Elizabeth Spelke

Elizabeth Spelke
Harvard University | Harvard · Department of Psychology

About

153
Publications
44,195
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20,376
Citations
Citations since 2017
28 Research Items
5660 Citations
20172018201920202021202220230200400600800
20172018201920202021202220230200400600800
20172018201920202021202220230200400600800
20172018201920202021202220230200400600800
Introduction
Skills and Expertise

Publications

Publications (153)
Article
Music is universally prevalent in human society and is a salient component of the lives of young families. Here, we studied the frequency of singing and playing recorded music in the home using surveys of parents with infants ( N = 945). We found that most parents sing to their infant on a daily basis and the frequency of infant-directed singing is...
Preprint
Although studies have found that infants prefer helpful individuals over unhelpful ones, the basis of such evaluations is unclear. If infants and toddlers, like adults, understand helping as fostering others’ goals, then their evaluations should depend on their ability to infer the goal of an agent in need of help. Here, 15-month-old toddlers and 8...
Preprint
Human social life requires an understanding of the mental states of one’s social partners. Two people who look at the same objects often experience them differently, as a twinkling light or a planet, a 6 or a 9, a cat or Cleo, their pet. Here we test whether toddlers use these differences to interpret and predict other people’s actions. Across four...
Preprint
When people act on objects, their goals can depend on the objects’ intrinsic properties and conventional uses (e.g., using forks, not knives, to eat spaghetti), locations (e.g., clearing the table, regardless of what is on it), or both (eating with the fork next to your plate, not your dining partner’s). For adults, objects’ intrinsic properties ma...
Preprint
Research provides evidence that infants infer what others can and cannot see from their differing perspectives, but do infants appreciate that their own perspective on an object can differ from that of a person who views the same object from a different direction? First, infants were shown two faces with screens in front of or behind them. Infants...
Preprint
Two experiments investigated whether infants’ social evaluations privilege the objective consequences of others’ acts of helping or the beliefs on which helping is based, even when others’ beliefs are false and their actions produce no beneficial outcomes. Fifteen-month-old infants (N = 94) viewed videotaped puppet shows in which a protagonist soug...
Preprint
Adults use distributed cues in the bodies of others to predict and counter their actions. To investigate the development of this ability, adults and 6- to 8-year-old children played a competitive game with a confederate who reached toward one of two targets. Child and adult participants, who sat across from the confederate, attempted to beat the co...
Article
Consensus has both social and epistemic value. Children conform to consensus judgments in ways that suggest they are sensitive to the social value of consensus. Here we report two experiments providing evidence that 4-year-old children also are sensitive to the epistemic value of consensus. When multiple informants gave the same judgment concerning...
Preprint
Do infants appreciate that other people’s actions may fail, and that the possibility of failure endows risky actions with variable amounts of negative utility (hereafter, “peril”)? Three experiments addressed this question by presenting 10- and 13-month-old infants (N=124) with an agent who chose whether or not to jump over a trench of varying dept...
Preprint
We investigated the origins and interrelations of causal knowledge and knowledge of agency in 3-month-old infants, who cannot yet effect changes in the world by reaching for, grasping, and picking up objects. Across 5 experiments, N=152 prereaching infants viewed object-directed reaches that varied in efficiency (following the shortest physically p...
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Full-text available
Humans possess a tendency to rapidly and consistently make character evaluations from mere facial appearance. Recent work shows that this tendency emerges surprisingly early: children as young as 3-years-old provide adult-like assessments of others on character attributes such as "nice," "strong," and "smart" based only on subtle variations in targ...
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Geometric reasoning has an inherent dissonance: its abstract axioms and propositions refer to perfect, idealized entities, whereas its use in the physical world relies on dynamic perception of objects. How do abstract Euclidean concepts, dynamics, and statistics come together to support our intuitive geometric reasoning? Here, we address this quest...
Preprint
Motivated by computational analyses, we look at how teaching affects exploration and discovery. In Experiment 1, we investigated children’s exploratory play after an adult pedagogically demonstrated a function of a toy, after an interrupted pedagogical demonstration, after a naïve adult demonstrated the function, and at baseline. Preschoolers in th...
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Full-text available
Symmetry is a basic geometry property that affects people's aesthetic experience in common ways across cultures and historical periods, but the origins of the universal preference for symmetrical patterns is not clear. We assessed four-year-old children's and adults' reported aesthetic preferences between symmetrical and asymmetrical visual pattern...
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Infants understand that people pursue goals, but how do they learn which goals people prefer? We tested whether infants solve this problem by inverting a mental model of action planning, trading off the costs of acting against the rewards actions bring. After seeing an agent attain two goals equally often at varying costs, infants expected the agen...
Preprint
Infants understand that people pursue goals, but how do they learn which goals people prefer? Here, we test whether infants solve this problem by inverting a mental model of action planning, trading off the costs of acting against the rewards actions bring. After seeing an agent attain two goals equally often at varying costs, infants expected the...
Preprint
Previous research has demonstrated that preverbal infants have a preference for individuals who imitate their social partners over those who do not. It is unknown, however, if this preference is dependent upon infants’ inference that the imitation reflected an intentional response to the imitator’s social partner. The current experiment addresses t...
Preprint
Participants in social interactions often imitate one another, thereby enhancing their affiliation. We address outstanding questions about the nature and early development of imitation-based affiliation, through studies of infants' responses to participants in imitative interactions that the infants observed as third parties. Four experiments provi...
Article
Imitation is ubiquitous in positive social interactions. For adult and child observers, it also supports inferences about the participants in such interactions and their social relationships, but the origins of these inferences are obscure. Do infants attach social significance to this form of interaction? Here we test 4- to 5.5-month-old infants'...
Preprint
Geometric reasoning has an inherent dissonance: its abstract axioms and propositions refer to infinitesimal points and infinite straight lines while our perception of the physical world deals with fuzzy dots and curved stripes. How we use these disparate mechanisms to make geometric judgments remains unresolved. Here, we deploy a classically used c...
Article
Diverse animal species primarily rely on sense (left–right) and egocentric distance (proximal–distal) when navigating the environment. Recent neuroimaging studies with human adults show that this information is represented in 2 scene-selective cortical regions—the occipital place area (OPA) and retrosplenial complex (RSC)—but not in a third scene-s...
Article
We explore the hypothesis that many intuitive physical inferences are based on a mental physics engine that is analogous in many ways to the machine physics engines used in building interactive video games. We describe the key features of game physics engines and their parallels in human mental representation, focusing especially on the intuitive p...
Article
The natural numbers may be our simplest, most useful, and best-studied abstract concepts, but their origins are debated. I consider this debate in the context of the proposal, by Gallistel and Gelman, that natural number system is a product of cognitive evolution and the proposal, by Carey, that it is a product of human cultural history. I offer a...
Article
Five-month-old infants selectively attend to novel people who sing melodies originally learned from a parent, but not melodies learned from a musical toy or from an unfamiliar singing adult, suggesting that music conveys social information to infant listeners. Here, we test this interpretation further in older infants with a more direct measure of...
Article
Substantial evidence indicates that infants expect agents to move directly to their goals when no obstacles block their paths, but the representations that articulate this expectation and its robustness have not been characterized. Across three experiments (total N=60), 6-month-old infants responded to a novel, curvilinear action trajectory on the...
Article
To master the natural number system, children must understand both the concepts that number words capture and the counting procedure by which they are applied. These two types of knowledge develop in childhood, but their connection is poorly understood. Here we explore the relationship between the mastery of counting and the mastery of exact numeri...
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Full-text available
Adults use cultural markers to discern the structure of the social landscape. Such markers may also influence the social preferences of young children, who tend to conform to their own group and prefer others who do so. However, the forces that propel these preferences are unknown. Here, we use social preferences based on music to investigate these...
Article
Full-text available
In order to navigate the social world, children need to understand and make predictions about how people will interact with one another. Throughout most of human history, social groups have been prominently marked by kinship relations, but few experiments have examined children’s knowledge of and reasoning about kinship relations. In the current st...
Article
For 1 to 2 weeks, 5-month-old infants listened at home to one of two novel songs with identical lyrics and rhythms, but different melodies; the song was sung by a parent, emanated from a toy, or was sung live by a friendly but unfamiliar adult first in person and subsequently via interactive video. We then tested the infants' selective attention to...
Article
The human infant brain is the only known machine able to master a natural language and develop explicit, symbolic, and communicable systems of knowledge that deliver rich representations of the external world. With the emergence of noninvasive brain imaging, we now have access to the unique neural machinery underlying these early accomplishments. A...
Article
Infants reason about goals and helping as early as 3months of age, but toddlers fail to help others appropriately until well into the second year. Five experiments explored the reasons for this discrepancy. First, we verified that 14-month-old toddlers encode the goal of an actor's reaching action, in a situation in which a social agent selectively...
Article
Neuroimaging studies in human adults have identified three cortical regions involved in scene processing: the parahippocampal place area (PPA), the retrosplenial complex (RSC), and the occipital place area (OPA). While the precise function each of these regions plays in scene processing is unclear, results from several studies suggest that scene pr...
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Map reading is unique to humans but present in people of diverse cultures, at ages as young as 4 years. Here we explore the nature and sources of this ability, asking both what geometric information young children use in maps and what non-symbolic systems are associated with their map-reading performance. Four-year-old children were given two tests...
Article
A fundamental process underlying navigation behaviour, shown to occur in every species tested, uses geometric properties of the environment for location memory and orientation. Here we employ a new method to ask whether this basic geometric orientation ability is innately predisposed in the brain or depends on specific experiences navigating in a g...
Article
Research on animals, infants, children, and adults provides evidence that distinct cognitive systems underlie navigation and object recognition. Here we examine whether and how these systems interact when children interpret 2D edge-based perspectival line drawings of scenes and objects. Such drawings serve as symbols early in development, and they...
Article
We tested the capacity to perceive visual expressions of emotion, and to use those expressions as guides to social decisions, in three groups of 8- to 10-year-old Romanian children: children abandoned to institutions then randomly assigned to remain in ‘care as usual’ (institutional care); children abandoned to institutions then randomly assigned t...
Article
Children and adults differentiate statements of religious belief from statements of fact and opinion, but the basis of that differentiation remains unclear. Across three experiments, adults and 8–10-year-old children heard statements of factual, opinion-based, and religious belief. Adults and children judged that statements of factual belief reveal...
Article
Full-text available
Exact integer concepts are fundamental to a wide array of human activities, but their origins are obscure. Some have proposed that children are endowed with a system of natural number concepts, whereas others have argued that children construct these concepts by mastering verbal counting or other numeric symbols. This debate remains unresolved, bec...
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Significance Space, time, and number are connected in the world and in the human mind. How do these connections arise? Do we learn to link larger numbers and durations to longer spatial extents because they are correlated in the world, or is the human mind built to capture these relations? We showed that neonates relate both number and duration to...
Article
Human adults attribute character traits to faces readily and with high consensus. In two experiments investigating the development of face-to-trait inference, adults and children ages 3 through 10 attributed trustworthiness, dominance, and competence to pairs of faces. In Experiment 1, the attributions of 3- to 4-year-olds converged with those of a...
Article
Recent research reveals a link between individual differences in mathematics achievement and performance on tasks that activate the approximate number system (ANS): a primitive cognitive system shared by diverse animal species and by humans of all ages. Here we used a brief experimental paradigm to test one causal hypothesis suggested by this relat...
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Full-text available
Young children regularly engage in musical activities, but the effects of early music education on children's cognitive development are unknown. While some studies have found associations between musical training in childhood and later nonmusical cognitive outcomes, few randomized controlled trials (RCTs) have been employed to assess causal effects...
Article
Identifying the goal of another agent's action allows an observer to make inferences not only about the outcomes the agent will pursue in the future and the means to be deployed in a given context, but also about the emotional consequences of goal-related outcomes. While numerous studies have characterized the former abilities in infancy, expectati...
Article
In the first year of life, infants possess two cognitive systems encoding numerical information: one for processing the numerosity of sets of 4 or more items, and the second for tracking up to 3 objects in parallel. While a previous study showed the former system to be already present a few hours after birth, it is unknown whether the latter system...
Article
Full-text available
Evidence for spontaneous mappings between the dimensions of number and length, time and length, and number and time, has been recently described in preverbal infants. It is unclear, however, whether these abilities reflect the existence of privileged mappings between certain quantitative dimensions, like number, space and time, or instead the exist...
Article
Full-text available
Evaluating others is a fundamental feature of human social interaction-we like those who help more than those who hinder. In the present research, we examined social evaluation of those who not only intentionally performed good and bad actions but also those to whom good things have happened (the lucky) and those to whom bad things have happened (t...
Article
Significance When we see a person act (e.g., reach for a cup), we observe physical movements but infer underlying goals. Many have proposed that this ability depends on having produced motor actions oneself. We investigated the relationship between action understanding and production by giving young infants novel experience producing actions. Consi...
Article
Significance Adults and children conform to members of their social groups and expect others to do the same, but the earlier development of this expectation is unknown. Through looking-time experiments with 7- to 12-month-old infants, we show that preverbal infants expect members of social groups to act alike. Our findings further reveal that this...
Article
Full-text available
Human adults from diverse cultures share intuitions about the points, lines, and figures of Euclidean geometry. Do children develop these intuitions by drawing on phylogenetically ancient and developmentally precocious geometric representations that guide their navigation and their analysis of object shape? In what way might these early-arising rep...
Article
Previous research with adults suggests that a catalog of minimally counterintuitive concepts, which underlies supernatural or religious concepts, may constitute a cognitive optimum and is therefore cognitively encoded and culturally transmitted more successfully than either entirely intuitive concepts or maximally counterintuitive concepts. This st...
Article
Young infants are sensitive to self-directed social actions, but do they appreciate the intentional, target-directed nature of such behaviors? The authors addressed this question by investigating infants' understanding of social gaze in third-party interactions (N = 104). Ten-month-old infants discriminated between 2 people in mutual versus averted...
Article
How does the human brain support abstract concepts such as seven or square? Studies of nonhuman animals, of human infants, and of children and adults in diverse cultures suggest these concepts arise from a set of cognitive systems that are phylogenetically ancient, innate, and universal across humans: systems of core knowledge. Two of these systems...
Article
Motivated by computational analyses, we look at how teaching affects exploration and discovery. In Experiment 1, we investigated children's exploratory play after an adult pedagogically demonstrated a function of a toy, after an interrupted pedagogical demonstration, after a naïve adult demonstrated the function, and at baseline. Preschoolers in th...
Article
Full-text available
Electrophysiological and behavioral studies in many species have demonstrated mirror-image confusion for objects, perhaps because many objects are vertically symmetric (e.g., a cup is the same cup when seen in left or right profile). In contrast, the navigability of a scene changes when it is mirror reversed, and behavioral studies reveal high sens...
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Full-text available
Cross-cultural studies suggest that access to a conventional language containing words that can be used for counting is essential to develop representations of large exact numbers. However, cultures that lack a conventional counting system typically differ from cultures that have such systems, not only in language but also in many other ways. As a...
Article
Electrophysiological and behavioral studies in many species (e.g., octopus, pigeon, monkey, and human) have demonstrated mirror-image confusion for objects, perhaps because left/right information is rarely important in object recognition (e.g., a cup is the same cup when seen in left or right profile). However, unlike object recognition, scene reco...
Article
The goal of this study was to investigate some of the visuo-motor factors underlying an infant's developing ability to grasp a laterally-moving object. In particular, hand preference, midline crossing, and visual-field asymmetry were investigated by comparing performance as a function of the object's direction of motion. We presented 6-, 8-, and 10...
Article
Six experiments investigated 7-month-old infants' capacity to learn about the self-propelled motion of an object. After observing 1 wind-up toy animal move on its own and a second wind-up toy animal move passively by an experimenter's hand, infants looked reliably longer at the former object during a subsequent stationary test, providing evidence t...
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Full-text available
Because human languages vary in sound and meaning, children must learn which distinctions their language uses. For speech perception, this learning is selective: initially infants are sensitive to most acoustic distinctions used in any language, and this sensitivity reflects basic properties of the auditory system rather than mechanisms specific to...
Article
Six experiments investigated infants' sensitivity to numerosity in auditory sequences. In prior studies (Lipton & Spelke, 2003), 6-month-old infants discriminated sequences of 8 versus 16 but not 8 versus 12 sounds, and 9-month-old infants discriminated 8 versus 12 but not 8 versus 10 sounds, when the continuous variables of rate, sound duration, a...
Article
What are the brain and cognitive systems that allow humans to play baseball, compute square roots, cook souffl茅s, or navigate the Tokyo subways? It may seem that studies of human infants and of non-human animals will tell us little about these abilities, because only educated, enculturated human adults engage in organized games, formal mathematics,...
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Although much evidence indicates that young infants perceive unitary objects by analyzing patterns of motion, infants' abilities to perceive object unity by analyzing Gestalt properties and by integrating distinct views of an object over time are in dispute. To address these controversies, four experiments investigated adults' and infants' percepti...
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Four studies investigated whether and when infants connect information about an actor's affect and perception to their action. Arguably, this may be a crucial way in which infants come to recognize the intentional behaviors of others. In Study 1 an actor grasped one of two objects in a situation where cues from the actor's gaze and expression could...
Article
gdevelopment of the brain contribute to knowledge ofdevelopment of the human mind? Will developmentalneuroimaging bring new insights to developmental psychology? I suggest an optimistic answer to this question:Developmental neuroimaging is likely to offer new insightsinto questions that have been central to developmentalpsychology for centuries. De...
Article
To survive, organisms must be able to identify edible objects. However, we know relatively little about how humans and other species distinguish food items from non-food items. We tested the abilities of semi-free-ranging rhesus monkeys (Macaca mulatta) to learn rapidly that a novel object was edible, and to generalize their learning to other objec...
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Subject examines the many interrelationships between language and thought. Do people who speak different languages think differently? Does learning new languages change the way you think? Do polyglots think differently in different languages? Are some thoughts unthinkable without language? Subject discussion brings together ideas and findings from...
Article
Experiments using a preferential looking method, a perceptual judgment method, and a predictive judgment method investigated the development, from 7 months to 6 years of age, of sensitivity to the effects of gravity and inertia on inanimate object motion. The experiments focused on a situation in which a ball rolled off a flat surface and either co...
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Eight experiments tested the abilities of 3-4-year-old children to reorient themselves and locate a hidden object in an open circular space furnished with three or four landmark objects. Reorientation was tested by hiding a target object inside one of the landmarks, disorienting the child, observing the child's search for the target, and comparing...
Article
Visual object representation was studied in free-ranging rhesus monkeys. To facilitate comparison with humans, and to provide a new tool for neurophysiologists, we used a looking time procedure originally developed for studies of human infants. Monkeys' looking times were measured to displays with one or two distinct objects, separated or together,...
Article
Three experiments investigated the role of a specific language in human representations of number. Russian-English bilingual college students were taught new numerical operations (Experiment 1), new arithmetic equations (Experiments 1 and 2), or new geographical or historical facts involving numerical or non-numerical information (Experiment 3). Af...
Article
Recent years have seen a revolution in our knowledge of how children learn to think and speak. In this volume, leading scholars from these rapidly evolving fields of research examine the relationship between child language acquisition and cognitive development. At first sight, advances in the two areas seem to have moved in opposing directions: the...
Article
Seven experiments tested whether human navigation depends on enduring representations, or on momentary egocentric representations that are updated as one moves. Human subjects pointed to unseen targets, either while remaining oriented or after they had been disoriented by self-rotation. Disorientation reduced not only the absolute accuracy of point...
Article
Compex cognitive skills such as reading and calculation and complex cognitive achievements such as formal science and mathematics may depend on a set of building block systems that emerge early in human ontogeny and phylogeny. These core knowledge systems show characteristic limits of domain and task specificity: Each serves to represent a particul...
Article
Six-month-old infants discriminate between large sets of objects on the basis of numerosity when other extraneous variables are controlled, provided that the sets to be discriminated differ by a large ratio (8 vs. 16 but not 8 vs. 12). The capacities to represent approximate numerosity found in adult animals and humans evidently develop in human in...
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Full-text available
Under many circumstances, children and adult rats reorient themselves through a process which operates only on information about the shape of the environment (e.g., Cheng, 1986; Hermer & Spelke, 1996). In contrast, human adults relocate themselves more flexibly, by conjoining geometric and nongeometric information to specify their position (Hermer...
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Adults and infants display a robust ability to perceive the unity of a center-occluded object when the visible ends of the object undergo common motion (e.g. Kellman, P.J., Spelke, E.S., 1983. Perception of partly occluded objects in infancy. Cognitive Psychology 15, 483-524). Ecologically oriented accounts of this ability focus on the primary of m...
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Neurophysiological studies show that the firing of place and head-direction (HD) cells in rats can become anchored to features of the perceptible environment, suggesting that those features partially specify the rat's position and heading. In contrast, behavioral studies suggest that disoriented rats and human children rely exclusively on the shape...
Article
Does the human capacity for mathematical intuition depend on linguistic competence or on visuo-spatial representations? A series of behavioral and brain-imaging experiments provides evidence for both sources. Exact arithmetic is acquired in a language-specific format, transfers poorly to a different language or to novel facts, and recruits networks...
Article
This is a curious debate. On one side, Baillargeon argues that theories couched in the terms of the nativist- empiricist dialogue are wellsprings of empirical hypoth- eses and findings. She illustrates this point by describing a series of elegant experiments investigating infants' developing knowledge about the relationships between objects and the...
Article
Preferential looking experiments investigated 5- and 8-month-old infants' perception and understanding of the motions of a shadow that appeared to be cast by a ball upon a box. When all the surfaces within the display were stationary, infants looked reliably longer when the shadow moved than when the shadow was stationary, indicating that they dete...
Article
3 experiments investigated 5-month-old infants' perception of an object whose center was fully occluded and whose ends were visible only in succession. Infants perceived this object as one connected whole when the ends of the object underwent a common motion behind the occluder, but not when the ends were stationary. Although infants perceived the...
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Full-text available
In a series of experiments, young children who were disoriented in a novel environment reoriented themselves in accord with the large-scale shape of the environment but not in accord with nongeometric properties of the environment such as the color of a wall, the patterning on a box, or the categorical identity of an object. Because children's fail...
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To understand early development of conceptions of physical objects, this study explored infants' sensitivity and ability to apprehend object identity in accord with the continuity and smoothness principles. In 4 experiments, 183 4-mo-old infants were presented repeatedly with occlusion events in which an object moved in and out of view. Exps 1 and...
Article
Newborn infants were familiarized to a three dimensional display consisting of a rod which moved behind a central occluder, so that only the top and bottom of the rod were visible. The infants' eyes were 38 cm from the rod and the occluder was 15 cm in front of the rod, a separation intended to ensure that the gap between the two was detected by th...
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Disoriented rats and non-human primates reorient themselves using geometrical features of the environment. In rats tested in environments with distinctive geometry, this ability is impervious to non-geometric information (such as colours and odours) marking important locations and used in other spatial tasks. Here we show that adults use both geome...