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Spatial Planning Task

Test type: Planning

How good are you at planning ahead?

Can you see beyond the next step? Try this test to find out

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About this test

Brain damaged patients reveal how we are able to plan ahead...

The Hampshire tree task tests your 'planning' or forward-thinking abilities. In psychology, 'planning' refers in a broad sense to the steps that one goes through in order to achieve a certain goal. The cognitive processes underlying these skills are surprisingly complex; first you must mentally create representations of both the current (where I am now) and the goal (where I want to be) situations, then you must work out how to link these representations, and finally, you must transform the current state into the desired goal state (Unterrainer & Owen, 2006). In addition, while doing this you must mentally search though possible solutions and evaluate their effectiveness. The Hampshire tree task really taxes your forward thinking skills because the correct solution is often not the most obvious and has to be generated by carefully considering the rules of the task.


The Hampshire tree task is an adaptation of the Tower of London/ Tower of Hanoi test (Shallice, 1982; Simon, 1975), a widely used clinical neuropychological tool for assessing planning abilities. We have been using this task to investigate the cognitive and neural processes involved in planning for nearly 20 years (e.g. Owen et al., 1990). Our studies have shown that patients with frontal lobe damage have impaired planning abilities, requiring more moves and producing fewer perfect solutions when undertaking tasks that are similar in design to the Hampshire Tree Task (Owen et al, 1990). Behaviourally these patients were more impulsive, tending to start the task without thinking of a correct solution. When asked to mentally calculate the number of moves required to successfully complete a planning puzzle (removing their impulsive nature to begin the task) planning time in these patients was much greater than that observed in healthy volunteers (Owen et al., 1995). This strongly suggests that the frontal areas of your brain underlie your ability to plan. To investigate this further, we have used neuroimaging methods such as positron emission tomography (or 'PET') and functional magnetic resonance imaging (or 'fMRI') to look at how the brain activates when we are planning (e.g. Owen et al, 1996; Dagher et al, 1999). The dorsolateral frontal cortex was activated, as was the caudate nucleus, the supplementary motor area, posterior parietal regions and the cerebellum. This confirms that the frontal cortex plays a central role in planning the solutions to problems but does not act alone; rather it operates effectively through complex interactions with other structures. In close accordance with the hypothesis that a dorsal frontoparietal network supports planning, Williams-Gray et al., recently found that these brain regions are under active in Parkinson's Patients who are genetically at risk of developing executive dysfunction.

-Dagher, A., Owen, A.M., Boecker, H. Brooks, D.J. (1999). Mapping the network for planning: a correlational PET activational study with the Tower of London task. Brain. 122 (Pte 10), 1973-1987. Download PDF
-Owen A.M., Downes, J.D., Sahakian, B.J., Polkey, C.E. and Robbins T.W. (1990). Planning and spatial working memory following frontal lobe lesions in Man. Neuropsychologia, 28 (10), 10211034. Download PDF
-Owen, A.M., Sahakian, B. J., Hodges, J.R., Summers, B.A., Polkey, C. E. & Robbins, T.W. (1995a) Dopamine-dependent fronto-striatal planning deficits in early Parkinson's disease. Neuropsychology, 9, 126–140. Download PDF
-Owen, A.M., Doyon, J., Petrides, M. & Evans, A. (1996a) Planning and spatial working memory: a PET study in humans. Eur J Neurosci, 8, 353–364.
-Shallice, T. (1982). Specific impairments of planning. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (Series B), B298:199-209.
-Simon, H.A. (1975). The functional equivalence of problem solving skills, Cognitive Psychology 7 (1975) (2), pp. 268–288.
-Unterrainer, J. M., Owen, A. M. (2006). Planning and Problem Solving: from Neuropsychology to Functional Neuroimaging. Journal of Physiology Paris, 99(4-6) 308-317. Download PDF
-Williams-Gray, C.H., Hampshire, A., Robbins, T., OWEN, A.M. & Barker, R.A (2007) COMT val158met genotype influences frontoparietal activity during planning in patients with Parkinson's disease, Journal of Neuroscience, 27(18):4832-483

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