In two of our previous podcasts, Jesse Prinz and Peter Godfrey-Smith offered philosophical perspectives on the idea of mental representation. In this new podcast Professor Kate Jeffery discusses the data showing that some organisms really do use mental representations in dealing adaptively with the world. Some of the strongest evidence comes from studies she and others have performed into the way rats navigate around a spatial domain. The evidence suggests that a ‘cognitive map’ is involved when rats find their way around. This mental representation of space does not call for an internal map reader or inner homunculus – a point made by Peter Godfrey-Smith in his interview.
Professor Jeffery also gives us some of the history of these ideas, progressing from early twentieth-century work explaining how non-human animals find their way around just by using habits, that is associations between situations and behaviour. She describes some familiar everyday situations in which this older habit system is still active, for example when travelling to work following a familiar routine until an obstacle makes us rethink and call on the cognitive map. Professor Jeffery also offers some insights into how our more general memory systems work. Memory for episodes in our lives turns out to have surprisingly close connections to cognitive maps.