Reconsidering 'spatial memory' and the Morris water maze

Synthese 177 (2):261-283 (2010)
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The Morris water maze has been put forward in the philosophy of neuroscience as an example of an experimental arrangement that may be used to delineate the cognitive faculty of spatial memory (e.g., Craver and Darden, Theory and method in the neurosciences, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 2001; Craver, Explaining the brain: Mechanisms and the mosaic unity of neuroscience, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2007). However, in the experimental and review literature on the water maze throughout the history of its use, we encounter numerous responses to the question of “what” phenomenon it circumscribes ranging from cognitive functions (e.g., “spatial learning”, “spatial navigation”), to representational changes (e.g., “cognitive map formation”) to terms that appear to refer exclusively to observable changes in behavior (e.g., “water maze performance”). To date philosophical analyses of the water maze have not been directed at sorting out what phenomenon the device delineates nor the sources of the different answers to the question of what. I undertake both of these tasks in this paper. I begin with an analysis of Morris’s first published research study using the water maze and demonstrate that he emerged from it with an experimental learning paradigm that at best circumscribed a discrete set of observable changes in behavior. However, it delineated neither a discrete set of representational changes nor a discrete cognitive function. I cite this in combination with a reductionist-oriented research agenda in cellular and molecular neurobiology dating back to the 1980s as two sources of the lack of consistency across the history of the experimental and review literature as to what is under study in the water maze.

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Jacqueline Anne Sullivan
University of Western Ontario


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