Cognitive Mapping – A Mental Representation Technique

In 1947, Edward C. Tolman at the University of California at Berkeley, was doing experiments demonstrating that complex internal cognitive activity occurred even in rats and that these mental processes could be studied without the necessity of observing them directly. He proposed that rats have a cognitive map; that ‘in the course of learning,something like a field map of the environment gets established in the rat’s brain… And it is this tentative map, indicating routes and paths and environmental relationships, which finally determines what responses, if any, the animal will finally release.’ [Tolman, 1948, p 192] Due to the significance of his work, Tolman is considered to be the founder of a school of thought about learning that is today called cognitive-behaviorism.

Cognitive Mapping

A cognitive map in the trivial sense is whatever mental or neural mechanism enables an animal to navigate. On this usage, it is tautologous that animals capable of navigation have cognitive maps. A cognitive map in the loose sense is a mental representation that represents geometric aspects of the environment. These aspects might be topological (e.g. connectedness, adjacency, or containment), affine (e.g. collinear or parallel), metric (e.g. distances and angles), and so on.

Cognitive mapping is defined as “a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment” – [Downs & Stea, 1973: 7]

Cognitive mapping is a set of techniques for studying and recording people’s perceptions about their environment. These perceptions are recorded graphically in the form of a “mental map” that shows concepts and relationships between concepts. The process of cognitive mapping is a means of structuring, interpreting, and coping with complex sets of information that exist in different environments. These environments include not only the observable physical environment, but also memories of environments experienced in the past, and the many and varied social, cultural, political, economic, and other environments that have impinged both on those past memories and on our current experiences. The nature, structure, and content of these many environments also influence our expectations whether these be in terms of immediate shortrun expectations that are essential to the more frequent episodes of our daily activity patterns (e.g., route selection in a daily trip to work or shopping), or those less-frequent episodes with greater temporal intervals between their occurrences (e.g., annual holidays). The end product of a cognitive mapping process is called a cognitive map. Cognitive maps thus represent information about environments that are either known to exist or are imagined but not necessarily present. Any given map, therefore, may be a mixture of information received at quite disparate time periods, and at any particular point in time may be incomplete, more or less schematized, or distorted, and may contain fictional or hypothetical information, or relics of the past which no longer exist.

The fundamental importance of an effective cognitive map is that it allows two questions to be answered quickly and efficiently: Where is that? How do I get to there from here? Thus human spatial behavior relies upon and is determined by the individual’s cognitive map of the surrounding environment. In addition, the perception of the environment itself is always guided by some sort of cognitive map, so an inaccurate or incomplete cognitive map leads to disorientation and confusion.

The term “cognitive map” has been used to describe several forms of diagrammatic representation of an individual’s cognitions. Causal map is one such form of cognitive maps which are essentially network representation of beliefs of individuals. The networks have nodes representing concepts, and arcs representing directional relationships between these nodes. The maps are a network of nodes and arrows as links, where the direction of the arrow implies believed causality. Cognitive mapping techniques consist of three major steps: (1) eliciting concepts, (2) defining concepts, and (3) identifying assertions that concepts are connected by causal relationships.

Cognitive maps are characterized by an hierarchical structure which is most often in the form of a means/ends graph with goal type statements at the top of the hierarchy. However the hierarchical form of a map is often informed by some circularity in which a chain of means and ends loops back on itself. In effect everything which is a part of a circular structure is of the same hierarchical status and so if collapsed to a single node describing the feedback loop, the general form of the remaining cognitive map can still be said to be hierarchical. For representational purposes a cognitive map is usually drawn as short pieces of text linked with unidirectional arrows to link them. In the general case, a statement at the tail of an arrow is taken to cause, or influence, the statement at the arrowhead. Thus, in cognitive mapping we seek to identify each statement (node) as having two contrasting poles. For cognitive maps the causality relates the first phrase of the bi-polar statement to the first phrase of the second statement. When an arrow head is shown with a negative (-ve) sign attached then the first pole of the tail statement implies the second pole of the head statement. For positive relationships plus sign may or may not be attached. This representation is also referred as signed directed graph. Typically a node (or concept) which has no implication (out-arrows) is referred to as a head, and a node which has no in-arrows is referred to as a tail. The node which has the highest total of incoming and outgoing arrows is the most central element of the map. Heads will usually be goal type statements – expressions of desired or not-desired outcomes, and tails will be options. When goals are expressed as not-desired outcomes, sometimes indicating disasters to be avoided at all costs, they are referred to as negative-goals. Usually the map will contain more goal statements than those shown by heads, and more options than those shown by tails.

Cognitive mapping techniques aim to provide a tool for revealing peoples’ subjective beliefs in a meaningful way so that they can be examined not only by the individual for whom the map is constructed, but also by other individuals and groups. Another potential use of cognitive mapping techniques is to allow decision-makers to look at maps that have been constructed for other stakeholders so that they can begin to understand and appreciate alternative perspectives on the problem. An advantage of cognitive mapping techniques is that they allow knowledge to be externalized in some sort of visuo-spatial layout that is then open for critical reflection. In this way subjective knowledge can be to some extent ‘objectified’ and therefore discussed in a less threatening way than direct questioning. In this way, if used as the decision-making process unfolds, cognitive mapping techniques may help the process to be managed.

Cognitive mapping appears to be similar to Buzan’s mind mapping technique and Novak’s concept mapping, but while there are similarities, the three mapping techniques differ in some fundamental ways. One of the differences between cognitive maps, concept maps and mind maps is that a mind map has only one main or central concept, whereas concept and cognitive maps may have several focuses. The mind map structure is “tree like” – branching out from the central idea – while concept and cognitive maps are generally complex networks. Another notable difference between these mapping techniques is that cognitive mapping is a causal based mapping technique. In a mind map links are usually “passive”, not representing anything more than association. In concept maps the links are labeled with descriptions, defining the association between concepts. In cognitive mapping, as with the other forms of mapping, the full meaning of the ideas is given by the “whole picture”. Links between ideas add further contextual information to the concepts themselves, and there is meaning through the content of the ideas – the way in which they are expressed as short phrases – and through the context within which they sit. In cognitive mapping you are not limited in the number of ideas that you can link to one another. While concept mapping “allows” multiple links between ideas, mind mapping typically does not use multiple links between ideas.

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