The Nature of Meaningful Maps

Maps provide a representation the landscape – often the natural landscape. So they play a part in the human-nature relationship. Maps are also relevant to my previous human factors research into external representations and mental models. Maps are part of our thinking and actions, how easily we get from A to B – but they can also encourage people to walk. And encourage people to pause and notice nature. Maps can bring joy and connection!

The OS maps we often use are detailed and accurate representations of the features of the landscape, using symbols where necessary. They’re wonderful pieces of work, but getting the most out of them requires map-reading skills in order to construct a spatial representation or image in the mind. The map, the mind and the landscape become coupled as we try to find our way. This quote from cognitive psychologist and expert on visuo-spatial thinking, Barbara Tversky opens up the possibilities of maps:

“Maps schematize the real world in that they are two-dimensional, they omit information, they regularize, they use inconsistent scale and perspective, and they exaggerate, fantasize, and carry messages” – Barbara Tversky.

We can choose which information to include and even exaggerate features to create a meaningful journey – a journey that taps into the pathways to nature connectedness for example. More on that later, first lets dig a little deeper into the cognition and ‘schematisation’.

How we Think with Maps

Effective maps schematise information in ways similar to the ways our minds schematise information. Schematisation involves excluding information, simplifying and even distorting information – maps and memory are not a perfect mirror of reality. Aerial views of the landscape are common and easy to access, but we don’t use them as maps even though they’re realistic. They are cluttered, contain unnecessary detail and can hide useful detail. Although, like maps aerial photos show an overview where as we see a frontal view when on the ground. Good schematisation eases interpretation, reduces memory load and facilitates information processing. However, it can introduce bias and error.

Maps distribute thinking. Such that it involves neither wholly internal, nor entirely external, representations – instead they involve an interaction between both representational domains – the mind and the map. To comprehend a map we decompose the map into basic elements. Maps encourage the formation of ‘spatial mental models’, based on prior knowledge, presented information and reasoning skills. Poor spatial information and highly schematised, unrealistic maps can interfere with this mental process. However, rather than a mental map a better metaphor for people’s mental representations of the landscape is a mental collage.

This comprehension of maps makes use of the ‘visuospatial sketchpad’ component of our memory which has limited capacity. Visualization loads our working memory and cognition a lot, especially when the mismatch between the internal and external representation grows. Maps that reduce possible interpretations of a situation are more efficient. Wayfinding is a complex cognitive exercise!

Good maps should make mentally imagining and evaluating actions easier. To do this good maps assist search, facilitate recognition and inference – three key components of information processing. They should activate ‘perceptual operations’ – the perceptual work should be automatic and easy. For example, spatial relationships do not have to be described; they are immediately apparent. Maps are more difficult to use when skills are needed to extract the information from them. Through being closely coupled with the mind, and the reality of the landscape, maps can reduce the amount of cognitive effort required to find our way.

Maps and Nature Connection

This dry cognitive perspective seems at odds with Tversky’s quote on inconsistent scale and perspective, exaggeration and fantasy – but neither maps or memory are perfect reflections of the world. Using those imperfections is where the skill and creativity of the mapmaker come in.

One of the first things I did when I was renewing my relationship with the rest of the natural world was draw a map to understand the local landscape. To strip away the detail to reveal the bones of the landscape and places and features that had meaning fore me. Using the accuracy of OS maps as a guide I exaggerated the hills to match how they felt on the ground – steep! Rather than a vertical overview, I created a viewpoint that looked towards my home from high above the valley below. The map revealed a modest plateau between two rivers. When I think of my local landscape, I think in terms of my map and the simple context it provides.

Understanding the local landscape with a hand drawn map

Maps and location have been a key part of some of our nature connectedness research. By recording where people were when enjoying the good things in nature we were able to find a strong relationship between levels of biodiversity in the landscape and emotional response to that place. People reported being happier in sites with greater variety of wildlife and with a greater variety of habitats. We mapped emotions and perceptions of biodiversity.

Mapping Positive Emotions

So how might maps play a role in increasing nature connectedness? They can be designed with the pathways to nature connectedness in mind. Maps can help:

  • Activate the senses: Encourage users to notice and actively engage with nature – highlight places to pause.
  • Elicit emotions: Encourage users to engage emotionally with nature – map the joy and wonder of the landscape.
  • Highlight nature’s beauty: Map and point people towards beauty in the natural world.
  • Provide and help discover meaning: Let nature bring meaning to life –nthrough natural waypoints. Celebrate nature – map songs, stories, poems and art.
  • Facilitate care and compassion: provide opportunities to take actions that are good for nature – and actions that do not disturb nature.

And maps can also reveal new things about familiar landscapes. A journey of discovery is not just to wild landscapes, but finding wilderness, wonder and meaning in simple places close to home. Maps can be a part of that journey. Maps can help find our way closer to nature, not just travel through it.


About Miles

Professor of Human Factors & Nature Connectedness - improving connection to (the rest of) nature to unite human & nature’s wellbeing.
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