Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Representing an environment globally, in a coarse way, and locally, in a fine-grained way, are two fundamental aspects of how our brain interprets the world that surrounds us. The neural correlates of these representations have not been explicated in humans. In this study we used fMRI to investigate these correlates and to explore a possible functional segregation in the hippocampus and parietal cortex. We hypothesized that processing a coarse, global environmental representation engages anterior parts of these regions, whereas processing fine-grained, local environmental information engages posterior parts. Participants learned a virtual environment and then had to find their way during fMRI. After scanning, we assessed strategies used and representations stored. Activation in the hippocampal head (anterior) was related to the multiple distance and global direction judgments and to the use of a coarse, global environmental representation during navigation. Activation in the hippocampal tail (posterior) was related to both local and global direction judgments and to using strategies like number of turns. A structural shape analysis showed that the use of a coarse, global environmental representation was related to larger right hippocampal head volume and smaller right hippocampal tail volume. In the inferior parietal cortex, a similar functional segregation was observed, with global routes represented anteriorly and fine-grained route information such as number of turns represented posteriorly. In conclusion, moving from the anterior to the posterior hippocampus and inferior parietal cortex reflects a shift from processing coarse global environmental representations to processing fine-grained, local environmental representations.