Investigating how differences in environmental layout influence the neural topography of spatial navigation
Pilot study (2011-2012)  

Conducted with the support of MaxNet Cognition


Prof. Günther Schlee (Head of the project)
Prof. Robert Turner (Head of the project)
Kirill Istomin (Principal Investigator)
Juan F. Domínguez (Principal Investigator)
Gary F. Egan (Principal Investigator)
Joachim Otto Habeck (Research Assistant)
Jaroslava Panáková (Research Assistant)
Denis Kostylev (Programmer)

Theoretical background

People vary in the degree to which they rely on two basic navigational strategies. One strategy makes use of explicit memory of spatial relations between known landmarks – the so-called cognitive or mental map. The other strategy involves behavioural responses (i.e., turns or continuing movement straight ahead) to chains of stimuli specifying certain routes – so-called route knowledge. Individuals differ significantly in their relative mastery of one or the other strategy and studies have shown that they may systematically prefer one over the other. People also have a tendency to learn spatial information specific to one of the navigational strategies at the expense of that specific to the other strategy. Furthermore, long-term reliance on one or the other strategy has been shown to lead to structural changes in the brain.

Little is known about the factors involved in the formation of individual preferences for navigational strategies. However, it is rather likely that at least some of these factors are group-specific (i. e. they affect groups rather than individuals) and, therefore, they are likely to lead to group-specific differences in navigation and spatial learning style. Thus, it has been convincingly argued that the effectiveness and the very applicability of the two navigational and learning strategies essentially depend on the type of environment, with mental mapping being more effective in environments with unrestricted vistas and a limited number of distant landmarks (such as a steppe or a desert) and the strategy of route following being more effective in environments with restricted vistas and a considerable number of close-up landmarks (such as a dense forest). Other factors may include the experience in navigation, the peculiarities of navigational tasks themselves, and the means of travelling. All these are likely to depend on profession, social status and way of life and, therefore, to be group-specific as well. Finally, a large range of possible social and cultural factors, which are particularly difficult to investigate by usual laboratory methods, can be suggested to determine group-specific differences in navigational and spatial learning styles.

The predisposition to deploy one strategy more often than the other are likely to have pronounced behavioural and cognitive consequences for two reasons. First, the two strategies support and limit navigation in different ways: the route knowledge strategy seems to be more straightforward and lead to fewer errors in navigation; the mental map strategy, despite being more prone to errors, allows the possibility to calculate and take new and potentially more efficient routes to the target. Second, the changes in brain structures associated with a particular navigational and spatial learning style can have effects on other cognitive abilities and, therefore, on other brain regions. These effects, if present in groups, are likely to have social and cultural consequences. Therefore, an evaluation of the distribution of spatial navigation and learning styles between groups as well as of factors contributing to their formation would be an important contribution to both neuroscience and a range of social disciplines. Although such an assessment lies outside the main focus of research in all these disciplines, it is a suitable task for neuroanthropology, a new field of study that integrates theory and methods from anthropology and neuroscience to investigate the ways in which culture and the brain interact.

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