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Mapping imagination

The Miami International Map Fair is the longest running map fair in the world, and the largest in the Western Hemisphere. This weekend, more than 40 international map dealers will gather at the HistoryMiami Museum — showcasing maps that range from 16th-century to modern day. Many of the maps featured at the fair will explore changing geographical boundaries, from Cuba to South Carolina.

There will also be talks discussing other forms of mapping as a way of processing information — including cognitive and literary maps. Catherine L. Newell, Ph.D., an assistant professor of religion and science in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Miami will be giving a talk entitled Mapping the Imagination: Fantasy, Science, and Making Maps in the Human Brain.

“A lot of my work focuses on visual representations of faraway places,” Newell said. Newell is currently working on a book that catalogs space exploration, considering how illustrations, mapping, and images, helped people to conceptualize space not as some distant, unreachable place, but rather a new frontier, ripe for exploration. In forming maps and drawings of the unknown, people can begin to think of them as “not just abstractions but real, physical places,” she added.

We spoke with Newell to learn more about this idea, and to understand how maps can be a form of storytelling, both in literature and in the modern world.

(Courtesy of Catherine L. Newell)
Courtesy of Catherine L. Newell

Maps, science fiction, and fantasy… what do all of these things have in common?

Maps can help move plots forward and visualize where scenes are taking place and action is happening. In literature, like in science fiction and fantasy, readers often have maps that show us where we are in a story. In modern science and in neuroscience, those processes are also called maps. I think that’s a pretty telling metaphor. Maps are used in literature as a storytelling tool, but they’re also used to understand how we see and process things in our mind.

So we use a map to navigate literature, and while we’re doing that, there’s a whole other map being drawn inside of our heads? That’s pretty meta.

Well, one thing I find fascinating is how the human brain works, and the historical exploration of what the brain does. As part of my presentation, I’m going to show a map of what our brain looks like when we read, or stare at something on the internet, and how it processes different types of information.

For example, how do we process things like religion, how do we read science-fiction and fantasy. What’s fascinating is that when we read something, our brain is following along in a particular way. We look with our eyes and as soon as we look with our eyes, our brain categorizes that into either “I’m looking at a picture,” or “I’m reading this text.” There are several different places in the brain that is putting together a the physical act of looking at text. Or looking at a map.

We make space in our imagination, and if you watch an fMRI you can see people making spaces in their brain as they process a story arc. In fact, that’s called cognitive mapping, and it’s a pretty telling metaphor.

What are some maps you’re going to be exploring?

Thomas More's Treasure Island map
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island map

I’m choosing examples from famous maps in literature, and I hope to connect the use of maps with how our brains understand storytelling. We can go back to Thomas More’s Utopia. In 1516, Utopia included a map of something that really didn’t exist, and as a reader, you see that map over and over — it becomes a way the reader understands the book and the world they’ve never been to, and that’s also true in ‎Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.  

I think one fun and unifying element of fantasy and science fiction is that it’s meant to take us to another place. An easy way to do that is to have a map that doesn’t look at all like where you live. So when you have something like a map of Middle Earth in The Hobbit, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, our brain understands that we’re going to go on an adventure, a journey, and see new things.

Are there any maps you’re particularly fond of?

I’m think it’s interesting that at the beginning of Game of Thrones, one of the most popular modern TV shows, the story opens up with a map. It starts by showing the viewer where all the action is. So our brain starts to understand that we’re going to meet new people, perhaps in different time periods, and different places.

Or perhaps in [the new] Star Wars. The McGuffin Map drives all of the action. It’s the map that leads to Luke Skywalker. You have pieces of the map held by different characters, literally and cognitively. You have the lead character carrying around the map in her head. So maps have driven a lot of plots all the way back from Utopia in the 16th century, to The Force Awakens in the 21st century.

How are these maps reflective of the world outside of literature?

Well, these maps are created in the image of their authors. The author of Lord of the Rings famously fought in World War I, so a lot of the places that have positive and negative connotations correlate to dramatic and traumatic battles in that time.

The Marauder’s map in Harry Potter is meant to represent the mischief young students often find themselves in. The map happens to contain the secrets of who they really are, versus who they present themselves to be, and I think that’s telling. It would also be a very useful map outside of the book!