How People Perceive Place & Region

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday recently earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at how we humans use our internal, mental maps to understand the vast expanse of space around us. How do we create places from locations and what separates regions? It's all part of the clever human mind.

Too Big to See It All

Even though the planet Earth is very small compared to other planets in our solar system, it still seems very large to humans. So large, in fact, that we cannot know or hold all the spaces and landscapes in our mind.

Luckily for us, the mind has some great tricks to help us think of those vast spaces and remember specific places. We incorporate these techniques into forming our mental maps that allow us to navigate the world around us.

Place

It might be hard to wrap our heads around it, but places are really no different than any of the expansive, unknown spaces in the world. We create places out of those spaces by how we think about them, how we use them, and especially when we name them.

You might be inclined to argue, But hey, my house is still a real place and so is the Grand Canyon! How can you say it's all in my mind? Yes, those are definitely real, but what makes each of them a place, a location set aside as special by its unique physical and human characteristics, is the importance we put on that location.

Though houses in a neighborhood are real locations, they will not be perceived as a place until some importance or meaning is put on them.
houses

A good way to think of it is to imagine where you live, say, your house. Now think of other parts of your town or city, the neighborhoods you are unfamiliar with in your daily life. Those houses and apartment buildings are still real locations, but they aren't places to you.

They are expanses of inhabited space with little to make them stand out in your awareness. Now, if you make a new friend and visit their house in one of those unfamiliar neighborhoods, their house will gain meaning to you, and become a place in your mental map of the world.

A place that is significant enough to our culture may be officially named, and we assign the status of place even if we have no personal experience there.

The Eiffel Tower is an important enough to French culture that it has a special name and stands out as a place for most people.
Eiffel Tower

Region

Still, the unfamiliar expanses of space are too large for us to think about in great detail. Without enough significance to make every location a place, we might use the knowledge we have about that expanse to create groups of space. These are smaller, manageable units based on shared physical or cultural traits within a unit's boundaries.

We call these units regions. They help us think about these areas without knowing all their locations. We use these concepts when we say thinks like Eastern Europe or Southern California. In fact, when we talk about continents or countries, we are also using the concept of regions.

Many categorize countries in the European Union as a region, as we do not know a lot of specific locations within them.
European Union Map

Geographers actually differentiate between three different kinds of regions.

  1. Formal regions that have clearly marked boundaries and exist for official purposes such as a country's borders. We see these on maps every day.

  2. Function regions that are defined by an activity occurring in that area, such as a distribution region for a produce warehouse. The boundaries for function regions change as that activity changes, so their boundaries are often a little vague.

  3. Vernacular regions that do not have any official boundaries. People rarely agree where to place the border. Usually, a vernacular region shares a cultural or geographic feature to set it apart, but the unifying feature changes or decreases toward the edges of the region as it is gradually replaced by features that distinguish the next region.

For example, we could partition regions in the United States by whether people refer to soft drinks as 'pop,' 'soda,' 'coke,' or something else.

This map of regions of soft drink names has soft borders of gradual change where the word used in the next region becomes more common.
Map of Soft Drink Naming

Mental Maps

To create mental maps of places or regions in the world, we use what unifies them, what makes one unique, or our perception of the distance between them. Unfamiliar regions might only have a general name and a few places we've heard of, like certain cities.

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