Spatial Navigation and Individual Differences in Environmental Representations

This project involves studies of navigational abilities in virtual (driving simulator) and in real large-scale environments. We examined whether procedural- and survey-type representations of an environment would be present after traversing a novel route. We also examined whether individual differences in visual-spatial abilities predicted the types of representations formed. Our results challenge experience-based, sequential models of adults’ development of environmental representations. Furthermore, more spatially integrated sketch-maps were associated with higher spatial abilities. Our findings suggest that spatial abilities, not experience alone, affect the types of representations formed (Blajenkova, Motes, & Kozhevnikov, 2005; Motes, Blajenkova, & Kozhevnikov 2004).

Furthermore, with the ultimate goal to better assess, train and improve individuals navigational abilities, we developed and validated an assessment of large-scale egocentric abilities: the Perspective Taking Test
Perspective  Taking Test
. In addition, to improve assessment and training, we examine how people find their way while navigating in space, and what navigational strategies they employ.

Driving simulator

Click to watch video: Driving Simulator, 2-level sity, GMU

Training in Three-Dimensional Immersive Virtual Environments

Most studies on training imagery skills (either through a particular set of training exercises or indirectly through geometry, chemistry or physics courses) have produced at best small gains in spatial skills and limited transfer of training to a different stimulus set. We suggest that the reason for previous limitations of training visual-spatial abilities using conventional 2D tasks that is that encoding of spatial relations and cognitive strategies applied to perform visual-spatial transformations in 2D non-immersive and 3D immersive environments are different. Thus, in our research we particularly interested in investigating training in immersive 3D virtual environments , and the effects of individual differences in visual imagery ability on training efficacy.

Our research suggests that 3D immersive virtual environments
are critically important for effectively assessing and training large-scale spatial rotation and orientation abilities or any other tasks that might rely on the egocentric spatial system. The perceptual immersivity of an environment seems to be the most important factor in providing information for building an egocentric spatial reference frame needed in performance for real-world, large-scale spatial tasks and higher-order motor planning.

Immersive virtual environments are particularly relevant for training real-world egocentric spatial tasks, such as navigation, teleoperation, or medical surgery, which require visual-spatial processing, due to two major factors: immersion and feedback (Kozhevnikov & Garcia, in press).

In particular, we investigate how distinct visualization abilities
could be improved as a result of training in 3D immersive virtual environments. Our results demonstrate that 3D immersive environments appear to be significantly more efficient for training imagery skills than 2D or 3D non-immersive environments
. Our findings revealed that the 3D Perspective-Taking Test
facilitated a 200% increase in performance (i.e., the rate of error reduction), compared to the non-immersive 2D version of the test.

3D Visualization in Immersive Virtual Environments

Our research on 3D visualization in immersive virtual environments includes the following directions:

We are interested in the contribution of immersion to spatial processing and compare subjects’ performance in non-immersive and immersive 2D vs. 3D environments. Our 3D virtual environment
provides a sensation of immersivity and allowing the participant to move freely while his/her motion is tracked, and interact with the virtual world using a specially designed actuator device.


Recently, more realistic 3D displays have been designed as new, more ecologically valid alternatives to conventional 2D visual displays. However, research has thus far provided inconsistent evidence regarding their contribution to visual-spatial image encoding and transformation. The majority of experimental studies on 3D visual-spatial processing have been conducted using traditional 2D displays. Our research suggests that immersivity is a critical feature of 3D virtual environments for facilitating visual processing and the training of visual ability.


meditationKozhevnikov, Louchakova, Josipovic, & Motes (2009) examined the effects of meditation on mental imagery, evaluating Buddhist monks’ reports concerning their extraordinary imagery skills. Practitioners of Buddhist meditation were divided into two groups according to their preferred meditation style: Deity Yoga (focused attention on an internal visual image) or Open Presence (evenly distributed attention, not directed to any particular object). Both groups of meditators completed computerized mental-imagery tasks before and after meditation. Their performance was compared with that of control groups, who either rested or performed other visuospatial tasks between testing sessions. The results indicate that all the groups performed at the same baseline level, but after meditation, Deity Yoga practitioners demonstrated a dramatic increase in performance on imagery tasks compared with the other groups. The results suggest that Deity meditation specifically trains one’s capacity to access heightened visuospatial processing resources, rather than generally improving visuospatial imagery abilities.

Maria Kozhevnikov was featured in the Association for Psychological Science press release announcing her paper: The Enhancement of Visuospatial Processing Efficiency Through Buddhist Deity Meditation.


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The research in the Mental Imagery lab focuses on investigating visualization processes and individual differences in mental imagery in cognitive style. In particular, we examine how individual differences in visualization ability affect more complex activities, such as spatial navigation, learning and problem solving in mathematics, science and art. We also explore ways to train visual-object and visual-spatial imagery skills and design three-dimensional immersive virtual environments that can accommodate individual differences and learning styles.

The Mental Imagery and Human-Computer Interaction lab research focuses in five main directions:

Our approach integrates qualitative and quantitative behavioral research methods, as well as neuroimaging techniques (EEG, fMRI). Furthermore, we develop and validate assessment and training paradigms for visualization ability, using  3D immersive virtual reality.

Based on behavioral and neuroscience evidence, we formulated a theoretical framework of individual differences in visual imagery, and suggested that visualization ability is not a single undifferentiated construct, but rather is divided into two main dimensions: object and spatial, and that the spatial dimension is further divided into allocentric and egocentric dimensions. All these visualization abilities underlie success at different complex, real-world tasks, and predict specialization in different professional and academic domains.