Mental Maps

Young woman looking at map


Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

A mental map is a first-person perspective of an area that an individual possesses. This type of subconscious map shows a person what a place looks like and how to interact with it. But does everybody have mental maps and if they do, how are they formed?

Who Has Mental Maps?

Everyone has mental maps that they use to get around, no matter how "good they are with directions". Picture your neighborhood, for example. You probably have a clear map in your mind of where you live that allows you to navigate to the nearest coffee shop, your friend's house, your place of work, and more without the help of technology or physical maps. You use your mental maps to plan nearly all activities and routes to travel.

The average person has large mental maps to tell them where towns, states, and countries are positioned and smaller maps to navigate areas like their kitchen. Any time you envision how to get somewhere or what a place looks like, you use a mental map, often without even thinking about it. This kind of mapping is studied by behavioral geographers to help them understand how humans move.

Behavioral Geography 

Behaviorism is a division of psychology that looks at human and/or animal behavior. This science assumes that all behavior is a response to environmental stimuli and studies these connections. Likewise, behavioral geographers seek to understand how the landscape, in particular, influences and is influenced by behavior. How people build, change, and interact with the real world through mental maps are all topics of research for this growing field of study.

Conflict Caused by Mental Maps

It is possible—common, even—for the mental maps of two individuals to be at odds with each other. This is because mental maps aren't just perceptions of your own spaces, they are also your perceptions of places you've never been or seen and areas that are mostly unfamiliar to you. Mental maps based on assumptions or conjecture can significantly impact human interaction.

Perceptions of where a country or region begins and ends, for example, can influence country-to-country negotiations. Ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel exemplifies this. These nations cannot reach an agreement about where the border between them should lie because each side sees the boundaries in question differently.

Territorial conflicts such as this are difficult to resolve because participants must rely on their mental maps to make decisions and no two mental maps are the same.

Media and Mental Mapping

As mentioned, mental maps can be created for places you've never been to and this is simultaneously made possible and more difficult by media. Social media, news reports, and movies can depict faraway places vividly enough for a person to create their own mental maps of them. Photographs are often used as the basis of mental maps, especially for famous landmarks. This is what makes skylines of popular cities like Manhattan easily recognizable even to people that have never visited.

Unfortunately, media representations don't always give accurate representations of places and can lead to the formation of mental maps riddled with errors. Looking at a country on a map with an improper scale, for example, can make a nation seem larger or smaller than it really is. The Mercator map's infamous distortion of Africa confused people with regard to the size of the continent for centuries. Misconceptions about a country as a whole—from sovereignty to population—often follow inaccurate depictions.

The media cannot always be trusted to deliver true information about a place. Biased crime statistics and news reports, for example, should not be taken lightly because they have the power to impact a person's choices. Media reports of crime in an area can lead people to avoid a neighborhood whose crime rate is, in reality, average. Humans often subconsciously attach emotion to their mental maps and information consumed, accurate or not, can alter perceptions significantly. Always be a critical consumer of media representations for the most accurate mental maps.