The Map is Not the Territory

“The map is not the territory” is a phrase coined by Alfred Korzybski in the 1900’s. What does it mean though? It means that our ideas about how the world works will only ever be an approximation, or an estimation, of the ‘actual’ world. You cannot drive on the lines of a map, nor swim in a map’s blue spaces. These are representations of a thing, not the thing itself. This is what is meant by, “The map is not the territory.” Your ideas about reality are not actually reality.

A map is scaled down for convenience. Specific elements have been filtered out in the process to create a “decent or useful” representation of the streets and pathways of the city, so it’s easier to get around.

A map helps you to navigate from place to place, however looking at a place on a map is a different experience altogether from the sensory intake that happens in the real world.

We like maps and models, they are useful. However it’s good to remember that maps and models are not actually reality – they’re just representations of reality the same way that a map is a representation of a place.

The real world is always developing, and as the real world develops, so must our ‘maps’ and models. Let’s consider the fact that in 1970, a map of Toronto will be hugely different to a map from 2020, 50 years later.

We are always creating mental models of the world. The information available is too vast, so there is a sort of pressure on us to create a model and keep it for an extended amount of time. Physical models of our realities, mental models of our realities are always subject to change and sometimes require upgrading and updating.

So, how do we update our mental models? Now that we’re aware that we have them, we can start to notice what we might otherwise miss, and then question our assumptions, and the stories we tell ourselves, about who and what we are, who other people are to us, and how the world around us works.

It’s also sensible to look at where our own mental models have come from.

I will see the world differently than you. We all have unique ‘mental maps’ of the world we live in.

Our mental maps are created from day-to-day experiences and perceptions, so they are completely subjective. As we all sense things in unique and personal ways, kind of like a fingerprint, no two people have the same mental map.

The world is massive, and truly beyond total comprehension. Our mental maps are personal, and help us navigate a complicated reality.

We form opinions, conclusions, and assumptions on a daily basis. These opinions, conclusions and assumptions form our mental maps. Our beliefs are these maps. From our beliefs, we form attitudes, and see things from our individual perspectives.

“External information that is consumed by us is filtered through these core beliefs. In essence, this is our ‘mental map.”

We believe that we are objective, and see things as they are. However, we might not be as objective as we want to be because we are all conditioned to accept the world, not as it is, but as we are.

We base every decision we make on our awareness of reality. If our awareness is limited or faulty, our thoughts and actions will follow suit. We must expand the perception of our reality in order to be the best possible version of ourselves.

When we believe in something strongly, we are eager to call it the truth. Some will go to great lengths to proclaim it, and we can find ourselves becoming defensive or aggressive about our beliefs when they conflict with beliefs of others.

Without the correct training and practice, our minds are not capable of holding conflicting beliefs. This causes cognitive dissonance, which is something like pain in the brain. The brain will filter or distort your perception of reality in order to have beliefs and reality align, and this is called neural coherence.

The observations we make are primarily used to support perceptions, experiences, assumptions, and beliefs however random or specific. We all have a different perspective from each other. Our observations are primarily influenced by what we want to see, or our focus.

If a group of friend walk down a street, one might look in shop windows, one might look at the opposite sex, and one might be answering a text and miss it all. The point is that even people sharing an experience can have very different perceptions of that experience. This is why eyewitness accounts can be so unreliable.

Our mental maps can be so different. Although we occupy the same world, it is important for us to realize that our maps are in fact different from each other.

Once we understand this, we can communicate more effectively. We all instinctively communicate using our own map. If we do not consider the other person’s mental map, then communication breaks down.

New experiences, and new learnings can expand and improve our map. Expanding and improving our map can change our attitudes towards a specific thing, a person or an idea.

Some people call this life experience, but it is not dependent on age. Rather, maturity drives our willingness to consider different perspectives from our own.

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