We have what some describe as ‘mental maps’ in our brain. These maps are built from past experiences and we often use them like autopilots to navigate life. We probably all know the feeling of taking the same route home from work, school, or the store. We don’t even think about it. Mental map. Autopilot.
And, we probably also all know the feeling of running errands on the weekend, listening to the radio, or talking with someone and then finding ourself halfway to work. We didn’t even think about it. The hazard of putting our mental maps on autopilot.
Our brain often takes the same route through our memories. We ‘think’ we treat each new interaction based on what happens in the moment. But not so. Most of the time, we actually go into autopilot, pull up a mental map from previous experiences, and operate off that.
Unfortunately, our mental maps have some serious lesions.
1. we save maps for everything. And so even if I’ve never met you, I’ve got a map for someone like you. Maybe the previous interaction went well, maybe it didn’t. But if I re-use this mental map, I will expect you to fit into the role that you or your doppelganger played before. If you don’t, this may result in you having one of those awkward, painful “I’m not really sure what just happened there, but I don’t think it was me” experiences. You’re right. It probably wasn’t you.
2. We’re more likely to save painful maps than happy maps. We make stronger neural pathways of ‘fear, anger, sadness’ than of ‘joy, happiness, excitement’. So, if I’m operating on autopilot, odds are that I’ll pull up a map with some suspicion, skepticism, and cynicism. Oh, I might hide it well – I know how to ‘act’ socially respectable and the negativity isn’t really who I want to be. But deep inside, I’m probably starting off my current situation with at least a little bit of distrust.
Believe it or not, it actually gets worse.
3. I also will tend to look for things to justify my map. If I’m already angry, I am more likely to notice that a rose has sharp thorns while subconsciously ignoring that it is red and smells good. Shape, color, and odor are all facts – we just have a hard time recognizing the ones that don’t fit with the mental map we’re on. If I pull up the mental map of ‘last time I interacted with you or someone like you, it didn’t go well’, then I will actively look for problems in our discussion.
Yikes and arrgh. How do we break out of these maps; break out of autopilot?
To allow for new thoughts, we need to take time to take time out those mental maps and really look at them. Take time to think. This is often not done in the moment but in times of reflection. End of day. Drive home. A break at lunch. A walk.
I find it helpful for me to start off by considering the feelings that surfaced during a recent experience. Was I anxious or happy or sad or angry? It is easier to identify feelings than thoughts. Once I remember the feeling, I can then dig deeper. What thoughts were running through my head at that time? Are there memories attached? How did I get to this view ‘for someone’ or ‘against someone’?
Perhaps it is time for new thinking. And new maps.
And then I get to decide. Do I really want to go into my next meeting, next relationship, next experience, using yesterday’s assumptions?
If not, then I need to actively seek ways to hang around different people. watch movies, videos, or read books that showcase different perspectives, volunteer to gain empathy. Whatever I do, it will require intentionality. And it may take time. But if I want to travel in different thoughts, I need different maps.