Individual Differences in Map Reading Spatial Abilities Using Perceptual and Memory Processes

Article excerpt

The above quote is from a book on multiple intelligences that argues spatial intelligence is one of seven human intelligences. By this definition, the two main expressions of spatial intelligence are related to being accurate and using memory. Individuals can demonstrate their spatial intelligence in many ways. Some individuals might excel at navigating in unfamiliar environments while others are better at remembering the locations of landmarks in familiar environments (Galea and Kimura 1993; Silverman et al. 2000). The sex of an individual may reflect some environmental variables that are expressed through genetic factors. Both natural and sexual selection have been suggested as evolutionary processes that separate females and males on the basis of spatial abilities (Ecuyer-Dab and Robert 2004). The purpose of the current study is to consider the variation of a spatial ability related to map reading that might be explained by both biological and environmental variables. The basic problem was to conduct a map reading experiment that would require subjects to use both perceptual and memory processes. The research objective of the study was to model the variation of the efficiency of human performance on map-reading tasks with variables related to the nature of the task and the map readers.

Why Should Cartographers Be Interested in Spatial Abilities?

The interaction of the cartographer, map, and map reader has been a topic frequently addressed in the cartographic literature (Lloyd et al. 1996). The nature of this interaction has inspired many cartographic researchers to represent cartographic communication models as graphics showing the flow or transformation of information between these elements (MacEachren 1995). The cartographic communication model represented in Figure 1 was designed to illustrate relationships among elements of the cartographic communication processes and explain why cartographers should be interested in having knowledge about the spatial abilities of map readers.


The flow of information starts with the geographic environment represented as a single set of data that needs to be mapped as spatial information so it can be processed by map readers. Using the same data, many map designs could be conceived by cartographers, and these designs could be used to create many different maps. Performance data on map reading tasks for map readers could indicate efficiency differences, e.g., in reaction time, accuracy, and confidence, using these various maps. The performance information for individuals or groups of individuals, if known, can be used to direct the map design process. Cartographers, for example, have designed maps to be used by map readers with specific cognitive deficits (Olson and Brewer 1997; Perkins 2002). Maps designed and produced dynamically could also be directed by knowledge related to the individual differences in the spatial abilities of subjects. Such designs could help maximize the performance of map readers who are within the range of normal cognitive abilities. Performance efficiencies can be gained by matching the cognitive load of the map with the spatial abilities of the map reader (Plass et al. 2003). The current study initiates this line of research by reviewing theories related to individual differences in spatial abilities and testing specific hypotheses relating map reading to perceptual and memory processes.

Review of Literature and Relevant Theories

When Self et al. (1992) reviewed the literature on gender-related differences in spatial abilities, they endorsed a three-category partition of the causes of individual differences in spatial abilities that were originated by Andrews (1983). A deficiency theory considers plausible biological arguments usually related to brain organization and hormone effects. A difference theory is based on a range of social and cultural factors that might cause differences in experiences that would impact spatial learning. …