Why The Map In Your Head Is Wrong

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Podcast Transcript

All of us have some sort of mental map inside our heads for how the world is laid out. North America is north of South America. Europe is west of Asia. et Cetra. 

However, even the greatest geography minds often have a flawed mental map of the world. Places aren’t often where were think they are in relation to other places. 

Learn more about why almost everyone’s mental map of the world is wrong, and why it is so, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


Let me start this episode out with a simple question: Which country is closer to the continent of Africa, the United States or Canada?

Most people will think through the problem this way:

The United States is south of Canada, and Africa is in the south, therefore the United States is closer to Africa than Canada. If I were to further ask what part of the United States was closest to Africa, most people would probably figure it was Florida.

However, this is not true.

Canada is actually closer to Africa than the United States is. If you don’t believe me, just look at a globe. 

Moreover, the closest US state to Africa is Maine, not Florida. 

There are a couple of reasons why people don’t realize this fact, The biggest is that we tend to think of things in relation to each other only by one directly. 

So, we think of Canada and the United States as being north and south of each other.

However, Canada also extends profoundly more to the east of the United States. 

Likewise, Africa does extend to the south, however, it is also located to the east of North America. 

Canada extends far enough to the east to more than compensate for being located farther north. The easternmost point of Newfoundland is about 4,000 kilometers from the coast of Morocco, which is about the same distance as to Paris

Likewise, the western coast of the United States also extends out westward. Most people tend to think of Los Angeles and San Francisco as being north and south of each other, but they are not. San Francisco is much further to the west.

Reno, Nevada is actually further west than Los Angeles. 

Another one that throws people for a loop is Texas. El Paso, Texas is closer to San Deigo than it is to Houston, which is within its own state. Brownsville, Texas is closer to Guatemala than it is to El, Paso. 

One of the other causes of problems with our mental maps has to do with maps themselves. If you remember back to my episode on the Mercator projection, all maps of the world are fundamentally flawed. All of them.

Any time you try to project a sphere onto a flat surface, there is going to be a problem somewhere. Some combination of size, shape, and direction is going to suffer with any map. 

The classic example of that which most people are aware of is Greenland. On the Mercator projection, the size of Greenland is grossly exaggerated. In reality, it is still pretty big, but not the size of a continent. It is about the size of Saudi Arabia.

Another way most people’s mental maps fail us has to do with the relative locations of North and South America. 

Most people think of South America as being directly below North America. It is to the south, but it actually isn’t directly south. The vast majority of North America does not lie above South America. Mexico and every other country in Central America, except for Panama, are not north of South America. 

To illustrate the point, the westernmost point of South America is in Peru. If you go directly north from this point you will wind up in……Jacksonville, Florida. A city that is on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

South America is to the south, but it also is far to the east of North America.  South America is closer to Africa than it is to Houston, Texas. 

Speaking of Panama, that is another country where most people have a mental maps that fail them. 

Most people think of Panama as running north-south, yet the country actually tends to run east-west in an s-shape. 

Likewise, we think of the Panama Canal as being east-west. Ships go from the Atlantic Ocean in the east and sail to the Pacific Ocean in the west. 

However, the Panama Canal actually runs Northwest to Southeast. The Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal is actually further west than the Pacific entrance is. 

Another misconception people have are the relative latitudes of North America and Europe. Most people think of Europe as being on the same latitudes as the populated parts of North America.  

Europe is actually much further north.

There are several reasons for this. For starters, Western Europe has much warmer temperatures than equivalent latitudes in North America.

Also, when you travel between North America and Europe, people usually just think in terms of flying east-west. 

However, Chicago is actually at a similar latitude to Rome. Minneapolis is similar to Venice. Vancouver is at a similar latitude to Paris, and Calgary is at about the same latitude as Brussels. 

The northernmost city in North America with over a million people is Edmonton, Alberta, which is at a similar latitude to Dublin, Ireland

Denver is around the same latitude as Madrid, San Diego is the same latitude as Marakesh, and Miami is at the same parallel as Luxor, Egypt.

Why is Europe so much warmer than similar cities in North America? The theory always has been that it was due to the Gulf Stream bringing warm air from the Caribbean up north.

That might be a contributing factor, but most climatologists think that it is simply due to the fact that Europe has a longer coastline and has more points that are closer to the sea.

The one continent that people have the most misconceptions about is probably Africa. 

For starters, most people aren’t aware of just how big Africa is. If you’ve ever flown to Cape Town from the north, you’ve probably been able to experience just how big it is. It takes longer to cross Africa than it does most ocean crossings. 

Africa is larger than China, the United States with Alaska, Western Europe, India, and Argentina combined. 

Most people also think of Africa as being in the southern hemisphere. While it does extend into the southern hemisphere, ? of Africa actually lies north of the Equator. 

Australia is also a continent with many misconceptions. 

Those who live in Australia are well aware of just how far away it is from almost everywhere else. You have the southern ocean and Antarctica to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the East, and the Indian Ocean to the west. 

Getting anywhere from Australia takes an enormous amount of time. If you are in Sydney, the closest country you can fly to is New Zealand, which will take about 3 hours. If you want to fly to Bali, it would take you about 6.5 hours. 

To put this into perspective, a flight from New York to Los Angeles takes just under 6 hours. 

I was in Cairns once in northern Queensland and I needed to leave the country to reset my tourist visa. The shortest flight I could take was to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea which was 4 hours away. 

Sydney to Singapore is over 8 hours and again, that is one of the closest capital cities. 

If you happen to live in Perth, you are really isolated. It is a 7-hour flight from Perth to Sydney, and it is actually quicker to fly to Bali.

People also underestimate just how big Australia is. Australia is basically the size of the continental United States, but with only 8% of the population. 

If any of these geographical facts came as a surprise to you, don’t be too alarmed. It quite literally happens to the best of us.

A study was conducted in 1985 on mental world maps. It found the geographers and cartographers had the exact same problems. It is very difficult to have an accurate map of the world in your head. We all tend to use relative directions when thinking of where places are in the world. 

It is easier for us to think in terms of two dimensions than it is to think of the surface of a sphere.  

If any of these facts surprised you, I recommend you check out some application like Google Earth. Google Earth, unlike Google Maps, is a digital globe. You can spin it around and zoom in and out. It is one of my favorite apps and I used it all the time when doing show research. 

The more you look at the world by using a spherical globe instead of a two dimensionsional map, the better your mental map will become. 


Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener WP Smith over at Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write, 

Great show!

I thoroughly enjoy this podcast. At one time I prided myself for knowing a little bit of information on a variety of subjects. I thought I could share this information to random people while thrilling them with my witty conversation. Then I ran across this podcast. I will now refer them to this as it shares random facts and stories while entertaining the mind. I’m very humbled by its ability to keep the listeners’ eyes from glazing over! Please keep up the great show!

Thanks, WP Smith! I’m glad you’ve found the show and I’m glad that your eyes don’t glaze over. It would be really bad if I managed to cause that to happen in an audio show. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.