Without neuroscience ‘a sense of place’ stays quite ambiguous as there are no guidelines for implementation.

Therefore in this section we breakdown the sense of place into biological components that are more measurable, which can be the platform for creating working guidelines for future M J Mapp work.



  • 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.

The Self

There are two types of navigation strategies that we use to navigate our environment.

  • Egocentric: Encodes information about the environment in relationship to our body or oneself. Instructions such as the left of us or right of us. We also map us to the another point in space. For example, us at our workstation to the lifts or us at our workstation to the entrance of the building.

  • Allocentric: Encodes information in relation to other objects or locations. The self is still present, however it is within the context of the rest of environment. For example, where entrance is in relation to the lifts.


  • 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, 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.

  • Brunec et al. (2017) found that when participants estimated the distance to travel towards a goal when circumnavigating different path-geometries (U-shaped or L-shaped), there was an overestimation of Euclidean distance to the goal. This was more apparent in the U-shaped paths. Therefore an expansion of estimated Euclidean distance.

  • Jafarpour and Spiers (2017) found that with increased space familiarity, the estimates of sketched space expanded. The paper suggests that the expansion of space is potentially due to an increase in grid cell spacing (less grid units per meter).

  • A study looking at the contributions of static visual cues, non-visual cues and optic flow on distance processing/estimation found that in tasks where visual information was present, participants would overestimate the distance for shorter distances (10m) and under-estimate the actual distance for longer distances (20m). They also found that dynamic visual information (optic flow) would lead participants to underestimate their movement, resulting in an overestimation of the distance travelled.

  • Routes within a space that contain fewer turns/angle changes are perceived as being metrically shorter. This has led to suggestions that buildings should have straighter more direct routes and less extreme angle turns, particularly greater than 90 degrees.

Social Interaction

Human to human communication

  • The most important element in sense of place is people, specifically human to human communication. It is important as it is the basis of passing on ideas, bonding with others, and it sets the platform for our survival through the passing of knowledge. We are social animals and therefore it is a necessity for our health to feel like we belong. As described in the previous section, isolation is tied not only to depression and anxiety, but also a decline in health.

  • Often collaboration is seen as an element to strive for when it comes to design. That is at the core staircases that encourage “collisions” or coworking spaces that encourage dialogue. However, there is more than just collision or corralling people in a room to obtaining good quality human to human communication.

    • How often people interact

    • What is the quality of the communication

    • What is the duration of the communication

    • What type of communication


Time perception is divided into two domains

  • Prospective timing: This is where timing is an essential part of the task. Based on the attentional gate model, attention paid to duration closes a switch between an intrinsic pacemaker and pulse accumulator. Time is then estimated based on the pulses counted in the accumulator. Higher attentional resources used for processing temporal information results in a longer perceived duration of a task.

  • Retrospective timing: This is where you are asked unexpectedly the timing of an event retrospectively. Based on the contextual change model, memories of an event are segmented based on the number of contextual changes (defined as changes in cognitive processing) that occur in the event. We use these changes as temporal referents to estimate the perceived duration of the event. Segmentation of a memory determines the memory size. Therefore, the greater the segmentation of a memory, the greater the memory size and the longer the perceived duration of the event.


Josh Artus