Guide to Mental Mapping

What is a mental map?

A mental map represents a person's perception of their surroundings. Our brains subconsciously create mental maps to help us understand what our environment looks like and how to interact with the elements and objects within it.

Mental maps are subjective—different people will have different mental maps of the same space, with variations stemming from their experiences, biases, and assumptions. You can even make a mental map of a place you've never been before. It may not be entirely accurate from a geographic or spatial perspective, but it'll reveal insights into your background knowledge and assumptions about the space.

Key elements of a mental map

Because mental maps are generated in someone's mind, there are no hard rules about what must be present in them. Also, the elements present on a mental map can vary greatly depending on what type of space you're visualizing.

Mental maps need to contain the features you would use to orient yourself within the space. For example, a mental map of an office would likely include things like desks, chairs, cubicles, closets, hallways, and stairways.

Anything you use to orient or navigate yourself through a particular space can go on your mental map of that space.

When to use a mental map?

Mental maps help describe a person's perception of a given area or environment—but what are mental maps used for?

There are many use cases for mental maps to help define and explore a person's relationship to their surroundings. For example, you might ask employees to create a map reflecting where they go throughout the workday, like the break room, manager's office, restrooms, the warehouse, and other areas. This exercise would help you understand how the person views themselves in relation to their surroundings.

When interpreting a mental map, consider which elements are included and omitted. This information can reveal information about a person's routines and priorities. Notice if any elements are distorted in any way. This analysis can indicate a person's perception of that element's importance.

The study of mental mapping and people's perceptions of the world around them fits into several social and scientific disciplines. Explore some of the various use cases for mental maps in different areas of study.

Examples of mental maps

Geography and cultural studies

Research into mental mapping helps geographers and cultural anthropologists understand how people in a given area interact with the world and describe their surroundings. Mental maps can reveal how people feel about an area, prompting further insights into a region's history, diversity, and other data.

Psychology and sociology

Mental mapping is a psychological process that involves registering, coding, storing, recalling, and decoding information about a spatial environment. When visualizing any given place, a person's past experiences and preconceptions will always color their opinion—whether they consciously know it or not. The study of mental mapping helps psychologists and sociologists better understand what people think about various places and how those thoughts can influence their behavior.

Foreign policy

This mental map example helps political researchers understand people's perceptions of national borders, which can shape foreign policy, governance, and trade. It's difficult to resolve an ongoing conflict between two nations if people on both sides have differing opinions about the shared border.

Benefits of mental maps

A mental map can help you understand how a person sees a particular area or environment and how they interact with things within that space. Some benefits of mental mapping include:

Assessing knowledge

A mental map shows how much a person knows—or thinks they know—about an area. Ask someone to create a mental map of a specific space, and you'll be able to see knowledge gaps more clearly.

Uncovering preconceptions and biases

Because mental maps are based on a person's perceptions, many mental maps contain information that isn't factual. An example of this is when people perceive certain neighborhoods as unsafe, when the crime rates there may be similar to or lower than other areas that are perceived to be safe.

Understanding different experiences

Different people can have vastly different experiences within the same space. Asking a group to create mental maps of the same area will give you a more well-rounded look at the area, including what goes on there and how people feel about it.

Facilitating improvements

Understanding someone's perceptions of a space can help you find ways to improve the space. For example, asking community residents to create mental maps of their neighborhood could reveal various challenges, prompting municipal leaders to make improvements to services and infrastructure.

How to make a mental map

Since mental mapping is based on your unique perspective, making a mental map of an area you're familiar with, such as your house, office, or neighborhood, should be easy. Of course, creating a mental map of a place, area, or region you've never been to before is more complicated. To mentally map an unfamiliar place, you must rely on your imagination and any information you have on the area.

Follow these steps to create a mental map:

  1. Define the area the map represents—a company office, a college campus, a neighborhood, a city, or another type of space.
  2. Decide on the boundaries of the area. For example, if you're going to map your neighborhood, decide which streets you will include, and which are outside the map area.
  3. Start with one feature or landmark around which to orient the rest of your map. It helps to pick something you're more familiar with. For the neighborhood example, you could start with putting your house on the map.
  4. Begin to add more details. It should be easy to add the things right around your first element, and it'll get more challenging as you move further away. In a neighborhood mental map, add your next-door neighbors and any nearby roads, sidewalks, shops, parks, ponds, and other features.
  5. Continue adding elements to your mental map until you reach the boundaries you decided on or run out of things to add. The level of detail is up to you.

Mental map software

You can draw a mental map by hand or use a software program. However, typical word processors and spreadsheet software aren't well suited for mental mapping and won't let your imagination freely wander. You'll be limited to where you can place objects and adding symbols and icons to indicate the various elements on your map will be challenging.

Specialized mental mapping software like MindManager will give you the creative freedom to make the map that's in your mind. With user-friendly premade templates and a library of over 700 topic images, you'll be able to populate your mental map with everything you need.

Mental map templates

MindManager comes pre-installed with many templates. To use these templates:

  • Open MindManager
  • Click NEW in the navigation menu
  • Select the template you want to use
  • A preview screen will appear - check to see if you'd like to use your selected template
  • Select 'Create Map'
  • Customize the template for your specific project

Mental map FAQs

What should a mental map include?

A mental map should include elements and features to help you orient and navigate within the boundaries of a defined space. These elements vary based on what type of area you're mapping but could include things like roads, buildings, hallways, furniture, landmarks, and other features.

What is a mental map used for?

Mental maps visually represent the perceptions of a given area, region, or space. They help us explore our knowledge, opinions, biases, and assumptions about places both familiar and foreign.

Let your mind wander—make a mental map

Mental maps help us understand and interact with our surroundings. You can use mental mapping to determine what you know about a familiar location or challenge your assumptions about a place you've never visited. Mental mapping is also a great tool for broader research and study, helping scientists, geographers, psychologists, and other professionals explore people's perceptions of different environments.

Visualize more with MindManager

To make a mental map, try MindManager today. MindManager comes pre-installed with easy-to-use templates, helping you build and explore a mental map of any space.

Try the full version of MindManager FREE for 30 days