What are Mental Maps?



When someone asks you about a city, how do you respond? If you’ve been there before you might tell stories about the time you spent there, the people you met and the food you ate. If you grew up in that location you would have much more of an in-depth explanation to give than if you’d only spent a few hours there, right? How would you describe a city in a country you’d never been to?

We all have mental maps we carry around in our heads to make sense of the geographical world around us. These mental or cognitive maps help us make some sort of personal sense of the world, where we’ve been and the places we’ve never seen before. Mental maps are a way of combining our objective knowledge of places in addition to our subjective perceptions, or opinions, of locations around the world. Most people can roughly estimate how long it takes to get between cities or find the approximate locations of unfamiliar countries on a map because they’ve been exposed to information about that place somewhere else.

Mental maps are tricky, as each individual person has a different set of perceptions they have in their heads about the same exact world we all live in. What one person associates with a city or country could be precisely opposite of the person standing right next to them.

Through classes in school, interactions with a diverse population of people in addition to our own travels and the prevalence of the media, most people have an internalized representation of the world in their minds. The study of mental maps and the perceptions people have about the world comes at the crossroads of cultural studies, psychology, sociology, and geography. Each of these fields can use the information gathered about mental mapping to understand how humans look at the world around them and process that information, internally and externally.

Research about mental mapping benefits geographers in the following ways: not only can researchers study how people interact with and explain the world around them to others, but researchers can analyze how people feel about certain parts of a city and correlate that with crime rates, ethnic populations, environment, and more. Researchers can look at the physical geography of a location and see what people think of those regions, and even look deeper into the human and behavioral aspects of mental maps to track fear, stress, and excitement regarding different places worldwide.

The media is a huge shaper of how people envision the world around them. From local to international news the articles we read and the images we see in movies and on news reports absolutely effects how we see different countries and people around the globe.

This mental map by a Dutch person shows the personal interpretation of where he or she lives.  The arrow at the bottom right points to "where I live".  The rest of the map shows the location of the river, the local school, and streets.

This mental map by a Dutch person shows the personal interpretation of their neighborhood. The arrow at the bottom right points to “where I live”. The rest of the map shows the location of the river, the local school, and streets. Source: Tjeerd Nijeholt.

For instance, I have lived most of my adult life outside of the country I grew up in. Living abroad has given me a very extraordinary mental map of the world that is very different from my sister’s, who has lived her entire life in the same city she was raised in. I have spent almost two years living in the Middle East, a place many people in my life feared before I went there.

Throughout my time spent in the region traveling, living and working I was able to not only create a mental map of this place that is so very contested and misunderstood, but I was also able to bring some of that knowledge back to my friends and family who were able to begin to see the Middle East in a new light. Our perspectives were changed dramatically when I traveled there as I was experiencing an extraordinary region, eating delicious food and meeting great new people, and my friends and family back home got to see a different face to a place that has long been feared.

Our lives may not always take us to faraway places, but our experiences shape and create our mental maps day by day. Knowing how to navigate your mental map and understand where you see clearly and where you might be influenced the most by the media and misinformation is very important for personal growth and the future of mental mapping as a field of study.

Geographers and other professionals will continue to use mental maps as a basis for social and physical geographical research, and psychologists like me will continue to find how we all see the world fascinating!


National Geographic. Education. Geographic Standard 2. How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context. 2014. http://education.nationalgeographic.com/education/standards/national-geography-standards/2/?ar_a=1

Wikipedia. Mental Mapping. 2014. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mental_mapping

Letenyei, Laszlo. International Map of Mental Map Resources. 2011. http://www.mentalmap.org/en/main.htm