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These Beautiful “Mental Maps” Of Cities Help Your Brain Regain What It Has Lost To GPS

We’re getting to a point where we can’t navigate even our own neighborhoods without the help of smartphones. Here’s an antidote.

The more we drive with GPS–or walk down the sidewalk staring at directions on a smartphone–the less we’re able to navigate on our own. Relying on navigational tech might even make the hippocampus, the part of our brain that handles memory, shrink a little.

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A set of maps from designer Archie Archambault might help us rebuild the mental maps of cities that we’re starting to lose. Instead of a literal grid of streets, he maps out neighborhoods and the basic parts of a city the way someone who lives there might think of it, or at least the way they probably did before Google Maps existed.

The project started when Archambault moved to Portland, Oregon, after college, without visiting first. “When I got there, a friend was attempting to explain the city to me by pointing out different neighborhoods on an old folding map,” he says. “It seemed a little pointless because I had no context for the place and there were so many details.”

“I asked my friend to draw me a map of ‘just the basics,'” he says. “That crude map came directly from his head without any distracting details, just the things I needed to know as a newcomer. It was so helpful! I used it to get started, and as I explored the city, I built my own mental map.”

Later, he refined his friend’s map into a design he could share with others. Neighborhoods are roughly arranged inside circles. “Circles are really easy to look at,” he says. “Our pupils are circles, planets are circles, nature is in love with circles. It’s the simplest and most perfect shape.”

A traditional map, he says, contains as much information as possible–much more data than our brains can easily absorb. “The lines and shapes are jagged and imperfect, just like the reality it represents. But practically speaking, our brains are not excited to absorb all that information, nor do we really need 99% of it. I take that 1% of really important stuff and combine it all in a harmonious way.”

Each time he visits a new city, Archambault finds locals to explain their home to him. “Meeting people is the most important part of my visit,” he says. “They’re the ones who will explain what’s important and can draw these crude and simple maps. My research budgets are low, which is fine, because I actually prefer to couch-surf so I get a lot of opinions about what is important in the city.”

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He explores the city from the ground, rather than taking an aerial perspective, and takes whatever transportation is most common–in L.A., he drove, and in Amsterdam, he rode a bike. As he explores, he takes note of landmarks.

“There are always several massive freighters in the bay that surrounds downtown Vancouver,” he says. “They are inextricably part of the landscape, and subconsciously act as a landmark that pieces the city together. But these freighters aren’t in on any maps. Except mine.”

The end result is a map that tries to reflect how most people use the city. “Someone suggested the title ‘practical mapping’ to me, and I think that’s the right phrase,” Archambault says. “My maps contain the most essential elements–the ones that allow the user to get started toward participating in the city.”

Without GPS, people might also be more likely to actually pay attention to where they are. “We so often follow the lefts and rights that the GPS lady tells us without thinking about where we’re going,” he says. “There’s something so alienating about this, like we’re not actually in the space. And it turns out this is a very powerful and absolutely essential part of brains that we’re losing. We need to do something to exercise it, and my maps can be a good place to start.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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