Cognitive Learning


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A diagram shows a rat maze that has several turns and dead ends. Next to this maze is a graph showing the average error of the rats navigating the maze plotted versus the day of the experiment. Rats that are rewarded at the end of each run learn the maze quickly, and the number of errors they make in navigating the maze rapidly drops from six on day one to one on day eleven. Rats that are not rewarded on the first three days but are rewarded after day three learn the maze slowly at first, but quickly after the reward is present. Rats that are not rewarded on the first six days but are rewarded after day six gradually reduce the number of errors over the first three days, but rapidly reduce their errors after an award is present.
Group I (the green solid line) found food at the end of each trial, group II (the blue dashed line) did not find food for the first 6 days, and group III (the red dotted line) did not find food during runs on the first three days. Notice that rats given food earlier learned faster and eventually caught up to the control group. The orange dots on the group II and III lines show the days when food rewards were added to the mazes. Source: OpenStax Biology 2e

OpenStax Biology 2e

Classical and operant conditioning are inefficient ways for humans and other intelligent animals to learn. Some primates, including humans, are able to learn by imitating the behavior of others and by taking instructions. The development of complex language by humans has made cognitive learning, the manipulation of information using the mind, the most prominent method of human learning. In fact, that is how students are learning right now by reading this book. As students read, they can make mental images of objects or organisms and imagine changes to them, or behaviors by them, and anticipate the consequences. In addition to visual processing, cognitive learning is also enhanced by remembering past experiences, touching physical objects, hearing sounds, tasting food, and a variety of other sensory-based inputs. Cognitive learning is so powerful that it can be used to understand conditioning in detail. In the reverse scenario, conditioning cannot help someone learn about cognition.

Classic work on cognitive learning was done by Wolfgang Köhler with chimpanzees. He demonstrated that these animals were capable of abstract thought by showing that they could learn how to solve a puzzle. When a banana was hung in their cage too high for them to reach, and several boxes were placed randomly on the floor, some of the chimps were able to stack the boxes one on top of the other, climb on top of them, and get the banana. This implies that they could visualize the result of stacking the boxes even before they had performed the action. This type of learning is much more powerful and versatile than conditioning.

Cognitive learning is not limited to primates, although they are the most efficient in using it. Maze running experiments done with rats by H.C. Blodgett in the 1920s were the first to show cognitive skills in a simple mammal. The motivation for the animals to work their way through the maze was a piece of food at its end. In these studies, the animals in Group I were run in one trial per day and had food available to them each day on completion of the run. Group II rats were not fed in the maze for the first six days and then subsequent runs were done with food for several days after. Group III rats had food available on the third day and every day thereafter. The results were that the control rats, Group I, learned quickly, and figured out how to run the maze in seven days. Group III did not learn much during the three days without food, but rapidly caught up to the control group when given the food reward. Group II learned very slowly for the six days with no reward to motivate them, and they did not begin to catch up to the control group until the day food was given, and then it took two days longer to learn the maze.

It may not be immediately obvious that this type of learning is different than conditioning. Although one might be tempted to believe that the rats simply learned how to find their way through a conditioned series of right and left turns, E.C. Tolman proved a decade later that the rats were making a representation of the maze in their minds, which he called a “cognitive map.” This was an early demonstration of the power of cognitive learning and how these abilities were not just limited to humans.


Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at:


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