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Cognitive maps, hurray!

Written by Sherwin, published on November 30, 2009

It seems like yesterday that I was writing my thesis and exploring my love of cognitive maps and mental models. I was doing this as a way of making peace with my competing sympathies for scientific realism and linguistic or global antirealism. Ahh, good times, philosophy. And my thesis was actually, in my not so humble opinion, innovative. For philosophy and especially the issues surrounding truth, this is, well, admirable.

Please forgive my smugness – if you would like to check out my thesis, I have it posted here. But the reason I bring up mental modeling, and cognitive mapping, is that I just read this great article, by Alex Hutchinson, at the Walrus magazine on just this topic.

In the article, Hutchinson asks the question, “is gps making us dumb?” People model their spatial surroundings with varying skills and capacities. Crucially, contra traditionalists who will argue that there is a racial or gender component to these skills, it looks like these mental mapping skills are trainable. So if you exercise your brain, it gets stronger. And if you rely on your gps a lot, well, you might just get dumb. Okay, it’s nowhere near that clear. But read the article anyway! It gets me excited to think about the way we think. Metacognition! Yeah.

On one critical note, I think Hutchinson is wrong to say that Edward C. Tolman was the first academic to argue that we carry maps around in our head. Kenneth Craik published The Nature of Explanation in 1943 and while he might not have actually used the word “map” (although that’s worth checking) I do know that he posited an array of mental structures to make sense of the way that “thought models, or parrallels, reality.”1 Sounds like the spirit of cognitive maps to me – especially given that he was writing in an era marked dramatically by behaviourism. That said, I failed to include Tolman’s 1948 paper in my citations. Even though it’s about experimenting with rats, I should have cited it and it would have made for another fun way to show how people that are less obsessed with language actually find super-productive ways to further our understanding of the human mind.

  1. K.J.W. Craik, The Nature of Explanation. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1943. 57
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Archived comments

  1. Hugh says:

    Just because I’m commenting now doesn’t mean I’m flirting.

    I haven’t read the linked article, but I’ll say that I think spending a lot of time with maps (and yes GPSes) has solidified my particular style of mental mapping: I tend to order myself and my surrounding with respect to the cardinal directions, and create a fairly formal paper-map-like mental-map of the regions I live in. I don’t think it’s a smarter or stupider way of mapping my personal geography than a more relative approach. But it totally screwed up my first few months in Vancouver because back when I was only a visitor I had assigned my mental north to actual west, but only for downtown. It took me months until I wasnt’ all F’ed up whenever I tried to navigate across neighbourhoods.

  2. Goat says:

    2 thoughts upon reading this: 1) I love when I can hear sherwin’s voice in my head whie reading his blog…and 2) he compose this in order to cyberflirt with hugh?