Familiarity and spatial cognitive style: How important are they for spatial representation?

Raffaella Nori, Laura Piccardi

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


How we acquire and represent spatial information is one of the most important unsolved issues in spatial cognition. Siegel and White (1975) affirmed that different forms of environmental knowledge are acquired and represented depending on the type of information selected: landmark, characterized by environmental patterns that are perceptually salient or important for the person; route, based on the pathes generally used to connect landmarks; and survey, an overall configuration of the environment, similar to a map. According to these authors, anyone can reach survey representation with extensive experience of the environment. Recently, Pazzaglia and co-workers (2000) demonstrated that these three types of representations correspond to three different spatial cognitive styles. Conversely, according to Montello (1998) a pure landmark or route representation does not exist; indeed, during their first exposure to the environment, people acquire and represent an overall survey configuration of it. Our aim was to determine whether environmental familiarity and/or spatial cognitive style predict the way we acquire and represent spatial information. Forty participants who had different degrees of familiarity with the Italian city of Bologna took part in the experiment. Familiarity with Bologna was evaluated using a questionnaire. This city was selected because it has a small and well-defined centre that can be easily explored on foot. Participants were further subdivided by spatial cognitive style to assess its weight in environmental representation. They performed six spatial tasks concerning Bologna that measured different spatial abilities, based on Siegel and White's frameworks (1975). We found that neither familiarity with the environment nor spatial cognitive style predict the correct solution of landmark tasks, whereas both familiarity with the environment and spatial cognitive style predict the correct solution of route and survey tasks.. Thus, we can affirm that both familiarity with the environment and spatial cognitive style are important for acquiring and representing spatial information, but their involvement depends on task demands. To our knowledge, this is the first study in which knowledge of a real town has been measured. This ecological setting allowed us to propose a new model to explain individual differences in moving successfully through the environment.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSpatial Memory: Visuospatial Processes, Cognitive Performance and Developmental Effects
PublisherNova Science Publishers, Inc.
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)9781616681395
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2011

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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