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Mental Maps and the Neuroscience of Neighborhood Blight

Getting a better sense of how people visualize their neighborhoods could be the first step toward improving them.
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(Photo: zokuga/Flickr)

(Photo: zokuga/Flickr)

Comedian Eddie Pepitone once said—and I'm paraphrasing here—that there are no great neighborhoods in Los Angeles, only great blocks. The stretch of Echo Park on Sunset Boulevard between Glendale and Logan is one. The establishments on that short stretch include an upscale wine bar, a hipster concert venue, a vegan restaurant, a deep dish pizza place, cheap thrift stores, not-so-cheap “vintage” stores selling roughly the same stuff, a check-cashing joint, a few fast food chains, and even a supermarket for time travelers.

While it's not the most diverse cross-section you'll find in the city, the block can be used as a social barometer when brought up in conversations. Mention the stretch, and whatever landmark the other person's familiar with tells the tale of the socioeconomic sphere they inhabit; the landmark that puts a gleam of recognition in the other person's eye says everything about their story.

“A mental map is often a map of social behavior, a whole ideology of life, a whole culture.”

Blocks and neighborhoods aren't concrete concepts that mean the same thing to everyone, unlike, say, things like "apple" or "sky." Points of reference shift depending on the person that's using that reference, so blocks/neighborhoods are more like alternate realities laid atop one another, like plastic sheets on an overhead projector. There's even a phrase for the study of this murky concept: mental maps. They can help us understand why some neighborhoods thrive, others die, and how changes are made.


The theory of mental (or cognitive) maps was first developed in 1960 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Kevin Lynch in his book The Image of the City. Rather than relying on how cartographers saw a city, Lynch asked residents to draw a map, from memory, depicting how their city was arranged. He found that five elements compose a person's understanding of where they are: landmarks, paths, edges, districts, and nodes. Landmarks are reference points, paths connect them, edges mark boundaries, and the other elements define larger areas that contain some combination of each of those designations.

Neuroscience backs up Lynch's findings. In 1971, Jon O'Keefe discovered “place cells” in the hippocampus, neurons that activate when an animal enters an environment. The neurons calculate a current location based on what the animal can see, as well as through “dead reckoning”—that is, accounting based on subconscious calculations using previous positions in the recent past and how quickly it traveled over a stretch of time. In 2005, husband-and-wife team Edvard and May-Britt Moser discovered “grid cells,” neurons that fire in a grid-like pattern to measure distances and direction. O'Keefe and the Mosers all won Nobel Prizes in 2014 for their discoveries.

“[Grid cells] are arranged in beautiful hexagonal pattern, so they look like they're marking out distances.”

One current theory is that your brain sets up the “grid” first and, if you've been there before, applies the “place” layer on top, but science is still figuring out how the two actually work together. “[Grid cells] are arranged in beautiful hexagonal pattern, so they look like they're marking out distances,” says Caswell Barry, from the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London. If you're trying to get somewhere one mile away, two points on the grid cell will trigger; if you're trying to get somewhere two miles away, two different points will trigger, and they'll be further apart. “The brain is representing these places as far apart, or these places as close.”

The locational information in the cells comes from memories. “If you remember going to a birthday party a couple of weeks or decades ago you're probably using something based on place cells to remember that,” Barry says. A famed 2006 study, which looked at the brains of London cab drivers and bus drivers, shows the physical effect these path-forming memories have. Taxi drivers have “greater gray matter volume in mid-posterior hippocampi and less volume in anterior hippocampi” than bus drivers, the difference coming from cabbies having to constantly change their paths, while bus drivers follow predetermined routes day after day. This suggests that the work of place and grid cells is taking place in the mid-posterior region.

But after our brains locate landmarks and create paths, we begin forming edges, districts, and nodes on our mental maps, once again using memories to inform the locational information. This, in essence, are where neighborhoods begin. It's also where things get nice and weird.


“In describing the edges, we not only go by what's objectively the most reasonable boundary, but by some sort of subjective determination,” says Sorin Adam Matei, an associate professor at Purdue who researches mental maps. “A mental map is often a map of social behavior, a whole ideology of life, a whole culture.”

These edges could be anything, from racial or ethnic divisions (“Little Italy”) to the aspirations of those living there (“the hip neighborhood”) to worries based on fear (“the dangerous part of town”). The concepts, however, are ever-shifting. When determining where to live, there are generalized questions, like weather and job prospects, to consider, but also murkier concepts, like “artsy” or “hip” or “safe.” These end up turning neighborhoods into amorphous blobs that shift and stretch depending on how the public—and, perhaps more importantly, the media and real estate developers—brand a certain area.

“Animals aren't going to forget about a fearful place because it's about survival, and that's carried over to humans. It's much easier for a neighborhood to go bad and for people to remember it as bad than for a neighborhood to be revived."

“It could be a very deceiving process, because you go by what you see, not by what's really there,” Matei says. “People keep saying, location, location, location. That's not objective location, really. It's suggestive location.” Brands and businesses realize this. It's why venues and neighborhoods get re-branded and re-invented time and time again. “A physical location that was nothing 20 years ago, by getting it to the right people and with the right name, all of a sudden becomes hot,” Matei says.

However, this isn't a “all press is good press” kind of thing. Memories of neighborhoods—specifically, events in those neighborhoods—can have significant negative effects that persist for decades.

Matei uses an example of another area of Los Angeles. For six days in 1965, the neighborhood of Watts was torn apart by a series of riots that left 34 dead and more than 1,000 people injured. In newsreel accounts that played in theaters across America, dramatic orchestral music and narrations with words like “looters,” “hoodlums,” and “insurrection” played over black-and-white images of apocalyptic fires, savage beatings, and destroyed buildings. Those newscasts left a mark. “The lingering public memory has been that Watts is the bad area of Los Angeles,” Matei says. In reality, there are much more dangerous areas in the city.

For a contemporary example of this phenomenon, check out the media's portrayal of the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests become riots, protestors become thugs, dramatic images of broken windows and burning cars are beamed to white, middle-class viewers who have never been inside the neighborhoods being covered. “[Viewers] presume the neighborhoods are violent,” says Jack Jen Gieseking, a postdoctoral fellow in New Media and Data Visualization at Bowdoin College. “And blame the people within them rather than thinking about how those neighborhoods got that way.”

The narrative not only ignores the story of the neighborhood's past, but perpetuates the story of what the neighborhood is and thus creates what it will continue to be. “Fear memories are long-lasting,” Barry says. “Animals aren't going to forget about a fearful place because it's about survival, and that's carried over to humans. It's much easier for a neighborhood to go bad and for people to remember it as bad than for a neighborhood to be revived. There's a lot of mental inertia.” The images telling the story assault a person's brain and, thusly, their mental map. These implanted memories start a cycle that preserves the impression.

Racist practices like redlining, used from the 1930s through the '60s to deny loans, insurance, supermarkets, and health coverage to those residing in certain neighborhoods (a practice that got its name from the literal drawing of red lines on a map to designate what areas to say blanket “nos” to), have predictably led to focused areas of blight. This has led to ensuing protests, persistent negative portrayals, a lack of funding to repair the damage, more protests, more negative portrayals, and so on.

“Presuming that we can read a landscape of fear and violence in a map begs the question why we also cannot read the geographies of inequality and injustice in those same maps,” Gieseking says. “We need to flip how we are reading this set of mental maps to show how inequality is produced and the seemingly diverse United States landscape is actually deeply segregated by race and class.”

But how does this get accomplished? “From a sort of social engineering point-of-view, the problem is convincing people to re-experience,” Barry says. “If they don't, they're not providing opportunities to update their memories and beliefs.”

There are ways mental maps can be hacked to change a neighborhood's trajectory. One is through the re-branding via subdivision, usually by retailers that want to distinguish a certain stretch from the surrounding area, but also by residents buying into the new designations. By changing labels, the original eventually ceases to exist. Travel guides, like Lonely Planet or A People's Guide to Los Angeles (the first in a series, with more city guides on the way), that focus on telling the history of each neighborhood—as opposed to merely featuring the tourist hotspots—can introduce tourists and outsiders to a once-ignored neighborhood. As more money begins flowing into the area, more tax dollars will be allocated in that direction.

If this all sounds an awful lot like the start of gentrification, that's because it can be. But the first step of making improvements to any neighborhood—including the changes that are designed for original residents—comes from re-defining these quirks in our neurology. “Mental maps cannot be read apart from the stories of those who created them,” Gieseking says. “We need to be careful not only then in how we tell stories but also how we present maps.”

Watts, West Oakland, South Side, Compton, and West Baltimore are not simply neighborhoods that have “gone bad,” or areas that should be blocked out from mental maps with “here be dragons” carved in. They're long-running and self-persisting tales of corruption, racism, and ignorance. Only when these origin tales are understood can these restricted zones in our mental maps start to be filled in. And only then can change really begin.

The Sociological Imagination is a regular Pacific Standard column exploring the bizarre side of the everyday encounters and behaviors that society rarely questions.