Spatial Cognition and Computation 1: 365–379, 1999.
© 2000 Kluwer Academic Publishers. Printed in the Netherlands.
Selecting a reference frame
LAURA A. CARLSON
University of Notre Dame
Abstract. Reference frames are representations that parse space. In the case of spatial terms,
reference frames mediate the mapping of linguistic expressions onto spatial conﬁgurations
of objects. In the sentence “The ﬂy is above the cat,” “above” is deﬁned with respect to a
reference frame that is imposed on the cat. Different types of reference frames can be used to
deﬁne spatial terms, each based on a different source of information. For example, gravity, the
orientation of objects in the scene or the orientation of the viewer can all be used to set the
orientation of a reference frame. When these reference frames disagree (because the viewer is
reclining or because the objects in the scene are overturned), there are competing deﬁnitions
for the spatial term, resulting in the need for reference frame selection. The purpose of this
paper is to review a line of research that examines reference frame selection in the context
of spatial language. This work shows that all reference frames are initially active and assign
a direction to a spatial term. Moreover, this activation is automatic, and is followed by the
selection of a single reference frame, with selection accompanied by inhibition of the non-
selected frames. Parallels between reference frame selection in language and in perception
and attention are discussed.
Key words: inhibition, reference frames, selection, spatial relations
Walking through your living room in the dark requires a sense of direc-
tion. Remembering where you placed your keys requires a sense of location.
Recognizing that the ﬂoor plant has been overturned by your cat requires
a sense of orientation. Assessing whether the coffee pot is close enough to
your coffee mug to successfully pour a cup of coffee requires a sense of
scale. Use of a reference frame is central to each of these endeavors. In its
most general characterization, a reference frame consists a set of axes that
deﬁne space. A reference frame has a number of parameters, including an
origin, a scale, a direction and an orientation (Logan and Sadler 1996). The
origin corresponds to the intersection point of the reference frame (Miller
and Johnson-Laird 1976), and refers to where this point is imposed on space.
Orientation and direction are assigned to the axes and together demarcate
This work is supported by NSF grant SBR97-27638. I thank Eric Covey for assistance.
Address all correspondence to Laura A. Carlson, Department of Psychology, 118-D Haggar
Hall, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556.