Emerging spatial memories in the human brain
The ability to maintain a sense of direction and location while moving about in the environment represents one of the most fundamental cognitive functions. When lesions to the brain impair navigational abilities, patients often experience devastating effects on their everyday lives, including a complete loss of independence. Early neuroimaging studies often attempted to identify a ‘human navigation network’ with complex wayfinding paradigms, despite our lack of knowledge about many fundamental processes. In this talk I will present a number of studies that combine functional and structural MRI, eye movement recordings and navigation in virtual environments. By introducing novel paradigms to study spatial updating, path integration and navigational learning, we have characterized the cortical architecture that supports processes fundamental to spatial navigation. Findings from these experiments not only provide unique insights into the formation of cognitive maps, but they also have important implications for theoretical models of spatial learning. Moreover, we have started to elucidate neuroanatomical correlates of interindividual performance differences that are especially pronounced in the domain of spatial cognition. These experiments have laid the foundation for future work that will test predictions derived from machine learning approaches, Bayesian integration of spatial cues and formal models of decision making.