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Spatial memory is the storage of information pertaining to orientation and location. The brain uses a number of mechanisms to encode and retrieve spatial information for future reference. Much of this activity takes place in the hippocampus, an important region of the brain for memory formation. Research on spatial memory is an ongoing topic in the neuroscience community.
It is possible to store spatial memory at several different levels, including working, short-term, and long-term memory. A visitor to a new city acquires working memories like where she parked the car or which bus to take back to her friend's house. A resident of that city has long-term memories he uses to get around on a daily basis. If he leaves the city and returns in the future, he will likely still be able to navigate the area because his memories are stored in a long-term format.
Spatial memory can use a variety of sensory input to store information. The vestibular system can play a role. Studies show that people may remember the movements involved in a particular trip and can recall them later to make their way back. Likewise, visual information like landmarks and signs can be part of spatial memory. People may also remember smells or sounds in a particular location that they can use to orient themselves, like the sound of chickens at a street market close to a destination.
The brain creates a cognitive map of the environment that can be referred to in the future to determine the best route to take or to get reoriented. It can also help people get familiar with spaces. Many homes and offices retain a consistent layout, for example, and spatial memory will allow people to unconsciously avoid hazards like a protruding desk or door. They may not be aware of their activities, because the brain seamlessly pulls up the necessary information and adjusts.
Research on the retention of spacial memory shows that the larger the hippocampus, the better the sense of memory. Studies on physically active older adults show that they retain a greater sense of spatial memory and tend to be more independent. Geriatrics researchers with an interest in health and wellness in older adults follow such studies with interest, as they may provide clues to patient care and lifestyle advice that might allow for greater independence. Physical fitness can also reduce the risk of injuries like fractured hips that might limit mobility or land a patient in a long-term care facility.