M.M. Lawrence, A.K. Lobben

University of Oregon, Department of Geography



Recently there has been some increased interest from the cartographic research community in how blind map users process map information and use tactile maps. Cartographic researchers are only beginning to understand potentially key components of blind map use. Traditionally, experimental designs include behavior measures, which aim to identify relationships between spatial abilities, focus on specific tasks or strategies, or test map use design issues, such as symbology.  This research area is vital if we are to understand (let alone improve) the tactile map use model for blind map users.  But cartographers now have other options.  The growth of modern brain imaging techniques, such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), allows researchers to investigate the neurological patterns of brain activation, and therefore the cognitive processing that accompany spatial abilities and the neural underpinnings of complex high-order cognitive tactile map reading tasks. fMRI can be employed to investigate roles of spatial abilities used to solve tactile map reading problems, strategies employed while engaged in tactile map reading activities, and differences in how individuals cognitively process tactile cartographic representations.  


This project investigates neurological brain patterns associated with completion of both general spatial ability and map-related tasks. The experimental design includes four parts. To begin we will identify and define two spatial cognitive abilities: spatial scanning (visual search task) and spatial relations (mental rotation task) as outlined by cognitive psychologists.  The fist objective is to identify whether spatial scanning and spatial relations are distinct and independent spatial abilities (within our blind subject sample) as defined by neurological patterns of activation. The second goal is to investigate the relationship between these two spatial abilities and two tactile map reading exercises. The first map task is a shortest path task in which the subject is to find the shortest path between two locations. The second map task is a right/left turn choice in which the subject is asked to decide if they must make a left or right turn at a designated point in order to reach a destination.


Each blind subject will take part in each of the four experimental conditions stated above while undergoing an fMRI scan. We will address not only initial results, but also the unique challenge we faced in designing a tactile map reading task (which by necessity requires hand and lower arm movement) for administration during fRMI scanning, during which the subject must remain as physically immobile as possible.