It’s Not As Far As You Think (Earth Current)

Crowds of pedestrians crossing streets. Photo by Jodi Cobb.

Learning your way around a new neighborhood may play tricks on how you perceive distances. A recent study by researchers at Northwestern University has shown that the more familiar you become with a place, the more biased your spatial memory of that place becomes.

The study, which was conducted on Northwestern students, compared freshman and senior perceptions about the size of campus. While seniors had a more accurate understanding of the relationship of buildings to one another, they tended to exaggerate the distance between the boundaries of the north and south ends of campus.

David Uttal, a professor of psychology, who conducted the study along with Alinda Friedman at the University of Alberta, said that he first noticed this trend when he heard students talk about walking to classes: “I’ve had students tell me that they may be a few minutes late for class because they are coming all the way from south campus,” he said. “And I’m thinking, ‘It’s only a six-minute walk.’

“Another time I overheard a student say, ‘This better be good, because I don’t go to north campus for nothing.’

It may seem counterintuitive that spatial memory becomes more biased as it becomes more accurate, Dr. Uttal said, but in fact, it “shows how different kinds of information are stored and thought about differently in the mind.”

The study has been published in the December issue of Memory & Cognition.

For all the latest science news, check out our twice-weekly news rundown, Earth Current.


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