This post is about a bug in our human operating system. It concerns the way we experience and interact with reality. It is something I see manifested in the counselling room all the time and I believe it has huge implications not only for us as individuals but also for our societies.
To start with I need to explain what a map is. Bear with me…
A map is a simplified representation of a complex reality. If I go for a walk on Dartmoor I can use a map to help me plan my route. I want a map that will show me footpaths, rivers, bridges and topography. These are the things that are most important for me on my walk. It will, by necessity, exclude other things that are of less interest to me such as underground water pipelines or the colour of houses. It will exclude anything that exists at too small a scale, either temporal or geographical, like the big puddle in the middle of the path or the pony over there.
Appropriately for the week in which we mark the centenary of the end of the First World War, I’ m reminded of this clip from the comedy series Blackadder goes Forth.
Unlike General Melchett I know, when I consult the map, that it depicts reality but is not actually reality. Looking at the map from the comfort of my sofa is long way from the actual, lived experience of being in the middle of the moors: the wildlife, beautiful vistas, feeling of awe and the dampness permeating my boots. These things couldn’t ever be represented on any map.
My map of Dartmoor exists on paper but it’s also possible for us to create our own maps in our mind. By this I mean that we have the ability to create simplified, mental maps of the world to replace the complex, messiness of reality.
To illustrate this consider the amount of attention you pay to your surroundings when you’re walking down your home street. My guess, if you’re anything like me, is not a lot. You’re so familiar with your route that, for the most part, you don’t actually need to pay much attention. You’re on autopilot. You don’t need to think about turning left at the post office and right at the pub. You’ve done it so many times before that your brain just steers you through it while you think about what you’re going to have for tea and watch on Netflix when you get home. Unless something drastic changes, like the post office catches fire or a riot breaks out in the pub, you can be pretty confident that the map in your head is going to be sufficiently accurate for you not to need to take much notice of your surroundings.
Now compare this to what it’s like when you go on holiday, particularly to somewhere exotic and alien. Now, as you walk around you find yourself drinking in all the sights, sounds and smells of that unfamiliar environment. You might feel more a little anxious than normal, your senses tuned to the possibility of unexpected dangers but you’re also alive and excited in a way you don’t feel normally. Suddenly you no longer have a mental map so you have no choice but to immerse yourself in the actual reality of the scene as it presents itself to you.
None of this is an accident. The human brain has the capacity to function in two very different modes. It can respond in the here and now to the lived reality of the moment or it can bypass reality to quick reference the mental models that it’s previously constructed. Both modes are necessary to our survival. To try and take in everything our environment throws at us in any one moment takes a huge amount of bandwidth and processing power. To make decisions about what to do in response to all that data, even more so. By using our mental maps we can filter out a whole load of that incoming data stream and replace it with a pre-generated map and automated decision making. A simplified version of reality with clear rules and pathways already mapped out for us.
Consider, a soldier on the battlefield. Their very life depends upon integrating these two modes of experience. They need to be highly attuned to the slightest stimulus in their environment that could indicate an enemy threat: a glint of light from a sniper on a distant roof top or a slight disturbance in the vegetation ahead indicating a recently buried mine. In this sense they are completely embedded in their environment. At the same time they are following a mental map of drilled command protocols that tell them instantly what they should do in any given situation. They don’t need to think. They can instinctively respond to their training and are, as a result, a lot more likely to survive than the untrained. In this scenario the soldier is able to switch between these two ways of experiencing the world.
So far the analogies I’ve used have have all been fairly literal in that I’ve talked about mental maps as they relate to the environment but, from our earliest years, we also start constructing mental models of more abstract things like, for example, our relationships. We construct a map in our head of who we think we should be and how others should be. These maps are populated with simplified versions of the people around us. One person might have a mental map based on a belief that people are generally good and kind and they will navigate their way through life accordingly. Another person might have experienced people as dangerous and threatening. Invite them both to the same party and they’re going to have wildly different experiences based on those individual mental maps, despite sharing the exactly the same reality.
So what happens when our mental maps are of insufficient resolution or are out of date? It can be a profoundly unsettling experience for us when we look up from our mental maps and discover that the world in front of us suddenly bears no resemblance to the one depicted in our maps. This can happen gradually as we age and re-evaluate what’s important in our lives, or suddenly when our expectations of the world are shattered by unexpected events like an accident, bereavement or betrayal by a loved one.
This is often when people turn to counsellors like myself. Part of my job, as I see it, is to support my clients when they discover that their old mental maps are no longer serving them well. Finding ourselves without a reliable map can be a profoundly unsettling experience as we’re bumped from the comforting, predictable two dimensional worlds of our heads into the overwhelming messiness of 3D reality. This is because it’s easy for us to lose sight of the limitations of our mental maps and to believe that they are the same as reality. In my last post I wrote about the danger of the word ‘should’ and the conflict we experience when our mental maps tell us what our world should look like but reality fails to live up to our expectations.
I believe this failure to distinguish between the map and territory is a huge bug in our operating system. As a species we have a worrying tendency to trust our mental models over the very evidence of eyes and ears, like a driver, eyes wide open, ploughing through a road closed sign and off the end of a pier because the sat nav told us to.
I intend to write more about this phenomenon in future posts because I think it has massive implications not only for us as individuals but also for how our societies and systems are run. For now, however, I would like to leave the last word to Captain Blackadder and his colleagues as they struggle to reconcile a map with reality.
If you are looking for counselling in the Exeter area please visit my contact page to arrange a free, initial consultation.