Visualization of the Google deep map. Showing extracted map data from different sources. ©The Atlantic

How maps shape our mind

Stefan Jost
11 min readMar 1, 2016


Maps have evolved trough time and still are shaping our view to the world.

Where would we be without maps? The obvious answer is, of course, ‘lost’…” (Brotton, 2013, p. 20).

Kitchin says that “On the one hand, way-finding is an everyday task, essential to survival, that has been accomplished by people since they evolved and by other organisms before that, using their eyes and bodies and minds.” (Kitchin and Freundschuh, 2000, p. 24) Orientation is an everyday task and maps are one tool that helps us to find our way. James Blaut describes this as “The urge to map is a basic, enduring human instinct. (Blaut cited in Brotton, 2013, p. 20)

Unlike birds that use their magnetic sense, bats that use echolocation, or dogs that orientate themselves by marking their territory, humans need to use cognitive or physical maps to orientate in the space that surrounds them. “From early childhood onwards, we make sense of ourselves in relation to the wider physical world by processing information spatially. Psychologists call this activity ‘cognitive mapping’.” (Brotton, 2013, p. 20).

As described by Kitchin and Freundschuh orientation is crucial. If we travel or discover unvisited parts of the city or world, maps are one preferred tool for orientation as an online survey, with 766 participants accomplished in June 2010, shows: “Across both groups, 63.8% of participants use online/digital maps at least once a week compared with 27.7% using paper maps at least once a week. (Hurst and Clough, 2013, p. 52)

Maps have evolved consistently trough the last decades. They can be seen as a visual representation to the political and religious context in which they were made. “We of course look at maps visually, but we can also read them as a series of different stories.” (Brotton, 2013, p. 21).
But maps have also shaped the view how society sees the world. This essay focus on how maps have evolved trough time, as well as, what society can learn from them in the digital age.

What is a map?
Maps have the ability to represent different information for different user and vary a lot depending on the context they are used. Physical maps show details of landscapes: Rivers, mountains and identify physical features. Political maps focus on how a territory is divided in invisible parts, like local authorities, states and countries. Language maps visualize how a certain dialect is represented to the physical area or across a country. Weather maps show us how we are affected by Sun, clouds, temperature or rain in our actual area.

“Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.” (Harley and Woodward, 1987, p. xvi) or as Lloyd and Bunch (2003, p. 830) describe “The fundamental role of a map is to represent real-world information as a set of abstract features with the goal of simplifying spatial information for map communication and reading comprehension.”

The first discovered maps displayed the stars in the sky despite the land.

From this point, humans have continuously mapped their world until today. Since then the influence of political or ideological authorities showed an individual, but for this time accurate, representation of the world.

Claudius Ptolemy a Greek astronomer created around 150 A.D. Geographia, a eight-volume atlas of the known world at this time. His work defined the way of map-making for the next 2000 years. “Ptolemy defined his task as a geographer as being to‚ show the known world as a single and continuous entity, its nature and how it is situated, by taking account only of the things that are associated with it in its broader, ‘general outline’, which he listed as‚ gulfs, great cities, the more notable peoples and rivers, and the more noteworthy things of each kind.” (Brotton, 2013, p. 36). The atlas included a grid system of latitude/ longitude, an index of places, a scale and legends.

World map from Ptolemy’s Geographia. Reproduced in the 15th century.

During the middle ages, European maps were drawn with a less scientific or geographic approach, furthermore religious views had a strong impact. Therefore, much production time was invested in hand drawn decorations, which restricted their distribution.

Maps produced at this time, like the Ebstorf Map, depicted Jerusalem in the centre of the map, which was the centre of faith and authority at this time. “All this was done in the name of Christianity. … Instead, they fused classical and biblical places to project a history of Christian creation, salvation and judgement onto the surface of a map.” (Brotton, 2013, p. 117).

In 1492 Christopher Columbus discovered what is known today as America. This event changed the peoples view to the world, and the look of future maps. Decades later technology changed the way how maps were produced, with the invention of the wood block printing and metal letter typing. This was the start point for a wider distribution of maps.

Cosmographia was published in 1540 by Sebastian Münster. Münster contracted over 100 contributors who helped him in collecting data which he later combined comprehensive atlas. He was also the first who showed cities from a birds-eye view. “Münster also contributed to the technology of map printing. … Münster describes a method of using removable pieces of type, inserted into woodblock maps, which would allow names to be changed for different language-editions, and for the correction of errors.” (Bendall, 2009, p. 206)

Cognitive and mental maps
Edward Tolman, a behavioural psychologist, introduced in 1948 the term “Cognitive map”. He describes cognitive maps as a construct in people’s mind to a spatial space that they have explored. “Cognitive mapping concerns how people think about space, and how those thoughts are used and reflected in human spatial behaviour.” (Kitchin and Freundschuh, 2000, p. 1)

For example: When we land in an unknown city, humans immediately start to build cognitive maps. After finding our hotel we add streets, restaurants, parks, or other emotional markers to our cognitive map. Over time we construct a individual cognitive map of the new city in our mind, it enables us to navigate with this cognitive map trough a space. If we then have to explain our new space to a foreigner, humans use their cognitive maps to explain directions to others. Mental maps are visualisations, typically hand drawn physical manifestations, of those cognitive maps. (Lynch, 1960) identified trough research five categories: Paths, Edges, Districts, Nodes and Landmarks.

Paths are ways or as (Lynch, 1960) describes, channels in which we walk. They build the grid that structures and organize the space. Edges can be walls or buildings, they limit the access of where we can go. Nodes are places people can enter, like stores. Landmarks are big reference points, like a mountain.

The digital age
With the rise of the digital age, or described by the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells as “Information Age”; the internet has brought maps into a large audience. What was long times limited due to cost and the production process, like the hand drawn maps from the middle ages, is now available to a broader audience who has access to the internet. This digital medium reflects needs of todays society, and has transformed the way we can use maps. As Hurst and Clough (2013, p. 48) describes: “Paper has been the format of choice for disseminating geographic information for millennia; however the arrival of the internet and mobile technologies has created new modes of map consumptions. ” It can be assumed that paper maps are still heavily used in a professional environment.

With the transformation from paper to digital maps, new possibilities are available. The tools which where used to generate maps, like the invention of the compass or sextant hundreds of years ago, have also changed the look of the maps themselves. Digital tools, like satellite imagery, GPS and computational power, provide new ways to design digital maps. Or to mention Hurst and Clough: “… the increasing quality and availability of digital maps, together with technological advances, is now providing a realistic alternative to the traditional paper map format.” (Hurst and Clough, 2013, p. 48)

The invention of map layers introduces new ways to use digital maps. Real-time information or context sensitive information, can be placed over physical map layers. At the same time, it is possible to change and adapt those layers according to our needs. “It is clear that there are no limits to the information that can be made available, as long as it can be geographically or spatially positioned on a map.” (Hurst and Clough, 2013, p. 49)

Google Maps
Started in February 2005, Google Maps is today largely used and accessed. “About a billion people use Google Maps every month, working out at about a billion searches a day.” (Chivers, 2013) Googles aim to “create the best map ever” produced a digital map with unreached realism, functions and resolution.

The use of digital tools enabled the mapmakers and programmers to create a map which goes far further than just representing a physical map on a digital screen or mobile device. The possibility to show different information layers on the same map, offers new ways on how maps can be adapted to the user’s individual needs. In addition, Hurst and Clough (2013, p. 56) say “With online maps you can scroll, you can zoom in and out, you can easily locate exactly where you are because of GPS.”

Starting from simply zoom in or zoom out to show traffic information’s, local businesses and public transportation routes, Google Maps give a view how those digital tools offers new ways to create maps. On the other hand, there are clear similarities to the maps of the past. Google Maps still uses the Mercator projection, the grid system from Ptolemy, the bird-eye’s view from Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia. However, the centre of the map has changed from Jerusalem to the person’s GPS localized individual location.

Google Maps has continuously evolved in the last eleven years. From showing routes from point A to B, to a map that shows individual points of interest based on the users last web searches. The software in the background which makes this possible is called by Google “Deep Map”. It is the to the user invisible layer that combines multiple sources. From official data, gathered data by Google Street View cars to user generated data.

Deep view gives meaning to locations by allocation these huge and diverse sets of data, and creates the real innovation of Google Maps that goes far beyond of just showing your location. “It is probably better not to think of Google Maps as a thing like a paper map. Geographic information systems represent a jump from paper maps like the abacus to the computer.” (Madrigal, 2012)

Google Maps give users a new toolset how they can interact with digital maps, by marking, or pining points of personal interests. Digital maps give us possibilities that are similar to mental maps. Users can individual mark favourite streets, buildings and stores. Channels, edges and landmarks as Lynch describes and connect personal emotions to visited places.

Google Maps will probably evolve further in the next years and will adapt new technology into maps. Maybe not influenced by the political surrounding as the maps of the past, rather more by commercial influences.

Visualization of the Google deep map. Showing extracted map data from different sources. ©The Atlantic

Maps have evolved trough the past centuries. We profit today from innovations introduced many centuries ago: Ptolemy’s Geographia introduced the system of longitude and latitude. The Ebstorf Map introduced the principle of centring the the most important content in the middle of the map. A principle digital maps use today, by centring the user’s location in the middle of the map. Sebastian Münster’s Cosmographia used contributors from around the globe, to create the most accurate map at this time. Today known as the peer-review system used in digital maps.

The creators of digital maps are no more geographers. Since software, like Googles Deep Map gives meaning to maps, algorithms define how maps look like. The way how these maps influences people’s behaviour, and in the end affect our mental maps, has not been studied.

Digital maps have the power to manipulate our view to the world easily. The way they present information suggest a reliability and correctness we are used to trust. In his TED Talk, filmed in November 2014, Daniele Querica talks about this interpretation of using digital maps: “For an entire month, I was so trapped in my mobile app that a journey to work became one thing only: the shortest path. In this single journey, there was no thought of enjoying the road, no pleasure in connecting with nature, no possibility of looking people in the eyes.” …

“However, the app also assumes there are only a handful of directions to the destination. It has the power to make those handful of directions the definitive direction to that destination.” (Quercia, 2014)

The human instinct to orientate will probably not change. But digital maps, will still reflect the political, and today more important, commercial surrounding in which they are created. “The map, whatever its medium or its message, is always a creative interpretation of the space it claims to represent.” (Brotton, 2013, p. 31)

Bendall, S. (2009) “The Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster: Describing the World in the Reformation. By Matthew McLean. (St Andrews Studies in Reformation History.)”, Library, vol. 10, no. 2, p. 215–216.

Blaut, J.M., Stea, D., Spencer, C. and Blades, M. (2003) “Mapping as a Cultural and Cognitive Universal”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 93, no. 1, p. 165–185.

Brotton, J. (2013) A history of the world in twelve maps. E-Book version, England: Penguin Books.

Chivers, T. (2013) The story of Google Maps Available at: 10090014/The-story-of-Google-Maps.html (Accessed: 25th February 2016).

Dale, S.F., Harley and Woodward (eds.) (1987), The History of Cartography, Vol. 2, Book 1: “Cartography in the Traditional Islamic and South Asian Societies” (Book Review), Association for Asian Studies, Ann Arbor, Michigan

Hurst, P. and Clough P. (2013) “Will we be lost without paper maps in the digital age?”, Journal of Information Science, 39, p. 48–60.

Kitchin, R. and Freundschuh, S. (2000) “Cognitive mapping: past, present and future”, Routledge, London.

Lloyd, R. and Bunch, R.L. (2003) “Technology and Map-Learning: Users, Methods, and Symbols”, Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 93, no. 4, p. 828–850.

Lynch, K. (1960), The image of the city. MIT P, London.

Madrigal, A. (2012) How Google builds it’s maps — and what it means for the future of everything. Available at: (Accessed: 24th February 2016).

Quercia, D. (2014) Happy maps. Available at: (Accessed: 22th February 2016).

Figure 1 and 3: The Antlantic. How Google Builds Its Maps — and What It Means for the Future of Everything. Available at: (Accessed: 25th February 2016)

Figure 2: Credited to Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (Ptolemy’s Geography (Harleian MS 7182, ff 58–59)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. Available at: Ptolemy%27s_world_map#/media/File:PtolemyWorldMap.jpg (Accessed: 23th February 2016)



Stefan Jost
Digital Experience Design

UX Designer at Digitec Galaxus in Switzerland, ex Hyper Island Student, ice cream lover. #problems #HyperIslandUK