7 April 2022

Obsessed with maps

Is an interest in maps just like any other hobby? In a way it is: one can get curious about paper maps, topography, satellite imagery and gradually know all there is to it. The enjoyment resides in the process of learning, the journey itself, rather than the destination, pun intended. Just like any hobby, one can remain an amateur or take their interest more seriously. In general, if one isn’t good at reading a map, or derives no pleasure from it, one will simply move on to some other pet project.

It isn’t a surprise though that the brain possesses a special region which helps us navigate our spatial environment: it’s called the hippocampus and sits deep into the temporal lobe (that’s the lower lobe of the cortex, sitting close to ear level within the skull, and is largely responsible for creating and preserving both conscious and long-term memory). While pursuing any hobby must strengthen the myelin (the insulating layer) around the nerves of neurons fired up when completing the hobby’s tasks, reading a map speaks to our innate sense of direction. Without spatial orientation, I wonder if we would also thus lose a sense of self, an understanding of “where” we fit within the universe. (Unsurprisingly, disorders of spatial orientation exist).

For all practical purposes, losing your way around while hiking a mountain is a sure path to death. In fact, the highest risk is correlated with being male and on one’s phone, that is solely relying on a GPS and no longer on one’s brains… quite literally so: the hippocampuses of pre-GPS-era taxi drivers have grown as their street-by-street knowledge expanded, while a decline in spatial memory is observed when relying on a GPS for all orientation purposes (see the research quoted in this article as well as this research paper).

Perhaps I got lucky when, as a child, I got attracted to paper maps. Oh it never developed into an obsession – we’ll get to that later – but I loved matching what I could see in the “real” world around me with what a good, detailed map could reveal: the presence of landmarks such as ruins, castles, or religious buildings; a water tower, a bridge, or a river; the peculiar bend of a road, the relative elevation lines and specific altitudes of key features of the landscape.

I remember the thick, spiral-bound, yellow Michelin map of France my mother had bought in the 1990s, and the IGN maps of Morocco I had printed off the Internet to prepare for my road trip to the country in 2009 (IGN is the French public state administrative institution that produces geographical information).

In December 2010, I was driving in the middle of an arid nowhere in Jordan. When I arrived at a fork in the road, not in an existential sense (although I’ve constantly felt that way) but in a literal sense, the only signs were in Arabic. At first, I did not know which direction to take so I could proceed towards my destination. I knew how to read Arabic (that’s the easy part, understanding is another matter) so I already had a hunch of which road to continue on. It was confirmed by analysing Google’s satellite imagery – no Google Maps in Jordan back then – and double checking with the slow-to-update GPS blue dot on one of the first Android phones at the time.

With maps, one can truly develop a heightened appreciation of the diversity in cultures, languages, architectural layouts and landscapes. I would even think it nourishes a desire of exploration, discovering territories uncharted to us. As a result, I certainly pay even more attention to details when I travel. I remember them more easily if I know where they are located, an obvious “memory palace” of sorts.

What joy it was to discover Switzerland’s official application for hiking and cycling. I wish every country had such an application. All 65,000 kilometres of the country’s hiking trails are precisely mapped, including the outline of tiny farm houses, satisfying my minute turn-by-turn analysis of my path as I’m strolling along. Public transportation stops are also all visible, directly linked to the relevant schedule on the transportation application – and the ability to purchase the right ticket right away. There’s so much more to say about how good this tool is but since I’m now Swiss, I’d be annoyingly bragging about “my” country! But yes, I’m incredibly privileged to live here and to have access not only to such an app but to the corresponding landscapes.

Screenshot from Switzerland’s swisstopo application

I wrote above that I wasn’t truly obsessed with maps, simply very much liking using them, although by now you probably think I am a fanatic. Well, wait until I mention GeoGuessr, an online game I had played a long time ago and had forgotten about until YouTube recommended a video about it two months ago. It’s an extremely simple game: take a photo from anywhere on the planet and precisely guess its location on Google Maps. In the process of trying to get better at it, I came across that page with tips and tricks which contains absolutely everything in utmost detail, country by country. I didn’t read it all (it would be 900 pages if printed on A4 paper) but everything I learned empirically by playing is covered – and it’s barely 10% of everything that’s in the document.

Multiple game modes exist, including playing with or against other people, live or asynchronously. In this case, I’ve truly been hooked, officially keen to expand my geographic knowledge but in reality also being thoroughly entertained by the competitive nature of the game (aiming for perfect accuracy, succeeding within time limits, winning against others, etc.). It’s not quite Civilization (the version from 1991) which I had played extensively as a child, but it’s probably more “useful”. Check out my playlist of videos I recorded to get a sense of what I am talking about.

In a similar vein, language games, in which one has to recognise the language from hearing a brief audio segment, are another way to be more acquainted with other cultures. Perhaps the one-dimensional nature of such games makes them less addictive than mapping games though.

Do you know what you can do now? Challenge me at GeoGuessr: go on, register a free account, “friend” me and let’s play a game!