I love maps. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that I have resisted the allure of smart phone technology and so must rely on maps to navigate when I am driving to a new location. Maybe it is the somewhat childish association that I have with maps and pirates…and buried treasure! Or maybe it is just because maps are somewhat predictable in an unpredictable world.

I recently took a couple days to go camping in West Virginia in an area called the New River Gorge, which gave me a chance to drive through West Virginia (and interestingly via a highway that I could not find on any of my road atlas maps!). I was also intent on doing some hiking and so I set out with a sense of adventure and a sheaf of new trail maps in my hand. The hiking itself was bound to be beautiful, as the area is known for its amazing scenery. But, almost equally fun for me is the matching and comparing of how you expect the trail or hike to be (partly based on the map’s account and partly on word of mouth reports) and how it actually appears as you go along. Does the sharp turn to the right after the fork out to the bridge really occur at that angle? Are the mile markers accurate? Are there any mile markers at all?!

It truly is like a treasure hunt, trying to match up what you are looking at on your paper map drawn in lines and symbols to what is actually happening in the real world as you tromp along. It is kind of like translating a fairy tale into reality. Take for example a topographical map, the word topographical- from the Greek “topos” (place) and “graphia” (G. writing) literally means “writing of a place.” Cool, huh?!

You should love maps too. Maps are a part of our biology. Maps form an integral part of the way our brains are able to process and organize so much information from our internal and external environments. The famous neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran, says, “Everywhere you look in the brain, maps abound.” Maps are literally a part of who we are and the checking between representation and “reality” of our internal and external environment is an ongoing phenomenon. The analogous word to topography, in brain maps is “somatotopy” or the place in the brain representing a certain body region: “soma” (G. body), “topos” (G. place).

One interesting thing about the somatotopy in our brains (our “brain map” for “body places”) is that the brain area for a given body part is not actually proportional to the body area that is represented. For example, within the sensory somatotopy of our brain, certain areas that are more used for taking in sensory information (e.g., our hands and our tongue) have much larger areas of representation than do areas of our body that are not as “sensitive” (e.g., our back or arms). You can google “sensory homunculus” for a pictorial representation of this idea. This reminds me of becoming familiar with an area of wilderness: the more you hike or spend time in that area, the greater your depth of understanding of that place. You recognize not just the obvious changes in scenery like a stand of trees that has been cut down, but more subtle changes like the difference in native grass species or wild flowers growing in new areas.

Maps grow or shrink based on use. Just like many things, the only constant is change. As neuroplasticity has shown, our brains are malleable and adaptable. The amount that you use certain areas of your body affects the amount of area in the brain devoted to that body area or body part. Professional musicians, who practice many hours a day with intricate hand and finger movements have an increase in the amount of dedicated “hand and finger” space in the brain. Also, individuals who lose the ability of one of their senses (e.g., go blind) have increased brain representation for the other senses on which they are now more reliant. This is another one of the beauties of navigating with paper maps- the ability to revise and edit. I have to admit, one of the satisfactions of my exploration was taking a pen to my map at the end of the day and writing in little notes of what trails I traversed and identifying factors to remember for the next time that I am in this region. Paper maps let you be an actor in the story that is going on all around you, and that is part of why I love them.

You are using maps all the time, whether you know it or not. So, you might as well embrace it and fall in love with them too!

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Teresa
    Mar 11, 2017 @ 16:05:48

    Love this post leda! I didn’t know the term “somatotopy” – so cool! You’re a total badass for still not having a smart phone. I am impressed. 🙂



  2. Trackback: Neuroplasticity…after surgery?! – sapiens movēs
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