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Mental Maps in Geography

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

Mental maps are such a part of our everyday life, we barely realize we're using them. Learn about this fascinating activity going on in our brains, including how our mental maps get distorted or refined.

Orienting Ourselves

Is there something wrong with the world map below?

A different perspective on the spatial arrangement of our world
A map of the world with north at the bottom

It includes the continents and countries on the Earth's surface, just like many other maps. But there's one key difference: the south is not south--it's at the top! There's nothing inherently wrong about looking at the world in this way. It's just a different point of view that many of us are not used to seeing.

The challenge this type of map poses is that it doesn't fit our mental map of how things are laid out on Earth. A mental map is a personal visualization of spatial information. In other words, it's a map inside our own minds. These internal maps often combine factual information with judgments or subjective interpretations (like which way north should appear on a map). Even what seems factual (such as the shape or size of a continent) can easily get distorted in our mind's eye.

Why We Use Mental Maps

We typically use mental maps for several reasons, including:

  • Finding our way from point A to point B
  • Organizing and storing information for future reference
  • A way to make meaning (more on this below)

You're even using a mental map in the space where you are right now, wherever that may be.

Examples of Mental Maps

If I asked you to draw your room right now, you'd probably be able to bust out a good rough idea showing where your bed and dresser are and how they are situated in the room. Maybe when you compared this to the reality, you'd notice some subtle differences but overall you'd probably know the space well. This is so vivid in your mind in part because you regularly need to access this information to get around your room (and your whole house or apartment).

What if I asked you to draw the borders of the country of Bangladesh? Not so easy, unless you have a special connection to the region or have studied it well. Even drawing one's own home country's borders may be very challenging. We draw from memory but may not quite have it right.

You also make meaning with your mental mapping. What's this mean, you wonder? Well, let's say that you have a good sense of which are the most dangerous parts of your town or neighborhood. You may not have based this conclusion on factual data. Perhaps a parent or friend told you to be careful there, or you heard a news report about a shooting on a particular street in that area. This sticks in your mind and becomes a more subjective part of your mental map.

Refining Mental Maps

Now let's say that you have a friend who lives in that dangerous neighborhood. You end up visiting that person a lot and get to know this part of town better. You learn that two blocks away from your friend's house is 5th Street, where the majority of dangerous crimes happen in your town. On the other hand, your friend's house is right near a police station and tends to see little crime, even at night.

Suddenly, your mental map is different and more refined. You've learned new things about that specific area and incorporated this into your vision of what that part of the neighborhood is really like. Now you have a new layer of detail about what your friend's street is like relative to 5th Street. This can happen with any type of mental map.

Distorted Mental Maps

What do you notice about this map from 1862?

World map from 1862
Map of the word with North America in the center

It may not jump out at you at first, but when you look closely at certain regions, you can quickly see that this map is quite distorted. For example, Greenland and North America aren't even close to the size of Africa, even though they appear that way on the map. This is because maps such as this, referred to as the Mercator projection, were created for navigational purposes using straight lines and do not represent actual sizes on a more spherical earth. Maps like this may have to distort the shapes somewhat in order to get things on a flat surface so there's often a compromise when mapping this way.

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