The Great British Memory Map

The Great British Memory Map

  • When asked to draw the British Isles from memory, 2 in 3 forgot at least one nation
  • We combined drawings of the British Isles using artificial intelligence to create one definitive map as remembered by Brits
  • Northern Irish people located their own capital on a blank map more accurately than other nationalities (11.6 miles off on average)
  • English people were the only nationality who couldn’t locate their own capital more accurately than everyone else – the Welsh were better
  • 1 in 5 non-Northern Irish people incorrectly placed Belfast in the Republic of Ireland, while 1 in 10 non-Welsh people put Cardiff in England
  • When placing their hometown on a blank map, half placed it in the wrong county and 28% put it in the wrong region
  • We combined more than 180 people’s hand-drawn north-south border lines and found the English south ends at Birmingham and the north begins at Leicester
  • 10% of hand-drawn north-south borders laid no farther north than Cambridge, while another 10% sat no farther south than Stoke-on-Trent

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Much of life is knowing where we are and where we’re going. Some manage it better than others. Britain’s national bird, the robin, navigates using the Earth’s magnetic field1, while dung beetles map their whereabouts by memorising the positions of stars2. How well can we map our home country or locate our hometown? Is our mind’s eye akin to satellite navigation or a geographical Etch-A-Sketch?

To find out, we surveyed 1,007 British people and asked them to draw a map of the British Isles, locate major UK cities and their hometown, and draw England’s most contentious boundary – the north-south divide. The results reveal our perception, knowledge and opinions of British geography.

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Drawing the British Isles map from memory

Blighty’s coastline may be a complex shape to memorise, but the basic features, like the presence of its constituent nations, should be etched in our minds. After all, we see a map of the British Isles in classrooms, on the weather forecast, and every time we zoom out on Google Maps.

To find out how well we can recreate this famous shape, we asked 144 people to draw the outline of the British Isles with only their memory to guide them.

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The British Isles drawn from memory

An independent panel judged the quality of their drawings and decided if they could clearly discern each nation of the British Isles. Only 32% of people included every nation on their map of the British Isles (i.e., England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland).

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Almost 3 in 4 remembered to draw Wales and 57% remembered N. Ireland. Only 44% drew the entire island of Ireland, perhaps mistaking the British Isles to mean the United Kingdom.

The drawings show that some people’s memories are more accurate than others. Our judges rated each drawing and deemed the average drawing a lowly 3.7 out of 10 – 80% scored 4 or lower, while only 11% score 6 or higher.

Our cartographers for the day mostly agreed, rating their own drawing 4.3 out of 10 on average. Almost half rated their depiction of Blighty 4 or lower, and 36% gave themselves at least a 6.

Younger people were more confident in their memory. Forty-four percent of millennials rated themselves at least a 6, compared to 35% of Gen Xers and 26% of Baby Boomers. However, youthful confidence may be misplaced, as older generations were slightly more likely to receive a 6 or higher quality rating (10% of millennials, 12% of Gen Xers and 15% of Baby Boomers).

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Similarly, men (41%) were more confident than women (33%), but their memory was no sharper – if anything, women had the edge (11% of men were rated 6 or higher vs. 13% of women).

When viewed together we see that some people’s geographical memory is practically flawless, while others should consider buying a globe for their study. But if we wanted to combine everyone’s memory and view Blighty through our collective mind’s eye, how would we do that? As with many things in this day and age, artificial intelligence (AI) leads the way.

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Learning to draw The British Isles

We fed everyone’s drawings into a computer algorithm that could create a definitive drawing of the British Isles as remembered by Brits. The ‘AI’ algorithm learned what the British Isles look like from people’s drawings, then it practised creating its own map until it could draw as well as people. The final drawing reveals what parts of the map people tend to remember or forget. Read our methodology to learn more.

The AI’s map of the British Isles certainly resembles the map in real life, but with some important differences.

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The British Isles in real life

People from the nations of Ireland may be disappointed to see that our collective memory drastically diminishes their home island. As we’ve seen, most people forgot to draw the entirety of Ireland and often when they remembered, its size compared to Great Britain was smaller than in real life.

As if Norfolk wasn’t flat enough, we’ve collectively flattened its coastline in the East of England until the region became indistinguishable from the East Midlands above and South East below. The Moray Firth got the same treatment as our minds simplified the Scottish coastline.

North Wales featured clearly in our collective mind’s eye, but South Wales was largely forgotten (or merged with South West England), which is ironic given that Wales’s major cities are in the south.

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Locating UK cities from memory

Speaking of our country’s major cities, we also tested people’s geographical knowledge by asking them to locate each home nation’s capital on a blank map. We calculated each person’s accuracy by finding how many miles they were off the city’s true location.


"I can't believe I have no idea where Cardiff or Belfast are. For shame!"
32-year-old woman from the East Midlands.


People from each nation were naturally better at locating their own capital. But our results also show that people’s knowledge of other nations don’t all have equal merit, potentially revealing which nations share the strongest kinship.

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Where is Belfast?

N. Irish people located Belfast within 11.6 miles on average, better than any other home nation could find their own capital. Scots were second-best at finding Belfast, 33.2 miles off on average, perhaps thanks to a shared heritage. The English were most ignorant of where to find Belfast with an average accuracy of 53.7 miles, farther than the distance from London to England’s south coast.

Almost half of people from outside N. Ireland placed Belfast in incorrect counties, most commonly Tyrone (17%), Armagh (11%) and Derry/Londonderry (7%) – 1 in 5 thought Belfast was in the Republic of Ireland.

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Where is Edinburgh?

Scottish people located Edinburgh to within a 21.7-mile radius, roughly half the distance between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The 12-mile gap between Scottish and N. Irish shores looks narrower than ever as our N. Irish respondents returned the Scots’ favour, locating Edinburgh more accurately than all but the Scots themselves.
 

"[I’m] ashamed about my knowledge of Scotland!"
54-year-old woman from London


This time the Welsh were worst of all, guessing 51.2 miles out from Edinburgh’s true location on average.

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Where is Cardiff?

But the Welsh redeemed themselves by finding Cardiff within an impressive 13.5-mile radius. The N. Irish were once again second in line, 45.7 miles out on average. It was the Scots’ turn to finish last, guessing 54.6 miles away from Cardiff’s actual location on average – Wales’s second city, Swansea, is just 34 miles from Cardiff.

One in 10 non-Welsh people plonked Cardiff in the Brecon Beacons, while another 10% thought Cardiff was actually in England.

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Where is London?

The English were the only nationality who couldn’t locate their own capital better than everyone else. They managed an accuracy of 33.6 miles on average, similar to the distance between the western and eastern edges of Greater London. The Welsh pipped them to the top spot by locating London within 24.4 miles.

On this occasion our N. Irish survey takers were worst at locating the capital, meaning every nation is worst at locating one of our home nations’ capitals.

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Locating our hometown from memory

Surely the place we’re best at locating on a blank map is our own hometown? Well think again. People were on average 17.8 miles out from their nation’s capital city, but when finding their own hometown they were typically 21 miles off its actual location.

Almost two thirds of people’s guesses were 11 miles or farther from their hometown, meaning someone from Newcastle could easily have misplaced their town in Sunderland. One fifth were at least 31 miles off, the same distance as there is between Manchester and Liverpool.

Half of us placed our hometown in the wrong county, equal to putting a Cornish town in Devon, while 28% got the wrong region, like mixing up our Yorkshire from our North West.

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Where is my hometown?

Women weren’t quite as accurate as men: 53% of women put their hometown in the wrong county, compared to 46% of men.

Self-declared northerners and southerners of England were equally likely to put their hometown in the wrong county, 45% and 47% respectively. But among those who didn’t identify with the north-south cultural debate, describing themselves as neither, 61% misplaced their hometown.

Being invested in the north-south divide might give us stronger roots and a keener sense of where we are – and where we most definitely are not!

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Deciding where England’s north-south border lies

If the north-south divide is still relevant in modern Britain, where is it? Unlike our earlier results, the answer is based on feeling, not facts. Where you think the English south ends and north begins depends on whether you’re closer to Cornwall or Carlisle. People from the same town may also disagree if they identify more with northern or southern culture.

As one Redditor wrote on the subject, ‘The North-South border is extremely well-defined, just ask any Northerner and he will gladly tell you that 'the South' is everywhere immediately south of where he happens to live.’

It’s a topic people love to disagree on. The situation isn’t helped by the swath of no man’s land in between, the Midlands. To settle the matter, we got people to draw where they think the north-south divide lies, then we combined people’s drawings into one border reached by a consensus vote. How very British.

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The North-South divide

Unlike questions where we tested people’s knowledge, this time our survey takers saw a detailed map including city locations, so they could make an informed decision.

We found by consensus that the major north-south border towns are Birmingham, just south of the divide, and Leicester, north of the invisible line.

Attempts to resolve the north-south debate have been made before, but never by actually asking large numbers of English people. Some have studied the divide indirectly by summarising socio-economic data3, mapping Greggs stores4, or finding where ‘dinner’ gives way to ‘tea’5. But our approach is to ask the opinions of English people directly. This way we not only get the consensus, but we can also explore how people’s opinions differ.

One in 10 drew the border between Stoke-on-Trent and Sheffield or farther north. The government seems to agree, as the so-called Northern Powerhouse begins at Sheffield6Another 1 in 10 of us think the south ends at Oxford and Cambridge or farther south than that.

People may continue to passionately debate the issue, but our results show a clear consensus: the cultural South ends at Birmingham and the North begins at Leicester.

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Summary

We set out to explore how well people memorise their nation, and whether who you are and where you’re from alters how you see it.

When asked to draw the British Isles from memory, 2 in 3 forgot at least one nation. One in 4 forgot Wales while 2 in 5 forgot N. Ireland. Many may have not realised that the British Isles include the whole of Ireland. Our definitive map from memory, created using the power of humans and AI, puts our recollection of different nations into stark relief.

Welsh people were best at memorising the location of UK capital cities, placing them within 34.8 miles of their true locations on average, followed by the N. Irish (35.5 miles) and Scottish (36.8 miles), with the English coming in last by a country mile (47.1 miles). One in 5 non-N. Irish people incorrectly placed Belfast in the Republic of Ireland, while 1 in 10 non-Welsh people put Cardiff in England.

Many of us weren’t much better at remembering where to find our own hometown, putting it in the wrong county half the time and the wrong region almost a third of the time.

Opinions on where to draw the line between North and South England varied by as much as 312 miles, roughly a third of the entire distance from Scottish tip to English toe. But, by combining everyone’s drawings together, we established a consensus border line running through Birmingham and Leicester.

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Fair use statement
We’d love for you to spread the word about our research. If you’d like to share our findings and images for non-commercial purposes, please link to this page so that our research team gets credit.

Methodology
We surveyed 1,007 British people to contribute to our memory experiment, 187 of whom drew the British Isles from memory, 530 located cities from memory on a blank map, and 290 drew the north-south divide. We removed drawings from our analyses if they were not clearly drawn, for example if multiple lines were drawn for the north-south divide. Our respondents’ ages ranged from 18 to 75, and the median age was 37 years old. We received an equal number of responses from men and women, and the number of responses from each region of the UK closely represented their actual population sizes.

To create a definitive map of the British Isles based on people’s drawings from memory we trained a deep convolutional generative adversarial network (DCGAN) on the images using TensorFlow. We trained the model for 3,000 epochs using a 5x5 pixel-sized kernel. New, AI-derived drawings were generated with each epoch.

The hand-drawn north-south border lines were averaged to create 10th, 50th (median) and 90th percentile border lines, by mapping the drawn lines and modelling their coordinates using locally polynomial quantile regression.

References

  1. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2017.12.003

  2. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.03.030

  3. https://www.indy100.com/article/where-north-england-is-divide-map-7518956

  4. https://thetab.com/uk/2017/08/02/weve-figured-exactly-north-plotting-every-single-greggs-store-map-44385

  5. https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/articles-reports/2018/05/22/dinner-time-or-tea-time-it-depends-where-you-live

  6. https://northernpowerhouse.gov.uk/