Topographical memory for newly-learned maps is differentially affected by route-based versus landmark-based learning: a functional MRI study

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Humans rely on topographical memory to encode information about spatial aspects of environments. However, even though people adopt different strategies when learning new maps, little is known about the impact of those strategies on topographical memory, and their neural correlates. To examine that issue, we presented participants with 40 unfamiliar maps, each of which displayed one major route and three landmarks. Half were instructed to memorize the maps by focusing on the route, whereas the other half memorized the maps by focusing on the landmarks. One day later, the participants were tested on their ability to distinguish previously studied ‘old’ maps from completely unfamiliar ‘new’ maps under conditions of high and low working memory load in the functional MRI scanner. Viewing old versus new maps was associated with relatively greater activation in a distributed set of regions including bilateral inferior temporal gyrus – an important region for recognizing visual objects. Critically, whereas the performance of participants who had followed a route-based strategy dropped to chance level under high working memory load, participants who had followed a landmark-based strategy performed at above chance levels under both high and low working memory load – reflected by relatively greater activation in the left inferior parietal lobule (i.e. rostral part of the supramarginal gyrus known as area PFt). Our findings suggest that landmark-based learning may buffer against the effects of working memory load during recognition, and that this effect is represented by the greater involvement of a brain region implicated in both topographical and working memory.

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