Cognitive maps

A helpful metaphor for understanding how we think is to consider that we have a map in our awareness that explains what is happening, what we may want to have happen, and how we might act to create what we need.  We call these cognitive maps.

Very early in life we become able to recognize the face of our mother. We see many faces, but we know which one belongs to Mom. We have in our awareness a sort of map of the colors and shapes that make up the face of Mom and we identify it and respond differently to it than to any other faces we see.

Each day we build upon our internal representations of the world around us so we can make new distinctions and anticipate more events. We hear footsteps outside our room and we know that one of our parents is there. We see the color of the puree in the food bowl and we know that we are getting strained peas for dinner. We learn the streets from home to school so we can walk to and from by ourselves. We learn the rules for chess and become able to play. We learn to solve differential equations.

At every moment we observe the world around us and anticipate what is likely to happen. When we are right, our cognitive map is confirmed. When we are wrong, we adjust the map so that it more accurately predicts what will arise in the real world.

This is the essence of the scientific method. We are curious about what is happening in the world around us. We create a hypothesis, a sort of tentative map, and then venture out into the world to see if the hypothesis holds. If it does, we hold onto that map and use it to build other maps. If it doesn't, we put it aside, perhaps making a note to ourselves to be wary of that kind of map in the future.

Remember what Albert Einstein said; "a problem cannot be solved with the level of consciousness which creates the problem." What he is pointing out to us is that the way we look at a problem constitutes a level of thinking, a perspective, which is necessarily an imperfect map of the territory. The errors in the map create problems which the map can't solve. We need to find better, more comprehensive, and often more complex maps to solve the problems which seem irresolvable.

My youngest son had to struggle to learn to read. One day we spent several hours on some basic words which he was finally able to get. He was able to see the letters s, t, o, and p and to know that when they were in that order, they meant stop. He knew the spoken word stop, but this day he became able to look at the printed letters and know they represented the word. The pieces of his cognitive map fit together.

The next day we had some errands to run and as we drove through the neighborhood he pointed and shouted, "Look, there's one! Stop!" And then as we approached the next corner he again shouted with glee, "There is another one." For him, the stop signs had not existed before that day. Once he had the cognitive map for making meaning of the sequence of those letters, there were suddenly signs on every corner.

Our verbal language is a lower order map. By "lower order" I don't mean less important, but rather more basic. It is by our language that we form the building blocks of more complex maps. Language itself doesn't fully solve our problems, but without language we don't have the basic tools with which to even name the problem, much less to solve it.

The way we talk shapes the way we think. The way we think shapes the way we act. The way we act builds our relationship with those around us. If we are to repair our relationships with others, we have to change the way we act. To change the way we act, we have to change the way we think and talk. We have to change the words we use and the maps which form our understanding of the world.

These conceptual maps we use are ones we have carefully crafted out of our life experience. They are the best maps we can find to help us navigate the waters of our daily circumstances. They help us find our way around. They help us know how to tie our shoes, whether to raise our hand, and how to hit the pitch. They are an internal representation or symbol of the external reality and we use that representation to know what to do.

We form a map when we discover something we believe to be true which we want to apply to a future circumstance. Since I will need to tie my shoes again I will remember to "put the right end under the left, pull them tight, make a loop on the right, make a loop on the left, wrap the left loop around the right loop and pull them tight." Since I will be called on if I never raise my hand, I will be sure to raise my hand whenever I know the answer but not when I don't. If I want to get on base I have to follow the pitch with my eyes and not look at where I want the hit to go. We have thousands and thousands of maps in our glove box.

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