Saturday, September 26, 2009

Enhancing your map of the world

In 1933, Count Alfred Korzybski wrote and published a seminal book called ‘Science and Sanity’ and founded a field of philosophy known as General Semantics. In his book, Korzybski showed how language influences our perceptions and actions and that incorrect use of language and thought can lead to what he called 'un-sane' behaviour.

Indeed, Korzybski coined the term ‘neuro-linguistics’ and created the foundation for many fields that sprang from his original insights, including the field of NLP.

Korzybski focused on the process of abstracting, of how we as humans build and evolve concepts and generalisations. He described how we build theories and maps of the world in order to make sense of our experience.

The map is NOT the territory

One of the key insights from General Semantics is that “the map can never be the territory”.

What this means is that... given that humans can never operate off and know the full and complete world – the territory – they must, and can only ever operate off a map of the territory.

And no map can ever be a full representation of the territory; therefore we will always be operating off a deleted, distorted and generalised/abstracted map of that territory.

This sounds like a very simple and obvious idea, yet it has profound implications and applications.

Thinking ToolMapping the world

"The map is NOT the territory. It only
represents the territory."

Most people don’t realise that their five senses do not actually provide an absolute and real experience of the world. Our senses and brains evolved to efficiently track and notice difference in the world, not to provide an absolute and accurate representation. Each of our senses tracks change rather than absolute data, and our brain then takes each of these differences and changes and does its best job at making a useful map of the territory.

For example, you probably didn’t know that your eyes are not like a camera. A digital camera has an array of pixels that take the amount of light focused on them and provides an absolute representation, a one-for-one representation of the image that the camera sees. Your eye however, has rods and cones for receptors, and these don’t measure the absolute amount of light focused on them. Instead they only give a signal when the amount of light changes; they only measure and track change and difference.

You have small muscles around your eyes called ‘micro-saccades’ and these muscles keep your eyes moving and tremoring in micro-circles. These movements ensure that the image on your retina keeps changing.

When neuro-physiologists first anesthetized these muscles, they found what was called the ‘Ganzfeld effect’ – the grey/complete field effect. When the image subtended on the retina stops moving, the eye stops sending a signal to the brain. If we anesthetized your eye muscles and kept your head still, and if there was nothing moving in your visual field, your vision would grey out and become blank. After about 5 seconds, you would see nothing.

This is because the eye and brain didn’t evolve to get an absolute image of the world. They evolved to efficiently help you survive, and the easiest and best way to do this is to only notice and respond to difference and change.

All of your senses and nervous system are ‘designed’ by evolution in the same way. You only track for difference and your unconscious mind builds a ‘best-guess’ map of the world from integrating and summing all these little changes and differences. You see, you can never ever absolutely know the world. You don’t have the sensory apparatus to experience the world absolutely.

Add to this your sensory systems only operate over small ranges of size, frequency, speed, etc. and you’ll realise that your map is certainly very, very deleted, generalised and distorted.
And as Korzybski pointed out ‘The map is NOT the territory’.

So when it comes to knowing the world, when it comes to knowing the ‘truth’ you need to be very, very careful. You can never absolutely know the ‘truth’. Your abstractions and the abstractions of your abstractions are a long way from absolute reality. That’s what science is all about, it’s a method for attempting to create accurate theories about the world; and any theory in science is always provisional and always an abstraction.

Language influences our perceptions

So what can you do with these insights? Well, Korzybski pointed out that there are certain forms of abstracting that our language and our culture encourage that are not accurate and lead to un-sane or neurotic behaviour. Language influences our perceptions. By becoming aware of how your language influences your brain, your thinking and decisions, your motivations and inevitably your actions, you can begin to consciously choose more accurate and sane languaging and abstracting.

You’ve already been introduced in this blog to some of the ideas from General Semantics and the tools developed by the fields it inspired and informed such as NLP and REBT. These tools, skills and concepts are life enhancing and can be used to generate life enhancing models or maps of your world that are more sane and more rational. Continue coming back to this blog and reading the coming entries and you’ll experience and learn many more. In coming blog entries I'll be sharing ideas and insights on two linguistic/cognitive techniques called E-prime and O-prime that are very powerful and life enhancing.

Until then, keep enhancing your map of the world :-)

best wishes and kind thoughts,

For those who are interested to learn more... Here's Korzybski's seminal book: Science and Sanity

And here's some other excellent books on General Semantics that I recommend as life and mind changing:


  1. Fascinating info about the workings of the eye and the analogy with brain evolution. This kind of examination is what elevates the anecdotal to the empirical. Thanks for pulling so many intangibles over the bridge into the Cartesian world, Grant...

    -- Sully

  2. Great to see even more science backing up what I've written about in this blog post:

    "The fundamental unit of information in the brain is difference"

    New research is backing this up:

    Brain Neurons Subtract Images, Use Differences


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