Is the map in our head oriented north?

Julia Frankenstein, Betty J. Mohler, Heinrich H. Bülthoff, Tobias Meilinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

66 Citations (Scopus)


We examined how a highly familiar environmental space-one's city of residence-is represented in memory. Twenty-six participants faced a photo-realistic virtual model of their hometown and completed a task in which they pointed to familiar target locations from various orientations. Each participant's performance was most accurate when he or she was facing north, and errors increased as participants' deviation from a north-facing orientation increased. Pointing errors and latencies were not related to the distance between participants' initial locations and the target locations. Our results are inconsistent with accounts of orientation-free memory and with theories assuming that the storage of spatial knowledge depends on local reference frames. Although participants recognized familiar local views in their initial locations, their strategy for pointing relied on a single, north-oriented reference frame that was likely acquired from maps rather than experience from daily exploration. Even though participants had spent significantly more time navigating the city than looking at maps, their pointing behavior seemed to rely on a north-oriented mental map.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)120-125
Number of pages6
JournalPsychological Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012 Feb

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the Max Planck Society and the German Research Foundation (Grant ME 3476/2 “Survey Knowledge” and Grant SFB/TR8 “Spatial Cognition”) and by the National Research Foundation of Korea’s World Class University program (Grant R31-10008).


  • alignment
  • environmental space
  • local and global reference frames
  • map
  • orientation
  • reference frame
  • spatial memory
  • virtual reality

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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