Mind Maps. The Stories We Carry in Our Minds.

By Gerrit Van Wyk.

Wild and tame lions.

Famous South African storyteller, Jan Spies, told a story about a cattle farmer who had trouble with a lioness killing his stock. He and his friends tracked the lioness doing the damage and shot it, and then, to their horror, discovered it had a little cub. No-one wanted to kill the cute little cub, so he took it home. The family had a pet pig named David who became best buddies with the lion, which they named Jonathan, and where the one went, so did the other. Friends warned him a lion is a wild animal and one day will turn on him, but he ignored that. One day as he was riding on his horse, he saw Jonathan stalking David in the tall grass. He grabbed his horsewhip, galloped up to Jonathan and started whipping him. Jonathan turned around and growled at him, which made him even madder, and he decided, while still hot under the collar, today is the day he will put an end to it, and galloped home to grab his rifle, which he kept in an outside storeroom. As he entered the room, he stumbled over Jonathan sleeping on the cold floor. The lion he whipped wasn’t Jonathan, it was a wild one.

The point of the story is, we create stories about ourselves, others, institutions, how the world works, etc., in our heads, which I call mind maps. Like road maps, we need them to navigate through a complex world, but as Korzybski pointed out, maps are outlines of a landscape, and doesn’t represent it exactly, and neither do our mind maps. Mind maps are always incomplete and flawed, although we share maps, they are different to each of us, and they remain unconscious, so we don’t stop to reflect on them unless we stumble over something forcing us to make the effort to do so.

Challenging them causes what Festinger called cognitive dissonance; your map and the terrain no longer matches, and for psychological reasons, we try to repair the map, rather than ask whether we need a different one. Peter Senge, who calls mind maps mental models, mentioned experts and leaders find it particularly difficult to let go of their errand maps.

Kenneth Boulding wrote in The Image many years ago, images, or what I call mind maps, contain subjective shared and personal knowledge that grew from experience, and determines our current actions and responses. They are not based on the truth, but on what we believe to be true, and like memories, change incrementally and sometimes significantly through ongoing interactions and experiences. All maps are based on a range of unacknowledged assumptions.

To be able to function socially and otherwise, a large part of growing up, as Mead, Vygotsky, Piaget, and others wrote, is spent copying maps from people around us and our societies. Maps create stability, and change instability, which is why we resist it. And yet, in a complex world, change is the default, which means reality drags us into what is different kicking and screaming.

An important map is the story we tell about ourselves, or what some call a self, or personality (a person existing). We are born with a potential, like an uncarved block, which others, and life experience, chip away at to create who we become. Most of us, and most researchers, think of what emerges as something like a statue, but the carving never stops, hence we shapeshift lifelong. Jung pointed out what gets chipped off becomes a pile of rubble that never disappears, and influences what we do and who we are from the shadows.

We also tell stories about and have maps of others, which we project on them like a movie on a screen, which is not who they are. If they don’t follow the script and act or behave as we want them to, we blame the screen, not the projector and the movie. Psychologists use the term projection for it.

We collectively share maps, and know that. The concept of culture depends on it, which can be seen as patterns of shared assumptions a group incorporated while finding solutions to adapting to reality. It creates stability and lessens collective anxiety. Societies spend a lot of time handing down these maps to new generations by what Boulding called a transcript, formally via institutions, and informally via our peers. In time, we begin to look for messages confirming the tradition of the map, and when successful, such maps become resistant, and potentially dangerous if institutionalized.

Mind maps are symbols acting as filters to interpret reality, both the physical and social parts, which divides messages into confirming the map (good), or not (bad), depending on what we value. “Bad” means in conflict with what we value, to which we respond with hostility or by ignoring it.

To Vickers, we constantly compare what is, to what is expected (a map), and make decisions trying to close the gap, which he called appreciation. It helps locate ourselves, find meaning, and maintain stability. If there is no gap, the map stays the same, but if there is, it puts the map in question. By default, as Mercer and Sperbier showed, we try to adjust reality to fit the map, but sometimes, when the gap is too big, the map will change through something like Kuhn’s paradigm shift.

Mind maps are useful generalizations, because they don’t need a perfect fit to work, but the downside is you also don’t pick up mismatches until the gap is large and can no longer be ignored, which leads to the boiled frog dilemma.

Rasmussen’s generic error-modelling system says based on past learning, most of our actions take place automatically until there is a mismatch, in which case we cycle through generic rule-based solutions of the if-then type, and only if that fails do we sit down and try to problem solve. The reason is automatic and rule-based actions take little effort, or as Gigerenzer said, are frugal, but reasoning is energy intensive.

Lewin believed bringing about change is a three-step process; unfreeze existing beliefs, change them, then refreeze them at new level, which ignores human nature and reality, which is the crux of the matter. We resist unfreezing to our own detriment for cognitive and social reasons, which makes maps very resistant to change.

The foundational map of Western society is the belief reality is machine-like, giving us a false sense of stability and control. Its neither a good or bad map. Returning to Korzybski, maps can be useful, but can also lead us astray and into a river, and one must be aware of the difference. In the West, we are not.

Geoffrey Vickers said lobster pots are dangerous to lobsters, because they can’t see the way out once they entered it. Unlike lobsters, humans can see the way out of lobster pots, but our minds and maps trap us in mental lobster pots and make us act like lobsters. We are trapped by the mechanistic worldview and associated perverted view of science, and resist looking for a way out because we fear instability and change. It is an old, hackneyed story, and prevents us from seeing the difference between Jonathan and a wild lion. If we don’t open our eyes, it won’t end well.