Mapping: Cognitive maps

Cognitive maps are mental representations of physical locations. Humans and animals use them to find their way and to help recall important features of the environment. The term was inroduced by psychologist E. C. Tolman (1) to explain how rats learned the locations of rewards in a maze. A cognitive map provided the rat wih a useful model of the environment. Irrelevant or unimportant information was excluded from the mental map. Thus, cognitive maps can be very different from an actual place. The differences between the mental representation and the physical characteristics of a location may reveal what humans and animals consider important. The cognitive map is likely to show where they go and the routes used.

Asking people to sketch a map of a location is a way to find out what its salient features are for them. A cognitive map can show what is important, and by omission, reveal what is less important. Sometimes a standarized outline showing major feature of an area is used, asking respondents to fill in the details. This procedure could be used by city planners or landscape architects who want to know more about how a space is seen or used.

Cognitive maps can be constructed for spaces a small as a rat's maze or as large as planet earth. They have been used to study how children's conception of space expands and becomes differentiated as they mature. The drawing on the right was produced by a 5-year old when asked to draw her family's 2-story apartment.

Cognitive maps can provide insight into the worlds of those with sensory deficits and physical handicaps. The maps of blind people make more use of sound and touch cues than do those of sighted people. People in wheelchairs emphasize physical barriers in their maps, obstacles that are missing from the maps of those able to move more freely.

Geographers use cognitive maps to supplement their knowledge about the physcial characteristics of places. Knowing how people view a location provides additional information about physical characteristics - do people notice a feature or not? Cognitive mapping is of practical use in many fields including community design, architecture, and recreational planning. More....

Factors that influence knowledge and recognizability of places include:

Self-test #1

Next section: Strengths and limitations

(1) Tolman E. C. (1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review, 55, 189-208.