How do humans perceive space?

While doing my thesis I have to study some interesting aspects of human behaviour, including knowing how humans perceive space. It’s a very interesting and complicated subject as involves many terms that I was not familiar with – terms that come from psychology – and I had to learn in order to better understand what I was investigating.

A book that helped me a lot on my research was Learning to Think Spatially: GIS as a Support System in the K-12 Curriculum. This book is very complete not to mention that relates spatial thinking with GIS, which is a very good combination for the work I’m conducting. Another precious help was the book Human Factors in Geographic Information Systems namely the chapter called “Human Spatial Cognition” written by David Mark who is an expert on this subject and has several publications on various issues of human spatial cognition.

So how do humans perceive space after all? We perceive space the same way we perceive other things: through our senses! In fact David Mark divided space according to the cognitive source of spatial data in the following way:

  • haptic spaces: defined by touching and bodily interaction.
  • pictorial spaces: understood through visual experiences.
  • transperceptual spaces: learned through inference during wayfinding.

These spaces are arranged hierarchically in the above order, with each being built in part on concepts from the previous ones.

Also important to human spatial cognition is the transformation data-to-information and the context in which it occurs. According to what I read in the book Learning to Think Spatially there are three context in which that transformation occurs. Those are:

  • Life spaces: also known as cognition in space and involves thinking about the world in which we live in. It’s exemplified by navigation and wayfinding.
  • Physical spaces: also known as cognition about space and involves thinking about how the world works.
  • Intellectual spaces: also known as cognition with space and involves thinking with or through the medium of space in the abstract.

After being perceived and transformed spatial information needs to be processed. This stage is called spatial thinking. Spatial thinking help us by providing an understanding of structure and function. An understanding of structure provides a description of how something is organized. For example, we can visualize the arrangement of objects in space and speak about their order, relation and pattern. An understanding of function allows us to describe how and why something works. For example, it can express how something changes with time and explain why that change happens.

Basically these are all the stages and concepts involved in human perception of space. Of course there is much to be said and much yet to research but I guess these are the main ideas.

One final note that is important to retain is that although spatial cognition and spatial thinking are mainly associated with 2D/3D maps, are not necessarily made through them. For example, we can estimate the position of an approaching car by the sound that arrives at our ears, smells can characterize places, among other examples. Overall the main idea is that we access the world through multiple senses and each one pays its contribution.

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