Human spatial cognition has been mainly characterized in terms of egocentric (body-centered) and allocentric (world-centered) wayfinding behavior. It was hypothesized that allocentric spatial coding, as a special high-level cognitive ability, develops later and deteriorates earlier than the egocentric one throughout lifetime. We challenged this hypothesis by testing the use of landmarks versus geometric cues in a cohort of 96 deeply phenotyped participants, who physically navigated an equiangular Y maze, surrounded by landmarks or an anisotropic one.
The results show that an apparent allocentric deficit in children and aged navigators is caused specifically by difficulties in using landmarks for navigation while introducing a geometric polarization of space made these participants as efficient allocentric navigators as young adults. This finding suggests that allocentric behavior relies on two dissociable sensory processing systems that are differentially affected by human aging. Whereas landmark processing follows an inverted-U dependence on age, spatial geometry processing is conserved, highlighting its potential in improving navigation performance across the lifespan.