The Map in Our Head Is Not Oriented North: Evidence from a Real-World Environment.
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Like most physical maps, recent research has suggested that cognitive maps of familiar environments may have a north-up orientation. We demonstrate that north orientation is not a necessary feature of cognitive maps and instead may arise due to coincidental alignment between cardinal directions and the built and natural environment. Experiment 1 demonstrated that pedestrians have difficulty pointing north while navigating a familiar real-world environment with roads, buildings, and green spaces oriented oblique to cardinal axes. Instead, north estimates tended to be parallel or perpendicular to roads. In Experiment 2, participants did not demonstrate privileged memory access when oriented toward north while making relative direction judgments. Instead, retrieval was fastest and most accurate when orientations were aligned with roads. In sum, cognitive maps are not always oriented north. Rather, in some real-world environments they can be oriented with respect to environment-specific features, serving as convenient reference systems for organizing and using spatial memory.