What is Mental Mapping? 2018-02-24T14:39:13+00:00

What is Mental Mapping?

What is Mental Mapping?

Mental or cognitive mapping is the product of a series of psychological processes that register, code, store, then call to mind and decode all information on our everyday spatial environment. In this sense cognitive mapping is a cognitive characteristic to be found in our minds. When a researcher does mental mapping, he is actually interested in mapping maps, that is collecting and interpreting mental maps in our minds.

What is mental map?

In our minds the use of space often re-defines the actual image of our surroundings. Distances covered on a daily basis seem shorter, while rarely visited places seem farther away. We perceive our own environment as friendlier than other districts of the city that we may regard as strange or alien, even dangerous. It goes without saying that the notions of distance and proximity, what is ours or what is alien to us, are all subjective matters, determined by prior experiences, motivations and abilities. According to Downs and Stea (1973:15) mental or cognitive mapping is the product of a series of psychological processes that register, code, store, then call to mind and decode all information on our everyday spatial environment. In this sense cognitive mapping is a cognitive characteristic to be found in our minds. When a researcher does mental mapping, he is actually interested in mapping maps, that is collecting and interpreting mental maps in our minds.   

Theoretical background

Cognitive mapping is an interdisciplinary research area that emerged in the 1960’s, almost simultaneously in different fields, such as geography, psychology, linguistics and social sciences, primarily cultural anthropology.

             However, according to some, the analysis of mental maps is as old as cultural studies itself and had already appeared in ethnographical and anthropological literature at the turn of the century under the label ’spatial use’. Bronislaw Malinowski[4] (1922) did not discuss cognitive mapping in his writings, however when he describes the chain of commerce linking the Trobriand Islands, he remarks that the islands considered close by islanders were the ones directly neighboring theirs. This perception had significant impact on the development of commercial relations. With regard to Hungarian ethnographical literature, the work of Tamás Hofer and Edit Fél[5] (1964, 1997) must be mentioned due to its international acclaim and impact. The authors studied the use of time and space in Hungarian peasant society.

            As a result of structuralist and cognitive change in the field of cultural anthropology in the 1950’s and 60’s, the analysis of spatial representation gained increasing significance. In many aspects the areas of linguistics and anthropology developed parallelly, in close interaction with one another. For Hungarian readers, The Hidden Dimension by Edward T. Hall[6] (1966, 1975) is one of the most known anthropological writingsThis book deals with how people’s knowledge of their environment is determined by differing cultural backgrounds and discusses resulting issues of language and communication. Hall uses the term ’proxemics’ to map the interconnectedness of human perceptions of time and space in different cultures and communities. In some scientific approaches this phenomenon is illustrated by the use of ’proxemic graphs’. Amongst many of his significant discoveries, Hall points out that man and his environment are in constant interaction with one another. Man creates culture and at the same time domesticates himself: he perceives reality according to his cultural context, while the built (urban) environment is also the outcome of culture’s filtering and selective mechanisms. Our representations of space are not primarily based on objective reality, instead they are determined by subjective perceptions of reality. Bíró A. Zoltán (1990) draws a locally perceived picture of a village in Székelyföld, based on comments collected in the course of participative inquiry.

            In the field of cognitive mapping the results of radically different scientific approaches, such as linguistics, psychology and geography, have mutually influenced one another. Early rat experiments in psychology (Edward Tolman 1948) closely linked the perception of space, mental mapping and the analysis of animal/human behavior[7]. The impact of ethology, especially Konrad Lorenz’s work, can be discovered in Kevin Lynch’s[8] seminal book (1960) on how people orientate in cities. According to Zoltán Cséfalvay[9] (1990), Lynch, who incidentally held a degree in architecture, had paved the way for the coming revolution in the field of geography. A decade later the geographer Roger Downs[10] (1970) published his landmark paper that was followed by an anthology[11] he edited with David Stea in 1973. The latter work inspired Stanley Milgram[12] who originally studied psychology, but went on to work across disciplines, publishing his study on mental maps of Paris in 1976. The academic ’bustle’ around cognitive mapping and behavioral geography is clearly indicated by the fact that in the following years a number of summarizing manuals and university textbooks were written on the subject, appearing one after another (for example: Gould és White[13] 1974, Downs és Stea[14] 1977, Gold 1980[15], Stoltman[16] 1980, Holahan[17] 1982).

From the end of the eighties computerized data processing became increasingly less expensive and gave rise to the empirical testing of more complex theoretical models based on experimentation, simulation and/or data collection. In 1993 Barbara Tversky[18] established three main categories of cognitive mapping: alongside cognitive maps, she defined cognitive collages and spatial mental models based on the constructionist view. While cognitive mapping comprises people’s knowledge and perception of their environment, according to the idea of cognitive collages, spatial representation is determined by many more disparate pieces of information. For example, when judging a distance, people may not only take into consideration the duration of the journey by car and standard time, but information about historic campaigns and language groups may also play a part in how they piece together their knowledge of space as a collage. This approach is dubbed constructionist, because its primary focus is not the map (collage) itself, but the process of its construction. The situation is further complicated by the fact that information is only available with systematic or random error in our minds. Spatial mental models are based on the observation that some pieces of spatial information may not form a coherent picture, however the space between the reference points (landmarks) is filled in and modeled by the mind. Csaba Pléh (2000)[19] argues that „people apply routine interpretation to everything that happens to them, in order to make the world consistent.” The constructionist view of mental mapping focuses on the process of constructing models, instead of the map itself.        

            During the past decade a number of new approaches and analytical algorithms have emerged, however the overview of corresponding theoretical frameworks exceeds the aims of present book. As usually in the case of rapidly developing research fields, vast quantities of conference lectures and publications have seen light, while a growing number of handbooks strive to draw a general, but well-structured conclusion with their help (such as: Portugali[20] 1996, Kitchin és Freundschuh[21] 2000, Kitchin[22] 2002). Hungarian authors, such as Ervin László, Vilmos Csányi et al. (1993, 1996) are also internationally acknowledged contributors to relevant psychological and human ethological approaches.

Characteristically, applied research is rarely based on the most up-to-date theoretical developments, instead it draws on already established scientific observations. As present handbook aims to provide a sound basis for the practice of cognitive mapping, we shall proceed to present methodological issues that reach back to the inception of mental maps, that is the works of Lynch, Downs and Gould.

Data collection and analysis

There are several reasons why the methodology of cognitive mapping is still in the making. On one hand, its interdisciplinary character grants a great deal of freedom in methodological experimentation. From a negative perspective, this means that there is no single theoretical framework that could serve as a point of departure for evolving methodology. On the other hand, due to frequent and at the same time significant changes in the theoretical approaches (for example, the static view is replaced by the constructionist view) one cannot found methodology on prior results, without encountering difficulties. Furthermore, one must not forget that the improved conditions ensured by computerized support were rather slow in impacting the processing of map-like data, whereas in other research areas they caused rapid methodological erosion. Maps and spatial information are predominantly image-based data and complex images can only be handled as databases by the most advanced computers.

The most characteristic data collection techniques of cognitive mapping are the following:

  • Purely quantitative data collection, survey
  • Purely qualitative, not drawing-based data collection and processing, interview
  • Free recall data collection based on freely drawn maps
  • Oriented recall map drawing, aiming to standardize data collection, interview
  • Data collection based on existing maps and images

Recently a number of programs and/or algorithms had been developed that assist us in drawing mental maps. Matei Sorin invented an algorithm that is capable of visualizing maps in two or three dimensions based on information, such as fear or lifestyle.

Figure 6.4. Three dimensional visualization of fear based on maps drawn by 215 individuals selected from six ethnic districts of Los Angeles, by Matei Sorin (www.mentalmaps.info)

The program’s algorithm “Mental Map Editor” (MME) is a combination of free recall and standard approximations[23]. The software’s purpose is to develop a survey for mental maps (focusing on the most important aspects according to Lynch, 1960) and to collect and process incoming data. The MME survey is divided in two parts. In the first phase people are asked questions about their environment and they can give any answer. This is the free call aspect, although this time without drawings. In the second phase they are shown a map and they need to point out where the earlier mentioned categories are on this map. Finally, the program analyses and visualizes the collected data and the software is also capable of writing a report.


Figure 6.5. Communication networks between districts of Csíkszerede/Miercurea Ciuc, Romania, created by the Mental Map Editor of László Letenyei and Botond Borbély (www.mentalmap.org)

Ethical aspects

When doing research on mental maps, the researcher inevitably gains access to confidential information. One should keep in mind that interpreting research results is merely secondary, the most important is not to lose the participants’ confidence and to observe the ensuing ethical responsibility. It is a basic principle that only information the interviewees themselves would reveal, can be published.

The question, concerning what type of data should be collected during the research, may seem like a methodological dilemma, however it can also be answered on an ethical basis. Should the interviewee be asked about his own mental environment, or any other, perhaps all the other spaces? From an ethical aspect, it is unthinkable to present a picture of people that they do not acknowledge themselves. One should predominantly refrain from publishing „outsider” views, instead participants should be asked about their own part of town. This rule can be relatively easily observed.

Another important issue relates to the confidential handling of collected data. If a clumsily drawn mental map somehow finds its way back into the natural surroundings of the interviewee, then he will become a subject of ridicule in front of his friends, as well as strangers. First of all, this would be a grave mistake and second, the resulting loss of confidence may jeopardize the continuation of the research.

[1] Roger M. Downs and David Stea 1973: Cognitive Maps and Spatial Behavior: Process and Products. In: Downs és Stea (Eds.): Image and Environments. Chicago: Aldine Publishing

[2] The terms mental and cognitive maps are used as synonyms in present article.

[3] The definition is not a citation from the original text, it was translated from Hungarian.

[4] Malinowski, Bronislaw 1922: Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: Routledge. (The introduction of the book can be read in the third chapter of present handbook.)

[5] Edit Fél and Tamás Hofer: Proper Peasants. Traditional life in a Hungarian village, Chicago, 1969; Bäuerliche Denkweise in Wirtschaft und Haushalt, Göttingen, 1972

[6] Hall, Edward T. 1966 (1975): The Hidden Dimension. Garden City: Anchor Books. (In Hungarian: 1975, 1987, 1995 etc.: Rejtett dimenziók. Budapest: Gondolat, Katalizátor Iroda, stb.)

[7] Tolman, Edward C. 1948: Cognitive Maps in Rats and Men. In: Psychological Review 55 (4) 189-208.

[8] Lynch, Kevin 1960: The Image of the City. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

[9] Cséfalvay, Zoltán 1990: Térképek a fejünkben (Maps in our minds). Budapest: Akadémiai

[10] Downs, Roger M. 1970: Geographic Space Perception: Past Approaches and Future Prospects. In: Progress in Geography 2: 65-108.

[11] Roger M. Downs és David Stea (Eds.) 1973: Image and Environments. Chicago: Aldine Publishing (Downs was a geographer, while Stea a psychologist: their collaboration clearly demonstrates the cross-disciplinary aspect of mental mapping.)

[12] Milgram, Stanley 1976 (1992): Psychological Maps of Paris. In: Milgram, Stanly: The Individual in a Social World: Essays and Experiments. (Eds: John Sabini and Maury Silver) McGraw-Hill. (Originally published by: Ittelson, W. H., H. M. Prohansky és L. G. Rivlin (Eds.) 1976: Environmental Psychology: People and Their Physical Settings. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston)

[13] Gould, Peter R. és Rodney R. White 1974: Mental maps. Harmondsworth: Penguin, Pelican geography and environmental studies (Second, revised and expanded edition: 1986, London, New York: Routledge)

[14] Downs, Roger M. és David Stea 1977: Maps in Minds. Reflections on Cognitive Mapping.New York: Harper & Row (The introduction of the book is included in the reader of present chapter.)

[15] Gold, John R. 1980: An Introduction to Behavioural Geography. Oxford: University Press

[16] Stoltman, Joseph P. 1980: Mental maps: resources for teaching and learning. Sheffield: Geographical Association

[17] Holahan, Charles J. 1982: Environmental psychology. New York: Random House (Six chapters of the book have been translated in Hungarian. In: Dúll Andrea and Kovács Zoltán (Eds.) 1998: Környezetpszichológiai szöveggyűjtemény. (Handbook of Environmental Psychology) Debrecen: Kossuth Egyetemi Kiadó)

[18] Tversky, Barbara 1993: Cognitive Maps, Cognitive Collages and Spatial Mental Models. In: Frank, Andrew U. és Irene Campari (Eds.): Spatial Information Theory: A Theorethical Basis for GIS. Lecture Notes in Computer Science 716:14-24 Berlin: Springer

[19] Pléh Csaba 2000: Narrated history in psychology. Lecture given at a conference organized by the Department of Philosophy and History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (3-4 May 2000): The shifting forms of historical consciousness: Crash courses and alternatives in Hungarian history.

[20] Portugali, Juval 1996: The construction of cognitive maps. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, The geojournal library

[21] Kitchin, Rob és Scott Freundschuh (Eds.) 2000: Cognitive Mapping: Past, Present and FutureLondon, New York: Routledge

[22] Kitchin, Rob 2002: The cognition of geographic space. London, etc.: I.B. Taurus

[23] The program Mental Map Editor can be downloaded for free onwww.mentalmap.org. The algorithm was developed by László Letenyei and Botond Borbély in 2005.