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Psychol Res. 2009 Sep;73(5):644-58. doi: 10.1007/s00426-008-0181-3. Epub 2008 Nov 8.

Planning paths to multiple targets: memory involvement and planning heuristics in spatial problem solving.

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Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Tübingen, Auf der Morgenstelle 28, Tübingen, Germany.


For large numbers of targets, path planning is a complex and computationally expensive task. Humans, however, usually solve such tasks quickly and efficiently. We present experiments studying human path planning performance and the cognitive processes and heuristics involved. Twenty-five places were arranged on a regular grid in a large room. Participants were repeatedly asked to solve traveling salesman problems (TSP), i.e., to find the shortest closed loop connecting a start location with multiple target locations. In Experiment 1, we tested whether humans employed the nearest neighbor (NN) strategy when solving the TSP. Results showed that subjects outperform the NN-strategy, suggesting that it is not sufficient to explain human route planning behavior. As a second possible strategy we tested a hierarchical planning heuristic in Experiment 2, demonstrating that participants first plan a coarse route on the region level that is refined during navigation. To test for the relevance of spatial working memory (SWM) and spatial long-term memory (LTM) for planning performance and the planning heuristics applied, we varied the memory demands between conditions in Experiment 2. In one condition the target locations were directly marked, such that no memory was required; a second condition required participants to memorize the target locations during path planning (SWM); in a third condition, additionally, the locations of targets had to retrieved from LTM (SWM and LTM). Results showed that navigation performance decreased with increasing memory demands while the dependence on the hierarchical planning heuristic increased.

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