I’ve spent the past two days deeply engrossed in the mapping of my book world. First was a map of the landscape and town, complete with directional arrows so that I know which way the light falls. This morning, I’ve spent several hours making a very detailed map of a house and all the problems in it.
When I said something about those maps on Loreth Anne White’s Facebook page, she said she’d drawn her maps the day before. Alison Kent joined the map-crew by commenting, “I researched the police dept in the city I’m basing my fictional dept on, the number of patrol officers and detectives, authority ranks, etc., then drew the squad room and various offices and holding/interview rooms, and assigned cubicles to all my characters, naming all the new ones for going forward.”
I found it fascinating that we were all drawing maps in one way or another, that we needed that physical representation of the world of our imaginations.
My life the past five weeks has been deeply map-centric. I am in New Zealand with my partner, who is competing in the World Master’s games as an orienteer. It is the sport of using a paper map and compass to find a series of flags as fast as possible. The long courses are expected to take the elite of the group about 40-50 minutes, which means a lot of people spend much longer running around a forest, off-trail, getting scratched by hostile plants and tumbling down hills for the pleasure of getting all 15 or 20 controls, in order, faster than everyone else.
I’ve tried it. It’s really hard. Christopher Robin is a very, very good orienteer, a US champ. As you might imagine, he loves maps, and he loves setting up courses almost as much as running them.
The other map aspect of my life these past weeks is the fact that we’re navigating unfamiliar terrain. We have an apartment in the middle of the CBD, and over the course of weeks have learned where the supermarket is, and our favorite pie-and-pint shop, and the waterfront. We know how to walk all over the CBD now, but it took a week or two. We’ve also been walking and hiking, close by and farther afield, and because ferries are omnipresent in Auckland, I’ve been able to mentally map the various bays and gulfs and islands around. Not all of them, but some. Each time I pass Devonport now, I check in with it, and then Rangitoto, the volcano we hiked, which has a pale green, velvety little island right across from it.
Little by little, the map in my mind grows. You’ve had this experience, too, learning to navigate your neighborhood, your city, the area around a hotel you stayed in for a few days.
When Loreth, Alison, and I all posted about drawing maps of our book worlds, I suddenly wondered why do we do this? Is there something about the mapping itself that makes the work easier, stronger, better? Is there something in the human brain that needs this exercise?
Turns out, the answer is an emphatic yes.
The research on mapping and brains is very recent. According to Emily Badger in The Atlantic:
About 40 years ago, researchers first began to suspect that we have neurons in our brains called “place cells.” They’re responsible for helping us (rats and humans alike) find our way in the world, navigating the environment with some internal sense of where we are, how far we’ve come, and how to find our way back home. All of this sounds like the work of maps. But our brains do impressively sophisticated mapping work, too, and in ways we never actively notice.
Every time you walk out your front door and past the mailbox, for instance, a neuron in your hippocampus fires as you move through that exact location – next to the mailbox – with a real-world precision down to as little as 30 centimeters. When you come home from work and pass the same spot at night, the neuron fires again, just as it will the next morning. “Each neuron cares for one place,” says Mayank Mehta, a neurophysicist at UCLA. “And it doesn’t care for any other place in the world.” (http://www.citylab.com/tech/2013/05/were-only-beginning-understand-how-our-brains-make-maps/5678/)
One neuron, one place. One very specific place. Isn’t that incredible?
So, when I loop around the bays in Auckland, noting where Rangitoto is from the CBD and then from Devonport and then from Half Moon Bay, I’m actually building neurons that remember the locations for me, keeping me oriented in space. All those neurons continue to exist, even as others develop. When scientists at University College of London studied taxi drivers, they discovered that the section of the brain called the hippocampus was larger in the drivers, and the longer they’d been driving, the larger the hippocampi.
As with much of our knowledge of the actual working of the brain, these discoveries are very recent, most of it coming together only in the past ten years or so. Until this spatial function was uncovered, the hippocampus was mainly known as the center for memory. It is a portion of the limbic system, which regulates emotion.
This is where I found another intriguing connection—
Scientists now know that the hippocampus is both a map and a memory system. For some reason, nature long ago decided that a map was a handy way to organise life’s experiences. This makes a lot of sense, since knowing where things happened is a critical part of knowing how to act in the world. (https://aeon.co/essays/how-cognitive-maps-help-animals-navigate-the-world)
Why do we map the fictional worlds we are writing? I think we have a biological need to see the world we are creating, to create the markers over a landscape through which we can actually move. It’s more than needing to keep details in order. As I make a map of my imaginary world, I make it less imaginary and much more real by walking through it over and over, crossing the street to the bakery, walking around the medieval church (uphill, here, past the churchyard, where stones are worn smooth by time) and to the viewpoint where the open fields, soon to be planted with rapeseed, await full spring. On the horizon is the house, looking as it must have before it was a ruin. I create new neurons, real neurons, even if the map is of an imaginary world.
And because I’m creating neurons, I’m also connecting emotions to this landscape, to the place of my novel, both for myself and for the reader.
All of this underlines my long-held belief that sense of place is one of the most powerful parts of writing. Our brains are hardwired to be oriented, very intricately, to place, time, and thus, emotion.
Do you have experience with maps or have a ritual you follow when you land in a new place? Do you make maps of your landscapes?
And c’mon, isn’t this all just astonishing?
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