Because we move around in the world, we typically encounter spatial configurations from multiple viewpoints. Multiple viewpoints present novel spatial information, but exactly what is added depends on spatial scale. In large-scale spaces, such as cities, we need multiple viewpoints so that we can see additional spatial locations. Small-scale spaces, such as tabletop arrays, allow us to see the global configuration from a single vantage point. However, multiple viewpoints of a small-scale space still add information because they present additional spatial orientations of the global configuration. The current study examined if experiencing the transition between multiple viewpoints of a small-scale space improves spatial learning and memory (e.g., a tabletop landscape). In the control condition, participants viewed the landscape as a series of static views. In the remaining conditions, participants experienced the transition between viewpoints by rotating the landscape or moving around it. Both types of transitions improved spatial learning and memory. In a second experiment, we added a passive rotation condition to examine the effect of watching the transition without actively generating it. Spatial performance was equivalent across active and passive rotation conditions, with both outperforming static views. Together, these findings suggest that continuous visual flow is key to small-scale spatial learning and memory.
Flexible Spatial Memory
In our next study, we examined the ability to recall a spatial configuration from multiple perspectives, known as “spatial flexibility.” Spatial flexibility is quite challenging, especially when entire configuration cannot be viewed from a single vantage point. For example, the configuration may simply be too large (e.g., the layout of a city), or alternatively, a structure within it may occlude the view of others (e.g., a table setting with a large centerpiece). In either scenario, spatial information is viewed piecemeal from multiple viewpoints that present small chunks of the global configuration. Thus to reason between locations viewed sequentially, spatial information must first be integrated before it can be flexibly recalled.
Our current study examined if experiencing the transition between multiple viewpoints enhances spatial flexibility for a configuration that could be viewed from a single vantage point (Exp. 1) and for one that could not (Exp. 2). In both experiments, participants viewed an array of dollhouse furniture in one of five ways. The control condition presented the dollhouse as a series of static views, whereas in the remaining conditions, visual flow was continuous. Participants viewed the natural transition between viewpoints, and either passively experienced the transitions (by watching the dollhouse rotate or being rolled around it), or actively generated them (by rotating the dollhouse or walking around it). Across both experiments, continuous visual flow significantly enhanced spatial flexibility when paired with observer movement around the dollhouse, either active or passive. Furthermore, when participants had to integrate spatial information across discrete learning experiences (Exp. 2), active movement provided a significant advantage above passive experience. These findings suggest that array stability is key to flexible spatial memory, with action providing an additional boost to spatial integration.