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Lost inside: A Blueprint to Navigating a Complex Building

Most people have had the experience of becoming disoriented and wandering inside a seemingly maze-like building, in search of an exit. But there are strategies that both architects and those non-navigators among us can employ to prevent this disorientation, according to psychologists.

People have different spatial skills, experience and preferred strategies for finding their way around, all of which contribute to whether or not they get lost inside buildings, according to a review of relevant research published in the Oct. 12 issue of the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science and announced Nov. 24.

Once inside a building you create a cognitive map, or mental representation of that environment, and the information you store on your way into the building and your destination affects how well you can navigate your way out, according to lead researcher Laura Carlson of the University of Notre Dame.

"If you paid attention to the sequence of turns along the path, then you may have difficulty because you need to remember to reverse the sequence, and this becomes increasingly difficult as the number of turns increases," Carlson said. "But instead, if you paid more attention to the objects that you passed, then you may navigate back to the front door by going from one familiar object to another without considering the sequence of turns. This strategy will work, as long as you can always see a familiar object."

But if you end up in an unfamiliar part of the building, you're out of luck, Carlson said.

A cognitive map is not as crucial given the right architecture. 

"If the building has an obvious structure, with long lines of sight, you won't have to rely much on this internal representation of your path," Carlson said.

Certain buildings make it even more difficult. Carlson and her team give the Seattle Central Library as an example of a bold, award-winning structure that disorients its visitors. The problem is that people expect floors to have similar layouts, but the first five levels of the library are all different. Visitors can't rely on lines of sight, because the building has long escalators that skip over levels, making it difficult to see where to go, researchers said.

Architects are expected to have strong spatial skills; however, this can mean they can't easily take the perspective of a non-navigator, according to the researchers.

Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.