Arts & Sciences

Mental maps offer peek inside everyday decision-making

A team of psychological and brain sciences researchers has come up with a new way to study the brain’s ability to navigate life — no brain scans required.

Researchers in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences have developed a question-and-answer experiment to study how people build cognitive maps, mental models of the world that help us navigate our lives. 

“We use cognitive maps constantly for a variety of decisions,” said doctoral student Ata Karagoz, lead author of the paper. “It’s useful to know how people construct them.”

Co-authors of the study include Zachariah Reagh, PhD and Wouter Kool, PhD, both assistant professors of psychological and brain sciences. The study, involving 161 healthy young adults, was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Brain scientists have been studying cognitive maps for decades. Early discoveries by neuroscientists found that rats use certain brain cells to build mental images of mazes. Researchers have long known that humans build their own cognitive maps, using them for choices that go far beyond which direction to turn. For example, Karagoz said, a person will consult a cognitive map of possibilities when deciding what to have for lunch. “You’ll think about price ranges, cuisines, and perhaps the healthiness of the options,” he said. “It’s like you’re making a map of ‘lunch space.’”

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