Most of us know people who ‘‘cannot read a map’’ and others who seem to navigate intuitively. “Tasks, Strategies, and Cognitive Processes Associated With Navigational Map Reading: A Review Perspective”, by Amy K. Lobben, tries to identify and describe several cognitive processes that may take place in a map reader’s brain while managing the combined task of map reading and navigation. It's worth reading the paper.
In 2004, Amy K. Lobben, Central Michigan University, published in The Professional Geographer, 56(2) 2004, pages 270-281 [HERE], a paper focused on how people read and use navigation maps. Despite its “age”, the document helps us to understand the cognitive processes who are behind a seemingly trivial task to the common orienteer. “Whether in their teaching or research (and likely in their daily lives), all geographers use maps. Because maps are objects involved in nearly every aspect of geography, the researchers who use them should have at least a basic understanding of how they are processed and perceived by the map user (and the map user is not only the public served by the geographer, but also geographers themselves). Cartography is more than a technique, and maps are more than tools”, starts by saying Amy Lobben.
Reading attentively the paper, we find that “understanding what strategies people use, why different people use different strategies to complete the same task, and identifying what cognitive process are controlling those strategies provides the framework for a growing number of geographic research studies. In addition, the questions of why some people can read maps and navigate through an environment better than others holds an answer that has eluded researchers working in both cartography and psychology.”
One of the most interesting parts is related to map reading strategy - “a specific method or tactic employed by a map user to complete navigational map-reading tasks” -, and claim some attention to the fact that “brain structure may lead to strategy differences. But learned behavior may also exert an influence on a person’s approach to the tasks. A significant amount of research analyzing the spatial ability differences between males and females has been published ( for a review of this literature see Montello et al. 1999). Many of the findings discussed in their review suggest that males and females differ in their ability to perform many spatial ability tasks. However, based on their own findings, Montello et al. (1999, 529) are careful to point out that it is incorrect to assume that ‘males in general have better spatial ability than females.’’
Cognitive processes associated with navigational map reading and cognitive mapping – environmental mapping, survey mapping, object rotation, symbol identification, map/environment interaction, visualization, self-location and path integration – are also chapters (and sub-chapters) of the paper with lots of interesting and really useful information. Amy K. Lobben concludes: “We are an increasingly mobile society and while new technologies (such as personal mobile GPS units and in-car navigation systems) provide navigational assistance, map reading still is a task faced frequently by nearly everyone. As such, a person’s ability to complete navigational map reading both efficiently and effectively may exert a profound influence on their mobility.”