The effects of spatial stability and cue type on spatial learning: Implications for theories of parallel memory systems

Matthew G. Buckley*, Joe M. Austen, Liam A.m. Myles, Shamus Smith, Niklas Ihssen, Adina R. Lew, Anthony Mcgregor*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Some theories of spatial learning predict that associative rules apply under only limited circumstances. For example, learning based on a boundary has been claimed to be immune to cue competition effects because boundary information is the basis for the formation of a cognitive map, whilst landmark learning does not involve cognitive mapping. This is referred to as the cue type hypothesis. However, it has also been claimed that cue stability is a prerequisite for the formation of a cognitive map, meaning that whichever cue type was perceived as stable would enter a cognitive map and thus be immune to cue competition, while unstable cues will be subject to cue competition, regardless of cue type. In experiments 1 and 2 we manipulated the stability of boundary and landmark cues when learning the location of two hidden goals. One goal location was constant with respect to the boundary, and the other constant with respect to the landmark cues. For both cue types, the presence of distal orientation cues provided directional information. For half the participants the landmark cues were unstable relative to the boundary and orientation cues, whereas for the remainder of the participants the boundary was unstable relative to landmarks and orientation cues. In a second stage of training, all cues remained stable so that both goal locations could be learned with respect to both landmark and boundary information. According to the cue type hypothesis, boundary information should block learning about landmarks regardless of cue stability. According to the cue stability hypothesis, however, landmarks should block learning about the boundary when the landmarks appear stable relative to the boundary. Regardless of cue type or stability the results showed reciprocal blocking, contrary to both formulations of incidental cognitive mapping. Experiment 3 established that the results of Experiments 1 and 2 could not be explained in terms of difficulty in learning certain locations with respect to different cue types. In a final experiment, following training in which both landmarks and boundary cues signalled two goal locations, a new goal location was established with respect to the landmark cues, before testing with the boundary, which had never been used to define the new goal location. The results of this novel test of the interaction between boundary and landmark cues indicated that new learning with respect to the landmark had a profound effect on navigation with respect to the boundary, counter to the predictions of incidental cognitive mapping of boundaries.
Original languageEnglish
Article number104802
Early online date2 Jul 2021
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2021

Bibliographical note

© 2021 The Authors. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license (

Funding: This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council (grant number ES/M01066X/1).


  • Navigation
  • Boundaries
  • Landmarks
  • Blocking
  • Memory systems
  • Geometric module


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