Why have stories remained such a strong part of culture? Stories are sequential representations, which help us to build internal representations (Kaplan, Cognition 38)
of our possible movements through complex jungles. It is a fast
way of learning. These narrative walk-throughs build connections
between the different stuff along the way. If we happened to
be dropped-off anywhere along some familiar path, we would easily
remember how to get back to our home base by following these
associations. As psychologist Steven Kaplan states, “…if
one thing tends to follow another closely in time, the two will
tend to become associated.” (Kaplan, Cognition 42). When multiple representations are active at the same time, they form neurological connections, building sequences of connected representations that you can be toured through again.
It is one thing to be inside of this jungle with a practiced path, but a map can open up possibilities for taking shortcuts or imagining the overall lay of the land. Zoomed-out pictorial representations like maps give us a different kind of synthesis, and so do pictures. What exactly are the advantages that the map or picture has over the sequence? Here is where visual art tells a story.
Leonardo, paint, smile, enigmatic, atmosphere, sfumatto, Mona Lisa
Suddenly, a picture just seemed to pop into your head. You may have thought of various things to begin with, Mona Lisa's smile, eyes, or hands. Or perhaps you saw an overall, zoomed-out view of the picture (Leonardo). Maybe you are an art historian, who studies every detail of the thing, and the whole picture did flash into your mind all at once (we'll address this phenomena a bit further along). Regardless of your entry point, you probably scanned through the painting for a moment, moving from her hair net to the serene Italian landscape. Or maybe the art historian roamed from the luscious painting onto aspects of the context in which it was created, making bigger imaginative strides than the average person in this terrain.
It should be quite clear at this point what I'm hinting at. Your brain has a map of the Mona Lisa, each of us possessing different details. The expert (Mr. Art Historian) has a very detailed map, which extends into other territories and lands beyond. All of whose details are connected to one another in a tight meshwork of associations. This allows him to activate them in succession or to roam through them in any order, so long as they're connected. Perhaps, internal representations for larger territories are similar in structure. These meshwork representations are built of simpler internal representations. Steven Kaplan calls these kinds of meshwork representations, cognitive maps (Kaplan, Cognition 5).
Cognitive maps are a different kind of internal representation in an important way; we can't submerse our selves or our senses in some systems like we do in the Mona Lisa. We must build cognitive maps of these more distributed systems differently. We would have some difficulty, for example, “taking-in” the state of West Virginia all at once like we did with the Mona Lisa. Without a map (a laminated one), it would take a long time to traverse that territory, becoming familiar with it and building our own cognitive map of it. We would have to spend years to understand the ins and outs of West Virginia, and we would probably need to understand something about its surrounding territories and history as well.
A small fraction of people have a near perfect cognitive map of West Virginia. But many have at least taken a drive through it a few times. Let's say you did. You encounter rest stops, gas stations, and diners. But your favorite stop happens to be Jimmy's Family Dining near the intersection of I-77 and I-79 in Charleston. Three weeks ago, you passed through on I-77 and got some of their famous chili and the in-house raspberry ice cream for desert. It was so good, that while you were driving by on I-79 months later, you had to stop at Jimmy's again. Aside from being full, you've begun building a cognitive map to go with your laminated one.
A cognitive map is a series of internal representations that are connected
to one another at shared landmarks or internal representations of these landmarks.
I-77 and I-79 happen to make a big X at the shared landmark of Jimmy's in
Charleston. The two sequences do not have two separate internal representations
of Jimmy's or you would have never remembered how important it was
to stop. The shared representation of Jimmy's connects the two sequences
in the brain. The use of these shared landmarks in cognitive maps help us
to retrieve relevant knowledge through meaningful associations along new combinations
of sequences. Just imagine, now, how many connections you have in your cognitive
map of the Mona Lisa.