Psychology of Mental Maps Research Paper

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Consider the following thought experiment. You are blindfolded in a large room. Someone guides you walking along an L-shaped path. That is, they lead you some distance straight ahead, then guide you in a turn, and then lead you another distance in the new direction. After this you are instructed, still blindfolded, to return directly on your own to the place where your guided walk started. Most people can accomplish this task reasonably accurately. Logically, to accomplish this task you would seem to have to keep in mind the location where you started and how its distance and direction changes as you walk. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly, blind persons do not perform this as accurately as blindfolded sighted persons. In some sense, this task seems to involve a form of mental representation, a mental map, of this very simple space, one that includes the starting location and this elementary path.

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The idea of mental maps is more interestingly applied to more complex spaces and in cases where vision is not completely eliminated by blindfold or blindness. Edward Tolman (1948) may have been the first to raise this concept for psychology in the course of investigating maze learning in rats. He noted that his animal subjects moved in a generally appropriate direction when a well-learned path to the goal was blocked. He considered this as evidence for their general spatial orientation to the situation and some general knowledge of the spatial layout. He used the term ‘cognitive map’ to refer to this knowledge. Of particular interest was that the rats seemed to be going beyond the information with which they had been specifically trained. They had learned a series of right and left turns to get to the goal but then were able to respond in a spatially appropriate way when that sequence of turns could not be executed. Since Tolman’s original observations, the presence of cognitive maps in his sense have been observed in a wide variety of species. See Gallistel (1990) for a review.

1. The Organization of Spatial Knowledge

In humans, for example, even young children demonstrate behavior in which detours or short cuts are taken by which the child traverses parts of the spatial layout with which he or she has had no previous

experience. As with Tolman’s rats, children can be taught a zigzag route through a complex of rooms and then be tested on their ability to make detours or take alternative routes with which they have had no direct experience. By the age of six or seven years they can do this quite readily (Hazen et al. 1978). In fact, much of the research on spatial cognition in humans has focused on how well people acquire configurational knowledge of an overall spatial layout with only experience with specific routes through the space. Since routes often are defined partially, if not totally, in terms of making left and right turns, walking straight ahead, etc., route knowledge is associated with egocentric representation of spatial information. That is, locations are defined or described in terms of their relation to the observer. Configurational knowledge is usually understood as knowledge of the locations within a space in relation to each other. In this respect configurational knowledge is often associated with allocentric representation of spatial information. That is, locations are defined or described in relation to features of the space outside of the observer. Tolman’s term of cognitive map has usually been applied to configurational knowledge as opposed to route knowledge. However, the more general question is how spatial knowledge is organized, and perhaps it is better to use the less loaded term of ‘mental map.’

1.1 The Role of Experience in Determining the Nature of the Mental Map

With this in mind it is natural to ask under what conditions does one’s mental map reflect a route organization and under what condition does it reflect configurational organization of spatial information. Returning to the blind and blindfolded participants mentioned above, it seems that perhaps having had visual experience might predispose one toward configurational organization to a greater degree. This possibility is congruent with observations of professional blind mobility instructors who often observe that their clients have difficulty in making detours in areas in which they have been trained on particular routes. There is considerable classical research that also suggests that blind people, who know their way from place to place in an area, often have more difficulty than sighted persons in making detours when their usual path is blocked. That may be due to blind persons having a greater tendency than sighted to maintain a routelike organization of their spatial knowledge. Sighted people are more likely to shift to a configurational organization, at least after some familiarity with an area. Why might this be? As sighted people move around they can see how the directions and distances to objects and locations changes. With this knowledge at every point along a path they can see where they are in relation to other locations. This is the basis of configurational knowledge.

In support of this possibility there is evidence that sighted people, even when blindfolded, update where they are in relation to other locations in the environment; there is much less tendency for blind people to do this (Rieser et al. 1988). What is there about visual experience that would cause such a difference in updating? One hypothesis is that the optical flow stimulation, available visually whenever a sighted person moves, provides information about the changing distance and direction of the visible locations in the environment. This information, which is not available to blind people, calibrates sighted persons’ stepping behavior and that calibration can be used when walking without vision. The bottom line is that having visual experience facilitates the generation of mental maps with a configural organization of spatial knowledge.

2. The Nature of Configural Mental Maps

What is the nature of these mental maps reflecting configural organization? A perusal of the research literature suggests that in the minds of many researchers the mental maps are like cartographic maps with a two-dimensional layout of a space viewed like a bird from above. But if operational criteria of configural mental maps include simultaneous awareness of the spatial relations of every location from every other location and the changing directions and distances to locations as one moves, there are other possibilities. One of the most interesting examples is that of the navigation of the seafarers of the Caroline Islands. They have a system that appears very strange to us but enables them to travel effectively across hundreds of miles of the South Pacific in outrigger canoes.

Their navigation system has been carefully studied by a number of anthropologists (e.g., Lewis 1978, Gladwin 1970). One of the most compelling analyses is that of Hutchins (Hutchins 1995, Hutchins and Hinton 1984). The navigators essentially represent the directions of islands to which they want to sail in terms of a celestial compass. That is, they know which direction to sail in terms of where along the horizon particular stars rise and set. And these directions are known for travel from every island to every other island in their sailing environment. (Thus to become a navigator requires a huge amount of memorization.) They index the progress of a trip in terms of the changing direction of an out-of-sight reference island. That direction is again specified in relation to the location of rising and setting stars. At the beginning of a voyage the reference island may be in the direction of a star which rises somewhat in the direction of the heading of the boat, say at a relative bearing of 45 degrees. As the journey proceeds the direction of the reference island moves toward the side and then maybe to the rear. The reference island is out of sight during the entire trip and, in fact, may not even exist in reality. (A hypothetical reference island is just as useful for keeping track of the progress of the trip as a real outof-sight island.) From our perspective a most interesting and strange aspect of the Caroline Island conceptualization is that their canoe is stationary and the islands are moving with respect to the boat. Since, in travel, movement is relative, logically it makes no difference whether the traveler is moving or the environment is moving with respect to a stationary traveler.

3. The Origin of Spatial Knowledge in Mental Maps

How does the medium from which we acquire spatial information affect our mental map? This is another aspect of the experiential question. Much of our spatial knowledge comes from actual experience within a space. However, we also acquire spatial knowledge in a variety of other ways such as from verbal descriptions, from maps, from exposure to virtual reality, etc. Take the case of maps, for example. Thorndyke and Hayes-Roth (1982) compared observers’ mental maps after studying a map of a large building and after experience in actually navigating around the building. Map experience led to more accurate estimation of the straight line or Euclidean distances between locations characteristic of configural knowledge, whereas actual navigation led to more accurate route distance estimation and to more accurate judgments of actual direction of locations from station points within the building. Uttal (2000) has suggested that experience with maps has a more general effect on the kinds of mental maps we form. He suggests that the overhead view that prototypical maps provide, and the fact that maps by their scale transformation make available spatial relations which cannot be easily grasped by ordinary exploration, have a general effect on how children come to think about space and spatial relations.

There has been considerable recent interest in the relation between language and space (see, e.g., Bloom et al. 1996). In the case of language, it would seem possible to vary a text description to facilitate different kinds of mental maps, for example, biasing toward configural organization or biasing toward route or- ganization. Tversky and her colleagues have found that the narrative provided for a listener can determine the perspective that the listener takes in thinking about the space (Tversky 1996). This is reflected in their reaction times to name the various objects in a space. They also found that observers in describing spaces from maps used either a route description or a configural description or a mixture of the two, and rarely any other kind.

These questions are not just an issue of academic interest. We have all often had frustrating experience trying to understand verbal directions about how to get somewhere or trying to grasp the layout of an area by means of a map. Virtual reality is currently being proposed as having great potential for training people, e.g., soldiers, for tasks in new environments. However, with the present state-of-the-art it is difficult to build a good sense of the layout (a good mental map) of a virtual world one is moving through. How to use these media most effectively to enable the most desirable mental map is a goal for future research.


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