Cognitive map

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A cognitive map (sometimes called, but should not be confused with, a mental map or mental model) is a type of mental representation which serves an individual to acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment. The concept was introduced by Edward Tolman in 1948.[1] The concept was used to explain the behavior of rats that appeared to learn the spatial layout of a maze, and subsequently the concept was applied to other animals, including humans.[2] The term was later generalized by some researchers, especially in the field of operations research, to refer to a kind of semantic network representing an individual's personal knowledge or schemas.[3][4][5]


Cognitive maps have been studied in various fields, such as psychology, education, archaeology, planning, geography, cartography, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, management and history.[6] Because of the broad use and study of cognitive maps, it has become a colloquialism for just about any mental representation or model.[6] As a consequence, these mental models are often referred to, variously, as cognitive maps, mental maps, scripts, schemata, and frames of reference.

Cognitive maps serve the construction and accumulation of spatial knowledge, allowing the "mind's eye" to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, enhance recall and learning of information. This type of spatial thinking can also be used as a metaphor for non-spatial tasks, where people performing non-spatial tasks involving memory and imaging use spatial knowledge to aid in processing the task.[7]

The neural correlates of a cognitive map have been speculated to be the place cell system in the hippocampus[8] and the recently discovered grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.[9]

Neurological basis[edit]

Cognitive mapping is believed to largely be a function of the hippocampus. The hippocampus is connected to the rest of the brain in such a way that it is ideal for integrating both spatial and nonspatial information. Connections from the postrhinal cortex and the medial entorhinal cortex provide spatial information to the hippocampus. Connections from the perirhinal cortex and lateral entorhinal cortex provide nonspatial information. The integration of this information in the hippocampus makes the hippocampus a practical location for cognitive mapping, which necessarily involves combining information about an object's location and its other features.[10]

O'Keefe and Nadel were the first to outline a relationship between the hippocampus and cognitive mapping.[8] Many additional studies have shown additional evidence that supports this conclusion.[11] Specifically, pyramidal cells (place cells, boundary cells, and grid cells) have been implicated as the neuronal basis for cognitive maps within the hippocampal system.

Numerous studies by O'Keefe have implicated the involvement of place cells. Individual place cells within the hippocampus correspond to separate locations in the environment with the sum of all cells contributing to a single map of an entire environment. The strength of the connections between the cells represents the distances between them in the actual environment. The same cells can be used for constructing several environments, though individual cells' relationships to each other may differ on a map by map basis.[8] The possible involvement of place cells in cognitive mapping has been seen in a number of mammalian species, including rats and macaque monkeys.[11] Additionally, in a study of rats by Manns and Eichenbaum, pyramidal cells from within the hippocampus were also involved in representing object location and object identity, indicating their involvement in the creation of cognitive maps.[10] However, there has been some dispute as to whether such studies of mammalian species indicate the presence of a cognitive map and not another, simpler method of determining one's environment.[12]

While not located in the hippocampus, grid cells from within the medial entorhinal cortex have also been implicated in the process of path integration, actually playing the role of the path integrator while place cells display the output of the information gained through path integration.[13] The results of path integration are then later used by the hippocampus to generate the cognitive map.[14] The cognitive map likely exists on a circuit involving much more than just the hippocampus, even if it is primarily based there. Other than the medial entorhinal cortex, the presubiculum and parietal cortex have also been implicated in the generation of cognitive maps.[11]

Parallel map theory[edit]

There has been some evidence for the idea that the cognitive map is represented in the hippocampus by two separate maps. The first is the bearing map, which represents the environment through self-movement cues and gradient cues. The use of these vector-based cues creates a rough, 2D map of the environment. The second map would be the sketch map that works off of positional cues. The second map integrates specific objects, or landmarks, and their relative locations to create a 2D map of the environment. The cognitive map is thus obtained by the integration of these two separate maps.[14] This leads to an understanding that it is not just one map but three that help us create this mental process. It should be clear that parallel map theory is still growing. The sketch map has foundation in previous neurobiological processes and explanations while the bearing map has very little research to support its evidence.[15]


The cognitive map is generated from a number of sources, both from the visual system and elsewhere. Much of the cognitive map is created through self-generated movement cues. Inputs from senses like vision, proprioception, olfaction, and hearing are all used to deduce a person's location within their environment as they move through it. This allows for path integration, the creation of a vector that represents one's position and direction within one's environment, specifically in comparison to an earlier reference point. This resulting vector can be passed along to the hippocampal place cells where it is interpreted to provide more information about the environment and one's location within the context of the cognitive map.[14]

Directional cues and positional landmarks are also used to create the cognitive map. Within directional cues, both explicit cues, like markings on a compass, as well as gradients, like shading or magnetic fields, are used as inputs to create the cognitive map. Directional cues can be used both statically, when a person does not move within his environment while interpreting it, and dynamically, when movement through a gradient is used to provide information about the nature of the surrounding environment. Positional landmarks provide information about the environment by comparing the relative position of specific objects, whereas directional cues give information about the shape of the environment itself. These landmarks are processed by the hippocampus together to provide a graph of the environment through relative locations.[14]


The idea of a cognitive map was first developed by Edward C. Tolman. Tolman, one of the early cognitive psychologists, introduced this idea when doing an experiment involving rats and mazes. In Tolman's experiment, a rat was placed in a cross shaped maze and allowed to explore it. After this initial exploration, the rat was placed at one arm of the cross and food was placed at the next arm to the immediate right. The rat was conditioned to this layout and learned to turn right at the intersection in order to get to the food. When placed at different arms of the cross maze however, the rat still went in the correct direction to obtain the food because of the initial cognitive map it had created of the maze. Rather than just deciding to turn right at the intersection no matter what, the rat was able to determine the correct way to the food no matter where in the maze it was placed.[16]

Unfortunately, further research was slowed due to the behaviorist point of view prevalent in the field of psychology at the time.[17] In later years, O'Keefe and Nadel attributed Tolman’s research to the hippocampus, stating that it was the key to the rat's mental representation of its surroundings. This observation furthered research in this area and consequently much of hippocampus activity is explained through cognitive map making.[18]

As time went on, the cognitive map was researched in other prospective fields that found it useful, therefore leading to broader and differentiating definitions and applications. A very prominent researcher, Colin Eden, has specifically mentioned his application of cognitive mapping simply as any representation of thinking models.[19]


In a review, Andrew T.D. Bennett argued that there is no clear evidence for cognitive maps in non-human animals (i.e. cognitive map according to Tolman's definition).[12] This argument is based on analyses of studies where it has been found that simpler explanations can account for experimental results. Bennett highlights three simpler alternatives that cannot be ruled out in tests of cognitive maps in non-human animals "These alternatives are (1) that the apparently novel short-cut is not truly novel; (2) that path integration is being used; and (3) that familiar landmarks are being recognised from a new angle, followed by movement towards them."

Mental map distinction[edit]

A cognitive map is a spatial representation of the outside world that is kept within the mind, until an actual manifestation (usually, a drawing) of this perceived knowledge is generated, a mental map. Cognitive mapping is the implicit, mental mapping the explicit part of the same process. In most cases, a cognitive map exists independently of a mental map, an article covering just cognitive maps would remain limited to theoretical considerations.

Mental mapping is typically associated with landmarks, locations, and geography when demonstrated. Creating mental maps depends on the individual and their perceptions whether they are influenced by media, real-life, or other sources. Because of their factual storage mental maps can be useful when giving directions and navigating.[20][21] As stated previously this distinction is hard to identify when posed with almost identical definitions, nevertheless there is a distinction.[22]

In some uses, mental map refers to a practice done by urban theorists by having city dwellers draw a map, from memory, of their city or the place they live. This allows the theorist to get a sense of which parts of the city or dwelling are more substantial or imaginable. This, in turn, lends itself to a decisive idea of how well urban planning has been conducted.[23]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tolman, Edward C. (July 1948). "Cognitive maps in rats and men". Psychological Review. 55 (4): 189–208. doi:10.1037/h0061626. PMID 18870876.
  2. ^ Ungar, Simon (2005). "Cognitive maps". In Caves, Roger W. (ed.). Encyclopedia of the City. Abingdon; New York: Routledge. p. 79. doi:10.4324/9780203484234. ISBN 9780415252256. OCLC 55948158.
  3. ^ Eden, Colin (July 1988). "Cognitive mapping". European Journal of Operational Research. 36 (1): 1–13. doi:10.1016/0377-2217(88)90002-1. In the practical setting of work in with a team of busy managers cognitive mapping is a tool for building interest from all team members in the problem solving activity. [...] The cycle of problem construction, making sense, defining the problem, and declaring a portfolio of solutions, which I have discussed elsewhere (Eden, 1982) is the framework that guides the process of working with teams. Thus building and working with the cognitive maps of each individual is primarily aimed at helping each team member reflectively 'construct' and 'make sense' of the situation they believe the team is facing. (pp. 7–8)
  4. ^ Fiol, C. Marlene; Huff, Anne Sigismund (May 1992). "Maps for managers: Where are we? Where do we go from here?" (PDF). Journal of Management Studies. 29 (3): 267–285. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.1992.tb00665.x. For geographers, a map is a means of depicting the world so that people understand where they are and where they can go. For cognitive researchers, who often use the idea of a 'map' as an analogy, the basic idea is the same. Cognitive maps are graphic representations that locate people in relation to their information environments. Maps provide a frame of reference for what is known and believed. They highlight some information and fail to include other information, either because it is deemed less important, or because it is not known. (p. 267)
  5. ^ Ambrosini, Véronique; Bowman, Cliff (2002). "Mapping successful organizational routines". In Huff, Anne Sigismund; Jenkins, Mark (eds.). Mapping strategic knowledge. London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. pp. 19–45. ISBN 0761969497. OCLC 47900801. We shall not explain here what cognitive maps are about as this has been done extensively elsewhere (Huff, 1990). Let us just say that cognitive maps are the representation of an individual's personal knowledge, of an individual's own experience (Weick and Bougon, 1986), and they are ways of representing individuals' views of reality (Eden et al., 1981). There are various types of cognitive maps (Huff, 1990). (pp. 21–22)
  6. ^ a b Experience, World Leaders in Research-Based User. "Cognitive Maps, Mind Maps, and Concept Maps: Definitions". Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved 2020-04-06.
  7. ^ Kitchin, Robert M. (1994). "Cognitive maps: what are they and why study them?" (PDF). Journal of Environmental Psychology. 14 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1016/S0272-4944(05)80194-X.
  8. ^ a b c O'Keefe, John; Nadel, Lynn (1978). The hippocampus as a cognitive map. Oxford; New York: Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198572069. OCLC 4430731. Archived from the original on 2019-09-27. Retrieved 2006-09-27.
  9. ^ Sargolini, Francesca; Fyhn, Marianne; Hafting, Torkel; McNaughton, Bruce L.; Witter, Menno P.; Moser, May-Britt; Moser, Edvard I. (May 2006). "Conjunctive representation of position, direction, and velocity in entorhinal cortex". Science. 312 (5774): 758–762. Bibcode:2006Sci...312..758S. doi:10.1126/science.1125572. PMID 16675704.
  10. ^ a b Manns, Joseph R.; Eichenbaum, Howard (October 2009). "A cognitive map for object memory in the hippocampus". Learning & Memory. 16 (10): 616–624. doi:10.1101/lm.1484509. PMC 2769165. PMID 19794187.
  11. ^ a b c Moser, Edvard I.; Kropff, Emilio; Moser, May-Britt (2008). "Place cells, grid cells, and the brain's spatial representation system". Annual Review of Neuroscience. 31: 69–89. doi:10.1146/annurev.neuro.31.061307.090723. PMID 18284371.
  12. ^ a b Bennett, Andrew T. D. (January 1996). "Do animals have cognitive maps?". The Journal of Experimental Biology. 199 (Pt 1): 219–224. PMID 8576693.
  13. ^ McNaughton, Bruce L.; Battaglia, Francesco P.; Jensen, Ole; Moser, Edvard I.; Moser, May-Britt (August 2006). "Path integration and the neural basis of the 'cognitive map'". Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 7 (8): 663–678. doi:10.1038/nrn1932. PMID 16858394. S2CID 16928213.
  14. ^ a b c d Jacobs, Lucia F.; Schenk, Françoise (April 2003). "Unpacking the cognitive map: the parallel map theory of hippocampal function". Psychological Review. 110 (2): 285–315. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.110.2.285. PMID 12747525.
  15. ^ Jacobs, Lucia F. (2003). "The Evolution of the Cognitive Map" (PDF). Brain, Behavior and Evolution. 62 (2): 128–139. doi:10.1159/000072443. PMID 12937351. S2CID 16102408.
  16. ^ Goldstein, E. Bruce (2011). Cognitive psychology: connecting mind, research, and everyday experience (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. pp. 11–12. ISBN 9780840033550. OCLC 658234658.
  17. ^ Glickman, Stephen E. (1992), "Some thoughts on the evolution of comparative psychology.", in Koch, Sigmund; Leary, David E. (eds.), A century of psychology as science, American Psychological Association, pp. 738–782, doi:10.1037/10117-048, ISBN 978-1-55798-171-4, retrieved 2020-03-18
  18. ^ Nadel, Lynn (2008-03-20). The Hippocampus and Context Revisited. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195323245.001.0001. ISBN 978-0-19-986926-8.
  19. ^ Eden, Colin (1992). "On the Nature of Cognitive Maps". Journal of Management Studies. 29 (3): 261–265. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6486.1992.tb00664.x. ISSN 1467-6486.
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  21. ^ M. A., Geography; B. A., Geography. "Mental Maps: You Don't Need a GPS to Get Where You Want to Go". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 2020-04-06.
  22. ^ Schenk, Frithjof Benjamin. "Mental Maps: The Cognitive Mapping of the Continent as an Object of Research of European History Mental Maps". EGO( Retrieved 2020-04-06.
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  24. ^ Montello, D. R. (2009). "Cognitive Geography" (PDF).
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  26. ^ Sperling, G. (2001-01-01), "Motion Perception Models", in Smelser, Neil J.; Baltes, Paul B. (eds.), International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, Pergamon, pp. 10093–10099, ISBN 978-0-08-043076-8, retrieved 2020-04-06
  27. ^ "Repertory Grids". Retrieved 2020-04-06.

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