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A cognitive map (also: 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]

Cognitive maps have been studied in various fields, such as psychology, education, archaeology, planning, geography, cartography, architecture, landscape architecture, urban planning, management and history.[2] 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.[3]

The neural correlates of a cognitive map have been speculated to be the place cell system in the hippocampus[4] and the recently discovered grid cells in the entorhinal cortex.[5]

Neurological basis

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.[6]

O’Keefe and Nadel were the first to outline a relationship between the hippocampus and cognitive mapping.[4] Many additional studies have shown additional evidence that supports this conclusion.[7] Specifically, place cells, pyramidal 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.[4] The possible involvement of place cells in cognitive mapping has been seen in a number of mammalian species, including rats and macaque monkeys.[7] 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.[6] 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.[8]

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.[9] The results of path integration are then later used by the hippocampus to generate the cognitive map.[10] 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.[7]

Parallel Map Theory

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.[10]

Generating the cognitive map

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.[10] 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.[10]


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.[11]


In a review by Bennett[8] it is argued that there are no clear evidence for cognitive maps in non-human animals (i.e. cognitive map according to Tolman's definition). This argument is based on analyses of studies where it has been found that simpler explanations can account for experimental results. Bennett highlight three simpler alternative that cannot be ruled out in test 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."

Related term

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.[12] In most cases, a cognitive map exists independently of a mental map, an article covering just cognitive maps would remain limited to theoretical considerations.

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.

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.
This page uses Creative Commons Licensed content from Wikipedia (view authors).
  1. Tolman E.C. (July 1948). Cognitive maps in rats and men. Psychological Review 55 (4): 189–208.
  2. Knight, Peter (2002). Conspiracy Nation: the Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America, New York and London: New York University Press.
  3. Kitchin RM (1994). Cognitive Maps: What Are They and Why Study Them?. Journal of Environmental Psychology 14 (1): 1–19.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 O'Keefe J, Nadel L (1978). The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map.
  5. Sargolini F, Fyhn M, Hafting T, McNaughton BL, Witter MP, Moser MB, Moser EI (May 2006). Conjunctive representation of position, direction, and velocity in entorhinal cortex. Science 312 (5774): 758–62.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Manns, Joseph, Howard Eichenbaum (2009). A cognitive map for object memory in the hippocampus. Learning & Memory (16).
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Moser, E., E. Kroppf & M. Moser (2008). Place cells, grid cells, and the brain's spatial representation system. Annual Review of Neuroscience (31): 68–81.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Bennett ATD (1996). Do animals have cognitive maps?. The Journal of Experimental Biology 199: 219–224.
  9. McNaughton, B. L., F. Battaglia, O. Jensen, E. Moser, & M. Moser (August 2006). Path integration and the neural basis of the 'cognitive map'. National Review of Neuroscience 7 (8): 663–78.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Jacobs, L. F., F. Schenk (2003). Unpacking the cognitive map: The parallel map theory of hippocampal function. Psychological Review 110 (2): 285–315.
  11. Goldstein, B. (2011). Cognitive Psychology: Connecting Mind, Research, and Everyday Experience--with coglab manual. (3rd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth: 11-12.
  12. article from International Encyclopedia of Human Geography