Mental Modeling

from / Teaching / Thinking Tools / Semiotics 1996

Mental Modeling
Map versus Territory
Description versus Thing
Name versus Thing Named

The map is not the territory.
Alfred Korzybski
The menu is not the meal.
Alan Watts

Architects make models of their designs before building the actual structure. The mind’s perusing of the triply extensional model may suggest faults evident neither in the conception nor in any subsequent two-dimensional sketch or blueprint. Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling aided his theoretical chemistry with balls and struts he could assemble into “molecules.” But more basically, modeling has become the preferred metaphor for cognitive theorists for what we all do on a regular basis in our daily lives: our extensional self, the 5’8″ 148 LB me, for example, that’s been breathing and metabolizing for a half-dozen decades, lives on or near the surface of a similarly extensional planet, the Earth; yet our mental self lives exclusively among our mental models of that environment.

When you come home in the middle of the night and bark you shins after your family has rearranged the furniture, it’s because you have a model of your living room in your mind that no longer matches the actual position of its objects. You need to turn the light on and form a new model.

Man is nowhere more foolish than when he confuses the contents of his consciousness for the truth, for reality, for what actually is. That is most true where the confusion is between the contents of his consciousness and all that actually is: most dangerous when his confusion has the support of his cultural group.

Even greater danger comes from the common situation of some men substituting the first for the second, milking the confusion. The first situation is an honest confusion; the second is loaded dice.

With the light on it’s still not the repositioned coffee table that you’re seeing: it’s the light reflected from that object and interpreted by your utterly non-dimensional mind as “coffee table.” At the moment your shin was in rude contact with the coffee table, it wasn’t the table but your impact with it that you were feeling.

Our extensional bodies live in an extensional reality; our conscious selves make images in an intensional universe of space/time: one with no dimensions in space, its only dimension being some decimal fraction of time. We know nothing of reality except through the input of our senses and through the output of our minds as it processes that input.

Our minds have no “contact” with reality that isn’t mental.

No plan survives contact with the world beyond the mind.
I, Ripper

(No one likes to think of themselves as “seeing things,” but sometimes our perceptions fail to correspond either to objects or patterns in the extensional environment. We’ve all heard of out-of-body experiences and some of us have had them. But when you’re looking down as you float over Times Square (no doubt exuding infinite benevolence), the billboard you’re seeing is sure to be last year’s; not the new one put up this morning: the crowd is sure to be generic; you’d have a hard time confirming identities.)

Seeing may be believing,
but it isn’t necessarily
the truth.

Territory: Whatever is real, true, actual …
Map: Whatever we say, think, describe, model

Let me here tie into a related metaphor. A mother sits with her child over a picture book, familiarizing it with symbols and encouraging that the pleasure and utility of symbol recognition be learned early. “What’s that?” she asks, pointing with her finger. “Bunny,” the child chortles. Its identification is lovingly confirmed, this bottom-line answer approved. Never will the parent say, “Actually, it’s printers ink on paper lithographed from a plate on which was prepared a representation of a rabbit.” How many times out of a million will the parent add so much as, “Yes. It’s a picture of a rabbit.” How many out of a billion?

Human communications typically involve shortcuts so familiar they’re invisible. We can’t function without them, but being unconscious of their existence gets us into trouble.

In his 1933 masterwork Science and Sanity, a book that belongs on any short list of great books, semanticist Count Alfred Korzybski addresses that trouble and insists on a distinction between map and territory. Bateson reports that psychologists have subsequently charged the human mind with a genetic incapacity to maintain the distinction in the rare case that we can see it at all.

Columbus encountered the West Indies by following a mental map of the Earth that lacked the Americas and was half its since measured size. The Portuguese hadn’t funded him, not because they believed the Earth was flat, but because they had a better approximation of the length of the journey to India by sea, one indeed beyond the capacity of fifteenth-century naval technology. But we have called all native peoples of the Americas “Indians” ever since. Columbus continued to think he was in or near India.

Spain wanted gold. In their model of reality, gold meant wealth, glory, and power. But the actual gold they found and brought back to the actual territory of Spain unleashed an inflation that toppled them. The Spain that wanted gold was more wealthy, more glorious, and more powerful than the Spain that got the extra gold. I invite you to think on what harms have been done to all of us by thinking that the Iroquois, for example, a people whose Great Law we just about plagiarize in the US Constitution, are Indians. (It’s almost as bad as calling our unacknowledged teachers savages.)

Hitler thought that power would give him control. It didn’t. Ditto Lyndon Baines Johnson. This list would easily lengthen.

“Map/territory confusion” is one way of putting it. “Mental model vs. extensional environment is another”. Our identification of a name with the thing named is a closely related issue, as are: A) our tendency to identify things closely associated, and B) our association of a description
of a “thing” with the thing described.

Most societies systematically encourage, concerning certain topics,
the habitual confusion of symbols with things symbolized.

SI Hayakawa

It’s easy to see flaws in others and hard to see them in ourselves, but we have more than enough symbolic pathologies of our own. It wasn’t just the Spaniards who confused gold with wealth: we continue to confuse money with wealth. We confuse schooling with education; certificates with competence; medical procedures with health; government programs with progress: or with charity! We confuse revenues dedicated to the military with security; writing laws with being law abiding; police with order; church-going with virtue. We confuse data with facts, myth with history, history with truth …

“If only we had another car,
our transportation problems would be solved.”

“I have the green light: it must be safe for me to go.”

“Gee, I’m really drunk: I must be having a good time.”
The menu is not the meal.

The brochure is not the vacation.

The ad is not the product.

The news is not the event
(Neither is the testimony).

The model is not the muddle.
Robert Anton Wilson

Apropos of Korzybski’s map / territory distinction, Mishima Yukio distinguished between words and world. Nice. (Though habitués at my domains will have noticed that I use the concept “world” very differently. Mishima seems to mean “territory.” I distinguish between “planet” and “world”: in which the planet is the actual territory and the “world” is just “words”: maps, descriptions, stories: none too accurate: propaganda.) (Don’t let the words confuse you.)

Dangers may exceed critical quantum thresholds when model-territory substitutions infect political theory. On the one hand the “conservative” argues Mom-and-Pop Capitalism while actually getting mega-corporate power-poker. The model argues for letting the efficient dogs feed; the territory delivers John D. Rockafeller cutting prices till the competition dies followed by arbitrarily high prices. In contrast the socialists see regulation gone astray, so they argue for the absolute monopoly of regulation. That’s like taking heroin to cure your cocaine addiction.

No map territory distinction is more important than that between events and our record keeping. The truth is territory; the New York Times deals only with maps.


Non-dimensional: concrete vs. abstract “things”
Our tendency to attribute concrete reality to abstract reality is a theme which runs throughout this site. Compare Descartes’ res extensa and res cogitans.
See Korzybski passim.
See Ilya Prigogine, The End of Certainty, p. 16.
Since first writing this module (and this note) I’ve done a couple more pieces on the subject. Stand by till I remount: Extension/Intension, Macroinformation …

A decade and a half after its publication and my son’s recommendation, I finally read Robert A. Heinlein’s Job. The protagonist is an administrator for a fundamentalist church whom God persecutes by repeatedly switching “reality” on him. Eventually the Devil befriends the poor bastard. The protagonist has told the Devil that the “world” keeps changing. The Devil informs him that he is mistaken: only enough of his surroundings had been changed to deceive him. To have done more would have been inefficient and wasteful: poor artistry.
With each change the guy has run to a library to get the lay of his new world. He tries to poke a hole in the Devil’s position by claiming to have studied history each time.
You didn’t study history, the Devil corrects him: “you studied history books“!
(My own work parallels Heinlein’s again and again, though I’ve never known it case by case till one, two, or three decades after I’ve written my own version.)

See It At All: Opaque to the Majority
[This duplicates a section of my piece on Falsification. I’ll edit out one or the other.]
Peter C. Wason discovered that his test for the sense of falsification in reasoning was failed by 123 of the 128 college graduates tested: 96.1% failure. He further discovered that a significant portion of that majority could not understand the explanation of why the reasoned answer was correct.
I wish I had a million dollars so I could offer it as a prize to anyone who could devise a test for map/territory distinctions as clear, simple, and compelling as the Wason Test. Give the two tests together as a double barreled blast against Homo sapiens sapiens’ self-description.
Of course who ever received the prize should have the decency to reserve a few pennies of the million for an annuity to keep me alive and working.
Actually I suppose the million would earn enough interest for an annuity by the time anyone claimed the prize. A mere million should serve both of us.
Good God! What if I claimed the prize?
Safe to Go:
Did you know that more pedestrians are killed crossing intersections with the green light than against it? The law breakers tend to do so with their eyes open; the lawful trust the law to protect them: instead of their own senses!

Heroin for Cocaine:
I should have noted at the time of the original writing: that precisely is the historical origin of heroin: it was developed by doctors seeking a cure for cocaine addiction!

What map / territory blurring is worse than this one? Confusing having fulfilled a procedure with having accomplished a goal? We operated … Therefore … the patient must be well. We judged … Therefore … the convicted must be guilty. We believe … Therefore … our creed must be true.

I started publishing online in the very early 1990s (with, but didn’t begin a personal home page till 1995. What I now call my Thinking Tools began forming the core of my “Teaching” section by late 1995. The above would have been one of the first drafted: around 1996, as soon as I’d established my basic deschooling biography.

I was arrested in 2006, the FBI not being the first institution to misread my irony at The court censored my masterpiece, my host panicked, the more so since my son while paying my bills received in the mail, did not pay my bills received by email, and all my five domains with their roughly 2,500 text files and hundreds of graphics got destroyed. Federal censorship started a tumble of dominoes.

Once the FBI returned my computers, their functionality compromised but not altogether destroyed, I tried mounting my most important modules in blog form (4D reduced to 2D!). Google’s misread my Thinking Tools blog as spam!!!! and I got “censored” all over again. Ah, but I’m well used to it. My society has sabotaged my speaking since childhood. Not only do my schools not know what I said, they don’t know that they don’t know! We censor without awareness of our sin.

It’s preposterous to ask God for forgiveness of sins while we keep on asinning at a fatal rate. There can be no salvation, not secular, not intellectual, while we remain unaware of our repressive unintelligent kleptocratic essence.

My Mental Modeling Scrapbook follows as a separate post.


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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