by Doctor Science
I've always loved maps for real or unreal places: there was one Christmas back in the 80s where my mother and I gave each other assortments of atlases, because we like looking at maps so much. Two books I recently read made me realize that I don't just like maps, they're part of how my mind works. For me, a map is a type of memory palace, linking up all kinds of information for easy retrieval. Without one, I don't just feel lost, I feel *dumb* -- because my memories are disorganized and harder to recall.
The novel that started me toward this realization is The Ruin of Angels, the sixth book in Max Gladstone's Craft Sequence. Set in a complex world in which both gods and capitalism are real, the books have been mostly set in different cities, each with its own culture and gods/capitalism balance, where history, human minds, and the fabric of reality keep being re-written under pressure.
The Ruin of Angels is set in the city of Agdel Lex, which I don't *think* has been a setting before this, but using several major characters from previous books. Gladstone is, perhaps, moving into what my household calls the Perry Mason Phase, in which he Proposes to Connect This All Up, Your Honor. It's an excellent book (as usual), but I *really* found myself yearning for a map, which Gladstone doesn't seem to have made (or at least he hasn't shared it with the class).
Without a map, I found it extremely difficult to remember who the characters from previous books were and what had happened to them. It's a novel that plays a lot with issues of reality/unreality, and my sieve-like memory for names kept me in a fog for at least half the book. It made me feel rather like the protagonist of a C.J. Cherryh novel, one of the ones where they're a human lost in an alien culture with no idea of what the crucial signifiers might be, much less what they mean.
Just before reading The Ruin of Angels I happen to have read Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness by Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher and marine biologist. Most of the book is a fascinating look at octopuses and cuttlefish, evidence and speculation about what sort of intelligence such creatures might have, with their extremely complex but distributed nervous systems, eerily human-like eyes, and very short lifespans.
To talk about octopus minds, Godfrey-Smith has to compare them to human minds, the ones we (supposedly) know best. As I've often found with philosophers, however, he's not terribly good at grasping that not all human beings think in the same way. Because he, like most philosophers, has an extremely verbal or linguistic intelligence, his theories about intelligence in general are very language-focused, in a way that struck both Mr Dr Science and me as bollocks. For instance, he writes:
You memory of your last birthday is an episodic memory; your memory of how to swim is a procedural, and your memory of the location of France is a semantic memory.Now, the technical term semantic memory doesn't *necessarily* mean the memory must be in words, but it implies it. And Godfrey-Smith's emphasis on the importance of "inner speech" in human thought is along the same lines.
When I read this, I immediately rejected the idea that my memory of the location of France is "semantic" or word-based. Of course, Godfrey-Smith would say, that's because you have lived in France, so your episodic memory about it is very active.
So let's take Hong Kong. I've never been there, but my memory of its location isn't a series of words, it's a picture: it's a map, not unlike this one from Wikipedia:
Like a memory palace or the method of loci, my brain has attached all kinds of memories about Hong Kong to this image. Wikipedia articles, history books, Chinese names, novels with scenes in HK, movies, recipes and the way they taste/smell, the sound of music in Chinese restaurants, the Soong sisters, information about Chinese topolects: all of these things seem to be stored near my mental map of Hong Kong.
In a secondary world where both character and place names are unfamiliar, it turns out to be even more important than in this world for me to have a map to use as a memory palace, so I can remember the characters and what they've done.
I wondered if this mental habit might be due to imprinting on Middle-Earth when I was young, so I asked fellow Tolkien fans Mr Dr Science and Sprog the Elder if they do anything similar. Result: the blank stares of "your brain is very weird, you know."
I was somewhat surprised to hear this about Sprog, because (unlike her father) she is capable of keeping a map in her head. Mr Dr Science and his siblings are hilariously map-blind--the joke is that he never knows which way to turn, while I always know but tend to get the words "right" and "left" mixed up. Sprog the Younger, like Mr Dr, does not seem to have the mapping module installed in her brain.
Even with my very small sample size, it's clear that not all human brains handle maps the same way. Usually it's said that medieval European maps are so unrealistic because they're intended to give a symbolic or mystical picture of the world.
But I now wonder if this kind of map--and similar examples from other cultures, like the Korean Cheonhado--are simplified and unrealistic to make them more useful as memory palaces, as templates for ordering geographic (and historic and anthropological) information. They may have been infographics, like this image by Theo Rindos depicting the major rivers of the lower 48 states as subway lines:
This is not a naturalistically accurate map, but it is clear and memorable--more so than a realistic one would be. At least in my brain.