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Boldly going where no researchers have gone before, behavioral scientists are exploring humanity's inner and outer space. Among many examples, they're teaching children how to read maps, nabbing criminals through "geographic profiling," helping blind people navigate new neighborhoods and making it easier to move through virtual environments.

In addition, new technologies such as geographic information systems and the Global Positioning System (GPS) allow researchers to analyze a staggering amount of geographic data and incorporate place into a wide range of studies and services.

Psychologists and geographers have, over the past few decades, begun to share their different perspectives.

"The field is really coming together," says Jack Loomis, PhD, a cognitive psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB). He explains that psychologists have broadened their traditional interest in how people view and handle stimuli in smaller spaces, such as on a tabletop or a computer screen, to include large-scale space.

Meanwhile, renowned geographer Reginald Golledge, PhD, also at UCSB, says his field is moving in reverse, from big to small. He says, "Geographers are learning about learning, development, cognition. The emphasis is now on the human in the human environment."

Mental maps

One major research focus is on spatial cognition, or how people gather, organize, use and revise information about their spatial environment. Mental maps enable humans to manage a multitude of everyday tasks, such as getting to the breakfast table, taking the subway to work or using a joystick to move the hero in a virtual three-dimensional (3-D) game.

Loomis explains that spatial cognition deals with 3-D space "often beyond our immediate perception; it could be another room, neighborhood or town." Both sighted and blind people build mental maps and think spatially. For example, psychologists have found that cognitive maps have a hierarchical structure; we "see" the major points, and then fill in the details. But things we take for granted, such as spatial updating (figuring out where we are after we close our eyes, turn around and open them again), are extraordinarily complex.

Now technology is helping scientists answer such basic process questions. Virtual reality allows psychologists to study large-scale perceptual and geographic problems in a controlled manner, mixing the reliability of the lab with stimuli that feel like the real world. "You can move around and include action," says Loomis.

Neuroscientists have joined the space race, starting with the 1971 discovery of "place cells," single hippocampal cells that "map" to changing location. That was followed by the 1990 discovery of "head direction" cells, which are rather like internal compasses, in an area next to the hippocampus, and the 2005 discovery of "grid" cells in the entorhinal cortex, which gives major input to the hippocampus. Today, neuroscientists such as Dartmouth University's Jeffrey Taube, PhD, continue this line of research. He says, "I hope our findings provide a better understanding of the fundamental neural mechanisms involved in spatial cognition. This information could provide insight into helping people have better spatial abilities, or even design robots for accurate navigation."

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Basic research into spatial cognition is finding its way into new systems to aid people with visual or spatial limitations. GPS receivers and displays are used not only in new cars, but also by the blind. In Santa Barbara more than a decade ago, Loomis, Golledge and Carnegie Mellon University cognitive psychologist Roberta Klatzky, PhD, built one of the first functioning GPS-navigation systems for the visually impaired, which included an input device, a GPS receiver for positioning and a synthetic voice appearing to come from the object's actual location (virtual sound). Since then, as described in a 2005 Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness article (Vol. 99, No. 4, pages 219-232), they have validated spatial displays-ways of describing location-that work in other modes as well, such as touch.

The prototype continues to inspire both basic research and commercial development. For example, UCSB postdoctoral scholar Nicholas Giudice, PhD, is figuring out how displays can more clearly and helpfully describe the surrounding environment in words. Building on the work of Loomis and colleagues, he's also assessing the advantage of making sound cues "spatial." For example, if there's a door on the left, the user will hear about it on the left. Other display modes are digital tactile maps and vibrotactile displays, which vibrate or provide force-feedback to the touch.

The more modes, the merrier. Loomis explains, "When you learn about the surrounding space through vision, hearing, touch, and so on, you build up a mental representation. Once you have that, you can move around in it; updating doesn't depending on the modality in which you learned."

Giudice, who is blind, himself uses a Sendero Group commercial system-an accessible PDA with synthesized speech and braille display and a GIS database with 12 million "points of interest." His guide dog, a German shepherd named Homer, helps him to avoid obstacles, but the GPS system allows Giudice to, he says, "wander around, learn a new area and get back to my hotel. Or, if I'm in an open space such as a park, I can leave electronic breadcrumbs to mark my path."

The system, he continues, "allows me to offload some of the cognitive component of navigation. It's much less stressful, and I'm exploring a lot more."

Location, location, location

Criminologist Kim Rossmo, PhD, of Texas State University in San Marcos works with investigators around the world to solve serial murders and other major crimes using a technique he dubbed "geographic profiling." Employing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and other location data, and working closely with forensic psychologists and behavioral profilers, Rossmo helps investigators focus their efforts and set priorities among suspects.

Rossmo explains, "Criminals want to know the area, want access to the area, and want to know the availability of both victims and potential guardians or witnesses." Criminals' cognitive maps influence where they offend. "Ninety-five percent of the time they're doing non-criminal activities, so we want to understand what they're doing in the rest of their life," says Rossmo. "You go where you know, and you know where you go."

His work fits into behavioral geography, which merges psychological insights and geographic behavior to understand the why of where. In other applications, psychologists and geographers are trying to understand how faulty cognitions about space may interact with attitudes. For example, they hope to explain why people take geographic risks such as living in flood plains or buying tempest-tossed beach property. And they could improve evacuation processes, preventing the kind of 100-mile backups that Houston endured during Hurricane Rita.

Space cadets

In another melding of psychology and geography, Pennsylvania State University psychologist Lynn Liben, PhD, seeks to strengthen spatial literacy, which research indicates must be taught, just like reading. Without basic spatial concepts such as the X and Y axes, people may lose their way-literally and figuratively. For example, in a collaboration with Columbia University marine geologist Kim Kastens, PhD, Liben has found that college students who haven't locked in "horizontal" and "vertical" have measurably more trouble learning material typically taught during field work given early in college geology courses.

As a result, she pushes for greater spatial education, both to close gaps in spatial skills and to enable success in fields ranging from the arts and architecture to navigation and the sciences, whether basic (such as biology and chemistry) or applied (such as epidemiology, which maps disease). Liben and Penn State geographer Roger Downs, PhD, contributed to the National Academy of Sciences 2006 report, "Learning to Think Spatially." She has also collaborated with Kastens in the development and evaluation of an elementary grades curriculum called "Where We Are" (WWA) that offers children practice connecting visual experiences of environments with plan maps. After lessons that include using WWA software, children visit field sites and use stickers to mark where they see flags. Children's sticker placements for flags that are on a unique landmark (such as a statue) are typically accurate. However, placements for flags in less differentiated areas (such as along a road) are far worse, presumably because they call on later-developing metric concepts. Liben thinks GPS and GIS have great potential to allow people to appreciate Earth's changing weather systems, how tectonic plates fit together, and more. However, she's concerned that current teaching is superficial, promoting what Golledge calls "buttonology." Says Liben, "Kids get into pushing buttons and seeing colors change, but they have to be taught what [the graphic representation of data] means. Exposure isn't enough to develop minds to generalize, for scientific discovery or artistic expression."

Rachel Adelson is a writer in Raleigh, N.C.