Cognitive Maps

A cognitive map represents the relative locations of points in space, making it possible for an animal to orient itself toward a point that has no distinctive cues. Tolman appears to have coined the term and to have applied it to maze learning in rats. His cognitive map hypothesis was tentatively supported by data from his laboratory, namely the sudden drop in errors with the initial introduction of a food reward in a previously explored complex maze and appropriate responding in so-called insight and alternative path studies. Similarly, Maier's three-table-reasoning problem assumed that a successful rat knew the position of each table with respect to the other two tables.

Later, Olton provided somewhat more convincing evidence for the hypothesis of cognitive maps. Using an eight-arm radial maze, Olton and associates studied spatial memory in the rat by removing the food pellet at the end of each alley once it had been visited on the trial. The rats soon learned, to almost an errorless level, to enter only an arm that had not been previously visited. Rats perform well with controlled odor cues or odor trails, go to the appropriate spatial location even when the maze is rotated, and do not learn fixed sequences that could function independently of spatial memories.

Morris tested the cognitive map hypothesis directly by requiring rats to locate a slightly submerged platform in a tank of water made opaque by adding milk. Once the maze is learned from the one starting point, the rat can be dropped into any point in the tank and it sets a course more or less directly toward the platform, as consistent with a cognitive map.

One animal that clearly has a cognitive map, one that may be superior to that of humans, is the chimpanzee. This was first observed by Tinklepaugh in his study of multiple delayed response using 16 different containers situated as equally spaced pairs in a large circle. One member of each pair, on the left or the right, was baited while the subject (chimpanzee, human adult, or human child) watched. After a short delay, the subject was free to find the hidden object for each pair. Children did very poorly on this task, and chimpanzees were slightly superior to human adults, having a success rate of more than 70%, even when the baiting was done in a random fashion, which would seem to rule out unintentional cuing by the experimenters because they did not remember where things were either.

Birds also seem to have cognitive maps. For example, marsh tits exhibit good spatial memory for seeds that they have hoarded in a variety of cache locations. They also avoid earlier used but now empty holes. These memories probably reflect species-specific adaptations. The birds are very poor in finding seeds stored in holes by an experimenter, which rules out smell as a basis for detecting seed locations.

Bees clearly use landmarks around sources of nectar to locate the substance, but recent evidence suggests that this local map consists of route-based memories rather than a cognitive map of a familiar landscape, as with humans and other vertebrates. A study by Whishaw on latent learning in a swimming pool task raises questions about the rats' use of cognitive mapping, because of strong evidence for the use of associative processing.

Denny provides information on how cognitive maps are established. Visual recognition and ability to move about in a spatial layout were tested following single-route or multiple-route training of the space solely through kines-thesis (by means of blind hand movements among points on a plane). Single-route training, in spite of much more practice on the target route, failed to yield better learning of the route than multiple-route training and produced a much poorer cognitive map, as judged from kinesthetic and visual transfer tasks. Certain conclusions seem justified: (1) the more varied the initial experience, the more abstract and less egocentric (individual-referenced) the representation of space becomes, and (2) active experiencing of space produces a representation of the space as a coordinated whole—one that transcends the individual links (paths) between locations. The whole is known better than its parts.

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