David J. Bryant (1993) Multiple Frames of Reference. Psycoloquy: 4(13) Space (13)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 4(13): Multiple Frames of Reference

Reply to Presson and Roepnack on Bryant on Space

David J. Bryant
Department of Psychology, 125 NI
Northeastern University
Boston, MA 02115
(617) 437-3548



I am in agreement with Presson and Roepnack's (1992) main claim that not all learning situations provide equal spatial information with which to create a mental spatial model. I would, however, argue that the SRS model has the basis for explaining such learning effects.


Spacial representation, spacial models, cognitive maps, linguistic structure.
1.1 Presson and Roepnack (1992) point out that the representation of spatial information about a scene can differ in important ways depending on how that information is learned. They note several examples, including demonstrations by Presson and Hazelrigg (1984) and Presson, DeLange, and Hazelrigg (1989) of a distinction between primary learning (physical exploration within an environment) and secondary learning (reading a map or picture). These studies have shown that when people acquire a spatial layout through secondary learning, they typically form an orientation-specific representation that favors the orientation in which the layout was learned. When people acquire a layout through primary learning, however, they typically construct an orientation-free representation. Presson and Roepnack (1992) argue that the way a scene is learned plays a crucial role in organizing one's spatial representation, and that this factor needs to be addressed by the Spatial Representation System (SRS) proposed by Bryant (1992)

1.2 I agree with Presson and Roepnack's (1992) main claim. Certainly, not all learning situations provide equal spatial information with which to create a mental spatial model. I would argue, however, that the SRS model has at least the basis for explaining such learning effects. The SRS is a specialized spatial system that can handle the various frames of reference used by people to describe spatial layouts. I believe this is what Presson and Roepnack (1992) argue is necessary, although they also seem to claim that different functional representations constitute separate spatial systems.

1.3 One piece of the puzzle comes from Presson and Roepnack's discussion of Roepnack (1991), who found no differential priming for targets to the protagonist's front versus back. This finding suggested that readers were using a map-like representation rather than imagining themselves inside the described scene. Roepnack's (1991) results and conclusion correspond to the distinction between using an allocentric versus an egocentric coordinate system (Bryant, 1992). Differential accessibility of front versus back has been observed when subjects use representations of space surrounding themselves (Franklin & Tversky, 1990; Sholl, 1987). An allocentric coordinate system, on the other hand, is centered on a point external to the viewer, whose body axes are not used to code location. Thus, there is no reason to expect the viewer's front/back to predict priming or retrieval of information.

1.4 The difference between the results of Roepnack (1991) and those who have demonstrated differential access to egocentric directions (e.g., Bryant, Tversky, & Franklin, 1992; Franklin & Tversky, 1990; Sholl, 1987) may be due to the use of different frames of reference rather than a different spatial system. Likewise, the difference between primary and secondary learning (Presson & Hazelrigg, 1984; Presson et al., 1989) could reflect the use of the egocentric frame of reference in the former case and the allocentric one in the latter. Presson and Roepnack (1992, 3.1) actually suggest this explanation. Orientation-specificity has been associated with secondary learning by map or picture. This type of learning should favor an allocentric frame of reference. Presson and Roepnack (1992) suggest that Roepnack's (1991) subjects were using survey map or allocentric representations to represent distal targets and that this was why they displayed orientation specificity in recall. Orientation-free representations have been associated with primary learning by perceptual exploration within a scene. This kind of learning would favor an egocentric frame of reference, which would predict retrieval on the basis of the observer's current rather than original orientation. Roepnack (1991) observed no orientation specificity for proximal targets which would be more likely to be represented in an egocentric coordinate system.

1.5 Sholl (1992) has offered a similar explanation of the primary/secondary effect, arguing that certain perspectives during learning (such as map reading or aerial perspective) favor the use of allocentric, orientation-specific representations. Other tasks, such as viewing a scene from an internal position, favor the use of an egocentric, orientation-free representation. A study by Sholl (1987) supports this idea. Subjects performed a point-to-unseen-target task with either cities in the Northeast United States or local campus buildings as targets. City locations were typically learned by exposure to maps, and subjects displayed orientation-specificity, being faster to point to cities north of their location than cities to the west. The locations of campus buildings were learned by direct exploration and subjects displayed no orientation-specificity, being equally fast to point to buildings north or west of themselves. Subjects were, however, faster to point to buildings that happened to be in front of them rather than behind. This sort of finding was later replicated by Franklin and Tversky (1990) and Bryant et al. (1992) with spatial descriptions. Sholl (1992) argued that the egocentric frame of reference is naturally used in primary learning, but that the allocentric frame of reference can be used in indirect learning.

1.6 To conclude, Presson and Roepnack's (1992) general point is a good one - we need to consider how space is perceived in different situations to understand and predict how it will be represented (see also, Haber, 1986). Their specific example of the distinction between primary and secondary learning is perhaps best understood in terms of the use of different frames of reference. The allocentric and egocentric reference frames have their own unique dynamics, even if these have not been completely documented. It was a major theme of the SRS model that the spatial system selects a frame of reference, which determines how spatial information is organized in memory.


Bryant, D. J. (1992) A Spatial Representation System in Humans. PSYCOLOQUY 3(16) space.1.

Bryant, D. J., Tversky, B., & Franklin, N. (1992) Internal and external spatial frameworks for representing described scenes. Journal of Memory and Language, 31, 74-98.

Franklin, N., & Tversky, B. (1990) Searching imagined environments. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 119, 63-67.

Haber, R. N. (1986) Toward a theory of the perceived spatial layout of scenes. In A. Rosenfeld (Ed.), Human and machine vision II. (pp. 109-148). Orlando, FL: Academic Press.

Presson, C. C., DeLange, N., & Hazelrigg, M. D. (1989) Orientation Specificity in spatial memory: What makes a path different from a map of the path? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 15, 887-897.

Presson, C. C., & Hazelrigg, M. D. (1984) Building spatial representations through primary and secondary learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 10, 716-722.

Presson, C. C., & Roepnack, B. R. (1992) Multiple mental models. PSYCOLOQUY 3(65) space.12

Roepnack, B. R. (1991) Effects of orientation in dynamic imagined scenes. Unpublished Master's Thesis, Arizona State University.

Sholl, J. M. (1987) Cognitive maps as orienting schemata. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 13, 615-628.

Sholl, J. M. (1992) Frames of reference used in accessing spatial knowledge. Paper presented at the 33rd annual meeting of the Psychonomic Society, St. Louis, MO.

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