Your Brain’s GPS and Memories are Linked – Research On “Space” and Episodic Memories

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Summary: A new study delves into the intricate relationship between spatial cognition and episodic memory. This means we may be able to improve to reduce the creation of new memories by utilizing the room, area, or environment that someone is in. This research is centered around understanding how our brain's spatial processing, particularly within the hippocampus, influences our ability to recall past events.

a brain map

Practical Applications

Understanding the connection between spatial cognition (our brain's GPS) and episodic memory (the order of events) has profound implications. If we can pinpoint how the brain's spatial mechanisms influence memory, it can pave the way for advanced cognitive therapies, memory-enhancement techniques, and interventions for memory-related disorders.

Essentially, it's about optimizing the brain's "internal GPS" to improve memory recall. The findings of this research have several real-world implications that can be transformative in various fields:

  1. Cognitive Therapies: By understanding the relationship between spatial cognition and episodic memory, therapists can develop targeted interventions for individuals with memory-related disorders. For instance, if a patient struggles with memory recall, spatial-based exercises or therapies might be employed to enhance their episodic memory capabilities.
  2. Educational Strategies: Educators can leverage this knowledge to create more effective learning environments. If spatial cognition is linked to memory, then teaching methods that incorporate spatial reasoning or physical movement might boost memory retention in students. This could revolutionize classroom setups, teaching techniques, and even the design of educational software.
  3. Virtual Reality and Gaming: The gaming and VR industries can benefit from these insights. If game developers understand how spatial navigation impacts memory, they can design games that not only entertain but also enhance memory skills. Imagine a VR game that, while being fun, also serves as a memory-enhancing tool.
  4. Aging and Memory: As the global population ages, memory-related issues become more prevalent. Understanding the spatial-memory connection can lead to proactive strategies for the elderly, such as spatial exercises or games that help in slowing down memory decline.
  5. Neurological Research: This study can pave the way for further research into other brain regions and their roles in memory and cognition. It can help neuroscientists pinpoint specific neural pathways or mechanisms that are activated during spatial navigation and memory recall.
  6. Urban Planning and Architecture: If there's a strong link between spatial cognition and memory, then the way we design our cities, buildings, or even parks can impact our cognitive functions. Urban planners and architects might consider these findings when designing spaces to optimize human cognitive performance.

In essence, the intertwining of spatial cognition and episodic memory isn't just a fascinating academic topic; it has the potential to reshape numerous industries and practices, leading to improved cognitive health and performance.

Key Facts

  1. The hippocampus, a region in our brain, plays a pivotal role in both spatial navigation and episodic memory recall.
  2. While initial research focused on the hippocampus's role in spatial understanding (like navigating mazes), it's now believed to be integral to episodic memory in humans.
  3. The primary challenge is discerning which aspects of spatial cognition are crucial for episodic memory.

Research Performed

a maze

Background and Approach:
The study is not just a standalone experiment but a comprehensive review, which means it's a synthesis of multiple research studies conducted over the years. The researchers embarked on this journey to understand the dual role of the hippocampus in both spatial cognition and episodic memory. Instead of conducting new experiments, they meticulously analyzed existing literature, pulling data from various sources to form a cohesive understanding.

Animal Models:
A significant portion of the foundational knowledge comes from animal studies, primarily rodents. These studies often involve mazes or spatial navigation tasks. For instance, a rat might be placed in a maze and observed as it finds its way to a reward. By monitoring brain activity, especially in the hippocampus, researchers can draw conclusions about the role of spatial cognition. These animal models provide a controlled environment to understand the basic mechanisms of the brain, which can then be extrapolated to more complex human behaviors.

Human Studies:
In addition to animal models, the review also encompassed human-based research. These studies are more diverse, ranging from lab-based experiments where participants might be asked to recall specific events while their brain activity is monitored, to more naturalistic assessments. The latter is especially crucial as it evaluates how these processes function in real-world settings, not just under controlled lab conditions. For example, a participant might be asked to navigate a real or virtual environment and then recall specific details about it.

Challenges and Considerations:
One of the primary challenges the researchers faced was the ambiguity in defining what aspect of "space" is essential for memory. Is it the physical layout, the emotional connection to a place, or some other factor? This question remains a central theme throughout the research. Additionally, while the hippocampus is a focal point, the brain is a complex network, and understanding how different regions interact is vital.


Authors: Carina L. Fan, H. Moriah Sokolowski, R. Shayna Rosenbaum, Brian Levine

Contact: [email protected]

Image: The image is credited to PracticalPsychology

Original Research: "What about “space” is important for episodic memory?" by Carina L. Fan et al. WIREs Cognitive Science


What about "Space" is important for episodic memory?

Early cognitive neuroscientific research revealed that the hippocampus is crucial for spatial navigation in rodents, and for autobiographical episodic memory in humans. Researchers quickly linked these streams to propose that the human hippocampus supports memory through its role in representing space, and research on the link between spatial cognition and episodic memory in humans has proliferated over the past several decades.

Different researchers apply the term “spatial” in a variety of contexts, however, and it remains unclear what aspect of space may be critical to memory. Similarly, “episodic” has been defined and tested in different ways.

Naturalistic assessment of spatial memory and episodic memory (i.e., episodic autobiographical memory) is required to unify the scale and biological relevance in comparisons of spatial and mnemonic processing.

Limitations regarding the translation of rodent to human research, human ontogeny, and inter-individual variability require greater consideration in the interpretation of this literature.

In this review, we outline the aspects of space that are (and are not) commonly linked to episodic memory, and then we discuss these dimensions through the lens of individual differences in naturalistic autobiographical memory. Future studies should carefully consider which aspect(s) of space are being linked to memory within the context of naturalistic human cognition.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2023, September). Your Brain's GPS and Memories are Linked - Research On "Space" and Episodic Memories. Retrieved from

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