How The Mental Models of Orienteering and Topographic Thinking Can Help Us Understand The World

By Nathan Cheever


Recently, I picked up an old college textbook I’d saved, thinking someday I’d peruse its pages and maybe get interested in Biology again. Well, the other day I finally did. While reading the introduction, two mental models stood out to me: the mental models of Orienteering and Topographic Thinking.

In this piece, I’m going to relate these two models as my professor taught them, and then perhaps in later posts extend it to other concepts and writers. As I hope you’ll see, these models have implications in your everyday life. And I hope this helps how you see the world.

The maps in our head

We all have maps in our heads, that is, representations of how we see the world. Maps enable us to “navigate by expectation”.1 When we say, “we’re just crossing over the canal so we should see Betos (which is the best Mexican restaurant IMO) at the next right,” we’re using a mental map.

What’s the value of a map? They help us know what to expect. A map is a descriptive model that surfaces relevant details for the user to find their way around the real world.

But this doesn’t just apply to navigating physically. Consider if you were invited over to your in-laws for a Sunday family dinner. What would you expect it to be like? Chaotic? Uncomfortable? Or hopefully soothing and enjoyable? Whatever we visualize in our minds, our mind uses previous experience to map out what we should expect the next time.

And it adapts rapidly. You drive up and realize that your sister-in-law and her nine rowdy kids couldn’t make it because Timmy has chicken pox, and your expectation adjusts (probably for the better).

Then there are the times when our maps are horribly wrong. When our expectations and reality suddenly clash. When this happens, as my Biology professor says, “we tend to get engulfed in the panic of feeling lost."1 We try to find something in our surroundings that we can recognize or use to guide us – something that matches our mental map.

We use maps, both literally and mentally, in at least two ways.

The first is so easy and natural that we do it instinctively, like driving to the grocery store or into work. This is topographic thinking.

Navigating with a topographic thinking means you learn your position relative to other nearby landmarks, like a church or a river. You move in relation to them, so as long as you have these landmarks, you’ll never be lost.

The more time spent learning the features of your surroundings improves the mental map, until pretty soon you know the place “like the back of your hand”.

Topographic navigation makes like a lot easier when can draw upon past experience to guide our expectations.

But there is a catch. As a topographic map is useful, it is also woefully inaccurate. That’s not what’s really there. But accuracy is sacrificed for practicality. A map wouldn’t be much good if it showed each tree, sign, billboard, etc.

And the map is only good for the locality it describes. A map of downtown Chicago won’t help you at all in New York City just because they’re both big cities. Yet, as obvious as that previous sentence is, we all somehow manage to do exactly that with our mental maps at some point or another.

Beyond a paper map

My college Biology professor, David Temme extends this concept of topographical thinking beyond physical navigation to how we think in general. Topographic thinking is “moving around among a set of related and familiar details."1

However, here’s the important point: We have maps in our minds for all sorts of things.

We have mental maps that help us navigate how we do our job, how we understand religion, how to act with our peers, how to act with our parents, and how to deal with stress. Topographic thinking draws upon past data and says, “In the case of X do Y.” If you want ice cream, go here. If you want to be liked, do this.

Mental topographic maps offer a form of comfort and familiarity we crave. But when circumstances change – when our mental landmarks vanish – we are confronted with just how brittle a topographic map for life can be. What worked before doesn’t work anymore. The gap between our expectations and our reality grows.

We bump up against this when we cross into uncharted territory: in a new country, a new job, a new school, a new relationship, or a new place you’re living. The old map no longer matches reality. And we’re likely to be as successful as the guy trying to find his way to the Empire State Building using a map of Chicago.

When our maps break down we’re left exposed to uncertainty and fear. Panic sets in. This is one shortcoming of topographic models.

Not only are maps brittle and unstable, but they also tend to live disjointed from other mental maps. Each map lives in its own reality. Each map is its own silo of information. Each map is only called into action as circumstance requires. This is the second shortcoming of topographic models.

These two shortcomings of topographic models lead us to another model of navigating the world around us (both the physical world and metaphysical world): the orienteering model.

The orienteering model

Orienteering is another way to navigate. The difference is that in orienteering you use universally applicable rules to find your position, rather than relative features.

Think of a compass. It works no matter where you go, regardless of the unique circumstances of any area or domain you’re in.2

With orienteering, you don’t have to learn the details of everywhere you go to move around with confidence. Knowing universal rules like cardinal directions, the north star, and how the position of the sun during the day aligns with them, frees you from the dependence on topographic thinking alone.

My professor again relates this to how we think. The mental model analog of using a compass would be thinking based on “broad universal concepts."1

When orienteering, you use principles that transcend context, circumstance, and position.

With an orienteering mindset, you can track new ideas into previously unknown mental territory. New ideas and new places aren’t so scary. No matter where you are, you’re never really lost. Exploration becomes fun and exciting.

The beauty of an orienteering mindset is not only are you freed from the confines of familiar topographic mental maps, but you can stand back and start to see how disjointed maps might be connected.

Learning as map improvement

OK, so now you know about the topographic model of navigating the world, as well as the orienteering model.

My Biology professor explained how we use them while thinking. Thinking is “navigat[ing] through the mental landscape inside [our] head in search of something…Topographic thinking would be moving around among a set of related and familiar details. Mental orienteering would make use of broad universal concepts."1

Learning is the process of improving our topographic maps by adding new details and filling gaps. But we can’t learn if we believe our map is already perfect; that there’s nothing to be confused about and nothing is missing. It turns out that confusion, to one degree or another, is a necessary ingredient to learning.

At that point of confusion, one option would be to return to the safety of familiarity and clarity with our old, inadequate map. That is, to not learn. Or, we could venture out into confusion.

A life of ever-growing connections and understanding awaits those who embrace both mental models.

No one is a better example of embracing confusion guided by principles than Socrates. He thoroughly examined his and others' understanding, because for him, the unexamined life was not worth living.

We might tweak his famous declaration: “The life without some confusion – i.e., extending beyond our topographic maps – is not worth living.” Though, I think Socrates said it better.

We should examine ourselves and our mental maps of the world, and remember that, as important as these detailed descriptions of reality are, they are not reality itself. There is always something higher to learn, more principles to incorporate.


This essay could be just for an audience of one, me, and I’d be okay with that. As you can probably tell, I’m not a professional writer. Just a data scientist with a love and fascination for reading, knowledge development and exploring new Orienteering-models. Anyway, I hope you got something out of it, perhaps something stuck with you.

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  1. Temme, David H. Life Is Loopy: Principles of Biology : Biology 1210, Fall Semester 2009, University of Utah. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Pub. Co., 2009., 10-11 ↩︎

  2. Setting aside the extremes, like issues of polar vs magnetic North, and when you reach the point when a compass no longer points anywhere in particular. But trying not be too pedantic, the principle still useful. ↩︎