The Map Is Not The Territory 🗺️
It's time to better understand this powerful concept so we can break free from the illusion of knowing reality.
A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.
— Alfred Korzybski
“The map is not the territory!” my coach said to me as I told him about the wave of anxiety I felt after sending an email to my manager and not hearing back right away.
As I waited impatiently for her response, my mind concocted elaborate stories to explain the delay and then escalated quickly to anxiety-laden assumptions.
I still wasn’t able to fully comprehend the meaning of it, so I decided to understand what the phrase means finally.
In this post, I share what my understanding is in hopes that you can use this powerful idea in your life to break free from thoughts that prevent your forward momentum and keep you stuck in your thoughts.
A map is a simplification.
A map is a static representation of a place, not the actual place itself. There is no possible way a map could hold every single part of the place it represents. Information about the place needs to be abstracted to be able to be represented and understood. A map is a reduction, a simplified representation, and a reproduction of the place with limits.
Just like physical maps are limited in the information they convey, the mental maps our minds create are limited in the information they convey to us, causing us to believe a distorted view of reality.
The real world is ever-changing, but when our mental maps don’t change in the face of new information, we face an inner struggle because we take our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs to be unquestionably valid.
Let’s get meta: A visual representation of the process
Visuals help to convey complex ideas, and below is my attempt to show the process information takes from experiencing reality to becoming a map.
Let’s walk through the visual, starting from the right side:
Reality - Reality is complex, ever-changing, multi-faceted, and ultimately unknowable because of the limitations of our senses.
Senses - Our senses are limited. We can only see what is at the surface and only so far. Our sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing are limited, which enables us only to take in a small part of the full experience of reality.
Filters - The information we collect from our senses is subjected to our generalizations, biases, judgments, and programming and, as a result, distorted to become our mental maps.
Map - This is the understanding and the picture we have of reality as it has traveled from our senses through our filters. The map is what we tend to confuse how reality with.
As you can see, by the time our minds create a mental map, the information from experience is already limited by our senses and filtered through our conscious and unconscious thoughts, so there is a high probability of the information being out of date or inaccurate.
The map appears to us more real than the land.
— D.H. Lawrence
Mistaking the map for the territory
When we start to believe that what we see or know about something is the thing itself, we delude ourselves into thinking we have the whole picture and understanding to make decisions.
We think we understand a person, place, or thing fully because we have an idea in our head of what it is.
“Naming things is a human act, it is not an act of nature. We are the ones who through language create things out of the phenomena around us. Yet we forget that we control this process and let the process control us. Naming thing— using language—is a very high level abstraction, and when we name something we ‘freeze’ it by placing it in a category and making a ‘thing’ out of it. Language is a map but three important things to remember about maps are: the map is not the territory; no map can represent all aspects of the territory; and every map reflects the mapmaker’s point of view.”
— Lutz, Wiliam (1996) The New Doublespeak: Why No One Knows What Anyone is Saying Anymore.
The ideas we have and the beliefs we hold strongly are created from incomplete information collected through our senses, which are limited as well. Add to this the cognitive biases and logical fallacies we fall prey to, and you can see that the information we gather is incomplete and skewed.
...the name is not the thing,
...the symbol is not the reality,
...the belief is not the fact,
...the abstraction is not the abstracted.
Maps don’t constitute knowledge.
As Richard Feynman, the theoretical physicist, explains in this video, we must not confuse the name for the actual thing. The name and the map are useful tools when we communicate with others. We may have an idea or make an assumption of what an object is from the name or our understanding of what the object is, but the name is not the thing itself, and our understanding of the object isn’t the thing either.
Maps, both mental and physical, are useful and needed tools for our everyday lives. We wouldn't be able to function without using the words and symbols used for the complex ideas they represent.
But just like maps need to be updated regularly to represent changes in the territory, we need to question the mental maps we have created and update our beliefs about our world when we come across new information that challenges our previous maps.
The maps of our lives
I started out thinking that there were only a few types of maps, such as the one we have of other people, but my understanding was limited, and my coach reminded me that there are many other types of maps we create and hold on to such as:
The opinions we hold. (All bananas can do no wrong, but apples are bad!)
Our political views. (The way of the banana is the only way!)
The identity we hold. (I’m a bad banana!)
The labels we identify with. (I’m a green banana!)
Comparing ourselves to others on social media. (That bunch of bananas is always so happy; they have a perfect life!)
Ceci n’est pas une pipe. (This is not a pipe.)
René Magritte, the surrealist painter, brilliantly conveyed the nature of reality and helped make the concept “the map is not the territory” clear through his painting above. What we see isn’t a pipe; it’s a painting, a representation of a pipe, just as the words we use to represent things are not the actual things themselves.
💥 Take action: Adopt a Beginner’s Mind.
Now that we have a better understanding of what “The Map Is Not The Territory” means and how we create maps from incomplete information at best, what can we do about it?
One thing you can do right away, assuggests in his mind-opening book Liminal Thinking,
Empty your cup. In order to learn anything new, you must empty your cup, so your existing knowledge, theories, assumptions, and preconceptions don’t get in the way. In Zen practice, this is called beginner’s mind.
By emptying our cup and adopting a beginner’s mind, we bypass and depend less on our incomplete and outdated mental maps and seek to understand the ever-changing reality as it is in each moment.
The transformational value of this concept
Going back to the example I shared at the beginning about sending an email to my manager and then giving credence to the map I had created in my mind. Now that I understand that the map is not the territory, I can catch myself before I fall into the trap of believing the map my mind has created of the situation.
I can’t possibly know what is going on with my manager unless I ask her, and any map my mind creates to explain away the situation is going to be wrong. Now, when I send an email or a message, I send it and don’t spend any more time overthinking it by creating a story in my mind, which prevents a lot of inner struggles that used to weigh me down.
Here are a few points to remember about the maps our minds create:
A map is a static representation, an interpretation of a real object, not the object itself.
When we update our maps, the real object will not change.
No map can fully represent reality.
A map can be wrong without us realizing it.
A map is an interpretation, and a map needs interpretation, so when we reference our maps, we are actually interpreting an interpretation, and that can cause a lot of struggle.😵💫
By understanding "The Map is Not The Territory," we can see that our thoughts are not facts to believe at face value.
We can become curious about our thoughts, evaluate them, challenge them, and ultimately change them to be more helpful and supportive partners in our life journey.
We can use the metaphor to cut through the noise, misinformation, misunderstandings, and biases we hold.
Instead of staying stuck with an outdated mental map, we can get back in touch with the ever-changing reality around us so we can continually learn, grow, and move toward our potential.
I’m curious to know what you think of the phrase “The map is not the territory” and how you see it being applied in your life.
Share your thoughts in the comments!