Soft Sentience Work Group

Soft Sentience is a research collaborative operating at the intersections of neuroscience, computation, urban theory, and design. It explores new modes of representation and mapping in the space of the computationally- and cognitively- mediated city: the ways we map the city and the ways the city maps us.

The focus is on mechanisms of representation and abstraction. The basic assumption is that the brain has has no a priori structure for mapping the perception of space or time, rather it emerges out of experience and an active engagement with the world – “scanning the landscape and learning to think”. Extending out to the city, this idea of abstraction is considered both from the perspective of embodiment – projecting-in to create models or maps of the world  – and enactment – projecting-out to construct or produce the world based on these maps. We are interested in how these two mechanisms entangle, particularly in the context of the increasing dispersion of autonomous and partially autonomous agency in the fabric of the city.

These issues are explored through the intersection of multiple discourses, techniques, and modes of inquiry,  drawing on geospatial analysis, critical cartography, agent-based modeling, physical computing, machine learning, genetic neurology, cognitive mapping, spatial learning, and more.

The Map is (not) the Territory

A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.

— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 1931

We will kick off the Soft Sentience Working Group (for lack of a better name) with the question: “what is a map?” The first session will focus on the concept of cognitive mapping, exploring the relationship between the map and the territory it seeks to represent, understood both from social theory and fundamental neuroscience research. This begins to address one of the two working definitions we have forwarded for the map, what we had referred to as embodiment – projecting in to create a working representation of the world. Each of the readings included address this in one way or another – i.e. how we situate ourselves in the world vis-à-vis the maps we draw (in our heads or elsewhere), and the limits of these representations.

This session’s readings include the first chapter of the classic text The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch. This chapter outlines Lynch’s broader understanding of the interrelation between our cognitive maps and the shape and legibility of the city.  Other chapters from this book will be added soon.  The second piece, by Marxist and Post-Modern social theorist Fredrick Jameson, takes up Lynch’s idea of the cognitive map, expanding it to describe mental and social processes we use to bridge the gap between everyday experience and the larger social and economic order (i.e. “ideology”). Also included is a This American Life episode on mapping that explores how different kinds of maps – and thus different images of the world – can be generated through different sensorial regimes, with great pieces by the cartographer Denis Wood and the late, great Los Angeles food critic Jonathan Gold.

Scientific texts include two foundational texts for the “cognitive map” theories of the brain. The first is from Edward Tolman (1950s). The psychology building at Berkeley is named after him and he not only fought the battle (lost the battle in his lifetime but has now been vindicated by modern neuroscience) against B.F. Skinner and the Pavlovian stimulus-response behavioral absolutists, he also got thrown out of his Professorship at Berkeley during the Red Scare for refusing to sing a loyalty oath and standing with the students; he was eventually re-instated after going to court. Also included is two chapters from the classic 1970s book by John O’Keefe, discoverer of place cells, on the discovery and neurology of the hippocampus as the site of cognitive maps.


  • Kevin Lynch, The Image of the City, 1960, pp 1-14 + additional chp TBD
  • Fredrick Jameson, “Cognitive Mapping”, 1990, pp 1-9
  • The American Life, Episode 110: Mapping, 1998
  • Edward Tolman, “Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men”, 1948
  • John O’Keefe, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map, 1978, pp 63-101
Denis Wood, Everything Sings, Map of Phone, Cable and Power Lines