Mental Maps and Cognitive Space

Tversky et al describe and discuss humans’ cognition of space at three different scales: that of navigational space, the space around the body, and the space of the body itself.  They review studies that have demonstrated that humans’ mental representations of these three spaces are both schematicized, or simplified while maintaining topological relationships, as well as distorted in important ways.

I’m aware of geographic research dealing with the scale of the body and its surroundings, but I think the most operational of the authors’ scales for most geographers is navigational space.  Speaking personally, it is my proficiency in navigating that likely made geography an attractive field of study for me coming out of high school.  Yet even experiencing navigation as second nature, I am struck by how much even my own mental maps bear the marks of schematics and distortions.  My hometown I know fairly intimately, and I have memorized most of its street network and important landmarks: and even here, I am not so concerned with the precise positions of particular locations in Euclidean space as I am with how they fit into my view of nodes in the spatial network.  Though various neighbourhoods’ street grids are rotated in relation to each other based on the local topography, in my mind they are brought into alignment and the primary transportation axes from “south” to “north” in the city appear as straight lines to me, despite their many twists and turns in reality.

Though I have worked less with the other two cognitive spaces discussed by the authors, I can readily see important applications for them in emergent GIS tools: namely, there is a need for tech such as Google Glass to integrate navigational space functionality, an AR/HUD environment in the space around the body, and the HCI input systems using the space of the body.  A more nuanced understanding of how humans understand each of these spaces will be incredibly helpful for making more user-friendly and intuitive gadgets.

– FischbobGeo

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