Question Update—The Death of the Cognitive Map?

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Today’s post is a quick update on the progress of my book A Question of Attachment. I have two wrinkles to report: one good, and one not-so-good. The good one first.

Things are progressing swimmingly. I completed the introductory chapter. I found a book template called Focus over at I formatted my first book Bowlby’s Battle by hand using Word. Using a template just makes the formatting process go quicker, and the formatting looks sharp (compared to my plain Jane formatting). The nice thing about these templates is they can be used for both print and eBook formats. To test out the dual nature of these templates, I did a demo upload to Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP). Everything looked great. Now, here’s the good wrinkle.

As I did my demo upload over at KDP, I noticed an announcement: you can now elect to have a paperback version of your eBook. Hmm? My plan was to have an eBook only format for Question. But considering that I will have both formats—print and eBook—by using the Focus template, I may, down the road, release a paperback version of Question. We’ll see. The paperback option at KDP is still in beta, so I may wait until the paperback feature is officially released. Now on to the not-so-good wrinkle.

I’m always on the lookout for books on Bowlby’s work. I found one: A 2016 book by Arturo Ezquerro entitled Encounters with John Bowlby: Tales of Attachment. It’s a bit pricey even in Kindle format at $52.95. But it looks like a good read. Apparently Ezquerro was mentored by Bowlby in the years toward the end of Bowlby’s life. Should be a good read. Will let you know. However, as I was searching around for books on Bowlby, I stumbled onto an article that caught my eye.

The article is a 2011 blog post over at by Jason G. Goldman entitled Rats, Bees, and Brains: The Death of the “Cognitive Map.” Now, this is a disturbing headline because cognitive maps play such a central role in Bowlby’s work. Bowlby makes use of and reference to, cognitive maps throughout his trilogy on attachment. As just one example, on page 229 of volume II, Bowlby observes, “Every situation we meet with in life is construed in terms of the representational models we have of the world about us and ourselves.” He continues, “Information reaching us through sense organs is selected and interpreted in terms of those models, its significance for us and for those we care for is evaluated in terms of them, and plans of action conceived and executed with those models in mind.” It would seem that attachment strategies are part and parcel of cognitive models or maps. So, if it is true that cognitive maps are dead, then it follows that attachment is dead. So, what gives?

Goldman correctly points out that Edward Tolman came up with the idea of a cognitive map back in 1948. From the time of Tolman until about the early 1980s, the world of psychology accepted Tolman’s idea that we navigate the world using cognitive maps, and by “we” I mean from bees to humans. In 1981, Richard Morris developed the Morris Water Maze (MWM). Effectively the MWM consists of a shallow, round pool (not unlike a kids play pool) filled with a few inches of water and containing an “island”—essentially a platform barely under the water—somewhere in the middle of the water. Rats (and I believe mice) are allowed to train by swimming in the clear water and navigating to the island where they can stand and be safe from drowning. Then the crafty researchers put milk (or a chalky substance) in the water so the water is murky and conceals the location of the island of safety. Researchers then place certain landmarks around the pool like a star or a circle. The idea is to see if rats (and mice) build cognitive maps during the training, and then later use those same cognitive maps to find the island when it is concealed. Surprisingly, mice and rats fail the cognitive map test. Researchers using the Morris Water Maze now think that rats use what they call “viewpoint-specific snapshots.” Other navigation tests have been developed for humans, and, yes, humans, so it seems, use viewpoint-specific snapshots and not cognitive maps.

Now, I immediately did a search to see how researchers feel about the Morris Water Maze design. As you might expect, the Morris Water Maze is not without controversy. Critics point out that there could be a number of non-cognitive confounding factors that could influence the outcome of research using the Morris Water Maze. Here a few that I remember:

  • age of the test rats or mice
  • undue stress levels because the rats or mice fear drowning
  • swimming ability
  • is training period enough time to develop a cognitive map
  • temperature of the water could cause stress
  • short retrial intervals could affect performance of test subjects

So, I have no way of knowing whether cognitive maps are dead. But if they are, it means that researchers should go back and assess what this loss means to Bowlbian attachment theory. I can’t help but wonder the following: if rats or mice are afraid for their lives, then maybe they are trying to seek out help. Maybe they do use cognitive maps, cognitive maps that would take them back (if allowed) to helpmates. Just an idea.