Mapmaker's Imagination: Finding Our Way Home

Wayfinding Wayfinding | Photo by Flickr user Dayna Mason. It is used under a Creative Commons License.

Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs turned out to be a bad idea for finding the way home, says Eric Jaffe in The Atlantic.

According a team of psychologists led by Julia Frankenstein of the Max Planck Institute for Biological Cybernetics in Tübingen, Germany, Hansel and Gretel's own "mental map" of the forest would have been a better guide.

"Wayfinding" is a branch of both psychology and anthropology that has interested researchers for decades. How do we navigate the landscapes we pass through - landscapes both familiar and novel? And how do we imagine our place in that landscape?

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For often-traveled routes, landmarks might be the usual guide. Successfully getting from one side of town to the other might depend on passing certain "way points" in the proper order, each one triggering a memory of the next one, even if unconsciously.

Other studies suggest that a schematic of the entire route, with all but the most essential details edited out, might be the mind's map for finding the way.

The Max Planck Institute researchers suggest a third alternative. Many travelers seem to have acquired a generalized "cartographic imagination" that gives them access to the entire urban plan of their city. That allows them to find home from unfamiliar starting points.

It would be as if you were seeing in the mind's eye a Google map, oriented north just as conventional paper and digital maps are. (Although both kinds of maps often fudge "north," as nearly all maps of downtown Los Angeles do.)

The new research suggests that a "cartographic imagination" is the by-product of both frequent wandering around in a city and some familiarity with its actual maps. (Probably aided, other research suggests, by the latent ability of human brains to sense magnetic north, a capacity that many mammals seem to have, even cows.)

With a little mental gymnastics, the map-minded wanderer can switch from the city's street plan to something like Google's satellite view. Mentally oriented more or less north - like the map - the wanderer can then reliably point to distant landmarks and from them to home.

Wayfinding by familiar landmarks and routines may be the usual means for getting from "here" to "there" in Los Angeles. Long distances and the "fly over effect" of freeway travel don't encourage a "cartographic imagination."

Holding a mental picture of the entire basin in mind would be an achievement, even though the basin's grid is fairly uniform. But it's a map worth making, because there is (to me) a link between maps in the imagination and what might be called a "moral imagination" - that is, a sense that everyone in the Los Angeles Basin shares the same situation, that we do not inhabit an archipelago of disconnected "islands on the land" but a common place.

The reappearance of the mountain wall of the San Gabriels to the north may help. For the first time in nearly 70 years, the obscuring veil of smog and particulates dissipates often enough for drivers on the Los Angeles plain to find the cardinal points of the compass just by looking around.

It lightens my heart to think that one consequence of better air quality might help Angeleños know where they actually are. That knowledge might expand their "moral imagination" and lead them to a more inclusive vision of Los Angeles.


D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.


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