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Ancestral Priorities in Spatial Memory

My studies of spatial cognition have been inspired by the terrific efficiency that people demonstrate for food gathering in hunter-gatherer societies.  This perspective lead me to ask how such ancient problems might have shaped different strengths in spatial abilities between men and women, and also how selection for efficient foraging might have shaped spatial memory to more accurately represent more nutritionally valuable locations (New, Krasnow, Truxaw, & Gaulin, 2007, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences).

Women Excel

Though a great majority of studies show a male advantage in spatial tasks, I demonstrated how a simple but ecologically important shift in content can reverse this sex difference.  After being guided to a number of vendor stalls at a community farmers’ market, women were more accurate than men in pointing back to those stalls from a central location — a surprising result, given that men typically perform better in such dead-reckoning tasks.  These results suggest that spatial memory and navigational skills are not uniformly different between men and women as most past research suggests.  Instead, such spatial abilities may be more or less engaged in different real-world situations — in this case the ecological context of foraging-related resources.  

Calories Count

Again inspired by the fact that not all objects are equally adaptively relevant, I also discovered that women and men were both more accurate in pointing back to those stalls where they tasted higher calorie foods (e.g. avocado) than locations where they tasted lower calorie foods (e.g. lettuce).  This surprising and novel content effect in spatial navigation could only be explained by the calorie content, and not by the participants’ own preferences or familiarity.  These results demonstrate that even aspects of spatial cognition and memory — which are frequently considered as among the most domain-general parts of the mind — may have been shaped by the priorities and challenges of survival in ancestral environments. 



New, J., Krasnow, M. M., Truxaw, D., & Gaulin, S. J. C. (2007). Spatial adaptations for plant foraging: Women excel and calories count. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 274, 2679-2684. (PDF).

Krasnow, M. M., Truxaw, D., Gaulin, S. J. C., New, J., Ozono, H., Uono, S., Ueno, T., & Minamoto, K. (2011).  Cognitive adaptations for gathering-related navigation in humans. Evolution & Human Behavior, 32(1), 1-12. (PDF).