Spatial Cognition

We examine how navigators acquire, memorize and use information about everyday spatial environments such as rooms, buildings, and cities. Which reference frames do they use? How do navigators profit from movement trajectories, maps, and descriptions? Which memory system is employed? Are vertical directions treated differently from horizontal ones? How can the results be framed theoretically?

Learning and navigating complex environments

Knowledge about complex city and building environments acquired from navigation is represented in multiple, local reference frames corresponding, for example, to streets or corridors. This local information also incorporates local geometry as defined by walls. Contrary, (prior) map exposure yields a single, map-up oriented reference frame which is used for configurational or survey tasks within novel and highly familiar environments, but not for selecting routes. The underlying route knowledge focuses on turns which is enabled by a default strategy of walking straight. Route guidance providing unambiguous turning information will yield enhanced wayfinding performance.

Marianne Strickrodt, Tobias Meilinger

C. Hölscher, J. Frankenstein, B.E. Riecke, B.J. Mohler, T. Wolbers, R. Conroy Dalton, H.A. Mallot,


  • Meilinger, T., * Frankenstein, J., * Simon, N., Bülthoff, H.H., & Bresciani, J.-P. (in press). Not all memories are the same
  • situational context influences spatial recall within ones city of residency. Psychonomic Bulletin and Review. [*equal contributions]
  • Meilinger, T., Frankenstein, J, Watanabe, K. , Bülthoff, H.H. & Hölscher, C. (2015). Reference frames in learning from maps and navigation. Psychological Research, 79, 1000-1008.
  • Meilinger, T., Riecke, B.E., Bülthoff, H.H. (2014). Local and global reference frames for environmental spaces. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 67, 542-569.
  • Meilinger, T., Frankenstein, J., Bülthoff, H.H. (2014). When in doubt follow your nose
  • a wayfinding strategy. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1-7.
  • Meilinger, T., Frankenstein, J., Bülthoff, H.H. (2013). Learning to navigate
  • experience vs. maps. Cognition, 129, 24-30.
  • Frankenstein, J., Mohler, B.J., Bülthoff, H.H. & Meilinger, T. (2012). Is the Map in Our Head Oriented North? Psychological Science, 23, 120-125.
  • Meilinger, T., Franz, G., & Bülthoff, H. H. (2012). From Isovists via Mental Representations to Behaviour
  • First Steps Toward Closing the Causal Chain. Environment and Planning B, 39, 48-62.
  • Basten, K. Meilinger, T., Mallot, H.A. (2012). Mental travel primes place orientation in spatial recall. In Spatial Cognition VIII, Eds. C. Stachniss, K. Schill, D.H. Uttal (Berlin
  • Springer), 378-385.
  • Hölscher, C., Büchner, S. J., Meilinger, T., & Strube, G. (2009). Adaptivity of wayfinding strategies in a multi-building ensemble
  • the effects of spatial structure, task requirements and metric information. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 29, 208-219.
  • Hölscher, C., Büchner, S. J., Brösamle, M., Meilinger, T., & Strube, G. (2007). Signs and Maps
  • Cognitive Economy in the Use of External Aids for Indoor Navigation. 29th Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society (pp. 377–382).
  • Meilinger, T., Hölscher, C., Büchner, S. J., & Brösamle, M. (2006). How Much Information Do You Need? Schematic Maps in Wayfinding and Self Localisation. International Conference Spatial Cognition 2006 (pp. 381–400).

Spatial integration

Rooms, buildings and cities cannot be grasped within one glance. In order to get their overall structure, one has to integrate multiple experiences which relate via movement trajectories or common landmarks. We showed that reference frames used for integration depend on the learning time, available movement trajectories and the knowledge from where to use the information afterwards. Integration of city streets happens within an incremental process conducted from one current location.

Tobias Meilinger, Agnes Henson, Mary O'Malley, Katsuhisa Kawaguchi

K. Watanabe, J. Wiener, A. Berthoz, H.A. Mallot,


    • O’Malley, M., Bülthoff, H.H., Meilinger, T. (2014). How to find a shortcut within a city? Mental walk vs. mental model. 56. Tagung experimentell arbeitender Psychologen.
    • Meilinger, T.*, Berthoz, A. & Wiener, J.M.* (2011). The integration of spatial information across different perspectives. Memory & Cognition, 39, 1042-1054. [* equal contributions]
    • Henson, A., Mallot, H.A., Bülthoff, H.H., Meilinger, T. (2011). When do we integrate spatial information acquired by walking through environmental spaces? 33rd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2764-2769.
    • Meilinger, T., Bülthoff, H.H. (2010). The Direction Bias and the Incremental Construction of Survey Knowledge. 32nd Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society, 2500-2505.
    • Meilinger, T. & Watanabe, K. (submitted). Multiple strategies for spatial integration.

Self-movement perception and representation of 3D space

Humans locomote along the horizontal plane. However, within buildings they also have a vertical position. This project examines whether vertical movements are perceived in the same way as horizontal movements and how spaces extending also vertically such as buildings or cupboards are represented in memory. Therefore this project bridges perception and memory.

Thomas Hinterecker, Caroline Leroy, Tobias Meilinger,

Christoph Hölscher, Michael Barnett-Cowan, Manuel Vidal, Mintao Zhao, Martin Butz


  • Barnett-Cowan, M., Meilinger, T., Vidal, M., Teufel, H., & Bülthoff, H.H. (2012) MPI CyberMotion Simulator
  • Implementation of a Novel Motion Simulator to Investigate Multisensory Path Integration in Three Dimensions. Journal of Visualized Experiments, 63, 1-6
  • Hölscher, C., Meilinger, T., Vrachliotis, G., Brösamle, M., & Knauff, M. (2006). Up the down staircase
  • next term Wayfinding strategies in multi-level buildings. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 26, 284–299.

Verbal and non-verbal codes in spatial memory

In which format do humans represent their environment? Our results indicate that room locations and routes learned from navigation as well as from maps are not only encoded spatially, but also in a verbal code, e.g. as descriptions. The usefulness of verbal encoding, however, seems to depend on already established long-term associations between corresponding verbal and spatial elements, e.g., the label "T-intersection" and a spatial representation of a T-intersection.

Tobias Meilinger

H.A. Mallot, M. Knauff, G. Hardiess


  • Meilinger, T., Schulte-Pelkum, J., Frankenstein, J., Hardiess, G. Mallot, H.A., Bülthoff, H.H. (2016). How to best name a place? Facilitation and inhibition of route learning due to descriptive and arbitrary location labels. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-7.
  • Meilinger, T. & Bülthoff, H.H. (2013). Verbal shadowing and visual interference in spatial memory. PLOS ONE, 8, 1-9.
  • Meilinger, T., Knauff, M., & Bülthoff, H. H. (2008). Working memory in wayfinding
  • a dual task experiment in a virtual city. Cognitive Science, 32, 755-770.
  • Meilinger, T. & Knauff, M. (2008). Ask for your way or use a map
  • A field experiment on spatial orientation and wayfinding in an urban environment. Journal of Spatial Science, 53, 13-23.

Theoretical foundations of spatial cognition

This research is concerned with conceptions of how space can be represented and processed theoretically and in the light of current empirical data. We argue that simple egocentric and allocentric conceptions are not sufficient to capture complex situations and suggest combining them into complex representations. I also proposed a theory for self-localisation, route
and survey navigation in environmental spaces.

Tobias Meilinger

G. Vosgerau, H.A. Mallot, G. Hardiess


  • Hardiess, G., Meilinger, T., & Mallot, H.A. (2015). Virtual Reality and Spatial Cognition. In J.D. Wright (Ed), International Encyclopedia of Social & Behavioral Sciences (pp. 133-137). Amsterdam
  • Elsevier.
  • Vosgerau, G. Knoll, A., Meilinger, T. & Vogeley, K. (2013). Representation. In A. Stephan & S. Walter (Eds.), Handbuch Kognitionswissenschaft (pp. 386-401). Stuttgart
  • Metzler
  • Meilinger, T. & Vosgerau, G. (2010). Putting Egocentric and Allocentric into Perspective. In C. Hölscher, C., T. F. Shipley, M. Olivetti Belardinelli, J. A. Bateman, N. S. Newcombe (Eds.), Spatial Cognition VII, LNAI 6222 (pp. 207-211). Berlin
  • Springer.
  • Meilinger, T. (2008). The network of reference frames theory
  • A synthesis of graphs and cognitive maps. In C. Freksa, N.S. Newcombe, P. Gärdenfors & S. Wölfl (Eds.), Spatial Cognition VI, LNAI 5248 (pp. 344-360). Berlin
  • Springer.
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