A lone figure traverses a snowy moutain valley.

Movement and Maps

When we’re navigating over long distances, making long treks, we don’t worry much about the positions of our bodies from one minute to the next. We’re more concerned about the dangers of getting lost, perhaps travelling in circles.

Wayfinding is different in several ways from short moves over familiar territory: walking to the car and climbing in, then driving to the supermarket, walking to the produce section and returning home. Spatial skills guide each task from the time we get dressed in the morning, trying to find the arm holes in a shirt that had been turned inside out. We may know what to do once we figure out the landscape, but moving to the right location, a sensorimotor skill, is different from targeting the right location, a spatial skill.

However, there is tremendous overlap in the brain mechanisms of wayfinding and moving within a confining space. Movement teaches us about spatial organization and how to balance by integrating several senses. From any distance, spatial memory helps us find the way home.

Spatial thinking is not important only for migrating away from famine or walking to a house after seeing it from a moving car. It is the foundation for drawing, mathematics, doing science, and a number of sports and games;  and they are enhanced by training. In their application to these abilities, the spatial skill of navigation is augmented by visualization.

A woman is walking through a corn maze.

BIO: Keeping track of where we are is one of the tasks of the hippocampus, a brain structure that sticks in many of our minds because of the late Henry Molaison, identified by his initials, H.M., in research articles linking his surgical removal of hippocampal tissue to a severe anterograde amnesia.

No doubt everyone will recognize the temporal lobes, and the brain tissue removed from H.M.’s brain was the medial temporal lobe on each side of the brain, which contained much of each hippocampus.

It’s important to realize that the hippocampus isn’t just a recorder of memories but a spatial locator as well. Episodic memories are tied to place. That’s the same as saying that episodic memory is spatial. We use space to remember things.

Neurons that record autobiographical memories also record places. The hippocampus forms both episodic and spatial memories.

How do we accomplish this? O’Keefe and the Mosers won the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine by showing how hippocampal place fields and grid cells in the nearby entorhinal cortex supply place markers in the brain that tell us our location and let us know how far we have traveled. Once a rat has learned a location, the hippocampus continues to flash reminders when it re-enters the place (also this) or block unwanted memories (research here). Our GPS apps may leave us struggling to match that.

The hippocampus does not do this all by itself but in collaboration with the entorhinal cortex (right next door) and the prefrontal cortex (some distance away). The hippocampus seems to be particularly involved in episodic memory (everyday experiences) and memory for spatial locations and perhaps time.

As fpr H.M., some researchers today question his relevance to current research.

PSYCHO: Navigation and visualization are two basic processes of spatial cognition. Some people lack one or the other ability, but for most of us it is possible to integrate the two systems of spatial cognition into a cognitive map that relates a location of interest to its surroundings, preserving the direction and distance of landmarks around us. I doubt anyone imagines that it could be simple; some speculate that it’s impossible or misconceived.

Spatial thinking is important in most of our movements, all the more in behaviors that are movement-based, like dancing, which you can experience here. The quintessential spatial skill that has been studied in the laboratory is mental rotation, which you can practice here or there or yonder. It can be fun, and sports can help.

Unfortunately for divers and astronauts, our cognitive maps are quite flat, although we may possess the infrastructure for 3D maps; and if pilots stay on the ground they still do better than the rest of us, except maybe for cabbies. Our cognitive maps are not all the same, even for similar locations and movements.

SOCIAL: A cognitive map is not a region of semantic memory like a road map. It needs constant updating as we move around and at least occasional comparison with other features of the people around us than their location. That is to say, cognitive maps are also social maps.

Physical space is encoded in cognitive maps to facilitate our movements. Several disorders of spatial cognition show the confusion that results from an inability to orient oneself. A question that has been raised but not yet answered concerns what happens in our social spaces when our social maps are not formed.

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