Cognitive Mapping and Radio Drama by Alan Beck - Consciousness, Literature and the Arts, Volume 1 Number 2, July 2000

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3.1 Cognitive mapping

Cognitive mapping is a way-finding, survival skill that enables us to deal with our worlds spatially, and to memorise, to fantasise and to communicate about these worlds (Ungar, 1998). Downs and Stea, 1973, 18 give their definition:

... [it is] a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, codes, stores, recalls and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of phenomena in his everyday spatial environment.

Spatial cognition is of interest to the following subject areas, among others: computer graphics, virtual reality and virtual environments, and also geography and architecture. They all deal in various ways with real, Euclidean space (occupying spaces with X,Y,Z dimensions). It is how we familiarize ourselves with and navigate spaces. Cognitive mapping is also used loosely for various mental models in information solving, including management decision-making, but the reference here is to mental geography only.

It is the sort of mental activity that one uses in travelling to a friend's house, having an internal picture of the route. A central debate is how to categorize cognitive mapping. Is it more abstract patterns and not a formal, representational picture (conceptual hypothesis)? There will be an argument below in favour of the radio play listener possibly experiencing shapes, volumes and edges more as abstract geometry. Or is it both verbal and visual-imaginal (dual coding)? Or does one convert visual information into the verbal? This is certainly crucial in radio drama, where so much of the 'visual' has to be described (Crisell, 1994, 146, Beck, 1997a, 84-6). Or is one able to rotate one's mental map in 3D and flip it over to make more sense (visual with mental rotation)? Of course, in real-life interaction, the full sensorium is in use and included also may be emotional connotations which provide cues along the route. Downs and Stea point out that cognitive maps are functionally equivalent to a cartographic map, as opposed to being homomorphically equivalent. Note 1

The skills of moving around our environment and our adeptness with our senses seem to come naturally to us, but of course, such knowledge does not. Nearly the only time we notice the existence of these skills is when they do not work and in the case of processing radio data, when we are lost in a radio play scene, puzzled, and cease to be entertained and informed.

3.2 Radio audiences

Radio listeners are not a generality, of course, and we lack applied research, as also of their different competencies, acquisitions and cognitive organising of radio data. (See Forrester 2000 on sound, Branigan on cognitive schemata as applied to film [Branigan, 1992, 13-14], and Morley, 1986, 239 on the differences that each reader of a media text brings to bear.) Most listeners' judgements will never be directly accessible.

Substantial reception studies involving sound are often not of radio. They concern audience take-up, in TV commercials of the soundtrack, in relation to the visual track (see Forrester, 2000, 2.6). So to summarise on this: we can identify some of the categories or schemata that listeners employ in their traffic with radio plays, and cognitive mapping is one way in. Here, very little hangs on whether radio is blind or a movie-theater or a seat in the stalls for one, but on the listener's cognitive availability for the 'naming of parts', for providing shape and meaning to radio dialogue's ongoingness, as scene follows scene, and as 'mise en scène' cuts to, or fades into, the succeeding 'mise en scène'.


Another factor in this discussion is that radio offers only a limited repertoire in its 'mise en scène'. This may be a controversial point to make. I have to explain here that my overall approach to radio theory is to emphasize radio's degradation of data, by comparison with the plenitude offered by the sight/sound media. Or, to put this more briefly, I do not readily think that 'you get the best pictures on radio'. This is in contrast to the 'apologia' or defence of radio offered vigorously and cogently by Shingler and Wieringa, 1998. I go so far as to argue in my work (in progress) that, in some important instances, radio's range of 'mise en scène' is so limited, disjointed and compressed, that this spectrum of representation might be considered only a metaphorical transference. (See Beck, 1999b, 1.4b.)

3.4 'Mise en scène'

'Mise en scène' now needs some more introduction. The definition given in the Glossary below is this:

Locations, spaces and perspectives for all genres of radio, but also including style and mode (as realism, non-realism, etc.). For radio drama, this involves representation of the play scene, its composition, 'set dressing' and perspective, and the characters' behaviour in that environment and style. (Beck, 1999a)

The term has a wider application in film, for example, being linked to style and to 'auteur' theory (Martin, 1990).

In the detailed analysis of an early radio play excerpt below, the focus is on how listeners interpret radio space in the aural compression of space-time-motion. It is a defining aspect of sound that it exists in space (Ferrington, 1994, 'Aural Information' section). It is characterised by the space it occupies, its resonance and acoustic, and by the surfaces off of which it reflects and into which it is partially absorbed. Dialogue itself gives constant depth cues.

TO - SECTION 4 - Referentiality

 SECTION 1 - Introduction - Way-finding  SECTION 2 - Previous discussions
   SECTION 4 - Referentiality
 SECTION 5 - Phenomenology, Reception theory  SECTION 6 - Perspective
 SECTION 7 - Way-finding in radio drama  SECTION 8 - Problems with radio reception theory
 SECTION 9 - Listener positioning  SECTION 10 - Objects in outline Gestalts
 SECTION 11 - Cognitive mapping in the radio studio  SECTION 12 - Final remarks
 Glossary  Notes
 Works sited - bibliography  Welcome Page for 'Cognitive Mapping'




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