Intrinsic cues for reference systems

We see tabletops when the objects in an experience are: - Small - Controllable - Objects - In our immediate vicinity - Without a lot of intrinsic order (Kelly p. 4)

We see landscapes when the objects in an experience are: - Large - Impassive - Features - Far away from us - Arranged in sequences or along axes (think furniture along the wall of a room or buildings on a street)

There is a demonstrable neurological component to this. Many animals, including humans, have “place cells” in their brains which fire when you understand your location as a place and which fire when you find yourself in a new place. These cells don’t fire when small objects in the environment move. They do when you move through a house (or more realistically, a maze, because most of these studies have been done on rats).


Hartley, Tom, et al. “Geometric Determinants of Human Spatial Memory.” Cognition, vol. 94, no. 1, Nov. 2004, pp. 39–75.

The movement of small objects in the environment don’t cause our “place” cells to fire like they do when we navigate. (p. 43)

Objects tend to be perceived as landmarks more easily if they are distant than if they are close. (p. 66)

Kelly, Jonathan W., and Timothy P. McNamara. “Spatial Memories of Virtual Environments: How Egocentric Experience, Intrinsic Structure, and Extrinsic Structure Interact.” Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, vol. 15, no. 2, Apr. 2008, pp. 322–27.