Shape Shifting…or how cognitive maps have rocked my world



Have you ever had the experience of going back to where you grew up, seeing with adult eyes a place that you had experienced as a child?  Usually people remark that everything seems so much smaller.  The houses you knew, the parks, the walks to school, all of those things that were the fabric of your daily childhood experience seem to shrink in size when you return as an adult.  Of course that makes perfect sense.  When you were a child, you were physically smaller, so your actual relationship to the concrete aspects of your environment was different.  Relative to you, things ARE smaller once you grow up.


I have recently had a different experience, one that strikes me as nearly opposite but arising from the same place.   I have been visiting a part of the US where I lived as an adult, where I worked, raised children, commuted, participated in all the usual activities of a busy adult life.    The area is fairly heavily populated, towns strung like tightly packed pearls on a necklace of highways, traffic usually busy, lots of stores and businesses, shopping malls and medical office parks, housing subdivisions, convenience stores competing with each other on every corner.   I have been visiting my former home, the college where I worked as a professor, the community where I consulted twice a month, and places that I frequented to run, bike, walk or drink coffee.   What I have discovered is that everything here is seems bigger, rather than smaller.  Distances are much longer than I remembered them to be.  Buildings are larger.   Rooms don’t seem different but buildings themselves seem out of human proportion, or at least out of proportion to me.

What’s going on here?   I think it is a great example of how our minds actually create our reality.   The relevant research term is “cognitive mapping,” which refers to the internal structure we create to navigate our literal world.   The parts of this literal world that I recollect the best are the ones where I had a personal connection, and I remember them without really remembering the parts in between.  That is, I can easily recall the building where my office was, and the coffee place across the street.  What was not clear to me (in memory) was the actual distance between them.   I remembered the route to drive to the college but the distance was a shock to me!  It takes a long time to get between here and there in real life, but in my memory, there was no distance, and hence no time, at all.


I am sure I could get used to this place again, and stop feeling befuddled by my perceptions.  But the question it raises for me is  a bit bigger.   If I have created a mental map of my surroundings, based on my experiences, my “working model” of the place, that means I have left out things that my mind classifies as irrelevant.   I have heightened my perception of the salient points.   If I do this for locations, do I also do it for other important elements of my experience?  I am sure that the answer is yes.  We developed these minds to help us manage in an over stimulating environment.  We automatically classify, label, categorize, and evaluate all of the data that enters our sensory systems.   I appreciate that;   that cognitive ability makes it possible for us to learn new things, take in new information and make sense of it.   But I am still left wondering what it is that I don’t know….what might I be missing in all that is around me?   If I am in fact creating my perceptual world out of some objective collection of matter and energy, I am likely missing quite a bit.

Parallel universes?  Right here in our very own minds?   Sure, why not?   Maybe that’s a part of therapy;  once you have a different way to look at your circumstances, they might look a whole lot different.

Have you noticed things that were “new” simply because you were able to shift your perspective?   What does that mean to you?


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