Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Spatial memory enhances the precision of angular self-motion updating


Humans are typically able to keep track of brief changes in their head and body orientation, even when visual and auditory cues are temporarily unavailable. Determining the magnitude of one’s displacement from a known location is one form of self-motion updating. Most research on self-motion updating during body rotations has focused on the role of a restricted set of sensory signals (primarily vestibular) available during self-motion. However, humans can and do internally represent spatial aspects of the environment, and little is known about how remembered spatial frameworks may impact angular self-motion updating. Here, we describe an experiment addressing this issue. Participants estimated the magnitude of passive, non-visual body rotations (40°–130°), using non-visual manual pointing. Prior to each rotation, participants were either allowed full vision of the testing environment, or remained blindfolded. Within-subject response precision was dramatically enhanced when the body rotations were preceded by a visual preview of the surrounding environment; constant (signed) and absolute (unsigned) error were much less affected. These results are informative for future perceptual, cognitive, and neuropsychological studies, and demonstrate the powerful role of stored spatial representations for improving the precision of angular self-motion updating.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5


  1. 1.

    By “sensory processing”, we mean processing that is largely driven by on-going receptor activity; by “cognitive processing”, we mean processing that is largely driven by stored information (e.g., working memory or longer-term representations). In this usage, when vision of the environment is suddenly occluded, sensory processing of the visual input stops, but other types of spatial representations may continue to exist. The fidelity of these representations is thought to depend upon a number of factors, such as the time elapsed since the last view of the environment (Allen and Haun 2004). These representations may be based largely on recent visual inputs, but they are no longer “sensory”, according to our usage of the term.

  2. 2.

    Upon completion of the study, the mean variable, constant, and absolute errors for two of the three left-handed individuals fell within −1.35 and 1.09 standard deviation units of the mean errors of the right-handed participants. For the third individual, errors fell between −1.90 and 2.46 SD units of the mean errors of the right-handed participants in the Pointer Calibration trials, and between 0.61 and 1.09 SD units for the Angular Self-Motion Updating trials. Pointing with the non-preferred hand may have influenced this participant’s pointing calibration, but other factors unrelated to handedness could also be responsible. Given the normal performance of the other two left-handed individuals, the effect of pointing with the non-preferred hand appears to be small. We therefore included the data of all three of these participants in subsequent analyses.


  1. Allen GL, Haun DBM (2004) Proximity and precision in spatial memory. In: Allen GL (ed) Human spatial memory: remembering where. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, pp 41–63

  2. Barr CC, Schultheis LW, Robinson DA (1976) Voluntary, non-visual control of the human vestibulo-ocular reflex. Acta Otolaryngol (Stockholm) 81:365–375

  3. Batschelet E (1981) Circular statistics in biology. Academic, London

  4. Berthoz A (1996) How does the cerebral cortex process and utilize vestibular signals? In: Baloh RW, Halmagyi GM (eds) Disorders of the vestibular system. Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp 113–125

  5. Blouin J, Gauthier GM, Vercher J-L (1995) Failure to update the egocentric representation of the visual space through labyrinthine signal. Brain Cogn 29:1–22

  6. Blouin J, Labrousse L, Simoneau M, Vercher J-L, Gauthier GM (1998) Updating visual space during passive and voluntary head-in-space movements. Exp Brain Res 122:93–100

  7. Bock O (1986) Contribution of retinal versus extraretinal signals towards visual localization in goal-directed movements. Exp Brain Res 64:467–481

  8. Etienne AS, Maurer R, Séguinot V (1996) Path integration in mammals and its interaction with visual landmarks. J Exp Biol 199:201–209

  9. Farrell MJ, Robertson IH (1998) Mental rotation and automatic updating of body-centered spatial relationships. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 24:227–233

  10. Guedry FEJ (1974) Psychophysics of vestibular sensation. In: Kornhuber HH (ed) Handbook of sensory physiology. Springer, Berlin, pp 3–154

  11. Henriques DY, Klier EM, Smith MA, Lowy D, Crawford JD (1998) Gaze-centered remapping of remembered visual space in an open-loop pointing task. J Neurosci 18:1583–1594

  12. Holmes MC, Sholl MJ (2005) Allocentric coding of object-to-object relations in over-learned and novel environments. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 31:1069–1087

  13. Huttenlocher J, Hedges LV, Duncan S (1991) Categories and particulars: prototype effects in estimating spatial location. Psychol Rev 98:352–376

  14. Israël I, Bronstein AM, Kanayama R, Faldon M, Gresty MA (1996) Visual and vestibular factors influencing vestibular “navigation”. Exp Brain Res 112:411–419

  15. Israël I, Grasso R, Georges-Francois P, Tsuzuku T, Berthoz A (1997) Spatial memory and path integration studied by self-driven passive linear displacement. I. Basic properties. J Neurophysiol 77:3180–3192

  16. Ivanenko YP, Grasso R, Israël I, Berthoz A (1997) The contribution of otoliths and semicircular canals to the perception of two-dimensional passive whole-body motion in humans. J Physiol 502(Pt 1):223–233

  17. Jürgens R, Boß T, Becker W (1999) Estimation of self-turning in the dark: comparison between active and passive rotation. Exp Brain Res 128:491–504

  18. Jürgens R, Nasios G, Becker W (2003) Vestibular, optokinetic, and cognitive contribution to the guidance of passive self-rotation toward instructed targets. Exp Brain Res 151:90–107

  19. Kopinska A, Harris LR (2003) Spatial representation in body coordinates: evidence from errors in remembering positions of visual and auditory targets after active eye, head, and body movements. Can J Exp Psychol 57:23–37

  20. Lewald J, Ehrenstein WH (2000) Visual and proprioceptive shifts in perceived egocentric direction induced by eye-position. Vis Res 40:539–547

  21. Loomis JM, Da Silva JA, Philbeck JW, Fukusima SS (1996) Visual perception of location and distance. Curr Dir Psychol Sci 5:72–77

  22. Loomis JM, Klatzky RL, Golledge RG, Philbeck JW (1999) Human navigation by path integration. In: Golledge RG (ed) Wayfinding behavior: cognitive mapping and other spatial processes. Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, pp 125–151

  23. Mergner T, Nasios G, Maurer C, Becker W (2001) Visual object localisation in space: interaction of retinal, eye position, vestibular and neck proprioceptive information. Exp Brain Res 141:33–51

  24. Mergner T, Siebold C, Schweigart G, Becker W (1991) Human perception of horizontal trunk and head rotation in space during vestibular and neck stimulation. Exp Brain Res 85:389–404

  25. Mittelstaedt ML, Mittelstaedt H (1980) Homing by path integration in a mammal. Naturwissenschaften 67:566–567

  26. Mou W, McNamara TP, Valiquette CM, Rump B (2004) Allocentric and egocentric updating of spatial memories. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 30:142–157

  27. Nakamura T, Bronstein AM (1995) The perception of head and neck angular displacement in normal and labyrinthine-defective subjects: a quantitative study using a ‘remembered saccade’ technique. Brain 118:1157–1168

  28. Philbeck JW, Klatzky RK, Behrmann M, Loomis JM, Goodridge J (2001) Active control of locomotion facilitates nonvisual navigation. J Exp Psychol Hum Percept Perform 27:141–153

  29. Philbeck JW, O’Leary SO (2005) Remembered landmarks enhance the precision of path integration. Psicologica 26:7–24

  30. Philbeck JW, Sargent J, Arthur JC, Dopkins S (2007) Large manual pointing errors, but accurate verbal reports, for indications of target azimuth. Perception (in press)

  31. Rieser JJ (1999) Dynamic spatial orientation and the coupling of representation and action. In: Golledge RG (ed) Wayfinding behavior: cognitive mapping and other spatial processes. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, pp 168–190

  32. Siegler I (2000) Idiosyncratic orientation strategies influence self-controlled whole-body rotations in the dark. Cogn Brain Res 9:205–207

  33. Soechting JF, Flanders M (1992) Moving in three-dimensional space: frames of references, vectors, and coordinate systems. Annu Rev Neurosci 15:167–191

  34. Vielledent S, Kosslyn SM, Berthoz A, Giraudo MD (2003) Does mental simulation of following a path improve navigation performance without vision? Cogn Brain Res 16:238–249

  35. Waller D, Hodgson E (2006) Transient and enduring spatial representations under disorientation and self-rotation. J Exp Psychol Learn Mem Cogn 32:867–882

  36. Wang RF, Spelke ES (2000) Updating egocentric representations in human navigation. Cognition 77:215–250

Download references


This work was supported in part by NIH Grant RO1 NS052137 to JP. The authors thank Margaret Cerullo, Peter Foster, Thomas Genarro, Thomas Romano, and Petra Zdenkova for their help in conducting this experiment and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.

Author information

Correspondence to Joeanna C. Arthur.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Arthur, J.C., Philbeck, J.W. & Chichka, D. Spatial memory enhances the precision of angular self-motion updating. Exp Brain Res 183, 557–568 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-007-1075-0

Download citation


  • Manual pointing
  • Spatial cognition
  • Perception/action
  • Path integration