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Lost in a building? Design can affect your cognitive map

Lost in a building? Design can affect your cognitive map

Posting in Architecture

Architects with strong spatial skills may fail to anticipate the difficulties of normal people in navigating the design of their buildings, cognitive scientists say.

Get lost in a building lately? It may not be your memory alone to blame.

When you enter a new building, you build a cognitive map -- a mental representation of where everything is, spatially. People vary in their skills for wayfinding -- inherent skill, experience and strategy all play a part -- but the way the building itself is designed also influences your ability to get where you want to go.

According to new research by a team of psychological scientists, architects who consider these aspects can better understand where and why people get lost in their buildings.

Faceless federal facilities, take note:

If you paid attention to the sequence of turns along the path, then you may have difficulty because you need to remember to reverse the sequence, and this becomes increasingly difficult as the number of turns increases. But instead, if you paid more attention to the objects that you passed, then you may navigate back to the front door by going from one familiar object to another without considering the sequence of turns. This strategy will work, as long as you can always see a familiar object. If you get lost and enter an unexplored part of the building, you will have difficulty finding your way back.

That's according to Laura Carlson of the University of Notre Dame, primary author of the article.

Carlson and colleagues Christoph Hölscher of the University of Freiburg, Thomas Shipley of Temple University, and Ruth Conroy Dalton of University College, London looked at how different types of people interacted with public buildings, such as the Seattle Central Library designed by Rem Koolhaas or a local hospital.

What they found:

  • People navigate differently. Some use contextual clues -- "Make a right at the stairwell" -- and some use cardinal directions to find their way.
  • Cognitive maps are prone to bias, and can distort reality. Culture and gender are factors.
  • The design of a building exacerbates these effects, thanks to identical-looking corridors, short lines of sight and asymmetrical floor layouts.

The more difficult the building, the more a person must rely on their (imperfect, incomplete) cognitive map.

Take the award-winning Seattle Central Library: the first five levels of the library defy expectations and are all different -- so different, in fact, that the outside walls don't always line up. Sight lines could help ease the shock, but the library's long escalators skip floors, making it difficult to see where they begin and end.

Interestingly, the researchers says that architects have such strong spatial skills -- they make three-dimensional space from two-dimensional blueprints, of course -- that they may fail at imagining their design from the perspective of someone with poor spatial skills.

The same could be said for any urban space, from a public transit terminal to a park or plaza.

Coming to a green building near you: a cognitive science consultant?

Their research was published in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure