Accessibility Versus Accuracy in Retrieving Spatial Memory: Evidence for Suboptimal Assumed Headings

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Orientation dependence in spatial memory has often been interpreted in terms of accessibility: Object locations are encoded relative to a reference orientation that affords the most accurate access to spatial memory. An open question, however, is whether people naturally use this “preferred” orientation whenever recalling the space. We tested this question by asking participants to locate buildings on a familiar campus from various imagined locations, without specifying the heading to be assumed. We then used these pointing judgments to infer the approximate heading participants assumed at each location. Surprisingly, each location showed a unique assumed heading that was consistent across participants and seemed to reflect episodic or visual properties of the space. This result suggests that although locations are encoded relative to a reference orientation, other factors may influence how people choose to access the stored information and whether they appeal to long-term spatial memory or other more sensory-based stores.

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