Memorizing Where – How do we represent spatial features of our environment?

Marianne Strickrodt

Our flat, our neighborhood, our city, our county – we live in and move through a very large environment often on a day to day basis. In order to plan routes and to not get lost we must have formed a mental representation of the space we navigate. Researchers at the MPI for Biological Cybernetics are investigating how this memory is structured. There is accumulating evidence suggesting that this memory functions quite differently from, for example, city maps. We don't seem to memorize an all-encompassing bird's eye view of our navigable environment. Instead, research suggests that our spatial memory consists of many small pieces that we can assemble mentally if necessary, for example, when pointing out the direction to a place currently not in sight.

We have asked Marianne Strickrodt about her latest study in more detail:

1. Why were you interested in this topic?
It’s an ongoing debate in the spatial cognition community whether the cognitive map actually exists.

2. What should the average person take away from your study?
In sum, the idea that we memorize a map-like, mental birds-eye picture of the environment does not seem to capture what we actually store in memory. Locally confined places such as rooms and corridors seem to play a major role - like pieces of a puzzle. It seems that they can be grouped together mentally to form regions and isolated environments. In order to come up with a direction estimate, for example, to point to a place currently not in sight, these pieces first have to be strung together mentally, step-by-step until reaching the target.

3. What is the added value of your study/paper for society?
Although we often encounter real maps in our everyday life that specify distance and relative position of places, objects, streets, and regions in a uniform format, my study suggests that this format does not capture how we actually represent space in memory. Recognizing that our memory of navigable space is different could potentially help us build better navigational aids that are tailored to the nature of this memory. Interactive maps could be improved by adding egocentric, first-person perspective visualizations of our current surrounding enriched with schematic information about the path segments towards the goal. This could be, for example, a 360° picture of the intersection a navigator is located at augmented with parts of the street network towards the goal as if all the buildings were transparent.

4. Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?
More research is needed to understand whether and how these puzzle pieces are enriched with additional information about regional belonging or maybe a fictive “mental north” that could be propagated across multiple places to facilitate the understanding of where they are relative to each other. It becomes more and more evident: it’s not a single map. But what it is instead must be specified and tested more carefully. Also, the effect of familiarity on the spatial representation is not clear yet. Are we able to form a more complete cognitive map, similar to the format of a normal paper map, with more exposure to and experience with a novel environment?

Marianne Strickrodt, PD Dr. Tobias Meilinger and Prof. Heinrich H. Bülthoff

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