Humans compartmentalize their spatial memory

TüBINGEN, Germany, Sept. 6 (UPI) — The human ability to memorize the organization of objects in space is called spatial memory. It’s the reason we can quickly locate a coffee mug, coffee beans and the coffee maker in the morning.

Scientists understand the importance of spatial memory, but researchers haven’t been able to figure out how mental maps are structured. Is there one big bird’s-eye view of the a person’s entire house, for example? Or are there a series of separate maps — one for each room or each cupboard?

New research suggests there is no master plan.

To determine how people formulate spatial memory, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics had volunteers memorize the location of objects in a 3D world created by 3D goggles. Some study participants who were forced to walk about digital corridors to locate objects, while others were able to view a big open room full of objects.

Those presented with a space divided into corridors recalled the position of each object with greatest accuracy.

“Our findings do not support the idea that we construct a large comprehensive mental map of the environment, from which we can flexibly read information about all locations,” researcher Marianne Strickrodt explained in a news release. “Figuratively speaking, our spatial memory of the coffee machine in the kitchen doesn’t necessarily include the location of the hairbrush in the bathroom and vice versa.”

“If we want to point from the kitchen to the hairbrush in the bathroom, the way we access our spatial memory follows our actual learning experience step by step: first the kitchen, then the hallway, and then the bathroom,” Strickrodt added.

In their study, published in the journal Cognition, researchers described objects hidden within corridors as those found in “environmental space,” as opposed to those organized within a large master map — objects in “vista.”

While mental maps used for object-location may not be overarching or expansive in nature, researchers say more work needs to be done to understand how “vista” spacial memories might aid wayfinding.

“The study findings are relevant for the research on the neuronal basis of navigation,” said lead study author Tobias Meilinger. “Many previous findings were obtained in the context of vista spaces. The extent to which these results are applicable to environmental spaces, or whether completely new mechanisms must be sought for, poses a fascinating question for future research.”

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