Turn to the Left or to the West: Verbal Navigational Directions in Relative and Absolute Frames of Reference

  • Toru Ishikawa
  • Mika Kiyomoto
Part of the Lecture Notes in Computer Science book series (LNCS, volume 5266)


This study examined how people use verbal route directions given in relative and absolute frames of reference in real-world navigation, particularly differences or similarities in cognitive load posed by the two frames of reference. Participants, Japanese speakers, walked the first set of five routes with relative (or absolute) directions and the second set of five routes with absolute (or relative) directions. For the first set of routes, participants performed equivalently on navigating the routes with relative and absolute directions, showing that they can somehow adapt to either way of thinking about space. But for the second set of routes, participants did better with relative directions than with absolute directions, showing that switching from a nonpreferred to a preferred frame of reference was easier than switching the other way around. In particular, participants with a poor sense of direction found the latter to be difficult. This asymmetric pattern of performance, depending on which frame of reference was used first, shows that the cognitive loads of processing information given in the two frames of reference are not the same. Concerning configurational understanding of the routes, participants did equally well with relative and absolute verbal directions, showing that they constructed equivalent mental images. These results were replicated in the second experiment of text comprehension, in which participants only read verbal directions and did spatial tasks. Implications of these results for the design of navigational aids were discussed.


Spatial language Frames of reference Verbal navigational directions Wayfinding Cognitive maps 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • Toru Ishikawa
    • 1
  • Mika Kiyomoto
    • 2
  1. 1.Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies & Center for Spatial Information ScienceUniversity of TokyoTokyoJapan
  2. 2.Department of Urban EngineeringUniversity of TokyoTokyoJapan

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