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Maps and Why They Work - or Don't

Maps are conventionally drawn so that North is Up, South is Down, East is Right, and West if Left. Whether you open a highway map from Triple A or find a map on Google, you expect it to conform to these standards.

The YOU ARE HERE maps are different. Rather than orienting on the external world, they should orient on YOU as you look at the map. YOU are in the center at the bottom. What you see straight ahead should be upwards on the map. What is to your Left should be Left, and what is Right should be Right. When these are done correctly, they are easy to follow.

In shopping centers, they are often mounted incorrectly. When the YOU ARE HERE spot is in the wrong location, it becomes difficult to orient yourself. I sometimes end up trying to line my head up with the axis so that I am pointing the correct way. This is difficult. Especially if the map is upside down.

The ‘MENTAL MAP’or 'COGINTIVE MAP' is your internal vision of the world. Think about your house. As you open the front door, how does the map unfold? Think about your route to work, and how you might draw that.

The maps we have in our minds are based largely on experience. If you have never been to a place, your image of it and of its size is affected by how much you have heard about it, and perhaps its name.

If I asked you to draw a map of Australia, and then to add an island to the west named Minitaz, you might have the impression that the island is very small. In fact, it may be rather large. Since Australia has a long west coast, you may place it anywhere along the coast. I also did not say how far away it was, so it’s up to you. Psychology studies indicate that if you have heard of this island frequently in the news, it will be larger.

In fact, this is the way maps used to be made. Lands that were known were large. If it was know to be far away, it was placed far away. Unknown lands were in the clouds, depicted as a waterfall (the world ends here)or labled "here be dragons".

Mental maps are used every day. When you wake up in the dark, your mental map guides you to the light switch, or down the hall to the bathroom.

We use mental maps in other ways too. Many diagrams are actually mental maps of concepts. Think of Organizational Charts. Those are maps. The topmost person is on top, and it goes down from there. They represent ideas, just as maps represent our ideas of spatial relationships.

Maps on paper or in shopping centers should match our mental maps for the places we know. They should also help us form mental maps for places we haven't been. Without our MENTAL maps, we are truly lost.

I've attached two books on mapping. The second is often used in home schooling, where it gets rave reviews. Those looking for more information may prefer the first link.

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