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Anim Cogn. 2009 Mar;12(2):237-47. doi: 10.1007/s10071-008-0182-z. Epub 2008 Sep 3.

Evidence against integration of spatial maps in humans: generality across real and virtual environments.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, Armstrong Atlantic State University, 229 Science Center, 11935 Abercorn Street, Savannah, GA 31419, USA.


A real-world open-field search task was implemented with humans as an analogue of Blaisdell and Cook's (Anim Cogn 8:7-16, 2005) pigeon foraging task and Sturz, Bodily, and Katz's (Anim Cogn 9:207-217, 2006) human virtual foraging task to 1) determine whether humans were capable of integrating independently learned spatial maps and 2) make explicit comparisons of mechanisms used by humans to navigate real and virtual environments. Participants searched for a hidden goal located in one of 16 bins arranged in a 4 x 4 grid. In Phase 1, the goal was hidden between two landmarks (blue T and red L). In Phase 2, the goal was hidden to the left and in front of a single landmark (blue T). Following training, goal-absent trials were conducted in which the red L from Phase 1 was presented alone. Bin choices during goal-absent trials assessed participants' strategies: association (from Phase 1), generalization (from Phase 2), or integration (combination of Phase 1 and 2). Results were inconsistent with those obtained with pigeons but were consistent with those obtained with humans in a virtual environment. Specifically, during testing, participants did not integrate independently learned spatial maps but used a generalization strategy followed by a shift in search behavior away from the test landmark. These results were confirmed by a control condition in which a novel landmark was presented during testing. Results are consistent with the bulk of recent findings suggesting the use of alternative navigational strategies to cognitive mapping. Results also add to a growing body of literature suggesting that virtual environment approaches to the study of spatial learning and memory have external validity and that spatial mechanisms used by human participants in navigating virtual environments are similar to those used in navigating real-world environments.

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