Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spatial Memory in the Real World: Long-Term Representations of Everyday Environments

Academic journal article Memory & Cognition

Spatial Memory in the Real World: Long-Term Representations of Everyday Environments

Article excerpt

Abstract When people learn an environment, they appear to establish a principle orientation just as they would determine the "top" of a novel object. Evidence for reference orientations has largely come from observations of orientation dependence in pointing judgments: Participants are most accurate when asked to recall the space from a particular orientation. However, these investigations have used highly constrained encoding in both time-scale and navigational goals, leaving open the possibility that larger spaces experienced during navigational learning depend on a different organizational scheme. To test this possibility, we asked undergraduates to perform judgments of relative direction on familiar landmarks around their well-learned campus. Participants showed clear evidence for a single reference orientation, generally aligned along salient axes defined by the buildings and paths. This result argues that representing space involves the establishment of a reference orientation, a requirement that endures over repeated exposures and extensive experience.

Keywords Spatial cognition . Memory . Memory organization . Representation

Imagine you are skimming this article quickly on your way to journal club. Despite directing your attention to reading, you readily make your way down the hall, perhaps detouring around a recent renovation project, and arrive safely at the seminar room ready to discuss. In addition to revealing your savvy time management skills, you would have demonstrated the fluent spatial memory abilities that underlie many of our daily activities. Humans have the capacity to quickly plan and execute routes through complex environments by accessing spatial memory representations. Given the wealth of navigationally relevant information that must be represented (object locations, environmental structure), successful encoding and subsequent retrieval depend heavily on how the memory representation is organized. As a result, the organizational principles that guide these representations have received considerable attention in the spatial memory literature. In the present article, we consider one of the most consistently observed and supported principles: the establishment of a principal reference orientation (for a review, see McNamara & Valiquette, 2004; Shelton & Yamamoto, 2009).

Principal Reference Theory (PRT) has emerged as a theoretical framework to explain orientation-dependent memory performance. When people are asked to imagine different perspectives of a learned space, they tend to be fastest and/or most accurate for one orientation relative to all others (e.g., Greenauer & Waller, 2008, 2010; Hintzman, O'Dell & Arndt, 1981; Kelly, Avraamides & Loomis, 2007; Kelly & McNamara, 2008; Marchette & Shelton, 2010; May, 2007; Mou & McNamara, 2002; Mou, Liu & McNamara, 2009; Mou, Zhao & McNamara, 2007; Roskos-Ewoldsen, McNamara, Shelton & Carr, 1998; Shelton & Marchette, 2010; Shelton & McNamara 1997, 2001a, 2004a, b; Valiquette & McNamara, 2007; Yamamoto & Shelton 2005, 2007, 2009). According to PRT, representing space involves selecting a principle orientation as the reference for encoding locations (e.g., Shelton & McNamara, 2001a; Werner & Schmidt, 1999). Over the last decade, mounting evidence has suggested that reference orientation selection is based on a hierarchy of cues. Egocentric experience appears to provide a default organization for memory; in the absence of other organizational cues, an egocentrically experienced orientation will serve as the reference (Greenauer & Waller, 2008; Shelton & McNamara, 1997; 2001a, b). Salient organizational cues are a common feature in natural environments, however, and these cues can adjudicate when a space has been experienced from more than one orientation (McNamara, Rump & Werner, 2003; Shelton & McNamara, 2001a; Werner & Schmidt, 1999). For example, the walls of a room provide a strong environmental frame, and an orientation aligned with the walls will be selected over an orientation misaligned with the walls (Shelton & McNamara, 2001a, Exp. …

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