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What Is Spatial Working Memory?

Article Details
  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: E. E. Hubbard
  • Last Modified Date: 21 January 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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Spatial working memory is an important means of information storage, information processing, and information recall. Specifically, spatial memory catalogs the information needed for an individual to recognize and interact with his or her environment. These representations are often mental maps within a person’s mind, and much of this capacity is found in working memory. This type of memory processes information that a person is using while he or she is performing a task, such as navigating a specific environment. Many individuals with brain injuries or diseases experience problems with spatial working memory.

Three different memory types exist: short-term, working, and long-term. The former and the latter may be self-explanatory. Short-term memories represent information that is temporarily stored so that it can be used in the short term, such as information for a test. Long-term memory, on the other hand, stores information that an individual will use often and for a long period of time, like knowledge and skills for a job. Spatial memory can be stored in both of these forms, the contrast being remembering road locations for a summer trip versus remembering the layout of one’s hometown.

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Working memory, on the other hand, emphasizes information stored and used for the present moment or the immediate task at hand. An individual may, for example, read an instruction manual while attempting to assemble a piece of furniture. He or she may forget the information immediately after the task is completed, but working memory allows him or her to store, process, and use the complex information for a specific purpose. When these principles are applied to spatial memories, spatial working memory results. One example might occur when someone uses a road or town map to find an unfamiliar location.

Spatial dimensionality is an aspect of memory and thinking that considers how objects are placed in connection to each other. The following factors are thus important: distance, depth, angling, boundaries, and clusters of objects. Experts often view spatial capabilities as design plans, layouts, or maps. Individuals may create a number of such maps for a number of situations.

Spatial working memory is crucial in basic navigational skills, and, therefore, in movement itself. On a small scale, it keeps individuals from bumping into things. For a larger scope, it builds civilizations and prevents individuals from becoming lost in their surroundings.

A deficiency in spatial working memory can signal cognitive or brain impairment. Since many spatial abilities arise in the hippocampus, perirhinal cortex, and prefontal cortex of the brain, spatial difficulties may indicate a lesion, growth, or other abnormality in these areas. One symptom that impacts spatial working memory is topographical disorientation, in which an individual cannot recognize or properly move around his or her surroundings. Deficits have also been implicated in some learning disorders. Various psychological tests have thus been developed that measure spatial working memory, including versions that request an individual to verbally lead a figure through a maze or to recreate a map with dots or objects placed in specific locations.

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