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Prog Brain Res. 2009;176:181-94. doi: 10.1016/S0079-6123(09)17610-0.

Cognitive maps and attention.

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Department of Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.


Cognitive map theory suggested that exploring an environment and attending to a stimulus should lead to its integration into an allocentric environmental representation. We here report that directed attention in the form of exploration serves to gather information needed to determine an optimal spatial strategy, given task demands and characteristics of the environment. Attended environmental features may integrate into spatial representations if they meet the requirements of the optimal spatial strategy: when learning involves a cognitive mapping strategy, cues with high codability (e.g., concrete objects) will be incorporated into a map, but cues with low codability (e.g., abstract paintings) will not. However, instructions encouraging map learning can lead to the incorporation of cues with low codability. On the other hand, if spatial learning is not map-based, abstract cues can and will be used to encode locations. Since exploration appears to determine what strategy to apply and whether or not to encode a cue, recognition memory for environmental features is independent of whether or not a cue is part of a spatial representation. In fact, when abstract cues were used in a way that was not map-based, or when they were not used for spatial navigation at all, they were nevertheless recognized as familiar. Thus, the relation between exploratory activity on the one hand and spatial strategy and memory on the other appears more complex than initially suggested by cognitive map theory.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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