When Jennifer Sutton was a child, she and her brother pored over maps while the family was traveling. Today, Sutton is a psychology professor who studies spatial navigation, and her brother is a navigator with the air force. “He does it, and I study it!” she says.
Sutton is interested in how people develop mental representations of the places they experience. Much of her research is based in a lab, where subjects work within virtual environments. Subjects explore the environments, and later are asked questions about landmarks to measure how accurate their memory of the environments are. It turns out that people vary dramatically in their ability. “Some people remember the environment very accurately, very quickly,” says Sutton. “Some never really put it together.”
Sutton has also used functional magnetic resonance brain imaging (fMRI) to explore questions around spatial navigation. For example, she explored why very young children are unable to use specific cues in their environment to help them search for objects, while adults and older children can and do use the cues.
She found that the region supporting the use of cues was the hippocampus, which is still developing in early childhood.
In another project, Sutton demonstrated that the ability to build a mental map of a new environment is still developing in adolescents. A third study used eye-tracking technology to see where subjects were looking while exploring a virtual environment. The results show that people who are good navigators and those who are less capable look at the same things.
Moving forward, Sutton wants to explore how experience affects navigation ability. “It’s still not clear how much of navigation ability is something you’re born with. People don’t see it as a skill that can be developed, but perhaps it is.”