Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mapping Knowledge

Maps are powerful tools for transmitting visual understanding. Expanding beyond the conventional idea of a roadmap, new maps broaden our understanding of information because they build on a core feature in how we structure memory. The hippocampus is the primary part of the brain where we map the world as we experience it, and this inner map of what we know is key to understanding where we are in reality and metaphor. It is central to memory, transferring short term to long term, and suggesting that long term memories are coordinated by our inner map of what we know, and that what we know is always in relationship to other things we know. It’s this power to show connections that leads to insight.
When I look at maps of information, like resources and where they’re distributed in one picture of the world, I see the areas rich in minerals instantly by the density of their markers in certain places. If a map of toxic waste sites in our country includes areas of poverty, the relationship we see constitutes an insight that will influence our thinking in the future. Building on the capacity to map relationships could improve education by leaps and bounds. My excitement over my new book “Geographica” grows as page after page shows me something in moments that takes hundreds of words to describe. Looking at a picture of the world that shows fishing areas on the same map as offshore oil rigs, or the one with the world’s food producing regions mapped against the main industrial centers, one can quickly see potential dangers to our food sources and where they are greatest. Mapping information can solve problems too. Edward Tufte tells a fascinating story in his book “Visual Explanations”, about a mystery solved through the visual representation of the evidence. Just listing the dates and deaths in a cholera epidemic offered no insights into the cause, but when their locations were plotted on a map that included the water sources, the proximity of water sources and disease density was revealing. Proximity is a connection not shown in a line of facts.
There’s a growing interest in maps that reflects their importance in understanding the world more holistically. Not only showing distances and positioning, new atlases show movement of populations and capital, the historical spread of empires, where the resources are and where the corporations locate. As they become more widespread in education, factors influencing news events not covered in written articles are there to be seen. What we may never have seen before, put in a visual format we’ve come to understand, may illuminate dynamics in an event that make it more comprehensible.
We see the relationships of roads in the arrangement of lines on paper. The sensors in a rat’s hippocampus fire in the shape of the maze as it runs. The gestalt psychologists used the term “isomorphism” for the structural similarity between relationships in different modes. It’s the basis for metaphor, analogy, and our ability to read maps.
When sensors were applied to the human hippocampus, scientists saw that when the concept of mother was invoked a specific neuron in the hippocampus fired. This shouldn’t lead us to think that the cell contained the whole of mom; it was just where the neural circuits for her or the ideas of her connect to the hippocampal map. Thus everything we fix in long-term memory finds its location in relation to all the others.
The hippocampus may well be responsible for “metaknowledge”, our sense of knowing what we know, of being aware of what we’ve experienced before we actually remember the specifics. If we’re asked a trivia question we don’t know, we know not to bother trying to remember if it hasn’t passed through our minds before that. This awareness of the whole of what we know is one of the capacities that most amazes me. Faulkner remarked on it so poetically when he wrote, “Memory believes before knowing remembers.” Our overall awareness of the contents of our past experience directs our conscious attention where it needs to go. Likewise, my eyes lead me to what I need to see because my eyes, directed by the look of the whole, the gestalt, go to what my inner overall picture of the world values that needs attention.
Like a spatial map helps us go places we’ve never been, artists add to the map of human consciousness and enlarge the scope of where we can go conceptually. The map is our tool for navigating. As the world becomes more complex anything that helps us find our way is essential. With overwhelming quantities of information, remembering facts will be less important than finding our way through the facts and getting an overview of how they relate.
Maps educate our sense of how to structure information in a way that emphasizes significant relationships that transcend categories. Building a more sophisticated understanding of how we can use them and make them could revolutionize education and our sense of the world as a whole.

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