Become a Better Navigator: Put Yourself In A Map!

In a Map.jpgDo you instinctively think all rivers flow in a southern direction? If you were planning a road trip in the US, would you rather drive from New York to Texas than from Texas to New York? If you answered yes to these questions, guess what? You’re wrong, but it’s not your fault. Your mind is playing tricks on you! Welcome to the world of cognitive mapping.

According to a ScienceNews article, a study done by the U.S. Army Research, Development, and Engineering Command found that people making travel plans are more likely to choose routes running from north to south over routes running from south to north. Travelers are also more likely to predict that a route that runs from south to north will take longer than a route of the same distance that runs from north to south. In actuality, the route’s direction, whether it is heading north or south, does not affect the difficulty or duration of the trip!

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Study director Tad Brunye says the finding suggests that, “When people plan to travel across long distances, a ‘north is up’ heuristic might compromise their accuracy in estimating trip durations.” Brunye proposes that real-world experiences, especially those that occur at a young age, may cause people to associate “up” with “difficult.” Whether a child is trying to reach a piece of candy that sits atop a high table, or a person has to climb stairs to reach a higher floor, the upward direction is being associated with difficulty and more effort. Then, when it comes to reading maps, people associate “up” with “north,” therefore assuming a northern-aimed route is more difficult than a southern-aimed route.

What is the moral of this story? Don’t associate up with north! I challenge you to train yourself to interpret maps correctly. The next time you are looking at a map, trying to find the best route to the grocery store, or a great fall hiking trail, try to imagine yourself in the map, at ground level. What looks like up on the map is just a right or left turn when you are on the ground. Don’t let your mind play tricks on you!

Still having a hard time imagining a river that flows south? Check out the “Rivers Flowing North” page on

You can learn more about this phenomenon by reading up on cognitive mapping. The Oxford University Press defines cognitive mapping as the acquisition, coding, storage, manipulation, and recall of spatial information within the mind. Check out more about cognitive and mental mapping at

4 thoughts on “Become a Better Navigator: Put Yourself In A Map!

  1. Good point. Maybe you could conduct a study of your own in the Southern Hemisphere!

  2. This fits right in with those periodic assessments of our national geographic illiteracy. Wonder how people south of the Equator think.

  3. Interesting thought. Although, I believe in the study they asked people to choose between short routes that were within a neighborhood of a city. So, the study did not cover longer routes that would take someone to a warmer or colder climate.

  4. …Or, maybe those of us who live in ‘the north’ like to go to more temperate or tropical climes for vacations.
    Does this same phenomenon occur for people living in the southern latitudes ~>= -45 deg?

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