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Cognitive maps

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Cognitive Psychology: Attention · Decision making · Learning · Judgement · Memory · Motivation · Perception · Reasoning · Thinking  - Cognitive processes Cognition - Outline Index

Cognitive maps, mental maps, mind maps, cognitive models, or mental models are a type of mental processing (cognition) composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual can acquire, code, store, recall, and decode information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday or metaphorical spatial environment.

Tolman (1948) is generally credited with the introduction of the term 'cognitive map'. Here, 'cognition' can be used to refer to the mental models, or belief systems, that people use to perceive, contextualize, simplify, and make sense of otherwise complex problems. Cognitive maps have been studied in various fields, such as psychology, education, archaeology, planning, geography and management. As a consequence, these mental models are often referred to, variously, as cognitive maps, mental maps, scripts, schemata, and frames of reference.

Put more simply, cognitive maps are a method we use to structure and store spatial knowledge, allowing the "mind's eye" to visualize images in order to reduce cognitive load, and 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.

These can be abstract, flat or spatial representations of cognitive spaces. When these cognitive spaces are combined they can form a cognitive panorama. We can distinguish cognitive maps or cognitive spaces as being either "workbenches of the mind" (Baars) or "externally related workbenches of the mind" (Benking) as representations of the inside or outside.

The oldest known formal method of using spatial locations to remember data is the "method of loci". This method was originally used by students of rhetoric in ancient Rome when memorizing speeches. To use it one must first memorize the appearance of a physical location (for example, the sequence of rooms in a building). When a list of words, for example, needs to be memorized, the learner visualizes an object representing that word in one of the pre-memorized locations. To recall the list, the learner mentally "walks through" the memorized locations, noticing the objects placed there during the memorization phase.

Cognitive maps may also be represented and assessed on paper or screen through various practical methods such as a concept map, sketch map, spider diagram, Hasse diagram or any variety of spatial representation.

A fuzzy cognitive map (FCM) is a cognitive map which can be processed based on fuzzy logic.

The neural correlates of a cognitive map (at least in rodents') brains has been speculated to be the place cell system in the hippocampus or the recently discovered grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.

See also


  • R. M. Kitchin (1994). Cognitive Maps: What Are They and Why Study Them?. Journal of Environmental Psychology 14: 1-19.
  • R. G. Downs and D. Stea (1973). Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior.
  • E. C. Tolman (1948). Cognitive Maps in Rats and Man. Psychological Review 55: 189-208.
  • J. O'Keefe and L. Nadel (1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map.
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