Education

How To Memorize Maps

When I started playing the Wordle-inspired geography games Globle and Worldle, one thing became very clear: My knowledge of world geography was awful. I could name all the countries in the world, but outside of some obvious ones (big countries, a few island nations, and Western Europe), I had scant knowledge of where they actually are. In Globle, I’d find the proximity clues useless and just start typing, say, every African country until I landed on the right one. And Worldle telling me that a blobby shape was 7000km south of a country I had guessed might as well have been babbling nonsense.

I like to think of myself as reasonably erudite, but it became clear I would fail anything above the simplest geography quiz. I like memorizing things, and so I set myself a goal: Be able to look at an unlabeled map (just the country borders) and fill it in. And as a bonus, improve my Globle and Worldle stats.

I’m happy to say I can now do it, so here’s my technique, inspired by posts on the Art of Memory forum and Ed Cooke’s Remember, Remember, if you want to also improve your geography knowledge and crush your friends at Globle/Worldle, which is all that really matters, right?

Have Realistic Expectations

I squeezed this memorization in where I could, and it took me about a month, off and on. You can probably give yourself a speed course if you’ve got the time, but if you’re reading this, you’re probably a parent. One who gives a hearty chuckle when a new parent asks “how do you all fit your personal hobbies into your life as a parent?” So take your time. Or if your kids are game, do it with them!

Divide and Conquer

When I started this project, I decided to chunk it up. This allowed me to get some early success and refine my technique as I went. I started with Central America, then moved to South America, then the Middle East. Then I took a big breath and did Africa, Europe, and then Asia, finishing with Oceania and the Caribbean.

Pareidolia Is Your Friend

Humans have a fantastic ability to see meaningful shapes where none really exist. Think of looking at clouds and seeing rabbits or spaceships (or seeing faces on random bits of Mars landscapes). That became a pivotal part of my strategy.

First, print out (or import into a note-taking program such as Noteshelf) an unlabeled map of the area you want to learn. You can find them by googling “unlabeled maps [area name]”; here’s a set for Central America. Then, start finding shapes and outlining them. As long as the shapes follow borders, you can clump as many countries as you want into your images. I tried this with labeled maps at first, but my brain started jumping ahead to the next step and I’d be trying to cram the country name into the image right off the bat. I ultimately found that just solidifying the image without the name worked best for me.

Here’s some of my imagery to give you a taste: all of Central America (minus Mexico) looks to me like a frog with a gorilla’s face in a suit wearing one of those novelty hats with clapping hands and leaping into the air. The southeast section of Africa looks to me like a girl with a hairband playing some sort of sport, standing on one leg and kicking with the other. Your images will be distinct to you and your interests (for instance, if you’re not a Doctor Who fan, you may not see the tumbling Dalek made of Niger and Algeria). Make them silly, weird, exaggerated and/or sexy (I didn’t find many countries that fit that last description); that will help them stick.

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You also want your shapes to have divisions that line up with the countries; Africa as a continent may look like a giant pork chop, but that’s not very helpful for remembering what goes where. For instance, in my Central America image, the gorilla’s face is Guatemala, Honduras is its shirt, Nicaragua is its pants, and so on.

As you cordon off areas in your map, you may find yourself painted into a corner and needing to stretch to figure out an image. For instance, after finding some reasonable shapes in Africa, I had isolated Côte d’Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, and Benin into one area. I could sort of squint and imagine a horse (Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire) looking over a fence that was barely visible (Togo) between a cat (Ghana) and a turkey leg (Benin). I wasn’t super happy with the image, but it worked well enough. 

Tie Shapes Back to the Countries

Now you’ve got a bunch of images carved out of a map. So it’s time to associate them with countries. For my Central America map, Guatemala ended up being pretty easy: Guatemala makes up my gorilla’s face and starts with the same letter. Others require more vivid imagery: Belize is the hands on the hat, so I picture them made from a bunch of little bells, that tingle and chime in a din whenever the gorilla moves. El Salvador is where the gorilla’s arms are, so I imagine the gorilla doing the little arm motion Elsa does when singing “Let It Go” (eh, so the arms are sticking out towards where you can’t see them; whatever). I don’t need to spell out the name entirely. I just need enough of a hook so I remember what country it is.

Turn Them All Into One Big Story

Ed Cooke’s version of this technique for a European map in Remember, Remember unites all of his imagery into one big (and ludicrous, which helps you remember) story. This is probably useful if you want to, say, name all the countries that border a given country, but I’ve not needed it for my goals.

Tricky Areas

By the time I got to Asia, my technique worked pretty well. Carve out some shapes on the continent like a jigsaw puzzle in reverse, figure out how the countries in those images could be tied back to the shapes (“let’s see, if this giant chicken is actually made out of china and the pear it’s carrying in its beak has been dipped in curry…”), review. I was soaring along.

Then I hit Oceania. Islands or archipelagos in the South Pacific. I found at least one map  that put lines around the island blocks, and I was able to use that to some extent. But Oceania remains my weakest area and it took me a week or so just on its own.

I dreaded the Caribbean for the same reason, but once you get past the giant lobster claw that stretches from Cuba to Puerto Rico, the rest of the islands make an almost perfect curve. Thanks, Chicxulub asteroid! (Note to any dinosaur readers: too soon?) For those I just put together a 14-step memory palace. Each country or territory just sat at one location and I can follow the curve along the Gulf of Mexico and map locations to the palace.

Review

While memory palaces and their kin have gained renewed interest thanks to Moonwalking With Einstein, reviewing what you remembered is just as important as making it memorable in the first place. This isn’t just the rote “repeat it to yourself over and over” technique I (and probably you) used in school; this is structured review, done right just before your brain starts to forget the information. How do you know when that is? There are hypotheses about that! If you want the abridged version, I set up dates to review material the same day, the next day, five days later, two weeks later, a month later, two months later, four months later, six months later, nine months later, and one year later. I did that for each map as I learned as well as the total map once I was done.

How do you actually review? My goal, remember, was to look at a blank map and fill it in. Most Internet geography quizzes take the reverse approach: here’s a country, find it on a map. I found one quiz that was pretty close; here’s a country or territory in situ; what is it? But ultimately I cobbled together my own from worksheets for teachers. When it comes time to review, I download my blank sheets and fill them all in over the course of about 20 minutes.

Feel The Power

While being able to trounce at online trivia games, no matter how meaningless, carries its own thrill, learning the world’s geography gives you greater insight about the news, stories you might read, and makes you curious about things you might not have pondered before. For instance, when I memorized Central America, I was struck by the sharp vertical line that divides Belize and Guatemala; it probably doesn’t follow a natural boundary. So I read up on what turns out to be a contentious history

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This post was last modified on June 22, 2022 10:05 pm

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