Managing your Mental Maps - A brief guide to Keeping it Real
Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who kept coming out with comments that seemed so weird that you began to wonder what planet they were on?
Have other people ever had cause to wonder the same thing about you?
We make sense of our world using templates or mental maps (see the APET model if you haven't already) and although there's usually a fair amount of overlap between ours and other people's, sometimes there are some quite startling differences.
If you go to Leeds armed with a map of Bradford, your perception of where you are will probably be a bit different from that of people who live there or who managed to pick up an actual map of Leeds at the service station on the way in.
Similarly, if you go around saying stuff like "All men are b*****s!", or "I think your mum is an alien princess," you might well find that many of the people around you consider your mental maps to be slightly out of sync with theirs.
This doesn't mean that all men are not b*****s!", or that your friend's mum isn't an alien princess or that you're not entitled to your own opinions about human beings, potentially exotic life forms, or any other subject; it's just that, as far as living in this world and getting on with its inhabitants goes, some mental maps tend to be slightly more useful to us than others.
In a nutshell, we need to be able to "engage effectively with reality" most of the time so that we can go about our business, earn a decent living, find meaning in our existence, enjoy some loving relationships and general feelings of well-being and, if possible, avoid getting funny looks, getting locked away or being put on medication.
So where do our mental maps come from?
Some of them we are born with, apparently. Infants do the pattern-matching thing to the point where, as you probably know, a group of newly hatched geese mistook Conrad Lorenz for their mother and followed him around for years.
Then there are all our experiences to date, with each new experience being classified by our existing templates. "I've never seen this type of flower before. It looks a bit like a lily but it smells like a rose and it's colour is more like lavender than anything else." Once we've named it, catalogued it, experienced it fully and stored the image in our memory bank, its template is available for future pattern matching.
This is all very useful but it does have a few drawbacks, such as when we experience something so new that we can't see it at all because we don't have a pre-existing template to match it to. People who have been blind from birth and then have an operation to give them sight don't suddenly see what we see. They have to learn how to see, and set up appropriate templates so that they can begin to make sense of what they are seeing.
Then there's post-traumatic stress syndrome, in which a traumatic event has such an impact on our pattern-matching equipment that anything even vaguely reminding us of the offending memory sets up a huge stress response and interferes with our quality of life. (PTSD is discussed more fully in the APET model, including how to recover from it). Phobias work in a similar way.
But these are quite extreme examples of something very ordinary. We are all pattern-matching all the time. We even pattern-match our memories when we call them up from storage. All our perceptions of what's "out there" are coloured and shaped by the templates we have collected "in here".
We collect a lot of our mental maps unconsciously. Some of them we pick up from other people: our parents, our teachers, our friends, basically everyone we meet, and also from the stories we read, the TV programmes we watch, articles we've read on the internet or in magazines, advertising slogans and images on posters, radio and TV commercials, the news... all manner of influences are coming our way all the time, in addition to our daily life experiences.
Even basing our view of the world on our own direct experiences is not always a guarantee of its accuracy.
In a recent BBC Horizon documentary (November 2010) neuroscientists claimed that only about 10% of what's "out there" in front of us actually reaches our brains at all and the rest of our picture of reality is generated by us in line with our expectations!
When several people witness an incident they may produce very different accounts of what happened, depending on countless factors such as whether or not they were paying attention, and if so what to; whether they were looking or listening; whether or not their sight or hearing was impaired, and how much was stored in their memory and later retreived without any kind of embellishment or distortion due to personal prejudices.
How much less reliable are mental maps which were put there via the media? How much of our view of the world is shaped by the advertising industry or the magazines we read, or the soaps we watch each week, or the news channel we watch? How reliable are maps laid down by our exposure to cult leaders, politicians or others with a vested interest in brainwashing us and getting us to go along with their ideas, vote for them, kill for them, die for them or give them our money? (For the most illuminating article about how the media distorts information and shapes our mental maps, check out the Human Givens Journal Volume 15, NO 3, 2008 and read what Nick Davies has to say.)
Fortunately, we are not programmable robots or puppets to be maniplulated by other people. We have a choice in what we think and what we do. We have the ability to check out our mental maps from time to time and, if necessary, do a bit of spring cleaning and change the ones that we consider to be less than helpful to ourselves and the world in general.
Sometimes we don't notice that any of our maps are a bit dodgy until other people point them out to us, like the guy who was offended when we called his mother an alien princess.
A real life example is the lady who cut herself off from other people for twenty years because her late husband had told her that friends could never be trusted. Even though he was no longer around, his wife had inherited his distorted mental map of the world and was still suffering the consequence of it - loneliness - until someone pointed this out to her.
So how do we change our mental maps?
If PTSD or a phobia is causing us distress, we can "borrow someone else's brain" and get them to do the rewind technique with us (See the APET model).
For mental maps that are not quite so traumatic but are still troublesome to ourselves or to to others, there are a variety of ways that we can go about modifying them.
The first thing we can do to help ourselves is to calm down. As you know, when we are emotionally aroused, we can't think clearly, and there are a surprising number of people who are very happy for us not to think very clearly about things (which is why newspapers are full of emotive stories; why dictators like to get rid of teachers and other rational, intelligent people who might have the clarity of thought to suss them out, and why the pratice of meditation was banned in schools a few centuries ago when the leaders of the day were worried that it created children who could think for themselves!)
We can learn to recognise our black and white, emotional thinking. For one thing, it's illogical, either/or, fight or flight, and there's usually a faint voice of reason in the background saying "aw, come on!!" if we choose to listen to it.
It's particularly important to recognise illogical nonsense when it's being fed to us, whether by journalists, cult leaders or the lady we met on the bus. We can avoid some of the nonsense by cutting down on how much television we watch, choosing our viewing options carefully, taking newspapers with a pinch of salt (use them for the transport of fish and chips only) and constantly asking questions, questions, questions.
We can avoid swallowing whole any one person's take on reality, or any organisation's set of beliefs, rules, customs and fairy tales. We can check out the scientific evidence rather than blindly accept myths and fantasies as if they were facts, as a result of our own fear or wishful thinking.
When we are calm and rational, we can step back further still and take the widest possible viewpoint, becoming wise to the tricks our own mind gets up to and also to other people's attempted manipulations. We can begin to recognise potentially unhelpful input before we let it become lodged in our brains.
If we already have a few unhelpful templates, for example any which are making ourselves or other people unhappy or causing actual harm, we can notice them and, in doing so, we give ourselves an opportunity to change them.
If our mental map of the world is that "I am a victim, I am useless, I am always getting things wrong and I will never amount to much and life is basically unfair", we can choose to replace our "I am" statements with more positive ones such as: "I've learned some useful lessons from previous setbacks and basically I'm a good person and I've got my own strengths and talents, whether or not others always appreciate them, and I can succeed in my chosen area of interest if I really put my mind to it." This is a healthier map for us to have in our minds, as it enables us to grow instead of holding us back, and our actions will be more likely to inspire other people, rather than making us a pain to be with so that they avoid our company.
We can choose to read inspiring stories, listen to uplifting music and spend more time with wise, cheerful, compassionate, intelligent people (while skilfully avoiding gurus and other dodgy individuals who come across as wise, cheerful, compassionate and intelligent as long as we keep giving them our money and unquestionning obedience! ).
Our brains largely use the power of metaphor to lay down our templates and we can therefore use helpful metaphors to replace any dodgy ones. Good therapists know this and may use stories and anecdotes to allow you to see a different slant on a situation or consider some more helpful ideas about the world. Sometimes this results in what's known as a "paradigm shift" like the man in a boat yelling out to another boat in the fog to get out of the way and, when he eventually rams into it, finding out that it was actually a boat-shaped rock.
Our biggest mental map is our overall world-view; the one that, hopefully, gives our lives a meaningful context. If you are currently struggling to find meaning in your own life right now, you can ask yourself what meaning you choose to give your life! You may also be very interested in some of the other pages on this website, and you might also like to visit the onesong website.
A word about schizophrenia
All the above is all very well if we can simply calm down and access our rational mind without interference from hallucinations or voices in our heads. If this kind of stuff is going on in your head, keeping it real can be a bit more of a challenge than it is for most people.
What it might be useful to know is that the latest insights into this condition suggest that hallucinations occur when the reality simulator which we use when we are dreaming becomes over-active and not properly switched off when we are awake. So the boundary between reality, as most of us understand it, and the fantasies of dreaming sleep get blurred to the point where it becomes difficult to separate one from the other.
Just knowing this has empowered lots of people to get a handle on their condition. For more information about schizophrenia go to the website of the Human Givens Institute, where you will also find some helpful information and advice about OCD, addiction and many other topics.
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