Spatial memory, in life and fiction

In this post, I’ll share some thoughts about spatial memory – and how tools of our life (navigation) and in fiction (teleports) affect the ability to find one’s way around.

A bit of scienece first…

Spatial memory is related to both short-term and long-term memory and is the base of being able to navigate familiar environments (your home city, the road to grandma’s house or school/work) without thinking, just by your memory. The short-term part gives you the ability to recognize you’re walking in circles while long-term part is created by walking through the same place several times over.

As with any aspect of memory, this is skill that can be exercised and well used – or let to slack.

The impact of technology

Back in times when walking was the only way of travel and maps were a thing of distant future (or wealthy elites), spatial memory was the base tool of navigation – the other being someone else showing you around. As mankind mastered faster ways of transport, it’s possible for someone to reach an unknown environment in a few hours in train/plane. Eventually, satellite navigation made its way to general public, allowing you to be guided (almost) wherever you wish to be without the need to find the way yourself with a map in hand… at a cost. If someone used to being on “autopilot”, blindly following a navigation without paying attention to the surroundings, is forced out of this bubble, it might lead to confusion or getting lost – even in a place they’d know well otherwise.

A story from my life: I was going with my family for a weekend somewhere close to a place I visited during a school trip. We did not need a GPS for the 300km trip. My father drove the first half (follow this highway until it ends, then turn left and wake me up) and I took over after. While I did not remember the journey perfectly, all I needed were the numbers of the major roads, a few towns, and the important crossroads. And I remebered them relative well, considering it was some 7 years later.

Teleport vs. memory

Teleports are used in both Sci-Fi and fantasy as a fast (often instant) method of travel across vast distances. The details differ not only whether it’s Sci-Fi or fantasy but also in each specific case. Either way, teleporting often requires either knowing the coordinates (more often used in Sci-Fi) or having visited the place before (more common in fantasy).

In both cases, the ability to teleport cuts off the journey and leaves only the destination. The problem comes when someone used to teleporting needs to visit an unknown place. As their spatial memory becomes limited often to just their hometown, taking a journey “the hard way” might become difficult as their ability to navigate unknown landscape will be severely limited compared to someone used to walking/driving (more so without any way of navigation).

How this ties to fiction?

All of this can be used to show a part of character’s (dis)abilities. Someone used to traveling alone, finding his/her own way, will have easier time finding a way out of an unknown place (especially if hostile) as their spatial memory and sense of direction will be honed through years of experience.

On the other hand, a powerful wizard used to teleport somewhere might be brilliant in countless other aspects and a hard-to-best opponent but might easily become lost when they are in an unknown place. It might be a massive problem for them if they can’t teleport for whatever reason (lack of energy, their magic being countered, their gadgets being broken in case of Sci-Fi). It’s a way to show that a difficult and convenient skill has some trade-off, even though it’s one that might be hard to see at the first glance.

And thus, another post combining science/biology with fiction is over. I hope someone might’ve learned a bit today. I’ll welcome your comments, as always.

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