We have long noted that men tend to give directions, and perceived routes in terms of an overhead map, while women tend to prefer navigation by landmarks. It's not a pure situation - I'd say it's about 80-20. My oldest son prefers landmarks, I know women who prefer overhead. But the difference is pronounced enough that when giving directions, my wife will give directions to a female, I will give them to a male.
I have not found in the scientific literature this exact characterisation, but the strongly related distinction of using cardinal directions versus landmarks is common. It may even be a more accurate distinction than the one I stumbled upon on my own.
Jonathan and Ben are remarkably similar in abilities. Yet there was a sharp difference in the math scores of their standardised tests, which Jonathan attributes to doing poorly on spatial reasoning. As he is noticeably less comfortable with maps, this seems plausible. But we had a recent conversation that demonstrated that he has spatial memory of the landmark sort far in excess of what I can do. His memory for the layout of the church we attended 1987-91 or thereabouts was far superior to mine. In fact, I could recall only one feature of the lower floor, while he "walked about" in it effortlessly. The literature suggests were I to see it again I would find my way easily. But I am unable to recreate it. I find, in fact, that my remote memory for interior spaces is quite poor. I can only envision them by indirection: reasoning from outside appearance what must be inside, coupled with hazy recollections of single objects, building back and forth from such clues. Cheats, really. Tricks. Houses I lived in. Schools I went to. There is no interior space from my childhood that I can recreate by entering a door and walking accurately through the place.
So it's interesting that one method is considered the better by the people who make up tests, though each has places of superiority. It's not entirely arbitrary. As travel and need for distance navigation increased - and it was primarily males who made the trips - the need for this overhead mapping would be increasingly favored. It is more abstract. In terms of moving civilisation forward, it's smarter. But there is a cost, because using that ability tends to make local navigation weaker.
Landmark navigation is done much better when it is conscious, ticking off sights in the mind as they pass, but apparently a good deal goes on without effort as well. Over time, the schema builds itself. Landmark is far superior on a small scale.
One of the difficulties of navigation turns out to be switching sets, whether that is switching from landmark to cardinals or switching scale in either. For example, when going on a long highway trip I am using map/cardinal directions almost exclusively. But if I get off at an exit in search of gas or food I am thrown into a different scale. If the distance to the Cracker Barrel is less than a mile and involves few turns, I just automatically stay with landmarks, going in and out by signage, without converting it to overhead in a different scale. But as I go further down the secondary route and no Cracker Barrel has shown up, I waver, I hover between choices. I have not been creating an intentional landmark map - has my automatic landmarking been sufficient to get me back? Or should I switch to a new, small-scale cardinal? Further complicating the event might be the parking lot and entrance into the little four-business cluster which includes the Cracker Barrel, which is on an even smaller scale. Yes, I can see back where I come from, but I will get turned around twice, and as I come back to the highway, I might no longer have an intuitive sense which direction I am supposed to take it. Landmarks and cardinals have interfered with each other.
We learned the neighborhoods we grew up in entirely by landmark. My last one, in high school, I had actually already had in my overhead map before arriving, but the landmarking, far more useful on a smaller scale, overwrote the old data. The earlier neighborhoods are intimate landmark-memory sections inserted into a larger overhead now. At the fringes, my navigation-storage hovers back and forth.
If I were to color on an overhead map what childhood areas I have stored in landmark form, it would not be a circle or region, but individual streets only: between the route to my grandmother's and the route to the library there are many streets that I walked occasionally, or looked up those avenues while walking a usual route, but they are mostly stored in overhead grid in my memory. Landmarks stop abruptly at the Y, at church, at Bunny's Superette. After that it is terra incognita. At those spots I switch to overhead.
The term used in research is Wayfinding, and there are discussions of You Are Here maps, gender differences, relying on GPS, routefinding improvement, and a dozen other byways. The types of navigation are also called egocentric and allocentric, sans the connotations they have in discussions of social phenomena. I'll have some fun with these in the next post. Uh, a future post. For now, I've given all of you plenty to think about and comment on. I'll bet your guesses anticipate some of what I'll be mentioning from the research.