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What is Cognitive Mapping?

By Darrell Laurant
Updated: Mar 03, 2024

Cognitive mapping is the means through which people process their environment, solve problems and use memory. It was first identified in the late 1940s by University of California-Berkeley professor Edward Tolman, and, as so often happens in the field of psychology, it began with laboratory rats. In his experiments, Tolman challenged each rat with a maze that offered food at the end. He noticed that each time the rats passed through the myriad small paths and blind alleys, they made fewer mistakes. Eventually, they were all able to move swiftly to the goal with no false starts.

This told Tolman that the rats had internalized the makeup of the maze in their brains, which Tolman called "the central office." Similarly, human infants come to realize through experience that crying will bring food and/or attention. A child learns not to touch a hot stove. A person who has been blinded can still find his way around his house.

Thus, cognitive mapping is a form of memory, but it is also more than that. Retaining the sequence of streets in the directions to your house is memory; seeing these streets in your "mind's eye" as you speak is cognitive mapping. One working definition of cognitive mapping comes from Downs & Stea in their textbook Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior: "A process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, codes, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday spatial environment."

This is, however, the most basic interpretation. Indeed, on this level, promising research is being done on how to introduce cognitive mapping into the programming of a robot. But two Russian researchers at George Mason University, building on earlier studies, have now postulated that our individual value systems can also be incorporated into our cognitive maps.

In other words, if a person believes that he or she has no value as a human being, that could lead them on a path of self-destructive behavior. Each twist and turn in the inner map would follow logically, based on that initial premise. The key phrase in the Downs and Stea definition might be "a series of psychological transformations." Cognitive maps are, of necessity, fluid. When Tolman's rats were confronted with a different maze, they would follow the same pattern of trial, error, and ultimate success.

Therefore, many psychotherapists now use cognitive mapping in their practice. As with Edward Tolman's tests, the hope is that redrawing the cognitive map can help their patients better negotiate the maze into which they have wandered. Experience can redraw the map, as well. If, for example, someone grew up in a family that was strongly prejudiced toward a particular group of people, that could well be the orientation of the cognitive map. But if that person then encountered and became close friends with a person in that despised group, the inner landscape might start to shift.

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Discussion Comments
By Renegade — On Jan 31, 2011


I don't think anyone has a truly photographic memory, but we associate familiar objects with familiar ways of doing things, and can grow accustomed to remembering every area of a house or landscape via association with memories.

By dbuckley212 — On Jan 29, 2011

Would this be seen as photographic memory? If you can remember all the components of a map, that seems photographic.

By Armas1313 — On Jan 27, 2011

An example of cognitive mapping is the adaptation to maps in video games. If you are playing a multiplayer game and have a solid grasp of where things are in the map, you will have a natural advantage over your opponents.

By arod2b42 — On Jan 25, 2011

If someone has a bad psychological map, which does not work well with the real world, they will often encounter a lot of difficulty. Sometimes people persist in living in their self-made world even after they have been convinced that it is ridiculous. This level of doubt is what leads to insanity, and should be addressed by a therapist.

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