When Do Objects Become Landmarks? A VR Study of the Effect of Task Relevance on Spatial Memory
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We investigated how objects come to serve as landmarks in spatial memory, and more specifically how they form part of an allocentric cognitive map. Participants performing a virtual driving task incidentally learned the layout of a virtual town and locations of objects in that town. They were subsequently tested on their spatial and recognition memory for the objects. To assess whether the objects were encoded allocentrically we examined pointing consistency across tested viewpoints. In three experiments, we found that spatial memory for objects at navigationally relevant locations was more consistent across tested viewpoints, particularly when participants had more limited experience of the environment. When participants' attention was focused on the appearance of objects, the navigational relevance effect was eliminated, whereas when their attention was focused on objects' locations, this effect was enhanced, supporting the hypothesis that when objects are processed in the service of navigation, rather than merely being viewed as objects, they engage qualitatively distinct attentional systems and are incorporated into an allocentric spatial representation. The results are consistent with evidence from the neuroimaging literature that when objects are relevant to navigation, they not only engage the ventral "object processing stream", but also the dorsal stream and medial temporal lobe memory system classically associated with allocentric spatial memory.
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