Our Reality Maps

Last Updated on April 30, 2022 by Jason Harris

We don’t live in a material world. We live in a psychic world… And we’re only able to make indirect inferences about the nature of reality.

Arthur Harros (Ethan Hawke), Moon Knight, S1E4

Reality Maps

As far as we can tell, our awareness of everything around and within us is actually an awareness of the neurological “reality maps” we create in our brains. Our awareness, our consciousness (and subconsciousness) resides and lives within this reality map as far as we can tell. Creating it, examining it, questioning it, and creating narratives about it. Our minds. The information we consciously and subconsciously process using our physical brain as a substrate. 

None of us actually live or reside in the physical reality we think we perceive. Or rather, none of our minds actually live or reside in this physical reality. Rather, our minds only live within the neurological reality map we have created of physical reality. But this map in and of itself is a type of reality. A very real “map.”

I know… getting weird! But stay with me!!

[Enter Matrix Theme Music]

Propellerheads – Spybreak, Matrix

As I type on this keyboard, I feel the keys beneath my fingers… and see the words appearing on my screen. My awareness is not actually attuned directly to the keyboard or my screen. Rather, it is attuned to the reality map my brain has created of the keyboard and screen using my five senses.  My mind’s connection with physical reality has an intermediary. My reality map. The one I have created based on the processing of my senses. And given this reality map is composed of chemical and electrical signals in my brain, which take a split second to process, my reality map is always slightly temporally behind (at best) the physical reality it represents.

Furthermore, “current” reality maps are always built upon pre-existing experiences and interpretations… older reality maps. Some of them MUCH older. Some of them even handed down to me in large degree by generations prior.

Our Interactions with Others, Mutual Maps Interacting

As I interact with another person, I am not interacting directly with them, nor them with me.  Rather what I perceive (and what they perceive) are our respective reality maps. In fact, I’m interacting with the reality map in my brain of the person I’m talking to.  And they are interacting and reacting to the reality map they are creating of their experience in their brain. Our respective reality maps are shaped not only by our five senses (and we may sense things differently to some degree) but also our past experiences, our existential and life narratives, our core beliefs, the culture we have been brought up in, etc.

These reality maps DO allow us to indirectly interact with the physical world around us, to include other people… but the reality maps ALWAYS serve as an intermediary to our experience. Our consciousness doesn’t directly experience the physical world around us.

None of Our Reality Maps are fully “Correct” or “Complete”

None of us correctly and fully map out physical reality.  It’s impossible to do so.  This type of omniscience would require FAR more bandwidth than our brains are capable of. So instead we make incomplete and imperfect maps… Approximations. And then often tend to cling to and live within these maps as if they ARE reality.

They aren’t. Rather, these maps are only asymptotes to reality, or at least a fact-based physical reality. I guess one could also view these maps as “reality” as well though.  Very REAL maps.  Made up of very real physical neuro-electrical processes.

As mentioned, none of our maps of reality are fully correct or complete. This can be easily proven. For example, starting at the level of the five senses, there is a tremendous amount of light and sound that is outside of the spectrum of what we as humans can appreciate. We aren’t able to appreciate many of these aspects of reality unless we have special instruments to do so. And even those aspects we can appreciate with our five senses, we often misprocess and misperceive.  

Add onto this different life experiences and core beliefs which will also influence how we perceive and store information… and our maps are always going to be shaped and influenced in often unconscious ways that will cause these maps to deviate from a mutually agreed upon objective external reality.

How Our Maps are Created

All evidence suggests we start creating our reality maps while still in the womb. We hear and feel our mother’s warmth. Her voice, etc. 

After we are born, likewise, we gradually increase our abilities to sense the world around us using our five senses. We are not yet old enough to store memories in long-term storage for conscious retrieval, but these early experiences still impact our subconscious.

Our early reality maps are not only shaped by what we perceive and experience, but also by our genetic predispositions as to how we will interact with and perceive the world around us.

Even before we form permanent memories, we begin to develop attachment styles and preferences that will follow us to varying degrees the rest of our lives. If our care giver is consistently attentive and loving (enough), there is a very good chance we will develop a secure attachment style (about 50% of the population) with ourselves and with others. We will appropriately trust and connect with those around us while also drawing appropriate boundaries to protect ourselves from those that would harm us as well.

If our caregiver is inconsistent in the care provided, constantly sending mixed signals.  Sometimes there, sometimes not.  Sometimes very angry with us, sometimes loving… we may develop more of an anxious or disorganized attachment. Fueled by intermittent reinforcement… we may learn to fawn (hoping for the reward from our caregiver(s) or freeze if the punishment is forthcoming.  Or perhaps flee or fight (as much as we can).

If our caregiver is consistently not present, not emotionally available (enough) we may develop more of an “avoidant” attachment style. Relying more excessively on ourselves (and excluding or pushing others away if they get too comfortable close). 

And all of this starts happening before we can even talk. Reality maps we create… that in turn influence how we perceive and interact with the world around us.

As we get older, we begin to pick up on societal messages about our socioeconomic class, race, gender, our individual talents and beauty (or lack thereof per the society we are in).  All of this will impact our reality maps… both those we create of ourselves and of others.  Often sub-conscious core beliefs.

And many of these reality maps are multi-generational, being handed down to us, functional and healthy or not.

Older still, we more firmly adopt religious (or non-religious) narratives as well as political points of view, and other cultural ways of being. We develop core beliefs that further shape the way we see (or don’t see) the world (and ourselves).   

And as we are doing this… we continue to accumulate our own life experiences interacting with ourselves and with others. If one has adopted an approach or belief in life that is maladaptive later on… this maladaptive reality map often served an adaptive function at an earlier stage of life.

Empathy, a Developed Higher Level Skill

We don’t naturally have the ability to realize our reality maps are NOT reality in our earlier years.  For we perceive them and identify with them as such. Thus… when information is gleaned or others around us act in a way that defies our reality maps… we often will tend to do our best to protect that reality map. Because protecting that map IS protecting our world (as far as we can tell).

It takes a high degree of emotional and intellectual maturity to realize that our maps are incomplete. And to be open to others’ maps, even while sufficiently holding, respecting, honoring and protecting our own maps. This type of emotional and intellectual development happens more the older we get.

Some develop very little of this at all.

Sociopaths lacking empathy for example.

Alter Reality Maps Cautiously

Since we all live in our reality maps… threatening another’s reality map can literally be like destroying or altering their world. Drawing or altering another’s map… or offering to.  I believe such should usually only be done with mutual consent… and gently. Abrupt major shifts in reality maps can be VERY disorienting.

Something I have to remind myself is that no matter how certain I am about the reality of my own map… whichever map I may be operating under at the present, it is always at best an asymptote to reality.

Asymptote to Reality, Imagine the green line represents objective reality and the red line represents our reality map(s). The x-axis represents our level of experience and objective observations. As we gain experience and remain open in a non-biased way to new information, our reality map(s) will more closely match reality over time. Though still always remaining an approximation.

Getting Grounded in Reality

Mindfulness exercises, both to what we are feeling and thinking and to our physical sensations and events within and outside of ourselves can help greatly in “grounding us” in reality.  (Mindfulness Exercises, Meditation, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy/ACT, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy/DBT, etc)

So can cognitive exercises and approaches designed to identify common distortions of reality in our internal narratives… and challenging these. (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy/CBT)

Connecting with Ourselves and Others

As we (and others) participate in these approaches and listen to each other’s past experiences, etc.… our reality maps can begin to become more similar (and will also expand). And we also can learn to hold space for more than one reality map at a time… even when these maps can sometimes be starkly opposing to one another.

https://www.pinterest.com/pin/858217272712838481/

Validating the uniqueness of and importance of our own reality maps and those of others is so important in connecting and relating.  Our emotions, our thoughts, our narratives, our beliefs. 

Self-Compassion and Healing our Shadow Selves

Just as respecting others’ current reality maps is so important for connection, I believe respecting past reality maps that we have personally come to modify over time can also be so important for self-compassion.  Even if we have come to believe those past reality maps were distorted or wrong. Understanding why they were present, and how they came to be, can help us embrace all of ourselves… past and present.

And help us to more compassionately embrace others.

Do We “Create our Own Reality?”

Does all of the above mean I buy into the New-Age mumbo jumbo that “each of us creates our reality by our thoughts?”  No, I don’t. Certainly our thoughts can lead to actions, which can lead to shaping our reality. However, I also believe much of reality just happens and we have very little input into it. The thinking that our external world is nothing more than a reflection of that which resides within I think can be especially harmful to those in a state of suffering, especially from an abusive situation.

We can certainly reframe how we view reality… our reality maps. And this CAN be healthy. But I don’t believe current or past hard physical facts can be changed just by our thoughts.

How Does This Fit into a Faith Transition?

So how do I fit these thoughts into discussion of a faith transition?

I used to hold a certain religious reality map. I believe the map I held to (and that many still hold to) IS an asymptote to reality… though in many regards…. I think many aspects of it don’t in fact adhere very closely to the axis that IS reality. Still, I think in many regards my prior worldview was (and still IS) an asymptote to reality.  And as such… can be helpful in navigating reality.

I’m thankful for what I learned in Mormonism. Many aspects of this I still hold to such as beliefs that truth and kindness matter. 

There are aspects of Mormonism that may have been helpful to me earlier in life.  That were adaptive, that I’ve now come to view as harmful as I’ve developed more. But such is often the case of the tools, maps and approaches we develop.

What Is Reality?

What then IS reality? I don’t know. I’m only able to perceive the asymptotes to reality that are the reality maps I have created over time. Maps that are continuously being modified as I grow older and hopefully remain open to continuous learning and growth.

What is great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie. 

Carl Jung



Jason Harris is a Neurologist/Neuro-Ophthalmologist, Dad and Husband who shares his experiences leaving the Mormon Church and reconstructing a new World-View.
 He believes all religions and scripture are man-made and believes there is Divinity in all of them.