Sense of Place & Landmarks
‘Sense of place’ is a phenomena comprised of the emotional connections one makes with a place, as well the values, cultural meanings and symbols attributed to a place, that are all continually formed and updated in the individual’s mind.
Relevant brain architecture
Sense of place is heavily dependent upon our ability to process spatial information. Neuroscience research has found several key brain regions responsible for processing spatial information: hippocampus, entorhinal, parahippocampal and parietal cortex. These brain regions have been found to have specific cells that underlie spatial information processing: place cells, grid cells, head-direction cells and border cells.
The hippocampus is of particular importance due its involvement in both spatial navigation and the formation and retrieval of autobiographical memory — key processes underlying the phenomena of sense of place. A two-way relationship has been proposed where our memories of past-events are dependent on the places on which they were formed while in parallel, the strength of our ‘sense of place’ is also dependent upon the integrity of the memories we attribute to a place.
Landmarks and sense of place:
Landmarks have been shown to reinforce a strong sense of place by acting as a strong anchor for head-direction cells to anchor themselves towards when in an environment, these are cells that fire in a particular head orientation to help you to maintain your internal sense of direction in an environment. Views of distant, stable landmarks affords the orientation process of head-direction cells which in turn re-orientates place cells in the hippocampus, reducing our disorientation when moving through an environment.
There are distinct cortical regions that support the function of recognising places/landmarks and encoding new place information. One example is activity in the parahippocampal place area (PPA), a region of the parahippocampal cortex has been suggested to play a role in encoding new perceptual information (appearance and layout) of an environment.
A study found that individuals with a high sense of place for an urban area recalled more physical features (paths and landmarks) vs. those with low sense of place of the area — paths and landmarks seem to be key for urban imageability (formation of a strong and useful image of a city). Recall and navigation tasks from a cognitive map of areas with a strong sense of place was easier for participants.