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Psychology, maps and sleep – Part 1

Have you ever thought about the psychology of your sleeping habits?  You probably go to bed at roughly the same time and wake up at the same time every day, even at weekends when you don’t set the alarm.  Do you always sleep on the same side of the bed in the same position?  When you sleep in a unfamiliar bed, do you struggle to go to sleep?  This is very common, but a couple of years ago I moved to a new flat and found it hard to sleep for months…  until I bought a compass…


Psychologists want to understand how we make mental maps of the world around us, store them in our memories and then use them to find our way around.  A research team at University of Freiburg Centre for Cognitive Science carried out an experiment to see if we navigate through just remembering where things are relative to each other or if we build a mental map that we orientate just like a physical map.  The research team used a virtual reality simulation of the German town of Tubingen that was shown to participants through a virtual reality helmet. The participants were first asked to confirm they recognised where they were in the virtual ‘town’ and were then asked to use a joy stick to point to various well-known locations across the ‘town’ that were not visible from where the participants were ‘standing’.   On some occasions the participants were forced to point to the hidden locations whilst looking in a particular direction, but on other occasions the participants were free to move their heads before pointing.

The data analyses showed that when participants were free to move their heads they generally ‘looked’ North and were then able to point to locations much more accurately than when ‘looking’ in a different direction.  Indeed, when candidates’ heads were fixed so that they were ‘looking’ away from North, the further away from North their ‘view’ the poorer their accuracy … until the participants’ ‘view’ got closer to South.  This showed that participants were using a mental map to judge the position of the hidden locations and that this inner ’mind’ map was orientated North/South.

Now that is quite a spectacular and intriguing finding: you have a map in your head and it’s orientated North/South just like a printed map, so why might this be so ? What does this have to do with not being able to sleep ?  These are the kinds of questions we answer in TMC’s Psychology course in Singapore.  So to find out more about the map in your head and why you sleep the way you do enrol in our diploma in Psychology course or the degree in Psychology programme.  You can also check back soon for the next instalment.

Dr. Hew Gill Ex-Head of Psychology Programmes TMC Academy

Reference: Frankenstein, J., Mohler, B. J. ,Bülthoff, H. H. andMeilinger, T. (2011) Is the Map in Our Head Oriented North ?Psychological Science , 23( 2)120-125.


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