Place learning by mechanical contact

  • Harrison S
  • Turvey M
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For some animals (e.g. the night-active wandering spider) the encounters with the habitat that result in place learning are predominantly mechanical. We asked whether place learning limited to mechanical contact, like place learning in general, entails vectors tied to individual landmarks and relations between landmarks. We constructed minimal environments for blindfolded human participants. Landmarks were raised steps. 'Home' was a mechanically indistinct location. Travel was linear. The mechanical contacts were those of walking, stepping, and probing with a soft-tipped cane. Home-orienting activities preceded tests of finding home from a given location with landmarks unchanged or (unbeknown to participants) shifted. In a one-landmark environment, perceived home shifted in the same direction, with the same magnitude, as the shifted landmark. In an environment of two landmarks located in the same direction from home, shifting the further landmark toward home resulted in a change in home's perceived location that preserved the original ratio of distances separating home, nearer landmark, and further landmark. Both findings were invariant over the travel route to the test location and repetitions of testing. It seems, therefore, that for humans (and, perhaps, for wandering spiders), mechanical contact can reveal the vectors and relations specifying places.

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  • S. J. Harrison

  • M. T. Turvey

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