The map is in our heads… and bodies!

Different scientific evidences suggest that separate but interconnected parts of our brain assume specific functions in building an internal map of space which helps keep track of one’s position in the world.

Spatial memories are formed after an animal gathers and processes sensory information about its surroundings especially by the way of vision and proprioception. In general, mammals require a functioning Hippocampus in order to form and process memories about space. So as spatial cognition is fundamental for survival in the topographically complex environments inhabited by humans and other animals, the Hippocampus has a central role in spatial cognition which is characterized by high concentration of a neurotransmitter called Serotonin.

Finding one’s way around an environment and remembering the events that occur within it are crucial cognitive abilities. As researchers Neil Burgess, Eleanor A. Maguire and JohnO’Keefe observe the mental representation of space must not only contain the relative locations of objects in the environment, but also has to be orientated appropriately with respect to that environment. Experiments suggest that humans by using self-motion cues produce idiothetic signals that can be used to update the orientation of the spatial representation of an environment.

Schematic illustration of brain areas involved in spatial memory and the corresponding serotonin pathways (adapted from Heimer, 1994).

Another part of our brains that participates in the mapping of the environment is the Parietal Cortex which encodes spatial information using an egocentric frame of reference. As researchers Carol L. Colby and Michael E. Goldberg have observed it is involved in the transformation of sensory information coordinates into action by updating the spatial representation of the body within the environment. Also some Frontal and Prefrontal Cortical Areas represent visual space in orderly, reproducible, topographic maps. As Donald J. Hagler, Jr. and  Marty Sereno have observed these maps may be useful for attending to task-relevant objects at various spatial locations, an aspect of the executive control of attention.Finally, but not least, the Thalamus -once viewed as passively relaying sensory information to the cerebral cortex- is becoming increasingly acknowledged as actively regulating the information transmitted to the mentioned Cortical Areas.

“Traveler, there is no path.
The path is made by walking.

Traveller, the path is your tracks
And nothing more.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
By walking you make a path
And turning, you look back
At a way you will never tread again

Traveller, there is no road
Only wakes in the sea.”

― Antonio Machado, Border of a Dream: Selected Poems.

As we have seen Neuroscience it’s very useful to understand how humans view space, place, and environment which summed with the field of Cognitive Geography can be an innovative tool in order to study spatial cognition and end up creating a more effective representations of space. Cognitive geography emerged as an approach within human geography and as an interdisciplinary link with psychology and other fields like map design, urban planning and landscape design, and models of spatial behavior and interaction, including travel, communication, and economic activity. The study of cognition is thus a concern for geographers because it involves the fundamental geographic issues of space, place, and environment. From this point of view Cognition is knowledge and knowing by sentient entities, including humans, nonhuman animals, and artificially intelligent machines. Cognitive structures and processes include those of sensation, perception, thinking, learning, memory, attention, imagination, conceptualization, language, and reasoning and problem solving.

Humans acquire geographic knowledge about the spatial and nonspatial properties of the Earth which then is encoded in the nervous system in the form of patterned mental representations, which can also be translated to symbolic artifacts (cartographic maps, verbal descriptions, numerical equations…). Our conduct then emerges from the real-time interaction between a nervous system in a body with particular capabilities to process information and an environment that offers opportunities for action to this organism. Therefore cognition is a constructive process since these fundamental sensorimotor experiences achieved through actions in the environment and our sensorymotor perceptions in the world are actively constructed to facilitate concept formation. As professor Daniel R. Montello writes in the International Encyclopedia of Human Geography our “mind emerges from brain and nervous system, in a body that is in a physical and social world”.

The kind of Embodied Cognition presented here is the claim that the brain is not the only resource we have available to generate behaviour. Our conduct emerges from the real-time interaction between a nervous system in a body with particular capabilities to process information and an environment that offers opportunities for action to this organism. Now from this point of view, the brain is part of a broader system that mixes perception and action instead of having to represent symbolic knowledge about the world and using it to simply output commands.

For all of this, the movements of skateboarders while experiencing the city can be a opportunity to re-conceptualize our experience of the urban landscape. While proprioception helps us acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, this new olympic sport (skateboarding) can not only help us develop coordination within our built environment, but also offers us a way to creatively write our spatial memories… What Are We Waiting For? Let’s Go!


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