Think Like A Squirrel: Nature’s Spatial Memory Expert

Think Like A Squirrel: Nature’s Spatial Memory Expert

Grade Level

6 - 8


15 min - 1 hr


Life Science

Este recurso está disponible en español. This resource is available in Spanish.

A young scientist thinks of an image of the brain while the robot tries to draw a picture of a brain.
Credit: Joy Ho

It’s lunchtime, and you and your friend are hungry. You venture into the kitchen and make your favorite sandwich—peanut butter and jelly. You assume your friend can make the same thing, but they have never had this type of sandwich. How would you instruct them to make it?

How specific were your instructions? Your directions might seem like a good place to start, but they wouldn’t help if your friend isn’t familiar with the ingredients or your kitchen’s layout. What if they didn’t know that your family uses bagged, pre-sliced bread from the store, or that you keep jelly in the refrigerator? The step-by-step directions that are clear to you might not work for someone without similar experiences.

A close-up of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, sitting on a napkin with an apple, and a water bottle nearby.
What’s your favorite type of sandwich? Can you describe how to make it? Credit: Shutterstock

Want to explore ways to give better instructions? Get ready for an instructional challenge! You will need two people, two pieces of copy paper, pens, pencils, or markers, and the ability to communicate instructions.

Here’s what to do:

  1. To begin, have one person draw a picture. Try to use basic shapes like squares, rectangles, stars, hearts, and circles for the first challenge. Your picture doesn’t even have to represent anything in particular. Keep it simple.
  2. Without showing or facing your partner, try to explain how to recreate your picture while your partner attempts to draw it, with only your instructions for guidance. For instance, you may say, “Draw a triangle in the upper left-hand corner of the paper. Draw a square in the middle.”
  3. When you are done describing what you drew, compare your drawing to your partners. How do they compare?
  4. Switch roles and try it again.

Think about how you described your picture to your partner in the above activity. Did you first consider the steps involved? Did you plan how you would describe the type of shape or its position? When trying to recreate your partner’s picture, did you visualize what they were describing in your mind before you drew it? Which task was easier for you?

Navigate Your World Using Spatial Memory

Giving step-by-step instructions for a task is hard, especially if you have been doing that task (like making your favorite food) for years. You might know how to do this activity without really thinking about it now. However, when you slow down, like in the activity above, you have to be aware of every step. If you forget to describe something important, your partner won’t be able to recreate your drawing.

It’s similar when giving directions to a location. What if you needed to tell someone how to get to your house after school? The ability to store and recall how to get from point A (school) to point B (home) is called spatial memory. It allows you to navigate the world around you and remember where things are on a short-term and long-term basis.

An old, hand-drawn pirate treasure map with vintage wind rose, routes, and nautical symbols.
People draw maps to supplement their spatial memory, and help them remember how to get from place to place. Credit: Shutterstock

Scientists Study Squirrels To Understand Spatial Memory

Have you ever noticed a squirrel scampering around a park? Did you know that squirrels are fuzzy little geniuses? They are! To prepare for winter, squirrels collect acorns, tree nuts, seeds, berries, and even bark (as well as countless other trinkets they find). Of course, squirrels don’t have a kitchen to store their food. So, what do they do with it? They might put some in their nests, but they may also store acorns in many, many other locations, creating lots of hidden storage spots, called caches. How do they remember where they put all these acorns? Their spatial memory!

A red squirrel sits on a mossy log, holding an acorn to its mouth.
Three things can happen to a squirrel’s cache: The squirrel might forget about where they left the food, another animal may find the food, or the squirrel might not be able to retrieve the food due to death or injury. If the acorns or nuts are abandoned, they may germinate and grow into trees. Credit: Shutterstock

Research has shown that squirrels create a cognitive—or mental—map to remember where these nut stashes are. Believe it or not, this research on squirrels is helping us learn more about the human brain and spatial memory.

Spatial memory involves the hippocampus, a primitive structure in human and mammal brains. It’s where information is gathered and stored. Squirrels know how to get back to where they have stored their food, just like you know how to get from Point A to Point B, or find the ingredients for your favorite sandwich in your kitchen.

The hippocampus of squirrels is larger than that of similar species that don’t hide their food. Scientists suggest this may be due to neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt and change over an organism’s lifetime in response to environmental changes. Research on the mechanisms through which neuroplasticity occurs is ongoing; however, during learning new neurons form, and synapses, or connections for nerve-to-nerve communication, are strengthened. This can cause physical changes to the hippocampus.

Are there any other animals with good spatial memory? The answer is yes: rats! After being allowed to explore a maze, rats can navigate back to the specific location where they encountered an earlier treat, no matter where the researcher places them to start. They do so by building a cognitive map of the maze, and using that map to find their way.

How Does Spatial Memory Affect You?

So, there is evidence that animals can form complex spatial memories, but what does that have to do with you?

Spatial memory helps you know where the food and bathroom are in your house. You also use it to find your classrooms at school. If you change schools, neuroplasticity allows you to make a new cognitive map so that you can navigate those halls, too.

What other ways can spatial memory be helpful? Consider sports, video games, or chess. With practice, you’re able to recall what the court, field, or game board looks like. You understand your location and the locations of other players. You don’t have time to stop and think about your position when you’re playing. You need to rely on your spatial memory to know where your teammates will be, or where the obstacles are, so you can concentrate on the action.

Here are a few more examples of how you use your spatial memory.

  • When the lights are off, and your room is dark, you can navigate because you remember where the furniture is.
  • You probably remember how to get to school or a friend’s house from your home and back.
  • Your spatial memory helps you remember where you put your house keys (or your phone, backpack, or lunch box) after you put them down.
Children rehearsing a school play on stage in theater with a prince reciting lines.
Have you ever been in a play? Remembering where you need to be during the show uses spatial memory. Credit: Shutterstock

So, how do you increase your spatial memory? Here are some suggestions:

  • Play video games like Minecraft or Tetris that challenge you to fit pieces together.
  • Play board games such as chess or checkers.
  • Work on jigsaw puzzles, tangrams, or Rubik’s Cubes.
  • Play with LEGO or other building blocks that allow you to organize objects spatially and build physical models. Tactile spatial activities that rely on either touch or vision are great for anyone.
  • Create a mental map of a location, and then, just like rats in a maze, navigate around your map in real life.
  • Use spatial vocabulary to describe the positions of objects. Try to use more specific words than “here” or “there” to describe their position.
  • Solve—or draw—mazes, like in the activity below!

Brain Builder

In the maze challenge below, you won’t be able to see the entire maze you are navigating, so you will need to work with a friend to identify and adapt to obstacles.

Download and print the puzzle, then attach it to a piece of scrap cardboard as described. Place two magnets opposite one another on either side of the cardboard at the start of the maze.

Each participant can review the maze for up to two minutes. Next, each person will sit on their side of the maze, and is not allowed to look at the other side again. You must move the magnets through the maze, directing one another as needed to avoid obstacles. Be sure to write down the numbers you pass over as you go. The number may only be on one person’s side of the maze, but it should still be written down.

When you complete the maze, you will receive a secret code. Enter it into the Science Friday Enigma Machine to find out if you’re right and get your digital badge.

Did you love this challenge? This activity and puzzle are part of the Hack Your Brain neuroscience escape room. Join the newsletter to get the full five-day experience.

Download the puzzle!

A maze in the shape of the brain.
Credit: Lucas LePrince (designer), Fai Kosciolek (illustrator)

Check Your Knowledge

See how much you remember from your reading! These ten questions will test your recall. (Note: Both versions are free, but Kahoot! requires a log in.)

Kahoot! Game          Google Quiz

Want To Learn More?

Here are some great resources for you to check out!

NGSS Standards:

Special thanks to the Dana Foundation for funding Hack Your Brain.

Dana Foundation Logo

Lesson by Svea Anderson
Neuroscience Consultation by Daisy Reyes
Game Design by Lucas Leprince
Illustration by Joy Ho
Puzzle illustration by Fai Kosciolek
Developmental Editing by Sandy Roberts and Ariel Zych
Copyediting by Lois Parshley
Digital Production by Ariel Zych

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About Svea Anderson

Svea Anderson is a twenty-year veteran educator who never hesitates to step out of her comfort zone and try something new. She enjoys a challenge and never passes up an opportunity to learn something new.

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