Levels and properties of map perception

Wiesława Żyszkowska 1
  • 1 , Wrocław


Map perception consists of numerous processes of information processing, taking place almost simultaneously at different levels and stages which makes it conditioned by many factors. In the article, a review of processes related to the perception of a map as well as levels and properties of perception which impact its course and the nature of information obtained from a map is presented. The most important process constituting the basis of a map perception is a visual search (eye movement). However, as stated based on the studies, the process is individual depending on the purpose of map perception and it may be guided by its image (visual search guidance) or by the knowledge of users (cognitive search guidance). Perception can take place according to various schemes – “local-to-global” or “global-to-local”, or in accordance with the guided search theory. Perception is divided into three processes: perceiving, distinguishing and identifying, which constitute the basis to interpret and understand a map. They are related to various degrees of intellectual involvement of the user and to various levels of questions concerning the relations between signs and their content. Identification involves referring a sign to its explanation in the legend. Interpretation means transformation of the initial information collected from the map into derivative information in which two basic types of understanding take place: deductive and inductive. Identification of geographical space objects on the map and the interpretation of its content constitute the basis to introduce information into memory structures. In the brain a resource of information is generated called geographic knowledge or spatial representation (mental map) which may have a double nature – verbal or pictorial. An important feature of mental maps is organization of spatial information into hierarchical structures, e.g. grouping towns into regions as well as deformation of spatial relations between individual elements and their groups independent of consciousness.

The process of map perception depends on various factors, including the nature, scale and map content, the degree of its complexity and compliance of the map language with cartographic principles. Important factors also include cartographic competencies of the recipient of a map conditioned by age, education and the task type. It is related to types of information about geographical space: semantic – concerning spatial references of particular objects and structural – connected to relations between elements of a map. Such relations may be determined at the regional or global level, they may concern qualitative or quantitative features as well as changes in time.

Nowadays, an important factor impacting the nature and consequences of map perception is the situation in which the process occurs. Traditionally, static and unchanging maps are used under other conditions than computer maps and navigation systems, making it possible to freely zoom in and zoom out the image and its spatial scope as well as to quickly go from one image to another.

Today, when the predominant way of map use is their perception on the screens of navigation systems, processes of map perception and factors conditioning it are also significant to understand the process. In the analysis of map perception, also tasks which are implemented using the map and the nature of information obtained by the map user must be taken into account.

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