What Is… Cognitive Mapping

person looking at a street map
Image by Grégory ROOSE from Pixabay

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.

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?


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

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 headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

24 thoughts on “What Is… Cognitive Mapping”

  1. I don’t need a test bc I already know I’m terrible at this. I get lost constantly if I don’t use my GPS, and I’ll easily get confused in a building. It’s very hard for me to remember rooms, stairs, and directions in general. But I can easily recall the contents of a drawer! It’s weird. I guess those must be different areas of the brain…

  2. I have a lousy sense of direction! When I was learning about autism, I wondered if this might be an autistic trait, I guess because autistic people tend to have poor proprioception and I wondered if it was a similar spacial awareness thing, but I haven’t seen anywhere that bad direction is more common in people on the spectrum. Although if perspective-taking is a part of it, I wonder why more autistic people don’t have poor direction, as inability to take perspectives is a key autistic trait.

    I can’t give directions either. Once someone asked for directions and I just walked her there as it wasn’t really out of my way; it was easier than describing where to go. People do tend to ask me for directions a lot though; maybe I have a friendly face.

  3. I had a longish comment which disappeared. I have a “compass” in my head and have little trouble finding places. As long as I staying Utah that is. 😅

  4. This post is so interesting! I didn’t know DTD was a thing at all. “Getting lost in a house” is something I’ve only seen posted in humour about wealthy people’s houses…

  5. Growing up in Ontario I could not have told you which way was, east, west, north or south.
    When I moved to Saskatchewan people would give directions by saying, “go east two blocks…etc.,”
    It took me quite some time to orient myself to the directions by way of a compass. I am much better now at understanding the differences in compass directions.

    1. Oh that’s interesting. The one place I have a hard time a hard time with compass directions is in the city where my parents live. The north-south highway that runs through the city runs east-west through part of the city, and that totally throws me off.

  6. In my youth I had a good sense of direction. I chalk it up to years of bipolar illness and impact on the hippocampus that that sense of direction is minimized. I rely on my husband to check the maps and the routes when we go on family trips or someplace new we haven’t been before. It would be super to do a post on the hippocampus and talk about any ways that it might be repleted through vitamins, mental exercises or the like. Can you regenerate hippocampus centered thought if you have burned out your hippocampus to mental illness over a 35 year period? Don’t know the answer.

  7. Found this on the web:

    The Hippocampus and Neurogenesis
    https://www.flintrehab.com/hippocampus-brain-injury/ (source)

    One of the most fascinating things about the hippocampus is the role it plays in neurogenesis, which refers to the creation of new brain cells.

    Many neuroscientists call the hippocampus the “regeneration center” of the brain. That is because it is one of the only areas in the adult brain that produces progenitor cells.

    These cells can transform into different types of brain cells and migrate into brain regions that need replenishing.

  8. I have no sense of direction. I never had much to begin with but once I started epilepsy medication I lost what little I had and I get disoriented spatially very easily.

  9. The entorhinal cortex is important for memory and time perception too, which could help with mental mapping and planning. I didn’t know that there’s a developmental form of disorientation, DTD, that begins in childhood. It makes sense when you think any part of the brain could suffer impairment at any age, including from birth. DTD makes me think of Alzheimer’s though, where you forget where you are and can’t orient yourself well.

    I’ll have to check out the GettingLost website! Strangely, I have an issue with faces. Not facial blindness, because when I see someone I can see their face as a whole and focus on small sections. But when I try to recall someone’s face, even someone I see every day, I can’t do it. It’s just blank, and the harder I try to picture it the more impossible it gets. Not sure why. As for you not doing as well on the spatial config part, I think that’s just the way in which such tests are isolated and controlled experiences, whereas you fair better in real life circumstances.

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