Updating egocentric representations in human navigation

Ranxiao Frances Wang, Elizabeth S. Spelke

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Seven experiments tested whether human navigation depends on enduring representations, or on momentary egocentric representations that are updated as one moves. Human subjects pointed to unseen targets, either while remaining oriented or after they had been disoriented by self-rotation. Disorientation reduced not only the absolute accuracy of pointing to all objects ('heading error') but also the relative accuracy of pointing to different objects ('configuration error'). A single light providing a directional cue reduced both heading and configuration errors if it was present throughout the experiment. If the light was present during learning and test but absent during the disorientation procedure, however, subjects showed low heading errors (indicating that they reoriented by the light) but high configuration errors (indicating that they failed to retrieve an accurate cognitive map of their surroundings). These findings provide evidence that object locations are represented egocentrically. Nevertheless, disorientation had little effect on the coherence of pointing to different room corners, suggesting both (a) that the disorientation effect on representations of object locations is not due to the experimental paradigm and (b) that room geometry is captured by an enduring representation. These findings cast doubt on the view that accurate navigation depends primarily on an enduring, observer-free cognitive map, for humans construct such a representation of extended surfaces but not of objects. Like insects, humans represent the egocentric distances and directions of objects and continuously update these representations as they move. The principal evolutionary advance in animal navigation may concern the number of unseen targets whose egocentric directions and distances can be represented and updated simultaneously, rather than a qualitative shift in navigation toward reliance on an allocentric map. Copyright (C) 2000 Elsevier Science B.V.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)215-250
Number of pages36
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 15 2000


  • Egocentric representations
  • Human navigation
  • Updating

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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