Research suggests that people have a strong tendency to organize spatial information by forming configurations rather than maintaining individual locations. Here, we considered how powerful this type of organization might be when participants completed a simple spatial reconstruction task. In a series of experiments, participants reconstructed spatial arrays that were either monochromatic or multicolored in order to promote either perceptual grouping or individuation, respectively. To investigate the role of familiar shape, we manipulated whether the displays consisted of meaningful shapes (e.g., fish) or random configurations. Finally, we asked people to reconstruct the displays either perceptually or after a short memory delay. We measured the accuracy of the reconstructions to assess whether having cues that facilitate a configural organizational strategy would improve the quality of the reconstruction. First, consistent with previous results, we observed a benefit for monochromatic displays relative to multicolored displays. Second, having a meaningful structure yielded more accurate reconstructions beyond simply seeing the shape maintained, suggesting that individual locations were more accurately preserved when they were in the context of a familiar shape. In addition, the interplay of these two factors suggested that the use of a meaningful configuration enhanced the difference between the monochromatic and multicolored displays. Finally, when we compared reconstruction from perception versus memory, we found similar results. However, participants made identity errors (i.e., swapped colors) from memory. This was true for both meaningful and random configurations, suggesting that participants were attempting to use shape information in both conditions and that people were (potentially) losing the binding of identity to location. Taken together, these results suggest that configural processing may dominate the organization of spatial representations–conditions that promote this organization facilitate localization.
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