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Handbook of Spatial CognitionReview - Handbook of Spatial Cognition
by David Weller and Lynn Nadel (Editors)
American Psychological Association, 2012
Review by Diana Soeiro
Jun 4th 2013 (Volume 17, Issue 23)

Back in 1978, John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel, have published a book titled "The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map" (Oxford University Press). The book is currently available online in .pdf format, since the authors have regained the copyright from OUP and decided to do so ( http://www.cognitivemap.net/ ). They both started working together in the 1960s at the McGill Psychology Department, while they were still PhD students -- John O'Keefe is currently associated with the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience & Dept. Anatomy/ University College London (UK) and Lynn Nadel, is director of the Cognition and Neural Systems Program/ University of Arizona (USA). The book claimed something ground-breaking, relating: the hippocampus, with spatial representation and with context-dependent memory. Along with the discovery of place cells in the 1970s, the authors have formulated the theory that the hippocampus acts as a cognitive map, creating a neural representation of the layout of the environment (ie. absolute space). Absolute space = cognitive map = hippocampus (p.1--2). The hippocampus has revealed itself as relevant to better understand the impact of post-traumatic stress, schizophrenia and severe depression in the brain -- disorders that professionals keep struggling to get a grasp of and that involve a particular relation with space and space orientation. Specifically, a fully functional hippocampus seems to be essential so that humans remember where they have been, how to get where they are going, and to the way they related with objects i.e., for navigation and space orientation, which relates with memory.

The current book title, thirty-five years after "The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map", I think it intends to continue the work that was started back then. This time the book consists of a collection of essays -- that do not need to be read in the order they are presented in -- edited by David Weller (Associate Professor of Psychology at Miami University -- Oxford, OH/USA) and again, Lynn Nadel. The choice to present the book as a "handbook" is a good one since the book aims to be a reference work, a collection of instructions, providing concise information about spatial cognition. Each chapter includes not only bibliography but also further reading suggestions, which is useful. The need to present a "handbook" on spatial cognition, including several contributors from different areas, reflects an awareness that the theory proposed in the 1978 book was an ambitious one, and that in order to get ahead, it needs 1) the contribution of several different disciplines (p.ix); 2) but also, to circumscribe its interest area, creating boundaries concerning what it aims at knowing (p.3).

The editors propose the following structure for the field of spatial cognition: (a) the nature of the environment and the organism's fit to it; (b) the mental structures and processes that subserve spatial thought, and (c) the parameterization of spatial information self. The first one, the relation between environment and organism, has been strongly influenced by James Gibson's (1904--1979) classic "The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception" (1979) where large-scale spaces (navigation and wayfinding) are dealt with, and more recently, in contemporary research, also, small-scaled spaces. As for mental structures that subserve mental thought, they can refer to the cognition needed for interaction with one's immediate environment (online spatial processes) and to the cognition based on stored knowledge about space (offline spatial processes). The parameterization of spatial information self, refers, most of the times, to the analytical distinctions of distance and direction, that either denote self-to-object distances (egocentric distances) or object-to-object distances (exocentric distances). All three approaches presented in the book are meant not to be perceived as competing theories; instead they should be faced a part of a same structure, able to work closely, mutually reinforcing ties with each other. (p.8)

The structure the editors provide us with, in an attempt to establish the field of study of spatial cognition, is plausible, in the sense that presents a state-of-the-art on the subject, in Psychology and Neuroscience (contributors are linked mostly to psychology, neuroscience, and few ones, to cybernetics and geography). But, as the editors themselves are aware, spatial cognition is a wide-ranging topic, "central to a variety of disciplines" and scholars, like "neuroscientists, ethologists, psychologists, computer scientists, geographers, sociologists, architects, linguists, anthropologists, and philosophers" (p.ix). And most of these disciplines are not considered in the current handbook which creates a paradox: in order to achieve such an ambitious, extended range horizon, that the editors claim to aim at, how can they succeed if the perspective they provide the reader with is so contracted -- focusing mainly in Psychology and Neuroscience? I think that what supports this option is the fact that Psychology, for a long time now (as most social sciences and even humanities) relies so strongly on Neuroscience (as in the beginning it has relied on Mathematics and Statistics to claim its place among sciences), that it is believed that if Neuroscience is included, the research topic immediately encompasses the whole of all possible knowledge about the topic, covering the widest and most complete ranging perspective. In my opinion, it does not. Neuroscience is one, among other disciplines, and in the particular case of spatial cognition, it is not enough to explain it all -- like no discipline ever is, if isolated. The effort to create a perspective wide enough, that takes in consideration many different disciplines, in order to structure the subject of spatial cognition, is in fact a daunting task. And though if attempted, as in the current book, it does not necessarily mean that it is a well succeeded one. Despite this, the book, because it is a handbook and features several specific approaches in each article, providing 'further reading', it can reveal itself as a valuable guidance for the reader to do his/ her own wayfinding, identifying valuable resources -- in the range of Psychology/ Neuroscience interaction (mainly concerning the hippocampus) it does provide state-of-the-art information.

 

© 2013 Diana Soeiro

 

Diana Soeiro (b. 1978). Philosophy, PhD (2011). Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Institute for Philosophy of Language/ New University of Lisbon. Updated information: www.linkedin.com/in/DianaSoeiro


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