Mental Maps Exercise

In the 1940s, psychologist Edward Tolman observed through his study of rats that we navigate through space based on a cognitive map of our world that we keep in our heads. Unlike a reference map like Google Maps that contains a wide variety of detail, cognitive maps are more selective and reflect the things we have experienced filtered through our own subjectivities and values.

This group exercise is intended to help you examine your own mental maps in comparison to others in the group.


Take out a sheet of paper and take 15 minutes to draw your mental map of an area in your life that you know fairly well.

On the map clearly indicate: Cartographer: <Your Name>


Find a partner, introduce yourself, exchange maps, and compare your two mental maps.

Add the following as a numbered list of comparisons between your two maps:

1. Identification

On your partner's map, clearly indicate: Reviewer: <Your Name>

2. Spatial Scale

Scale in mapping is the amount of area covered by a map.

Compare the difference (if any) in scale between your maps.

Small Area (Large Scale)
Large Area (Small Scale)

3. Detail

Detail is the level of attention to the small elements in the landscape.

Compare the differences in the level of detail between your maps.

Low Detail
High Detail

4. Annotations

Annotations or labels are text added to a map to describe specific elements of the map.

For this response, compare your map with your partner's map and briefly describe the differences in the way you annotated your maps.

No Annotations
Selective Annotations
Detailed Annotations

5. Accuracy

Accuracy is how well a map reflects the reality of the characteristics on the ground. This reality can be two things:

For this response, compare your map with your partner's map and briefly describe how accurately your partner's map seems to reflect the actual physical distances on the ground.

Spatially Accurate?
Distorted Scale

6. Aesthetics

Aesthetics is about beauty. Maps are evaluated based on both their usefulness and their aesthetic appeal. Maps are both beautiful and useful. The balance between those two characteristics depends on both the intention and the philosophy of the cartographer.

For this response, briefly compare the artistic differences between your two maps.

Colored and Chaotic

7. Implications

The choices of what to map, how to map it, and what to omit on a map reflect the values and personality of the cartographer.

For this response, briefly describe what you feel your partner's map says about their values and their personality.

A Cartographer Who Loves Water