Tolman’s Cognitive Map: Meaning, Experiment, and Usefulness

Tolman’s Cognitive Map: Rats Experiment

A cognitive map is a mental representation of the layout of one’s environment. It seems that many animals, not just humans, are able to form a mental representation of an environment that they have been in or are currently in.

For example, when a friend asks you for directions to your house, you are able to create an image in your mind of the roads, along the way to your house from your friend’s starting point. This representation is called a cognitive map. Cognitive mapping is the medians by which people process their environment, solve problems and use memory.

The term cognitive map is coined by Edward Tolman, which is the mental representation of the external environmental features. He thought that individuals acquire a large number of signals from the environment and could use these to build a mental image of an environment. By using this mental representation of physical space they could get to the goal by knowing where it is in complex environmental features.

It was first recognized in the late 1940s by University of California-Berkeley professor Edward Tolman, and, as so often appears in the field of psychology, it began with laboratory rats. In his experiments, Tolman challenged each rat with a maze that offered food at the end.

Tolman noticed that each time the rats passed through the countless small paths, and blind backstreets, they made fewer mistakes. Eventually, they all were able to move quickly to the goal with no false jumps. Tolman told that the rats have internalized the makeup of the maze in their brains which Tolman called the central office. Similarly, human infants come to realize through experience that crying will bring food/ or attention. A child learns not to touch the hot stove. A person who has been blinded can still find his/her way around his/her house.

cognitive map

Thus, cognitive mapping is a form of memory, but it is also more than that. Retaining the sequence of streets in the directions to your house is memory, seeing these streets in your mind’s eye as you speak is cognitive mapping. One working definition of cognitive mapping comes from Downs and Stea in their textbook “Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior.” A process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, codes, stores, recalls and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in their everyday spatial environment.

In other words, if a person believes that he or she has no value as a human being that could lead them on a path of self-destructive behavior. Each twist and turn in an inner map would follow logically based on that initial premise. The key phrase in the Downs and Stea definition might be, a series of psychological transmissions. Cognitive maps are of necessity, fluid. When Tolman’s rats were confronted with a different maze, they would follow the same pattern of trial, error, and ultimate success.

Cognitive Map As A Form of Latent Learning

Cognitive mapping is a form of latent learning Tolman concluded. Latent learning is a type of learning, which is not apparent in the learner’s behavior at the time of learning, but manifests later when a suitable motivation and circumstances appear. Tolman argued that humans engage in this type of learning every day as we drive or walk the same route daily and learn the locations of various buildings and objects. Only when we need to find the building or object does learning become obvious.

latent learning

Consider, an example, your knowledge of various routes in your hometown. Every day you travel a variety of routes and learn the locations of various businesses in your town. However, this learning is latent because you are not using it most of the time. It is only when you need to find a specific location such as the nearest coffee shop or bus stop that you are required to draw on a demonstrate what you have learned. Hence, in latent learning new behavior is acquired but it is not demonstrated until some incentives are provided for displaying it.


Cognitive mapping techniques have gained attraction in business and education as tools to stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving. Cognitive mapping techniques such as concept mapping and mind mapping can add the teacher and researcher by providing a ‘glimpse’ into learners’ cognitive structure. Both the teacher and researcher can leverage this knowledge to improve their understanding of learning and problem-solving.

Tolman was the first behaviorist who challenged the conditional theory on the belief that stimulus-response theory is unacceptable, as reinforcement was not necessary for learning to happen, and asserted that behavior was mainly cognitive. He believed that the environment offers several experiences or cues which are used to develop the mental image, that is, a cognitive map.

Thus, cognitive learning theory is based on the cognitive model of human behavior, that is, it emphasizes the free will and positive aspects of human behavior. Cognition refers to the individual’s thoughts, feelings, ideas, knowledge, and understanding of himself and the environment. Thus, an organism applies this cognition learning which results in not merely the response to a stimulus, but the application of the internal image of the external environment, to accomplish the goal.

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 non-spatial information.

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