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Mental Maps

How We See The World

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New York as a global city is a significant place in the mental maps of people around the world.
Siegfried Layda/ The Image Bank/ Getty Images
A person's perception of the world is known as a mental map. A mental map is an individual's own internal map of their known world.

Geographers like to learn about the mental maps of individuals and how they order the space around them. This can be investigated by asking for directions to a landmark or other location, by asking someone to draw a sketch map of an area or describe that area, or by asking a person to name as many places (i.e. states) as possible in a short period of time.

It's quite interesting what we learn from the mental maps of groups. In many studies, we find that those of lower socioeconomic groups have maps which cover smaller geographic areas than the mental maps of affluent individuals. For instance, residents of lower income areas of Los Angeles know about upscale areas of the metropolitan area such as Beverly Hills and Santa Monica but really don't know how to get there or where they are exactly located. They do percieve that these neighborhoods are in a certain direction and lie between other known areas. By asking individuals for directions, geographers can determine which landmarks are embedded in the mental maps of a group.

Many studies of college students have been performed around the world to determine their perception of their country or region. In the United States, when students are asked to rank the best places to live or the place they would most like to move to, California and Southern Florida consistently rank very high. Conversely, states such as Mississippi, Alabama, and the Dakotas rank low in the mental maps of students who don't live in those regions.

One's local area is almost always viewed most positively and many students, when asked where they'd like to move, just want to stay in the same area where they grew up. Students in Alabama rank their own state as a great place to live and would avoid the "North." It is quite interesting that there are such divisions in the mental maps between the northeast and southeast portions of the country which are remnants of the Civil War and a division over 140 years ago.

In the United Kingdom, students from around the country are quite fond of the southern coast of England. Far northern Scotland is generally perceived negatively and even though London is near the cherished southern coast, there is an "island" of slightly negative perception around the metropolitan area.

Investigations of mental maps show that the mass media's coverage and stereotypical discussions and coverage of places around the world has a major effect on people's perception of the world. Travel helps to counter the effects of the media and generally increase a persons' perception of an area, especially if it is a popular vacation destination.

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