Written by: Lach Ravelo

8 Things You Should Know About Cognitive Maps and Navigating the Map of the Mind


While we rarely think about it, people navigate through their day-to-day lives using a variety of cognitive tools and techniques. One such device is a cognitive map, which is the mind’s ability to create a mental picture of the world around it. Learn more about it here.

If you’ve gotten lost before—whether it’s in a new city or a local grocery store—then you’ll understand how cognitive maps work.

Perhaps you’ve been caught in a maze of unfamiliar buildings and confusing street signs. Maybe you’re driving around in a foreign country while searching for a breakfast place. Or, perhaps you’re just looking for the restroom because you really have to pee.

When you need direction, your brain pulls out a special kind of map to show you where to go.

history of cognitive maps

This map is a cognitive map.

Cognitive maps are like your mind’s very own navigation system. It helps you absorb information about your surroundings so you won’t keep going in circles.

But more than showing you directions, cognitive maps can also sharpen the way you think. In fact, various fields and careers use cognitive maps to enhance creative thinking.

And so, if you’re always hungry for innovative ideas and new solutions, this article is what you’re looking for. Here, you’ll understand how your mind learns about your surroundings. Plus, you’ll know how your surroundings shape the way you think.

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What are Cognitive Maps?

Before we dive into the concept of cognitive maps, let’s first get to know the definition of “cognitive.”

Every single mental process of our brain is considered cognitive. It refers to the intellectual activity that allows us to think, reason, and solve. Our cognitive abilities allow us to do the following:

  •       Process information
  •       Understand data
  •       Respond and react accordingly
  •       Retrieve and store memories
  •       Make sound decisions and judgments
  •       Create apt solutions

Now, when we talk about cognitive maps, we refer to our mind’s representation of a certain environment. Cognitive maps are sometimes called mental maps or mind maps.

cognitive map theories

They can help you visualize a setting or understand the orientation of a landscape. It’s a reflection of how much you know about a particular space.

Cognitive maps become handy when we’re giving someone directions. It’s also used when you’re exploring an unfamiliar place. During these situations, your mind gives you a layout of images that helps you pinpoint a location.

Your brain’s ability to create cognitive maps speaks volumes about the way you learn. It shows how sharp you are when it comes to storing and recalling spatial information. Think of it as your brain’s own Waze!

–>> What’s your brain type? Take the FREE Test here. <<–

The Mind behind Mind Mapping

the brain behind mind mapping

The concept of cognitive maps was born because of rats. Yes, rats!

In 1948, an American psychologist named Edward Tolman conducted an experiment. In this experiment, he placed rats in a cross-shaped maze. Then, he allowed the rats to explore their surroundings.

After the little exploration, Tolman placed the rat inside one arm of the cross. Tolman then put some food on the arm at the right side of the rat. After a while, the rat eventually found the food.

Soon, the rat became familiar with this setup. He knew that the food was always to his right.

This behavior showed that he was already conditioned to his environment!

But there’s more to it. 

Tolman placed the food at a different arm, an arm that the rat isn’t used to. To Tolman’s surprise, the rat still found the food. He later realized that the rat had formed a cognitive map and used that knowledge to find his treat.

Tolman’s discovery unlocked a lot of secrets about spatial cognition. Over time, the theory about cognitive maps was used to study other animals and people.

How is a Cognitive Map Formed: Theories behind Cognitive Mapping

mind maps and creativity

The brain automatically generates cognitive maps. 

To make a cognitive map, the brain will first use what you see, smell, and hear. These pieces of information will serve as cues. The brain uses cues to understand your surroundings and create a vector.

A vector represents your direction and position in a specific environment. Then, the vector will go through the hippocampal place cells, where information is interpreted. This process helps your brain identify your surroundings and determine your relative location.

O’Keefe and Nadel (1978)

The hippocampus is a vital part of cognitive mapping, especially for mammals and birds. John O’Keefe and Lynn Nadel discuss this in their book, “The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map.” According to them, the hippocampus contains neurons that create a memory of an animal’s landscape.

And so, when the animal goes to a certain environment, the neurons in their hippocampus remind them of that setting. It’s as if the animal’s mind is creating a map then and there.

Fhyn and Hafting et al. 

Marianne Fyhn and Torkel Hafting propose another theory

They discovered spatial cells in the part of the brain called the entorhinal cortex. The entorhinal cortex sends loads of information to the hippocampus.

When the rat went to certain places within the controlled environment, the scientists found that the spatial cells fired. What’s more interesting is that the cells fired in many places—not just one!

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Even better, the places where the cells fired formed a regular pattern. In this pattern, the firing locations had the same distance from their neighbors.

The scientists were astounded by these findings. Not only did they affirm that the hippocampus is a map. They also confirmed that the hippocampus also serves as a memory system.

Building Cognitive Maps through Our Real-Life Travels

your brain and travel

How do you prefer going to work?

Some of you may choose the speed and convenience of your private car. Some might prefer using cheap modes of public transportation. Others might say that they would rather walk and get a little exercise for the day.

Hey, as long as you get there, right?

But did you know that your travel behavior affects your cognitive maps? In this study, researchers discovered that a person’s cognitive map’s accuracy depends on their mode of travel.

They found a difference between the individuals who used cognitively-active ways of traveling and those who used cognitively-passive ways.

Some examples of cognitively-active ways of travel are walking and driving. It involves you taking charge of the direction you take.

–>> What’s your brain type? Take the FREE Test here. <<–

But, cognitively-passive modes of travel mean you’re a passenger of a vehicle. This means you simply sit back and let someone else deal with the road.

The research found that cognitively-active travelers were more accurate in describing the landscape of a place. Drivers and people who walked were especially knowledgeable about their space. They were able to point out the location of certain landmarks and destinations.

But for cognitively-passive travelers, their memory was less accurate. They’re most likely to miss a few details about places and directions. Their spatial knowledge can also be quite limited.

What does this study tell us?

Cognitive maps are not accurate all the time. 

Sometimes, your brain will delete information that may seem irrelevant. Other times, you just miss important landmarks and streets.

The transportation system you choose affects the way you engage with your city. 

walking and cognitive mapping

Your mode of travel shapes your knowledge about your surroundings. It also builds your skills in soaking information about your environment.

Cognitive Map vs. Concept Maps vs. Mind Maps

Cognitive maps, concept maps, mind maps—they could all be very confusing.

These three terms are usually interchanged. But even though they all sound similar, they each have their own concept. They also have their advantages and disadvantages.

One thing that you can be sure of is that all these maps are used for visualizations. To be specific, they’re utilized to represent a mental model.

They’re sometimes referred to as a technique in making diagrams. Additionally, the three maps are also important for studying relationships and interpreting information.

Here’s a broader explanation of what sets the three maps apart:

What is a Cognitive Map?

cognitive maps and psychology

All cognitive maps represent someone’s mental process and thoughts. Basically, all kinds of mapping techniques are cognitive maps.

As a general type of map, it can accommodate many disciplines. This diversity is a huge advantage. Various fields can make use of a cognitive map to illustrate data sets, plans, and solutions.

There are no rules when it comes to the visuals of a cognitive map. There’s no specific form or structure to follow as well. Anyone can present ideas and their relationships in whatever way. 

Cognitive maps can come in a variety of looks.

They can be something as simple as a map drawn with a pen and paper. They can be digitalized, too. They can also appear as flowcharts, bullet lists, and concept diagrams.

Since there are no restrictions for cognitive maps, they become useful in many ways. These maps are flexible in discussing different types of situations. It can represent the relationship of various concepts.

patterns and cognitive maps

Best Used For:

  • Looking into the thoughts of a person
  • A guide in designing a product
  • Representing the mental model of a participant
  • Presenting an overview of a system
  • Researching highly-complicated data
  • Identifying patterns, similarities, and connections
  • Discovering underlying themes between concept
  • Elaborating and breaking down ideas
  • Accessible way of understanding a process

What is a Concept Map? 

concept mapping

The idea of the concept map was born in 1970. That’s thanks to Joseph Novak, an American professor. He developed this map as an aid for his students’ learning.

Novak noted that the map works best in helping his students absorb the lesson. It also helps in knowledge retention. Plus, it facilitates an easier way of interpreting connections between ideas.

In a nutshell, concept maps are a graph that emphasizes the relationships of certain topics.

Every concept map has a node that contains a concept. In the map, graph labels show how nodes connect. The graph edges also have labels that show the relationship between connecting nodes.

The concept map’s defining characteristic lies within its nodes. Unlike the other maps, the nodes of a concept map can have many parents. That means one node can be connected to many others.

This characteristic is the map’s strength. Because of this feature, concept maps work best when discussing complicated concepts. Through the concept map, you can point out the relationship of one node to another.

cognitive maps and strategy

Best Used For:

  • Showing an overview of the relationship of ideas
  • Illustrating the relationship of different sets of data
  • Analyzing problems
  • Discovering causes and effects of actions
  • Following the trail of an idea
  • Coming up with solutions

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What is a Mind Map?

mind mapping

Out of all the cognitive maps out there, this one is the simplest.

Mind maps are straight to the point. This is because they’re easy to make and quick to take in. They also have a clear format and an understandable hierarchy.

Essentially, mind maps show a core topic and its subtopics. It usually presents itself as a tree. You will see the sub-ideas branching out from the main one.

Tony Buzan, a British author back in 1974, popularized mind maps. Today, it’s used to present information systematically.

–>> What’s your brain type? Take the FREE Test here. <<–

Mind maps stand out because they have a one parent node. This means that they only have a single central topic. This way, it’s easy to trace the other nodes back to the root idea.

Even though the nodes may be connected, they may not have a definite relationship. Their edges don’t have any labels. A representation like this can open up various interpretations from different users.

Best Used For:

  • Creating a plan of subject topics
  • Showing the components of a body
  • Presenting a break down of an idea
  • Organizing pieces of information
  • Structuring data to produce meaning
  • Categorizing topics

A Spark of Creativity: How Mind Maps Helps Us Think

Cognitive maps are great tools for understanding ideas and learning concepts. But more than a key to knowledge, cognitive maps can also stimulate the creative juices in your brain. Here’s how cognitive maps enhance the way you think:

It helps you think outside the box. 

think outside the box

When you create a cognitive map, you get to see an organized overview of your data. In this way, you can see connections and gaps easier. As a result, you’ll develop a new perspective or new solutions to what you’re working on.

It constructs a memory palace in your brain. 

Making cognitive maps aids you in recalling information. When you visit and revisit certain memories or experiences, they tend to stick to your brain. In effect, your ability to memorize and recall ideas is enhanced.

It’s a strategy for retaining knowledge. 

Having a hard time studying for an exam? Try making a mind map of keywords, pictures, and colors. This technique helps your brain remember associations and important words better.

It’s the partner of brainstorming. 

what are cognitive maps

Brainstorming and mind-mapping go hand in hand. By creating a mind-map as you brainstorm, you allow yourself to dig deeper and look further. Through this exploration, you can make new connections and come up with fresh ideas.

It helps you focus. 

Ever find your thoughts and ideas overwhelming because they’re all over the place? 

When you’re overwhelmed with information, you might have a hard time making decisions. Through mind-mapping, you can organize, sort, and compare the ideas that are swimming in your brain.

It jumpstarts your imagination. 

The best thing about cognitive maps is that they can come in different forms. You can choose to make one with bright colors, striking symbols, and hard-to-forget images. Doing so will get your imagination excited.

It gets your whole brain to work. 

Left brain or right brain? The answer is both! When you mind-map, your whole brain is on the job. This means that it can maximize its full capabilities and produce a better outcome!

It captures your ideas before they disappear. 

capture ideas

Creating a mind map of your thought process is an efficient way to capture that eureka moment. This method is a faster way of recording the flow of your ideas. It allows for shortcuts in documenting where your inspiration is taking you.

Fields that use Cognitive Maps

The best thing about mind maps is their versatility. From simple train of thoughts to highly technical concepts—mind-mapping can serve its purpose.

Mind-mapping has its role in many different fields. Experts, researchers, and creative thinkers, all use cognitive mapping techniques for whatever project they’re working on.

Almost all types of careers can make use of mind maps. But here are some that use mind-mapping methods more frequently:


cognitive maps and education

Mind-mapping is useful for both the teacher and the student.

Students can use this tool to organize loads of information they learn from lectures. It improves their problem-solving skills and trains their brain to retrieve information faster. Plus, mind-maps can also guide them in the application of theories or concepts.

For educators, mind-maps are a key to understanding how their students think. Teachers can better understand the cognitive structure of an individual. Therefore, they’ll have a better grasp of how they can help their students’ performance.


Psychologists widely use cognitive maps to understand their patients. In psychology, cognitive maps represent how an individual interprets his surroundings. Usually, this technique is performed through observation and trial and error.

A concept in psychology states that every person collects information about his environment. This information is called contextual clues. These clues are the different relationships of the things found in one’s environment.

This concept also believes that humans are not passive about their surroundings. This is because humans, as well as other animals, develop cognitive mapping techniques.

Using cognitive maps gives a person access to spatial information. Through this knowledge, the person becomes more oriented on his current location.

Urban planning

cognitive maps and urban planning

Perhaps the most common use for cognitive maps is for urban planning.

Urban theorists, for example, make use of mental maps to understand cities better. These theorists ask residents to create a map of the place they live in. The residents can only rely on their memory as they construct this map.

These self-made maps made by the residents of a city are handy to urban theorists. When analyzed as a whole, these maps allow them to pinpoint which parts of the city leave a lasting impression on the dwellers. This information also helps theorists to enhance the area’s space planning and experience.


cognitive maps and architecture

Architecture is a science and art that deeply dwells into habitable space creation through extensive planning and spatial design.

Architects are not only responsible for the aesthetics of the building, but they are also accountable for its function and safety.   

To do this, they use more complex forms of mental maps to guide them on how spaces connect. 

But the architect’s mental map is not just about his interpretation of the space. He factors in the users’ needs, preferences, experience, and even space usage. 


cognitive maps and management

Mind-mapping inspires creative thinking. That is why it is a must in project management.

Using mind maps in meetings can facilitate the tasks and projects of the team. 

Mind maps can also be a basis for the progress of the whole project. It can contain the conditions and deliverables that the team needs to meet.

More than that, mind-maps present an overview of the current work. This tool gives members a bird’s eye view of how operations are faring, and of course, any potential problems and delays. At the same time, it also enables them to come up with efficient and immediate solutions.


cognitive maps and engineering

Engineers usually have a handful of data to work with. Through mind-mapping, engineers can manage their data more efficiently. It can give them a methodological approach when it comes to analyzing information.

As you probably already experienced, reading through volumes after volumes of text is difficult. It can be tiresome and extremely time-consuming.

But through mind-mapping techniques, engineers can interpret data faster. Knowledge becomes more accessible, especially when concepts are in a simpler form.

Mind maps can also allow engineers to design complex solutions. This is because the mind map can reveal certain patterns and themes. In a way, using mind-mapping techniques helps engineers get a wider perspective of their task at hand.

–>> What’s your brain type? Take the FREE Test here. <<–

Cognitive maps show us the way—literally! 

mind mapping for direction

But more than giving you orientation, it also boosts your mind’s thinking capacity.

Whatever field you’re in and whatever project you’re working on, cognitive maps can surely lend a hand. 

How do you use cognitive maps in your life? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

cognitive maps creativity mesh


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7 thoughts on “8 Things You Should Know About Cognitive Maps and Navigating the Map of the Mind”

  1. Hello Lach, this is the article which I want to write. Cognitive maps are an important part of the way I imagine. I love imagination.
    I find your articles relative. They are very helpful to me. Thanks a lot.???

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