Do You Have a Healthy Relationship with Maps?

From ancient times to modern GPS systems, maps have guided and comforted us.

Posted Jan 08, 2021

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Source: Pexels

For many of us right now, the difference between optimism and pessimism on any given day is tied to the size of the map's red circle around our county, city, or state. Who among us has not looked at a coronavirus map and taken comfort in the news that there are no (or few) reported cases near us?

Without maps, the modern discipline of epidemiology would likely look very different from the one we know. From cholera to Lyme disease, and from the plague to the common cold, maps have played an important role in understanding the spread and transmission of diseases. Collectively, these medical maps support the idea that regional affiliation is intimately linked with disease and health indicators.

Outside of epidemiology, the notion that an overhead perspective can inform psychology and behavioral science has also gained traction in recent years.

Geographical Psychology

Over the past decade, interest in geographical approaches to psychology has flourished and a large literature has accumulated. The emerging perspective of geographical psychology is an interdisciplinary approach to human activity that focuses on the spatial organization of psychological experiences. This view has successfully integrated research across epidemiology, political science, urban design, economics, and geography by promoting the tradition of studying behavior in the context of physical space.

The Very First Map

Questions about the nature of person x environment interactions stretch back in history and span many academic disciplines. The Babylonian Map of the World, a sparsely detailed Mesopotamian clay tablet created around 700 to 500 B.C. depicting the Euphrates River and Babylon, represents one of the earliest attempts at visualizing human navigation through physical space. Modern hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS) tools effectively serve the same function as the Babylonian Map, but the two are separated by a period of almost three thousand years.

Mapping Diseases

Out of the multitude of theories proposed to end the cholera crisis of the 19th century, it was, of all things, a map that ultimately provided the solution for understanding the spread and transmission of the disease. In the late summer months of 1854, London was fighting a dangerous battle against cholera, an often fatal bacterial disease that settles in the small intestine and quickly dehydrates the body. Previous episodes of cholera beginning in 1831 and 1849 claimed 70,000 lives in England and Wales. By 1854, residents at the center of the outbreak in the Soho district were desperate for a solution.

Teaching Children

A decade ago, educators began to realize the value in incorporating technologies that reflect the new ways in which children think about physical space, maps, and behavior. In 2006, the United States National Research Council suggested in a consensus study, "Learning to Think Spatially," that incorporating geographic information systems and other spatial technologies in K-12 curriculum (primary and secondary education in the U.K.) would promote spatial thinking and reasoning. Spatial thinking is a special kind of thinking based on three key features: concepts of space, tools of representation, and processes of reasoning. Perhaps this is an indication that the disciplines of psychology and geography will find their necessary points of synergy at some time in the future.

Psychologists Using Maps

It certainly makes sense for epidemiologists to use maps, but why has psychology been so slow to embrace a geographical approach? It is time for psychological science to explore the idea, inspired partly by John Snow, that personality traits and other psychological variables can be mapped out. Snow’s classic epidemiological study offers one of the most persuasive arguments for the profitability of studying psychological variables through the use of spatial analysis.

©2020 Kevin Bennett, Ph.D. All rights reserved.