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WIREs Cogn Sci
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Psychology of spatial cognition

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Abstract In this overview, focusing on memory and higher cognitive processes, we cover some of the most relevant results that emerged from research on spatial cognition in animals and in humans in the last 3 decades. In particular, we discuss how representations of distance and direction are used to localize oneself with respect to the external world, to determine the position of objects with respect to each other, and to compute the position of invisible goals. The role of landmarks and environmental geometry as cues for extracting spatial information in such abilities is compared, and the reliance upon self‐centered and external frames of reference is discussed. Moreover, the contribution of working memory and processing strategies in forming representations of spatial relations in humans is presented. Finally, implications for some neighboring fields of the cognitive sciences will be outlined. WIREs Cogn Sci 2012. doi: 10.1002/wcs.1198 This article is categorized under: Psychology > Memory

Tinbergen's experiment on homing in digger wasps.13 Above: a digger wasp (Philantus triangulum) homing to its nest, surrounded by a circle of pine cones. Below: when the pine cones are shifted to a different location, the wasp directs its flight to the middle of the circle, showing that the position of the nest was encoded relative to the pattern of pine cones.

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Schematization of the rectangular enclosure as seen from above. Corners A and C are geometrically equivalent, as both are defined by a left wall on the left and a long wall on the right. The position of a goal (the filled circle) is systematically confused with its rotational equivalent (dashed circle).

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Reactions of ants of the species Melophorus bagoti to contraction and expansion of a landmark array and landmark size. After training to find a goal in the middle of a four‐landmark array (left), the landmark array is expanded (the distances are doubled) leaving the size of landmarks unaltered (middle) or also doubling the size of landmarks (right). Searching behavior is represented as more or less spatially concentrated by the size and density of texture of gray areas. Examples of individual trajectories are also represented. (Reprinted with permission from Ref 30. Copyright 2007 Springer Verlag)

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An example of the vector sum model, as derived from data on pigeons. The two rectangles represent two wooden blocks located by the wall in an enclosure (larger frame). The position of the goal G is determined by vector summation of the two vectors v1 and v2, respectively, encoding distance and direction from a corner and an edge. The goal G is also defined by the intersection of the two lines, p1 and p2, perpendicular to the nearby surfaces (albeit with different weights according to distance, as reflected by the thickness of the lines). (Reprinted with permission from Ref 20. Copyright 2006 Elsevier)

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Reaction of bees (Apis mellifera) and gerbils (Meriones unguiculatus) to contraction and expansion in size of a landmark.14,15 (a) After learning the position of a sucrose dish located close to a landmark (above), halving the size (middle) or doubling the size (below) of the landmark results in proportional shifts of the searching behavior of bees. (b) With a similar paradigm, gerbils trained to uncover a sunflower seed, proportionally adapt their searching behavior after the reduction but not after the expansion in size of the landmark.

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