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Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences

The Spatial Cognition Lab

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Research Topics in the Spatial Cognition Lab

This site ALWAYS a work in progress, but here are some brief summaries


My research examines human spatial learning, memory, and reasoning in the context of our remarkable ability to learn and interact within complex, changing environments. Space is a largely unconstrained concept, spanning everything from the organization of parts on an object to the conceptualization of massive geographical spaces.  By design, my work is constrained to the spaces that span the natural sensory-motor volume of human beings, from small-scale spaces that can be reached within seconds (e.g., a desktop) to large-scale spaces that can be traversed in hundreds of seconds (e.g., a campus).  Understanding human variability in spatial behaviors and examining them in the context of individual differences in learning and memory is at the heart of my research program.

A fundamental feature of my approach is to complement extensive cognitive behavioral experiments with targeted functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and, more recently, hypothesis-driven field studies. In addition to providing converging evidence, the combination of behavioral and brain studies is a route for comparing data obtained in humans to data obtained in animal models and has motivated the development of new analytic techniques. This combination of behavioral, physiological, and analytical approaches fosters interdisciplinary collaborations and offers new experimental tools for the broader research community, supporting the long-term goal of developing an integrative framework for spatial learning and memory that spans the gap from underlying neurobiological mechanisms to complex navigational behaviors.


Spatial Learning & Navigational Styles

Navigation is a critical survival skill for many species and depends heavily on fundamental processes of learning and memory.  Following earlier work on different sources of encoding (e.g., Fields & Shelton, 2006; Shelton & Gabrieli, 2002; Shelton & McNamara, 2004; Shelton & Pippitt, 2007), individual differences in spatial learning has become a central theme in my lab.

My current work investigates different ways of learning and navigating in space, emphasizing how navigational success might result from different strategies. Two dissociable systems for rodent spatial learning—a hippocampal place learning system and a striatal response learning system—provide a model for a mechanistic approach to this question of different solutions to the same problem (e.g., Packard & McGaugh, 1996), and my lab and others have provided neuroimaging evidence for place and response learning in humans (e.g., Hartley, Maguire, Spiers, & Burgess, 2003; Yamamoto & Shelton, in revision).  With this as a backdrop, we take the innovative approach of asking whether these two systems might serve as foundations from which individual differences in navigational style might emerge.  Using tasks that conceptually parallel those used in rodents, we have shown that the relative engagement of the putative place and response systems in the brain can predict what type of behavior a person will show, independent of navigational success (Marchette, Bakker, & Shelton, 2012).  In related work, we use a variety of manipulations to establish how flexibly people engage these mechanisms as a function of encoding and retrieval conditions, navigational goals, and stress. The remarkable links we are establishing between our findings and wealth of results in rodents will impact broader issues of learning and memory by providing novel ways to address questions of development, healthy aging, hormonal influences, and brain injury in humans. 


Individual Differences in Spatial Skills & Their Relationship to Other Critical Domains

Spatial reasoning skills are a significant predictor of spatial learning accuracy (Fields & Shelton, 2006), style (Marchette, et al., 2012), and brain activation (e.g., Shelton & Marchette, in prep). Moreover, there is growing anecdotal and empirical evidence for the importance of various spatial skills and literacies in several aspects of education.  One major goal of our research is to understand how things like learning styles, spatial skills, and various spatial experiences might affect broader issues of learning in the educational curriculum.  To date, we have engaged in several different lines of research aimed at understanding the multi-dimensional nature of spatial skills, and open the door for broader investigations.  These lines include work on the relationship between perspective taking ability and social skills (Shelton, Clements-Stephens, Lam, Pak, & Murray, 2012), individual and developmental differences in processing configurations (e.g., Clements-Stephens, McKell-Jeffers, Maddux, & Shelton, 2011), and the relationship between resolution and capacity in spatial working memory (e.g., Marchette, Walsh, Gmeindl, Shelton, & Flombaum, in revision). All of these lines emphasize the multi-dimensional nature of the spatial skill domain and its relationship to other domains, and the implications reach far beyond spatial cognition.  The results speak to issues such as embodied cognition, perceptual grouping, and working memory theories as well as neurological disorders such as Williams Syndrome and autism spectrum disorders.  New emerging lines of work are combining these studies with work driven by observations and intuitions about the role of spatial reasoning in early education and educational enrichment programs.

Other Projects & Collaborations

The lab has also had a long history of collaboration on a variety of topics.  These include efforts to develop novel methods for evaluating spatial data, intervention studies for improving spatial skills in engineering students, investigations into the psychophysics of force perception, etc.  When we have time, we'll write some short blurbs about this work, too!

For additional information, please feel free to contact us at

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