How we learn to see the world colors the world
Wouldn’t it be easy if we could just get a diagnosis of PTSD, depression, or anxiety, understand what we know about that and change everything like we pick up a new hobby! There! All better. It doesn’t work like that in my experience. I struggle with all of the above and I’ve been trying to figure out how those things work for a long time. I still have so very much to study and learn, but here are my thoughts on that subject this week.
Light hits the retina and creates a 2d image of the world. This 2d image is then reconstructed into a probably 3d understanding of the world within the function of the brain (Quigley, n.d.). Everything we know and experience gets constructed in our brains.
I remembered a video about a man using glasses that gave inverted vision and trying to ride a bicycle. I remember it being very hard for the man, doable for his son, but that overall, very hard. While looking for that experiment today, I found others that came to a different conclusion. In one, a young woman wore inversion glasses for a week and was able to adapt pretty well. The underlying point remains valid though, that the way we learn to see the world, on a neurological level, influences how we are able to react to it.
Just as the visual cortex learns to process light and reconstruct a functional if not 100% accurate form of the world for us to use, the threat detection module of the brain (The modularity of the brain is still being debated), learns how to respond to external threats. Anthropology uses a term called mental mapping. International Mental Map Association (2018) defines mental mapping as, “Mental or cognitive mapping is the product of a series of psychological processes that register, code, store, then call to mind and decode all information on our everyday spatial environment.”
When a child lives in an environment of chronic and acute trauma, the mental map created adapts to help the child stay alive in that environment.
A violent, abusive, and dangerous environment does not always last forever, fortunately, but having lived through that can leave a human being with a mental map that affects how they see the world, so that through the lens of that mental map safety is little more than a myth, boundaries are impossible to set in healthy ways, and toxic behaviors remain ingrained as seemingly effective interpersonal strategies.
Some experiences seem more deeply incised into the mental map of an individual than others. As most problem solving strategies arise from how a person sees the world, themselves, and which strategies have been successful in the past. The mental map that develops from childhood into adulthood seems like the most natural and indisputable experience of the world. So it follows that the problem solving strategy a person is most comfortable with will likely align with that durable mental map.
As a survivor of childhood trauma that spanned much of my early life, this mental map informed my worldview so that my own self worth was very difficult to see or believe in. If I was lonely, it was because I wasn’t an acceptable person for others to be around. I found many explanations for this that fit with my worldview. I just hadn’t found a place with good people yet. My being somewhat intelligent bothered other people. All human beings are dangerous and bad. With a little wiggle and some squinting these answers could fit within my early mental map.
The problem was that they didn’t solve the problem. Yesterday, I came to understand that the problem isn’t with other people, but with my mental map. It’s like realizing that you’ve been wearing upside and backwards glasses your whole life and you have to take them off and learn to see the world differently.
That is no less frightening, no less of a problem than the problems I had before. Still, it has the ring of truth to it and bears testing. At the moment, I have no idea how to construct a better mental map, yet. Yet can be such a lovely word. We live in a world where black men die for minor offenses and electronic art stamped with a bitcoin signature sells for a very lot of money. It’s hard to look at the world and find a healthy mental map without knowing what to even look for yet. That’s one of the reasons that maladaptive mental maps can be so durable, because they do seem to fit with the world where black men die for driving and At least I know I need to start looking now.
Heartman, R. C. (2013, July 25). Inverted Vision Experiment Clip. YouTube. https://youtu.be/MHMvEMy7B9k.
International Mental Map Association. (2018, February 24). What is Mental Mapping? Mentalmap. https://mentalmap.org/mi-a-mentalis-terkepezes/.
Quigley, D. (n.d.). Methods for Solving Problems. Coursera. https://www.coursera.org/learn/mind-machine-problem-solving-methods.
About the author
I write a lot of lgbt+ stuff, lots of sci fi. My big story right now is The Moon's Permission.
I've been writing all my life. Every time I think I should do something else, I come back to words.