This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 202
2003 First Web Paper
On Serendip

Where am I Going? Where Have I Been: Spatial Cognition and Navigation.

Erin Fulchiero

In the complex dissection of the human brain evolving in our course, great strides have been made on the path to comprehension of thought and action. Evidence concerning the true relationship of mind, body, and behavior has been elucidated through discoveries of the neural pathways enabling active translation of input to output. We have suggested the origins of action, discussed stimuli both internal and external, as well as concepts of self, agency, and personality interwoven with a more accessible comprehension of physical functionality. However, I remain unable to superimpose upon the current construct of brain and behavior a compatible notion of awareness of self. What are the cognitive and neural mechanisms involved in understanding the spatial relationships between oneself and other objects in the world? How do we even become aware of space and the environment in which we live? What element of the nervous system governs those processes, which enable human beings to navigate through space?

The term "spatial cognition" is used to describe those processes controlling behavior that must be directed at particular location, as well as those responses that depend on location or spatial arrangement of stimuli (1). Navigation refers to the process of strategic route planning and way finding, where way finding is defined as a dynamic step-by-step decision-making process required to negotiate a path to a destination (2). As a spatial behavior, negotiation demands a spatial representation; a neural code that distinguishes one place or spatial arrangement of stimuli from another (1). What, though, serves as such a representation in navigation and from where are these representations derived? The processes occurring within the hippocampus provide such representations.

The hippocampal mode of processing is concerned primarily with large distances and long spaces of time. These processes demand a very specific form of spatial representation, which relate locations to one another as well as to landmarks in an environment, rather than simply to the agent of action. Spatial attention and action, which result from encoded sensory information, are controlled by the parietal neocortex (1). Information relating to the location and stimuli derived from that location is encoded in sensory cortices. Informed by this egocentric information, allocentric representations provide a basis from which one's current location and orientation can be computed from one's relationship to sensory cues in the environment. This particular set of locations is referred to as a cognitive map. Cognitive maps are those overall images or representations of the spaces and layout of a setting, which ultimately function in the recognition of location (2) .

Cognitive maps can also be more tangibly understood as the internal representations of the world and its spatial properties stored in memory (3). This memory can include the ideas of what is present in the immediate environment, what are the attributes of that environment, where is the location of a goal environment or destination, and how to physically progress to that location. These maps cannot be interpreted as cartographic maps existing within the brain, but rather as an assembly of incompletely integrated, discrete pieces such as landmarks, routes and regions (4). These pieces are determined by physical, perceptual, or conceptual boundaries. Neural representations of these elements of space are maintained over time and the brain must solve the problem of updating them each time physical location is altered, and subsequently, a receptor surface is moved (5). With every movement of the eye, we introduce a new object into our visual field. These novel objects activate a new set of retinal neurons. Despite this constant change, we experience the world as stable, and remain capable or more capable, rather, of movement through space. Hence, we are granted the ability to visually accept two-dimensional information and convert it to layout knowledge of simultaneous interrelations of locations and, through the complex workings of the human brain, undertake creative navigation.

Embracing a new comprehension of the human perception of physical space and reveling in the completion of my first web paper, I suddenly become aware of a striking truth. Before me, I see nothing more than a two dimensional space, images on my computer screen and virtual addresses and locations, through which I have myself been traversing and navigating. And yet, I feel as though I have recently utilized those same capabilities and cognitive resources on which I depend to find my way to my next class. There remain myriad questions to answer about the human potential for utilization of spatial cognition, and the utilization of spatial learning developed by the personal experience and internal and external stimuli.

Web Sources
1) Models of Spatial Cognition , a paper by the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.

2) Psycholoquy , Golledge article of great interest.

3) Spatial Cognition , a paper by Hanspeter A. Mallot.

4) MITECS , The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences.

5) The Mind's View of Space , an academic paper.

| Course Home Page | Course Forum | Brain and Behavior | Serendip Home |

Send us your comments at Serendip

© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Wednesday, 02-May-2018 10:53:04 CDT