Collaborator: Peii Chen, Kessler Foundation Research Center

Host/Collaborator: Hans-Otto Karnath, University of Tuebingen, Germany

Dr. Peii Chen, junior research faculty at the Kessler Foundation Research Center, West Orange, New Jersey, is awarded with a great opportunity of the lab-embedded scholarly exchange program in 2013. Prof. Hans-Otto Karnath will host Chen’s visit in his laboratory at the Center of Neurology, University of Tuebingen, Germany. Through this program, Chen, Karnath and his team will work closely together on the topic of spatial exploration. The collaboration will enhance communication between neurology and a developing field, neurocognitive rehabilitation, to understand neurological disorders of spatial cognition and to inspire promising treatments. The project will be focused on spatial neglect, a disabling neurocognitive disorder that commonly occurs after a unilateral brain injury such as a stroke. Individuals with spatial neglect typically bias toward the ipsilesional side of space, causing serious problems in self care, navigation, social interaction, and leisure activities. The figure shows a drawing performance of a right-brain-damaged stroke survivor copying pictures (from left to right: two trees, house, and two trees).

Figure 2

The contribution of gestures to spatial memory and navigation

Awardee/Collaborator: Alexia Galati, University of Cyprus

Host/Collaborator: Nora S. Newcombe (SILC PI) and Steve Weisberg, Temple University

Collaborator: Marios Avraamides, University of Cyprus

People often spontaneously produce gestures while reading or listening to route directions, presumably because these gestures help them construct a representation of the described path. This is consistent with findings that gestures can highlight and structure spatiomotor information in problem solving (Alibali, Spencer, Knox, & Kita, 2011), particularly for novices in STEM fields (Liben, Christensen, & Kastens, 2010), and can facilitate spatial visualization in mental rotation tasks (Chu & Kita, 2011). With the SAVI award, Alexia Galati from the University of Cyprus will be visiting Temple University to collaborate, along with Marios Avraamides (University of Cyprus), with Nora S. Newcombe (SILC PI) and Steve Weisberg on a project that directly examines the contribution of gestures on people’s resulting spatial representations and subsequent navigation performance. Participants will first study route directions, which in some conditions will be accompanied by cues highlighting the described changes in orientation—for instance, participants will be instructed to perform gestures congruent with the turn, or see an arrow indicating the described turn. Their representation of the described environment will be examined through map drawings and their navigation performance will be assessed as they use a joystick to reach the destination within a virtual environment of the city (Virtual SILCton). The study aims to establish whether gestures confer an advantage in navigation performance and to clarify whether such an advantage is due to perceptual reinforcement of relevant information (the described turns), sensorimotor simulation of the navigated route, or a general offloading of working memory.

Figure 3
A participant navigating Virtual SILCton (written and designed by Steven M. Weisberg, Victor R. Schinazi, and Nora S. Newcombe).

Spatial and Social Cognitive Processes in Action and Language

Awardee/Collaborator: Amy Pace, San Diego State University

Host/Collaborator: Gergely Csibra, Central European University, Hungary

Figure 4-ERP Data Collection

Amy Pace is a doctoral candidate in Language and Communicative Disorders at San Diego State University and University of California, San Diego. Her research investigates how spatial- and social-cognition interact to support learning in the domains of action processing and language acquisition in early childhood. Using electrophysiological as well as traditional behavioral methods, this project seeks to identify how spatial information (e.g., motion kinematics, velocity, and trajectory) and intentional cues (e.g., gaze following, referential gesture, joint-attention) work together to shape children’s perception, interpretation and representation of the world. She will travel to Dr. Gergely Csibra’s Cognitive Development Center at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary to learn about using near-infrared spectroscopy (optical imaging) and eye-tracking methods to measure on-line processing during spatial and social learning.

ERP Data Collection

Figure 5-Learning Labels for Novel Events

Learning Labels for Novel Events

To err is human: Landmark vs. turn reliance under conditions of route ambiguity

Awardee/Collaborator: Thora Tenbrink, Bangor University, United Kingdom

Host/Collaborator: Holly Taylor, Tufts University

Collaborator: Stephanie Gagnon, Stanford University

Collaborator: Tad Brunyé, Tufts University and US Army NSRDEC

If you ask a stranger for directions, the information may be inaccurate. In a previous study (Gagnon et al., 2012) we explored how participants respond to route directions containing conflicting landmark and turn information. Participants read route directions and then selected either a landmark-consistent or a turn-consistent location for the goal destination on a map. For example, after being informed to turn right at the gas station, they would see a gas station with a street branching off to the left rather than to the right. A street on the right would be available, but at a distance from the gas station. Would they turn left, consistent with the landmark, or (later) right, consistent with the turn information?

Figure 6

Results showed that when an anonymous source provided directions, participants (n=60) relied on a mix of turn and landmark information. In contrast, when participants (n=60) knew details about the source (a male or female person, more or less knowledgeable about the environment), they more strongly relied on landmark information, especially if participants had lower survey spatial preferences. Participants (n=20) similarly favored landmark information when navigating to destinations in a virtual environment, particularly when turns were farther apart. Together, these results demonstrate that people favor landmarks over turn information in relatively realistic situations. Verbal reports revealed that these findings stem from the belief that human memory for landmarks (involving visual imagery) is more reliable/salient than memory for turns (dependent on body axes).

In our future work we will further explore the ways in which human beliefs about the route giver influence their wayfinding strategies in the case of ambiguity. The next step in this line of research is to incorporate underspecified route information in more complex route descriptions. Schneider & Taylor (1999) found that indeterminate route descriptions induce a higher memory load and influence mental representations during wayfinding. Hirtle et al. (2010) examined which aspects of route directions are perceived as particularly tricky, suggesting that these tricky parts are frequently underspecified when compared to the actual environment. We will elaborate our paradigm based on these insights, so as to get a clearer understanding of the thought processes that lead to wayfinding decisions and strategies based on underspecified information.


  • ♦ Gagnon, S. A., Brunyé, T. T., Tenbrink, T., Gopal, N., Gardony, A. L., Holcomb, P. J., & Taylor, H. A. 2012. To err is human: Landmark vs. turn reliance under conditions of route ambiguity. 53rd annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, Minneapolis, MN, November 2012.
  • ♦ Hirtle, S. C. Richter, K-F., Srinivas, S., & Firth, R. E. 2010. This is the tricky part: When directions become difficult. Journal of Spatial Information Science, 1, 53-73.
  • ♦ Schneider, L.F., & Taylor, H.A., 1999. How do you get there from here? Mental representations of route descriptions. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 13, 415-441.
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