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Edward Tolman: Pioneering Cognitive Mapping

September 6th, 2010      

When you use SpicyNodes for concept mapping, it feels right. That’s by design. It feels natural because the linked nodes largely mimic the way the brain works.

But while linking prior knowledge to form new connections seems intuitive, this process wasn’t acknowledged until the mid-20th century, when cognitive behavioral psychologist Edward Tolman coined the term “cognitive mapping” in a 1948 paper published in The Psychological Review.

Tolman (1886-1959) bucked the trend of his contemporaries, strict behaviorists who attempted to fit psychology into the box of “objective” science. In his research, Tolman studied learning by running rats through mazes, and came to the conclusion that learning did not result strictly from stimulus-response (the leading theory of behaviorists), but rather through a more nuanced processing of information where prior experiences and connections could be extrapolated and applied to new situations. While that seems obvious to us today, Tolman’s theory revolutionized the field of psychology, and was the bridge between the strict behaviorists that ruled the day and the emerging field of cognitive psychology.

Tolman was both a pacifist (his mother was a Quaker) and a fervent believer in academic freedom. His beliefs cost him his job on two occasions – at Northwestern University for his opposition to World War I, and at the University of California, Berkeley. As a Berkeley professor, Tolman led the charge against the McCarthy-era loyalty oath, and was fired for refusing to sign. He emerged victorious in his subsequent lawsuit, Tolman v. Underhill, when the California Supreme Court ruled the oath unconstitutional and forced the U.C. Regents to rehire those it had fired. If you visit the Berkeley campus today, you will find Tolman Hall, the Education and Psychology building named in his honor.

In the meantime, you can pay homage to Tolman by using SpicyNodes for concept mapping. In a sense, SpicyNodes embodies Tolman’s research, conducted over 60 years ago, by enabling us to create visualizations that take advantage of our brain’s ability to synthesize existing data to inform new learning and discoveries. After all, why should we limit ourselves to words, which are like the walls of Tolman’s rat maze, when we can leverage cognitive psychology to create limitless horizons?

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