Brain ‘prototypes’ help us navigate new environments, study shows

To truly understand how the brain is working, Crawford says we have to know how the different areas of the brain, and different neurons in those areas, are connecting to each other

A new review paper that examines how the brain forms lasting memories of spatial environments, and how those representations change with our experience in those environments, brings forth a novel theory on how spatial schemas and cognitive maps are formed and used.

Published online in Nature Reviews Neuroscience, the article “From cognitive maps to spatial schemas” takes a closer look at how the different parts of the brain interact with one another to help extract commonalities from multiple environments that we have navigated to form a prototype of those environments. Schemas are structured bodies of prior knowledge that reflect common patterns of information from related experiences. Schemas of everyday events help us interpret new experiences and guide expectations, but little is known about if and how schemas apply to learning to navigate in new environments.

The new theory helps to make sense of accumulating research, including seminal work conducted at York University, by suggesting that these brain prototypes might help us navigate new environments that we have previously not experienced, but that resemble places we have visited in the past.

Shayna Rosenbaum
Shayna Rosenbaum

This work was led by Faculty of Health Professor Shayna Rosenbaum, York Research Chair in Cognitive Neuroscience of Memory and core member of York’s Vision: Science to Applications (VISTA) Program and Centre for Vision Research (CVR), with former VISTA and CVR MA student Dela Farzanfar as first author, along with collaborators at the Rotman Research Institute at Baycrest Health Sciences and at University College London. The paper presents a theory that fills in holes that had gone unaddressed by the highly influential “Cognitive Map Theory,” which was recognized by a Nobel Prize in Physiology in 2014.

Spatial schemas form after navigation of similarly structured environments, for instance, how one might expect the layout of a modern industrialized city to appear. These spatial schemas share properties with cognitive maps (such as a memory of a specific modern city) and event schemas (such as expected events in a modern city) but are distinct at both the cognitive and neural level.

The review concludes that in order to better understand how spatial schemas form and how they relate to event schemas, it is important to incorporate findings from multiple disciplines ranging from rodent models and human neuropsychology to architecture and urban analytics, including the scale of an environment and how it is segmented.

“These findings have significant implications for predicting what will be spared and what will be impaired in individuals who are at risk of developing a wide range of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s disease,” says Rosenbaum.

The review was supported by York’s VISTA (Vision: Science to Application) program and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

The article will appear in print in early 2023.