Graduate Student Projects

Who We Are

The Spatial and Map Cognition Research Lab.

What We Do

We study map use, navigation, and spatial thinking primarily. We use multiple measurement tools, including traditional laboratory and in-field behavioral methods as well as fMRI and eye-tracking. 

Where We Do It

SMCRL is a part of the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon - Eugene.

Megan Lawrence::Neurological Studies in Tactile Map Use and Training by Persons who are Blind or Visually Impaired

Currently I am working on my dissertation project that focuses on the way in which the blind and visually impaired use tactile maps and how training influences this use both behaviorally and neurologically. The first stage of this research was completed with pilot funding from the Lewis Center for Neuroimaging (LCNI) during the summer of 2007 and involved fMRI scanning of 5 blind or visually impaired subjects and 5 normally sighted subjects for neurological data associated with the three following task. The first task is a mental map rotation task that tests a person's spatial visualization ability, the second task is a spatial-orientation task that evaluates a person's perspective-taking geographic spatial ability, and the last task is turn-choice map task and asks the subject to decide whether they must make a left or right turn at an intersection to reach a destination. The tasks have been chosen to better understand the relationship between allocentric spatial strategy use (tested by the mental map rotation task), egocentric spatial strategy use (as tested by the spatial orientation task) and real-world map reading exercises such as when you must make decisions about successful navigation. The turn-choice map task has been chosen because is hypothesized to have two possible ways of successfully completing the exercise. A person can imagine that the map graphic is rotating in space or one can imagine themselves changing perspective or rotating themselves ‘inside’ the map. One primary goal of this project is to: (1) look for neurological evidence that one strategy is dominant in the blind; (2) suggest that there is a dominant strategy for the sighted; (3) and provide evidence of the similarity and differences between them.

Tactile Tasks Figure 1. Task 1-mental map rotation; Task 2- spatial-orientation; Task 3- turn-choice map task

It can be suggested that humans have the ability to choose spatial strategy use based on need and experience but what happens when our experience leads us to have limited options in choosing spatial strategies. Some scholars suggest that the blind and visually impaired primarily use an egocentric spatial strategies when faced with many types of spatial problems that may require alternate methods of spatial thinking. Through training it may be possible to teach persons with blindness to utilize different spatial abilities and strategies to more accurately and successfully solve multiple spatial problems. Success may lead to more confidence in spatial problem solving which that promotes independence (through mobility) and therefore a richer quality of life.

The next phase of this project will be to develop and evaluate a tactile map reading training protocol (that will be evaluated by faculty at the Oregon School for the Blind). A confidence evaluation questionnaire will be developed based on the SOD (sense of direction scale) and it will be given pre-training and post-training to evaluate how training has made an impact. Other in-field behavioral test will be given to judge how well training affected a person's ability to navigate in the environment. Finally, a post-training fMRI will be given to investigate if training has neurological consequences.

Research development has been presented at:

Lawrence, Megan. 2007. Tactile Map Use and Spatial Abilities: A Neurological Approach. Presented at The Association of American Geographers. San Francisco, California.

Megan Lawrence::The Neural Basis of Spatial Abilities and Map Reading

My masters thesis  looked at the neurological similarities and differences between traditional paper and pencil spatial abilities tasks and real-world map reading exercises. Some of our major findings include activation in the parahippocampal place area (PPA) for perception of cartographic representations but not for perception of geometric objects (see figure). Traditionally PPA activation is found for scene perception pictures, such as houses and parks. It is of particular interest that maps are perceived by the human brain as real places given that they are representation of places. Other significant findings will be published soon. This project was possible by funding through the Lewis Center for Neuroimagine (LCNI) on the University of Oregon campus.

PPA Activation
Figure 1: Activation in the PPA while subjects performed map tasks.

Final Results of this study have been presented at:

Lawrence, M. 2005. “Visualizing Map Comprehension and Spatial Abilities.” Presented at: The Association of American Geographers. Denver, Colorado Lawrence, M. 2007. “Remote Sensing of the Brain.” Presented at: The American Society of Photogrammetry and Remote Sensing. Vancouver, Washington.