What is cognitive mapping?

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 Professor Edward Tolman of the University of California-Berkeley, and, as is often the case 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 every time the rats went through countless small trails and dead ends, they made fewer mistakes. Finally, everyone was able to move quickly towards the finish line without false starts.

This told Tolman that the rats had internalized the composition of the maze in their brains, which Tolman called "the central office." Similarly, human babies realize from 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.

Therefore, cognitive mapping is a form of memory, but it is also more than that. Retaining the sequence of streets in directions to your home is memory; Seeing these streets in your "mind" as you speak is cognitive mapping. A 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, encodes, stores, remembers, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday spatial environment."

This is, however, the most basic interpretation. In fact, at this level, promising research is being done on how to introduce cognitive mapping into robot programming. 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 is worthless as a human being, that could lead them down a path of self-destructive behavior. Every twist and turn on the internal map would follow logically, based on that initial premise. The key phrase in Downs and Stea's definition might be "a series of psychological transformations." Cognitive maps are necessarily fluid. When Tolman's rats were faced 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 his patients better negotiate the maze they've wandered through. Experience can also redraw the map. If, for example, someone grew up in a family that had strong prejudices towards a particular group of people, that might be the orientation of the cognitive map. But if that person meets and becomes close friends with a person in that scorned group, the internal landscape could begin to change.

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