Cognitive maps are a fundamental concept in psychology that refers to the mental representation of information about one’s environment. They help us understand and navigate our surroundings, and they are an essential tool in both human and animal navigation.

What is a cognitive map?

A cognitive map is a mental representation of the physical layout of one’s surroundings. It is a mental image or picture that allows individuals to navigate their environment. The term ‘cognitive map’ was coined by psychologist Edward Tolman in 1948, who conducted experiments on rats and found that they appeared to create mental maps of their mazes.

Examples of cognitive maps in psychology

One classic example of cognitive mapping comes from an experiment conducted by psychologist John O’Keefe. In this study, he implanted electrodes into the hippocampus (a part of the brain involved in spatial memory) of rats and observed their behavior as they navigated through a maze.

He found that certain neurons would fire only when the rat was in a particular location within the maze. This led him to conclude that these neurons were creating a mental map of the maze within the rat’s brain.

Another example comes from research on humans using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. Participants were asked to navigate through a virtual reality city while being scanned.

The results showed that specific areas of the brain were activated when participants viewed landmarks or navigational cues within the environment. This provides evidence for cognitive mapping in humans as well.

Why are cognitive maps important?

Cognitive maps are essential for navigation, whether it be for animals searching for food or humans trying to find their way through an unfamiliar city. They allow us to create a mental representation of our surroundings, which we can use to plan routes or remember important landmarks.

Furthermore, studies have shown that individuals with better-developed cognitive maps tend to have better spatial memory and navigation skills than those with less-developed maps. This highlights the importance of cognitive mapping in everyday life.

How are cognitive maps formed?

Cognitive maps are formed through a combination of sensory input and experience. As individuals explore their environment, they gather information about the layout and use this to create a mental representation.

This process is not always conscious, and individuals may not be aware that they are creating a cognitive map. However, research has shown that repeated exposure to an environment can lead to more accurate and detailed cognitive maps.


In conclusion, cognitive maps are an essential tool for navigation in both animals and humans. They allow us to create mental representations of our surroundings, which we can use to plan routes or remember important landmarks. Through research on rats and humans, we have gained a better understanding of how these maps are formed and how they function within the brain.