Why some people lack a sense of direction and get lost easily is being investigated in the first large-scale UK study of its kind.

Researchers at the University of Plymouth say their work could lead to ways of supporting dementia patients and others who struggle to find their way around. Initial findings from the ongoing Exploring Spatial Navigational Differences (ExSpaND) study suggest worry about performing navigational activities, such finding the way to an appointment in an unfamiliar location, can affect route-learning skills.

It also provides evidence that the speed at which people learn simple associations between different events - that one event triggers another for example - is also connected with navigation skills, according to the researchers.

The project will be showcased at an event as part of the annual, UK-wide Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) Festival of Social Science.

"Navigation difficulties can take their toll on psychological well-being and employability," says Tara Zaksaite from the University of Plymouth's School of Psychology.

"But those with life-long needs in this area are rarely recognised or met. Discovering why some people struggle is crucial in finding solutions that improve quality of life. Writing down which turn to take at a junction could help those who struggle to remember the correct way for example."

Navigation is an essential skill that everyone relies on, from learning a route in a new city to knowing which direction is north. However, navigation relies on a complex mix of abilities such as focusing on useful landmarks, remembering where places are, and making the correct decision when presented with a range of options.

Some previous studies have examined why particular people are good at navigation, but there are no studies of this scale that address the full range of abilities, and try to identify their psychological markers. In addition, aids developed to help people get around such as GPS have been shown by some studies to actually impair performance.

The ESRC-funded University of Plymouth study aims to recruit 260 adults including those with hydrocephalus. The condition, associated with excess fluid on the brain, is known to impact navigation and quality of life.

Tablet-based games are among techniques used to test skills such as memory, reasoning and general learning. Tasks have included learning the location of a particular object such as a wooden pole. This is in relation to other landmarks and then later travelling back to that place from a different starting point.

The researchers have found that people with good spatial memory - the ability to temporarily store and process location-related information - were better at the wooden pole tasks.

The next step will be to invite people who experienced most difficulty completing the tasks to compare different methods that could assist them with everyday navigation. These strategies will also be compared to more general mindfulness techniques to establish which is most effective.

The findings referenced in this release will be shared as part of an event entitled What is In The Mind of A Good Navigator? on 2 November. The event is part of the ESRC’s flagship annual Festival of Social Science.