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Our brains will use whatever maps we give them.

NLP's 1933 roots and why eating menus isn't pretty

A founding principle of NLP, the distinction between a map and a territory made its debut in Alfred Korzybski's 1933 seminal work, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics.

The idea seems simple enough -- who, after all, would confuse a roadmap with a road, or a menu with a meal? Yet Korzybski observed that people often confuse what they think with 'reality'. Let's look at an example.

Lack of Self-Confidence

A successful business woman, Cheryl, called me wanting help with self-confidence. "I never feel self-confident," she complained. Over the course of our first conversation, however, she revealed that she did feel self-confident in a great many areas of her life -- her ability to evaluate markets, her ability to be proactive, her ability to run marathons, her talents in finance, cooking and writing, to name a few.

There were specific areas where she was having difficulty, and from these she had somehow formed a neuro-linguistic map which said, "I never feel self-confident." It was as if she would look at this map, then look at the world around her, and wilt inside.

Her map had linguistically deleted all of her many self-confident experiences. It's not that she literally, intellectually believed her map statement to be true when asked about it. She would say, "Of course it's not literally true!" Just the same, she had been using it daily for years and the effect was understandably demoralizing.

As it so happened, getting to the place where Cheryl felt the kind of self-confidence she really wanted involved more than just changing the words in one map statement -- because she had a number of other limiting maps connected to it. They all reinforced each other and formed a sort of impassible matrix she couldn't get through.

But as her confusion between her maps and what was 'real' began to lift, she began making some interesting map changes, creating a new matrix which not only let her through, it invited her forward, supported her and energized her as she made great strides in self-confidence.

Brains Aim to Please

Left to their own devices, our brains will accept whatever maps we give them and will use them again and again. Brains aim to please -- and that's a good thing, not a bad thing. They have a strong tendency, however, to reuse preferred maps, regardless of the territory. As a result, people sometimes get turned around, become lost, and make themselves unhappy. They may even put themselves in danger, all the while not realizing that a particular map they are using does not correspond to the territory they are navigating.

It would be as if someone moved to California from Kansas but continued to use his Kansas roadmap because he was familiar with it and liked it better than the California roadmap.

The difference is, with mental maps, we often don't realize that we're using a map at all. Our mental maps are not quite as obvious as a printed roadmap because we use our mental maps to think our thoughts and feel our feelings. In Korzybski's words, we easily confuse them with the territory.

Outdated Maps

No map is ever completely true. Maps are static analogs, like a snapshot, while territories are dynamic, like a river. Maps can become outdated. They may be resourceful at one time in our lives and limiting at another.

Imagine a child who creates a belief map of his context in an unhappy family situation from which he cannot escape. He might think, "If I hide, I'll stay out of trouble." For him, given his situation, that might be a pretty useful map. But if he continues to use it when he grows up and functions as an adult in an adult world with many more resources and abilities, in entirely different contexts, that same belief map could be an extremely limiting factor in his life.

MAPS, TERRITORIES and NLP

Here's something curious.

Korzybski coined the term 'neuro-linguistic', referring to the connectedness of our nervous systems and physical responses to our thoughts as structured by the language we use.

NLP extends the definition of 'map' to include both sensory perception and communication at the pre-linguistic level. The implications are profound. We can never know a thing in itself, we can only know our own neurological translation of it. By the time we are aware of anything through our senses, it has already undergone significant transformations. Information has been deleted, distorted and generalized by our nervous systems in the very process of performing what we call 'perception'.

Alan Watts once wrote, "We know the world by a process of constantly transforming it into ourselves." The epistemology of NLP's extension of "The Map is Not The Territory" to the pre-linguistic processes of perception and awareness is founded in science. It is a well understood fact of neurology that nothing can reach our awareness by route of our senses which has not been transformed into the terms of our nervous system.

John Grinder & Carmen Bostic St. Clair, in their 2003 book, Whispering In the Wind, have taken this principle to its logical conclusion: "Even the territory is not the territory." Meaning, if we have only awareness of our own nervous systems directly, we cannot realistically assume our awareness has anything to do with a 'real' world out there' at all. This is not to say that NLP proposes that there is no 'real' world 'out there' -- it doesn't assume that, either.

NLP simply points out that our neuro-linguistic processes are powerful enough, on their own, to produce our awareness and subsequent responses. The question of whether or not there is a 'real world out there' is outside of NLP's domain.

Therapeutic Value

"The Map is Not The Territory," has tremendous therapeutic value. It allows us to accept our thoughts and feelings for what they are -- just thoughts, just feelings. It encourages us to take our thoughts with a grain of salt. We can become curious about them, we can evaluate them, and we can change them if other thoughts or feelings would be more useful, healthy and life affirming. We can improve our maps. And by doing so, we can improve the quality of our lives, our experiences, our relationships, our health and our success.

Copyright © 2017 John David Hoag. All rights reserved.
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The Map Is Not The Territory
"We know the world by a process of constantly transforming it into ourselves." -- Alan Watts
We can improve our maps. And by doing so, we can improve the quality of our lives.