Mental Maps

What are mental (or cognitive) maps?

mental map
A hand-drawn mental map of a city district.

When people think of a place, they have a picture in their mind of what it looks like or how to get there. This visualization is called a mental map (or cognitive map in the field of psychology); an internal representation of a place from an individual’s perspective. We all have mental maps of the places where we live, have been and even of places that we have never been. This is how we organize spatial information in our brains.

Because mental maps are based on the individual’s perspective, they are usually fragmented and flexible. For example, a mental map of the area a person lives in may be fairly complete with many streets, houses and shops in it. It even includes a bend in the road and the stop sign at the junction. However, a mental map of the zoo you visited last year may only consist of incoherent flashes of paths and the information that the monkey’s habitat was somewhere beyond the restaurant.

We build and use mental maps every day without even thinking about it. It already starts when babies play peekaboo and learn to remember something that is out of sight. Later they will remember where a toy is or where the candy is kept. By creating mental maps, we can ‘see’ things in our mind that are out of eyesight, which not only helps us with finding things, but also with going to places, planning activities, giving directions, avoid danger, and make meaning of the world around us. By using the landmarks and spatial relations between streets and buildings, we have an understanding of where we are. We can find our way back or make a shortcut, or give directions to other people.

Subjective and distorted maps

Not only objective knowledge of places as physical characteristics and distances are stored in a mental map. They also contain perceptions and emotions. How you feel about a certain location shapes or colors the map. The place you grew up looks different than a place you saw in the news after a negative event happened. Sometimes the image of a tragic event may be attached to a specific location.

mental map of the world
Mental map of the world by a 7th grade student before and after geography lesson involving active drawing of maps. Source: Chiodo (1997).

Because mental maps are very personal and subjective, they can be distorted as well. People who have a high awareness of their surroundings will create more detailed and correct mental maps, while people who are distracted will have more inaccurate maps in their mind. For example, kids who always get driven everywhere will not develop a mental map as detailed as those of kids who walk and ride their bicycles to places.

Another way to get a distorted mental map is through preconception created by media. Paris is usually portrayed as a romantic place, but looks quite ordinary to the people living and working there. Mexico City may seem like a great place to get robbed or kidnapped, but is actually friendlier and culturally richer than people picture it.

Mental maps change all the time. They get more refined as we visit the place more often and as we learn more about the location. We fill in the gaps as we get to know streets, shops, people and natural characteristics of a place. Because the maps in your mind do not have exact measurements, everything in the map is in relation to something else. The more details the map contains, the more reference points it will have and therefore it will become more correct.

The map will also change, when our perception changes. Many people will notice that places they have visited as a child look much smaller when returning as an adult. When you always drive a car, distances appear different than when you walk along the same road. Or you may have a certain expectation of a holiday destination, only to find it very different when you actually visit. Direct experience (like travel), point of view (like from a car, a high tower, or through media) and media portrayals of events happening all influence your mental map.

Mental maps in research

Residents identify creative locations on a map in an Australian city. Source: Gibson et al. (2012).

Mental or cognitive maps are part of various fields as social and cultural studies, psychology and geography. They are used to learn how people interact with and view the world around them, and how they process that information. By studying mental maps, we can learn which landmarks are most prominent for which people, or what the perceptions of different cities are. Patterns of excitement and fear on mental maps of different demographics (socioeconomic, cultural or age) can be compared to statistics as crime rates, ethnic populations, and environment and analyze whether people’s perceptions are founded or if cities or destinations need an image change.

We have also learned from research that creating mental maps is a learned skill. Just like children have problems developing the skill when they are driven everywhere, adults lose the skill when they rely too much on a GPS device. Mental mapping is based on landmarks, spatial information and relations between places. This information is usually not included in GPS maps. The device only gives you information of the route asked without spatial context.

Studying mental maps is very hard, because of the subjective nature of the maps. Drawing and explaining a mental map is like describing a dream. Then collecting the information of multiple people and combine that onto a final map, while two persons could have opposing perceptions of the same location is even harder. The final map will then rely heavily on the imagination of the researcher, who has to choose which elements to suppress and which to emphasize.

Nevertheless, geographical research in mental maps can provide useful information. A real-life example is a study of mental maps of high school students in Israel and Palestine, who were asked to draw a map of their country and bordering states. This proved to be a difficult task, especially when it came to the West Bank area. Differences in perceptions of where a country begins and ends can be a cause of violence and war.

Sources: 

Chiodo, J.J. 1997. Improving the cognitive development of students’ mental maps of the world. Journal of Geogaphy 96(3): 153-163.

Gibson, G. et al. 2012. Cool places, creative places? Community perceptions of cultural vitality in the suburbs. International Journal of Cultural Studies 15: 287.

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