What is a cognitive map? Organising knowledge for flexible behaviour

bioRxiv 2018

It is proposed that a cognitive map encoding the relationships between entities in the world supports flexible behaviour, but the majority of the neural evidence for such a system comes from studies of spatial navigation. Recent work describing neuronal parallels between spatial and non-spatial behaviours has rekindled the notion of a systematic organisation of knowledge across multiple domains. We review experimental evidence and theoretical frameworks that point to principles unifying these apparently disparate functions. These principles describe how to learn and use abstract, generalisable knowledge and suggest map-like representations observed in a spatial context may be an instance of general coding mechanisms capable of organising knowledge of all kinds. We highlight how artificial agents endowed with such principles exhibit flexible behaviour and learn map-like representations observed in the brain. Finally, we speculate on how these principles may offer insight into the extreme generalisations, abstractions and inferences that characterise human cognition.

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