In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychology-related terms. This week’s term is cognitive mapping, the creation of mental maps for navigation.
Some people are star navigators, while some can’t find their way out of a paper bag without a GPS. The reason for that likely has a lot to do with our ability to construct mental maps that represent our environment. The concept of a cognitive map was first described back in 1948 based on research in rats. More recent research has explored this in humans.
Navigation and the brain
Certain areas of the brain are activated when we view navigation-related stimuli in the environment. Areas of the frontal lobe appear to be involved in planning navigation. Activity in area called the caudate is associated with following routes that we already know, while activity in the hippocampus is associated with navigation using a cognitive map.
It appears that we have several types of specialized neurons that help us to navigate: cells that create mental grid representations, “place cells” that orient us to location, and cells that code our direction of movement. When we have to navigate somewhere, some models have suggested that grid cells in an area of the brain called the entorhinal cortex figure out a vector of direction and distance to where we’re going based on a 3D grid representation.
The hippocampus then figures out how to get there around whatever obstacles might be in the way, and the posterior parietal cortex figures out what direction to orient you in along the path. London taxi drivers, who need to memorize 25,000 streets and 60,000 landmarks in order to become licensed, have been found to have enlarged hippocampi.
If you have to adjust your route plan along the way, part of the prefrontal cortex gets involved. If you’re following a route that you already know, that involves another area of the brain called the caudate nucleus. That makes for a whole lot of different brain areas needing to cooperate!
GPS (egocentric) vs. allocentric navigation
Following directions (or GPS commands) is considered egocentric navigation, as it relates to our current position and orientation. Cognitive mapping is considered allocentric, as it involves understanding where features and landmarks are in the environment in relation to each other, and then orienting ourselves within that environment. If you’re using egocentric navigation and a sinkhole has opened up in your path, it’s going to be hard for you to get back on track, whereas allocentric navigation with a cognitive map makes it easier to figure out a workaround.
Successful allocentric navigation requires us to be able to mentally rotate our internal representations. One paper I found said that if we’re trying to estimate the relative directions between two places from memory, but the location of those places is in a different direction from where we’re facing, it’s difficult to do that without physically rotating our bodies. If I’m reading that correctly, if you’re facing east and you’re trying to imagine navigating a path between things to the north of where you currently are, you’re naturally going to want to turn to face north to match things up in your head. I wouldn’t have come up with that on my own, but that’s absolutely something I do.
Deficits in spatial orientation
Our hippocampus function and spatial abilities naturally decline over time as we age, which can make navigation more difficult.
Some research has suggested that abnormalities in the hippocampus associated with schizophrenia can negatively affect mental representations that are important for cognitive mapping.
Developmental topographical disorientation (DTD) is a condition that impairs the ability to orient even in familiar surroundings (sometimes even in one’s own home). This disorientation begins in childhood and is present on a daily basis. People with DTD seem to be unable to construct or use cognitive maps, and instead, they rely on memorized routes or GPS navigation.
There’s likely a genetic element to DTD, and it seems to be more common in females. It’s possible that males are less vulnerable because they tend to perform better on average than females at certain spatial tasks. Researchers found an association between DTD and the personality trait neuroticism (which involves a tendency to experience more negative emotions). It’s unclear what the nature of this relationship is, but neuroticism may affect brain functioning in the hippocampus and other areas related to spatial processing.
Higher scores on the Santa Barbara Sense of Direction Scale, which assess subjective spatial and navigational abilities, preferences, and experiences, are associated with higher levels of the Big Five personality traits openness, extraversion, and conscientiousness. Some degree of navigational ability may come from personality-related motivational factors, which may explain what otherwise seems like a rather odd association.
Improving navigation skills
Exploration and spatial navigation act as exercise for the hippocampus. Using a GPS for navigation tends to reduce our spatial awareness and use of cognitive mapping. A possible alternative to standard GPS navigation that’s been studied involves the use of audio beacons indicating the direction of the target destination.
Japanese researchers conducted a study to see if training could improve navigational ability for people with a poor sense of direction. They found that while people’s ability to judge straight line distances improved with training, their sense of directional orientation didn’t change much, and people had difficulties translating between ego-centric and allocentric representations.
How well do you navigate?
The site GettingLost.ca has a series of navigation-related tests. It’s interesting to do, although it takes a while. There are four different tasks: a face memory task (because the ability to recognize faces appears to be related to navigational ability), a mental rotation task, a perspective-taking task called Four Mountains, and a spatial configuration task. I was excellent on face recognition, which surprised me, and excellent on mental rotation. I was above-average on the perspective-taking task, but I didn’t do very well on the spatial configuration task, which “was designed to assess this ability of rapidly forming a mental representation of the positions and identities of objects in an environment.”
That last one surprised me because I think I’m a strong cognitive mapper. That came in very handy when I used to do a lot of travelling, as it allowed me to navigate quite comfortably with a map in unfamiliar cities. I feel quite certain that this was not a learned skill; I’ve just always been able to create maps in my head. I’m not a particularly visual person, and I have a hard time giving directions because it’s difficult for me to pull the visual cues I use for wayfinding out of my head on demand. My absolute sense of distance isn’t good; if someone pointed at a visible landmark and asked me how far away it was, I would have no idea. I’m better with relative distances between different things.
How are you at navigating? Do you feel like you’re able to construct cognitive maps?
- Behrens, T. E., Muller, T. H., Whittington, J. C., Mark, S., Baram, A. B., Stachenfeld, K. L., & Kurth-Nelson, Z. (2018). What is a cognitive map? Organizing knowledge for flexible behavior. Neuron, 100(2), 490-509.
- Bose, A., Agarwal, S. M., Kalmady, S. V., & Venkatasubramanian, G. (2014). Cognitive mapping deficits in schizophrenia: A critical overview. Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, 36(1), 9-26.
- Burles, F., & Iaria, G. (2020). Behavioural and cognitive mechanisms of developmental topographical disorientation. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-11.
- Clemenson, G. D., Maselli, A., Fiannaca, A. J., Miller, A., & Gonzalez-Franco, M. (2021). Rethinking GPS navigation: Creating cognitive maps through auditory clues. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 1-10.
- Ishikawa, T., & Zhou, Y. (2020). Improving cognitive mapping by training for people with a poor sense of direction. Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, 5(1), 1-19.
- Epstein, R. A., Patai, E. Z., Julian, J. B., & Spiers, H. J. (2017). The cognitive map in humans: Spatial navigation and beyond. Nature Neuroscience, 20(11), 1504-1513.
- Weisberg, S. M., & Newcombe, N. S. (2018). Cognitive maps: Some people make them, some people struggle. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(4), 220-226.
- Youngson, N. L., Vollebregt, M., & Sutton, J. E. (2019). Individual differences in cognitive map accuracy: Investigating the role of landmark familiarity. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue Canadienne de Psychologie Expérimentale, 73(1), 37.
The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.
Ashley L. Peterson
BScPharm BSN MPN
Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.