The map is not the territory
What then is our mental map? Every day, we form opinions, jump to conclusions, make assumptions, create beliefs, adopt attitudes and arrive at perceptions of events that take place and things that happen to us. We erroneously regard all this information that passes through our sense organs as truly objective and believe them to be so. All these views are our reality. They form our personal beliefs. All external information that gains entry into our mind is filtered through these beliefs. This to a large extent gives rise to our distorted perceptions. This is our personal “mental map”. It becomes our version of reality that is unique to each one of us.
We think our world is the real world which is not the case. How close our world is to the actual world is dependent on the degree of the accuracy of our own world. The more distorted our beliefs are, the less accurate our worlds are. Knowing that our world is not the real world is most important as we can change and improve our maps as new experiences bring us information and facts.
Our maps are simple representations of different aspects of the actual world or reality, which is the territory. Our maps are not the territory. We interpret everything we experience through these mental maps. We almost never doubt the accuracy of our mental maps, and live our daily lives hardly aware of them. Through them, we see things as we think they are and not as they really are. It is these perceptions that create our assumptions and beliefs that form our attitudes and behaviour which in turn determine how we think and the way we act.
We tend to think we are objective as we see things as they are. But this is not so as we are conditioned to see the world not as it actually is but as we are. When we relate what we see, we merely describe ourselves and our perceptions that is our subjective reality and at most, only a small particular part or feature of the territory. When others disagree with what we see, we think they are being unreasonable or strange.
Each of us does not see what is happening. Rather, we each see what we think is happening. It is these separate interpretations that result in our unique personalities, and account for all our maps being so different.. A prime example is siblings from the same family that have different characteristics, develop different personalities or adopt different lifestyles. It is not what happens to them. It is their perceptions of events and interpretations that shape their different personalities. They have developed distinct mental maps.
Every one of us develops our own awareness or perception of reality differently from any other person so that no two people have the same awareness or perception. Our awareness is the combination of our experiences, ideas, opinions, thoughts and feelings that has evolved since birth. It facilitates our perception and understanding of everything that happens to us. It is through our awareness that all inputs from external sources pass through and mould all our actions and reactions to stimuli.
We act in accordance with our awareness. Every decision we make; action we take and reaction we produce is based on our awareness. If our awareness is limited or faulty, so are our thoughts and actions. Thus, it is not what we know that forms our opinions; it is what we think we know that matters to us. Is it then surprising that different witnesses can give different accounts of the same incident? To be our best selves, it is essential that we change and expand our awareness or perception of our reality or find out if it is limited or distorted.
We form our beliefs from information that appears true to us that we gather throughout our lives. We are not concerned with information indicating whether a belief or proposition is really true or valid or otherwise. We receive different information from different personal experiences and these influence our awareness and result in us believing different things, even though these beliefs are contrary to each other. They are true to us as long as we believe them to be so. It is the same world but things appear different to us because of our differing beliefs.
When we believe strongly in something, we think it is the truth and cling stubbornly to it. We also get rather defensive about it against conflicting beliefs. When a contrary belief emerges, we collect supporting information or facts to validate our belief and to justify what we believe is right. Our mind is unable to hold conflicting beliefs as this causes extreme anxiety. This happens because our truth is what we see or think is the absolute truth.
We look at the world from different angles or from different observation points. Our observations are mainly used to support our past perceptions, earlier experiences, assumptions and beliefs however erroneous these may be. It is these individual ways of perceiving our own worlds that people reinforce their incompatible beliefs, and this is just one of the reasons our maps are so different. Looking at somebody else’s map, we may find it hard to believe it is a map of the same world.
Our observations are usually focused on what we like to see. A group of friends walking down a street observe different things. One may look at the shops that lined the street, another may focus his or her attention on members of the opposite sex, yet another prefers seeing the vehicles passing by. Same street but they have different perceptions. We focus only on what we want to see in a particular event. This is the reason why people living or working together for a considerable period can still disagree on many things. Is it surprising that different witnesses can give different accounts of the same incident?
Our past experiences too have a lot to do with our maps being so different. Our encounter with a group of unfriendly teenagers makes us assume all teenagers are like that – hostile. From our assumptions we seek no further unnecessary dealing with them. We become overly cautious if we have to deal with them. In fact, an unintentional adverse sign from a teenager serves only to confirm our belief. Our mind is inadvertently constantly seeking confirmation to reinforce our bias and existing beliefs. Other peoples’ experiences with teenagers may have been one of friendliness. Their assumptions of course differ from ours in this aspect.
As our maps can be so different when we are living in the same world, it is important for us to fully realize that our maps differ in order to communicate effectively. As each person tends to communicate using his map without consideration for the other person’s map, communication breakdown occurs easily. Children who resent their parents for being “too strict” do not understand parental duty and concern which primarily involve the children’s welfare. A customs officer who carries out a thorough inspection of your luggage may be perceived to be overdoing in following rules. He has no ulterior motive. He is merely performing his duty.
Can we then judge others without seeing their map? Of course not as at times it can be very unfair to the other persons. Other people act according to their maps, and from their perspectives, their act is a kindly or friendly one. But due to some reason, we view it otherwise and misinterpret it making them angry, hurt or resent us. By not knowing their map and judging their behaviour using our own map, we lack the important sense of appreciation.
We are quick to incorrectly judge people by their appearance and equally quick to unjustly label them. How often have we passed negative remarks about other people without sympathetic consideration for their feelings and frequently without a slight hint of hesitation? For instance, by passing comment that “she is so fat” which of course is uncalled-for, we are totally insensitive to her feelings. She could very well be feeling rather miserable at all time for being fat. We say “he’s selfish” although he may have an unselfish reason for having to do what he does.
Likewise, how we behave may seem inappropriate to other people. To us, our behaviour is perfectly normal in the context of our own map. We do our best and yet we invite unfair criticism. We find this incomprehensible. But if we were to understand that other people’s maps differ from our own, we would not react or feel the way we do. We can be fairly tolerant when we know their map can be as distorted as ours.
Knowing other people have different maps help us avoid untold misery, adverse reactions and certainly make for better communication. Immense benefit too can be derived from other peoples’ maps as they strive for excellence. When people understand that their fellow beings undergo different experiences, perceive and interpret events differently, human relationship will be greatly improved.
Our map, however, can be improved by discovering new experiences and new facts, and changing our perceptions and beliefs. We can then revise our map. The more accurate our map is, the closer it is to the “world map”. Our map, however, can never be the same as or close to the world map as ours is a small map, distorted and biased. The world is the only reality, but it is large and complex and we can perceive and make sense of only a small part of it. This small part or map is our world as we perceive it.
People do not perceive us as we actually are but as they think we are. People project a variety of images and traits on us and how they behave towards us or deal with us is consistent with their projection. However, their projection of us can be either positive or negative. It is up to us to control the identity that they project on us.
We all live in the same world and we share the same objective reality. But we all see it through our own set of lenses and perceptions, and this gives rise to individual subjective realities and uniqueness with mode of behaviour and way of thought that is specific to each of us.