How to Make a Cognitive Map

As with an actual map, a cognitive map can help us navigate our surroundings.
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A cognitive map helps you find your way around your physical surroundings. Introduced by psychologist Edward Tolman, the concept of a cognitive map refers to the way humans make sense of our surroundings. Though Tolman originally intended the concept to describe something that we do automatically, you can follow discrete steps to generate a cognitive map that helps you move in the world.

1 Move Through Your Surroundings

Creating a cognitive map requires you to explore the space you’re attempting to map. This means moving through that space with no clear destination in mind. For example, if you were trying to create a cognitive map of a new city you are moving to, you could first explore that city simply by driving or walking around it and taking note of its spatial features, such as hills, parks, highways and buildings.

2 Analyze With Your Senses

As you move through a space, pay close attention to how the different spatial features relate to one another. This requires you to analyze these features using one, some or all of your senses. For example, if you’re cognitively mapping the interior of your office building, observe the location of the main exits and entrances, listen to noise levels to discern which floors or rooms are loud and quiet, feel the warmth or coolness of different rooms and smell where the coffee or other food is prepared. Such analysis will orient you to different spots on your map and help you understand their relationship to other places.

3 Decide on Directional Cues

As your cognitive map of a location expands, you can refine how you enter into and leave that cognitively mapped space. For example, when trying to make a cognitive map of a commute home that avoids traffic, you can decide which of your alternative routes is likely to be less congested. You might decide that even though turning onto an arterial road means traveling a greater distance than using the highway, the reduced traffic makes the trip shorter in terms of time -- and more enjoyable. Your directional cues will supplement your sensory analysis and provide a clearer way of navigating through your cognitive map.

4 Note Positional Landmarks

Your ability to recognize and remember positional landmarks will help you effectively use your cognitive map no matter where you find yourself in the space you have mapped. For example, if a highway detour has taken you far from your normal commuting route, you might use a familiar building in the distance to find your way home via a new route. Using positional landmarks in this way allows you to expand your cognitive map.

Samuel Hamilton has been writing since 2002. His work has appeared in “The Penn,” “The Antithesis,” “New Growth Arts Review" and “Deek” magazine. Hamilton holds a Master of Arts in English education from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Master of Arts in composition from the University of Florida.