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(Note: This page is followed by three others; each links from the bottom to the next page. Altogether, you should end up reading four pages.)

If you are a typical adult, your thinking process about space and spatial relationships is pretty simple and much of it is even unconscious. 

Imagine you're walking down a hallway or up a flight of stairs: you probably don't have to think at all about how to move your body through these spaces. 

If you've mastered riding a bike, consider the spatial relationships between your center of gravity and the bike, particularly when going around a turn or perhaps when standing on your pedals to pump extra hard up a hill--it's probably not something you consciously consider, you just do it without falling over (most of the time). Or consider the spatial analysis that goes on when you look ahead and decide to shift gears (e.g., approaching an uphill or perhaps approaching a flat or slight downhill where you want to pick up speed) or apply the brakes: with a single glance you collect the data, in a split second you conduct the analysis, and in another second you are executing your decision. Particularly if you are riding a familiar route, you might not even be paying attention to this entire process. 

Driving a vehicle is an even more complex and high-stakes example. As you drive, you're making hundreds of minute adjustments and changes: staying centered in your lane, adjusting following distance from the car in front of you, using turn signals, responding to traffic signals, shifting gears if you have a manual transmission, and so forth. These decisions are based on a spatial schema built up from both in-the-moment data (keeping track of other vehicles using your peripheral vision and mirrors as well as what you can see through the windscreen) and prior knowledge (on this street you need to watch out for pedestrians; as you approach that intersection you want to be in the right lane to avoid the backup of left turners). However, all of this mental, physical, and perceptual work is trivial for any competent driver, even when driving an unfamiliar route.

One of the more spatially complex things drivers do is park the car, particularly if you consider parallel parking in a tight spot on a crowded street. However, a skilled parallel parker can collect the data needed with a single initial glance (is this space large enough?) and then extrapolate from what they see in the side mirror (lining up the back bumpers, then guiding the rear of the car into the space, then settling the nose of the car in place). Again, this process relies upon a sophisticated spatial schema (your car, the space available, and the tracking of the wheels in reverse) and yet requires no formal calculation.

Of course, you didn't have these skills at birth. The average human being is born with the capacity for incredible spatial process, but you had to learn these skills over time. As an adult, we tend to forget this process of learning and just take the abilities for granted: of course everyone can make these same perceptions and judgments, they're instinctive!

However, if you watch individuals still in the learning stages, you will be reminded. Watching an infant learning to walk, for example, can remind you of what it was like to learn how to navigate hallways and stairs. Helping someone learn to ride a bike can remind you of how difficult it is to develop the sense of where your center of gravity is over the bike and making the appropriate adjustments to stay balanced. Sitting in a car with a student driver can remind you of how much effort you had to put into developing the skills you may now take for granted. Undertaking a challenging parallel parking job can make you re-live the uncertainty of not knowing where you are in space and how to move to get to where you want to be.

My point is that spatial thinking is incredibly complex, and yet we often don't think about it very much, or we only think about it when learning a new skill or when under some form of stress. Human brains are so powerful at these calculations that, once we reach automaticity with them, we tend to skip right over the complexity involved.

To really drive the point home, consider the outside edges of the spatial thinking envelope: imagine how one's conceptions of space and movement change when learning to pilot an aircraft, a submarine, or a spacecraft. Or consider the spatial thinking that a quilter or tailor can do, mentally arranging pieces through two- and three-dimensional spaces before they ever touch them. Consider what a potter or sculptor or tool-and-die maker goes through, considering the tolerances of the material they work on and how it will interact with the tools they work with. Until you receive the exposure and training required, you probably won't develop these patterns of spatial thinking. Once you master the spatial skills of the activity, you won't put much conscious thought into it until you hit something new or unexpected.

What does this have to do with geospatial tools? First, geospatial tools extend our ability to perceive and analyze space. For example, satellite imagery feeds in new data to your brain; a thematic map can be a technique for analysis of this space. In some cases, geospatial tools allow us to go far beyond what we can normally see--for example, false-color images do this quite literally by allowing us to see beyond the visible spectrum. The analysis we can do with geospatial tools is often more sophisticated than what we could do on our own, as when an insurance company can set a rate for home insurance based upon your home's building materials, the materials used in the structures around your home, the proximity to a fire hydrant, proximity and response times to area fire departments, historical rates of fires, proximity to a flood plain, etc.

Second, given this interaction with our innate spatial perception and analysis, geospatial tools necessarily present their own learning curve: just as the driver of a car gains a new set of spatial perception and analysis skills, a geospatial tool-user (depending upon the tasks and tools involved) can also gain a new set of skills. When you are first learning to work with geospatial tools, the learning curve can be steep or painful. Conversely, once you've mastered a particular activity, you might forget how difficult it was to begin this learning process. When communicating or teaching, you might have a tendency to skip over necessary steps in presenting a concept and instead leap ahead to the point where you are still actively engaged in figuring it out. What you are saying will probably make perfect sense to you, but your audience may be lost, still trying to figure out a spatial understanding that you have already mastered and moved into the realm of unconscious or barely-conscious action.

Accordingly, this week I'd like you to look at three topics:

    1. The parts of the brain that are engaged in spatial thinking and reasoning, using our GPS activity as an example
    2. The components of spatial understanding. These are spelled out in the Golledge chapter, but I will provide a brief discussion
    3. A taxonomy of spatial thinking skills, allowing you to see and appreciate the diversity and complexity of what's going on when you do geospatial work.

 

Up next: A tour of your brain. On spatial processing. What goes on in your brain when you think about space? 

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