The relationship between object-based spatial ability and virtual navigation performance

PLoS One. 2024 May 9;19(5):e0298116. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0298116. eCollection 2024.


Spatial navigation is a multi-faceted behaviour drawing on many different aspects of cognition. Visuospatial abilities, such as mental rotation and visuospatial working memory, in particular, may be key factors. A range of tests have been developed to assess visuospatial processing and memory, but how such tests relate to navigation ability remains unclear. This understanding is important to advance tests of navigation for disease monitoring in various disorders (e.g., Alzheimer's disease) where spatial impairment is an early symptom. Here, we report the use of an established mobile gaming app, Sea Hero Quest (SHQ), as a measure of navigation ability in a sample of young, predominantly female university students (N = 78; 20; female = 74.3%; mean age = 20.33 years). We used three separate tests of navigation embedded in SHQ: wayfinding, path integration and spatial memory in a radial arm maze. In the same participants, we also collected measures of mental rotation (Mental Rotation Test), visuospatial processing (Design Organization Test) and visuospatial working memory (Digital Corsi). We found few strong correlations across our measures. Being good at wayfinding in a virtual navigation test does not mean an individual will also be good at path integration, have a superior memory in a radial arm maze, or rate themself as having a strong sense of direction. However, we observed that participants who were good in the wayfinding task of SHQ tended to perform well on the three visuospatial tasks examined here, and to also use a landmark strategy in the radial maze task. These findings help clarify the associations between different abilities involved in spatial navigation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maze Learning / physiology
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology
  • Mobile Applications
  • Space Perception / physiology
  • Spatial Memory / physiology
  • Spatial Navigation* / physiology
  • Young Adult

Grants and funding

HJS and M Hornberger received funding from the Alzheimer’s Research UK (, Grant (ARUK-DT2016-1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.