Verbal cues flexibly transform spatial representations in human memory

Candace E. Peacock, Arne D. Ekstrom

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Humans possess a unique ability to communicate spatially-relevant information, yet the intersection between language and navigation remains largely unexplored. One possibility is that verbal cues accentuate heuristics useful for coding spatial layouts, yet this idea remains largely untested. We test the idea that verbal cues flexibly accentuate the coding of heuristics to remember spatial layouts via spatial boundaries or landmarks. The alternative hypothesis instead conceives of encoding during navigation as a step-wise process involving binding lower-level features, and thus subsequently formed spatial representations should not be modified by verbal cues. Across three experiments, we found that verbal cues significantly affected pointing error patterns at axes that were aligned with the verbally cued heuristic, suggesting that verbal cues influenced the heuristics employed to remember object positions. Further analyses suggested evidence for a hybrid model, in which boundaries were encoded more obligatorily than landmarks, but both were accessed flexibly with verbal instruction. These findings could not be accounted for by a tendency to spend more time facing the instructed component during navigation, ruling out an attentional-encoding mechanism. Our findings argue that verbal cues influence the heuristics employed to code environments, suggesting a mechanism for how humans use language to communicate navigationally-relevant information.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)465-479
Number of pages15
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 21 2019


  • Memory
  • features
  • geometry
  • spatial cognition
  • spatial navigation
  • verbal cues

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • General Psychology


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