What is Evolved Navigation Theory (ENT)?

What is Evolved Navigation Theory (ENT)?


Have you ever wondered why people are afraid of heights or feel dizzy when looking down at a skyscraper? To answer this we must look back at our ancestors who travelled multiple strenuous landscapes and heights with risks of falling that could result in injury or death. They travelled miles in search of food, to avoid predators. The only ones to survive were those who could navigate, remember landmarks, create mental maps, and develop spatial awareness, Thus, causing natural selection of those who were wary of heights and understand the concept of heights, develop a sense of spatial awareness. This is called evolved navigation. According to Healthline, “Spatial awareness refers to being aware of your surroundings and your position relative to them.”

Origin and development 

The term “evolved navigation” describes the idea that natural selection has caused changes in human capacities throughout time in association with spatial adjustment and navigation. This concept includes the growth of cognitive processes and abilities that enable people to successfully navigate their surroundings.

Russell E. Jackson and his colleagues played a key role in formalizing Evolved Navigation Theory (ENT). Jackson’s research linked specific perceptual biases1 to evolutionary navigation risks. For example, Jackson and Cormack (2007) identified the “descent illusion2,” where people overestimate distances when descending compared to ascending. This is seen as an adaptive response to the increased risk of falling during descent. In simpler terms, people tend to overestimate vertical distances compared to horizontal ones, which helps them avoid falling from heights. For instance, individuals might see a cliff as taller than it is, promoting caution and reducing the chance of taking dangerous actions near the edge.

Reasons for the development of evolved Navigation Theory:

  1. Survival: ENT claims that our ancestors faced multiple navigational challenges for finding food, avoiding natural predators, and locating water bodies.
  2. Heuristics: heuristics are mental shortcuts that humans use to make the decision process easier. ENT explains certain navigational heuristics (mental shortcuts). For example, the tendency to overestimate vertical distances or decent illusion. Remember landmarks and familiar routes.

Key factors to consider while understanding ENT

  • Sex Differences: Some evolutionary researchers claim that females and males may display different navigation strategies. Studies show that Males may have evolved navigational abilities and the ability to explore new locations, while females may have landmark identification and memory, which would be useful for gathering resources in areas they are familiar with.
  • Environmental Influence: Environmental factors and learning play significant roles in shaping navigational abilities. In Indigenous communities, individuals often navigate using natural landmarks instead of man-made landmarks.
  • Cultural influences: Practices passed down through generations influence how members of cultures perceive and navigate their surroundings, such as Polynesians’ use of stars and ocean currents for navigation.

Evolved navigation theory in contemporary times

We use our ancestral navigational skills in many daily tasks, showing how our evolutionary past still influences how we interact with the world. These skills help us navigate physical and virtual environments every day.

Here are a few examples where human navigation abilities that are essential in daily life:

  • Wayfinding in Urban Environments: Navigating city streets, using maps or GPS systems, noting landmarks 
  • Outdoor Activities and Exploration: sailing, trekking, and hiking a ways we directly practice the ancestral navigation traditions.
  • Driving and Vehicle Navigation: Driving a car involves spatial awareness, route planning, and understanding traffic patterns.
  • Architecture and Design: spatial intelligence is used to develop buildings, streets, and public spaces that optimize navigation and functionality for inhabitants and visitors.
  • Virtual Reality and Gaming: this is a new way to create virtual environments where players must use spatial awareness and cognitive mapping to explore, solve puzzles, and accomplish goals.
  • Artistic Expression and Spatial Representation: Artists, especially painters, sculptors, and filmmakers employ spatial awareness to create compositions, depict landscapes, and convey three-dimensional perspectives.

These real-world examples illustrating ENT principles demonstrate how evolved navigation abilities are integral to a wide range of human activities.

Illusions in Evolved Navigation Theory

The evolved navigation Theory (ENT), which includes certain illusions developed to assist humans avoid the increasing, explains this misperception. 

  • Descent illusion: where people feel there is a big distance downward Research across different cultures and environments has shown that the descent illusion is a universal phenomenon.
  • Plateau illusion: when people  believe that distances going in the direction of a steep slope or drop-off are longer than those going in the opposite direction
  • Vertical-Horizontal illusion: where vertical lines appear longer than horizontal lines  This illusion illustrates the varying significance of vertical and horizontal navigation and is hypothesized to be connected to the environmental vertical illusion.

This illusion was illustrated by Hicks and Rivers (1906), who showed that even when two lines are of the same length, participants will see a vertical line as longer than a corresponding horizontal line.

Criticisms Of Evolved Navigation Theory (ENT) Include:

  • Simplification of Cognitive Processes:  many have found evolutionary theory doesn’t necessarily explain The complex and diverse nature of human cognition.
  • Lack of Evidence: Critics claim that the evolved navigation theory relies on inference and hypothesis rather than proper empirical evidence. Testing ENT hypotheses is challenging due to the complexity of human behaviour and limited archaeological data.

These criticisms highlight ongoing debates and the need for nuanced approaches to understanding the evolution of human cognitive abilities related to navigation.


Evolved Navigation Theory posits that various perceptual biases, such as the environmental vertical illusion, horizontal-vertical illusion, slope illusion, and cliff illusion, have evolved to help humans navigate their environments safely. These illusions highlight the adaptive nature of human perception, shaped by natural selection to mitigate the risks associated with different types of navigation. These biases are consistent across cultures and environments, underscoring their evolutionary origins and importance in enhancing human survival.

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References +

  • Jackson, R. E., & Cormack, L. K. (2008). Evolved navigation theory and the environmental vertical illusion. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(5), 299–304. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.03.001

  • Jackson, R. E., & Willey, C. R. (2011). Evolved navigation theory and horizontal visual illusions. Cognition, 119(2), 288–294. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cognition.2010.11.003

  • Jackson, R. E., & De García, J. G. (2017). Evolved navigation illusion provides universal human perception measure. Journal of Vision, 17(1), 39. https://doi.org/10.1167/17.1.39

  • Jackson, R.E., Cormack, L.K. Evolved navigation theory and the descent illusion. Perception & Psychophysics 69, 353–362 (2007). https://doi.org/10.3758/BF03193756

  1. Perceptual biases are mental shortcuts that cause us to misinterpret information based on our past experiences, emotions, or preferences. They can lead to errors in judgment and understanding. ↩︎
  2. The descent illusion is a perceptual bias where people perceive distances or heights as greater when looking down compared to looking up. ↩︎

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