Notes Psychology

Maps of Meaning 5 Notes

My Notes for Maps of Meaning (2017) – Jordan Peterson

Story and Metastory (Part 1)

In this lecture, Peterson focuses on the biological underpinnings of our perception – touching on orienting theory, cybernetic theory, and neurology, and behaviorist B.F Skinner’s experiments with rats.

Orienting Theory

Sokolov tested skin resistance. Same tone was repeated at predicted intervals. First, there was a spike in skin conductance then gradually gets weaker. Eventually, subject gets habituated. He doesn’t hear the sound at all. Same thing happens with snails when you poke them. Simplest form of learning is habituation.

Hand – hot stove, simple reaction. Darwin – Cobra example shows survival utility in quick reflex. Darwin would try to push his face on the side of transparent window opposite a cobra. Without fail, every time the snake would strike at him, he would reflexively move away.

Sokolov hinted that you must be producing a complex model of the world at every perception. People make a complex model of the world – hold it in their mind – then compare the result (after acting) in the world.  They compare the expectation with the complex model. If there is a match, then there’s no orienting reflex.

Initial stages of orienting are reflexive, but later stages can be complex.

Example: Betrayal: Find evidence (lipstick) of betrayal. Reflexive response (instant – similar to seeing predator) – prepares you for action. Then might take you years to learn what’s necessary to readjust the model.

The person might appear to you as a threat. Your body reacts first, then emotionally (over variable time) – you resort to your interpretive schema. You need to adjust your orienting reflex (across time) – that is the model of how we interact with the world. This was what Psychologists believed for a long time.

The Russians in the 1960’s used complex EEG to figure out where orienting response happens (hippocampus). The theory was that your cortex could produce a complex model of the world (internal model), your senses produced model of the external world, and the hippocampus watched to see if there was a match. If there was a mismatch, your body would prepare itself for whatever that mismatch meant. Then you would engage in exploratory behavior to update your model. It was an accepted theory. They based AI systems on this. But that didn’t go anywhere.

It turned out that it’s so difficult to see and model the world – impossibly complex. That’s why there aren’t any robots walking around yet. For humans – it’s very easy, it’s unconscious and effortless.

AI researchers figured that perceiving the world was much harder than people thought. One of the presuppositions of the orienting theory is that you’re very good at detecting changes. But AI guys figured that it was much more complicated than that. Post modernism emerged from the same set of observations.

Imagine how difficult a novel is. It’s subject to multiple interpretations. The complexity of the context of the author’s side, and then the experience of the reader. Time, place, context, time, knowledge, prior knowledge of the book. Imagine reading the first Russian novel compared to reading the 50th Russian novel. Post modernists say you can’t take meaning from the text – because it’s variable. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t make it impossible.

Invisible Gorilla

It would have been believed that you can’t miss the gorilla (threat – middle of the visual field). Helped us figure out that we’re way blinder than we think. You focus on less of the world than you think. It’s like you hold a still image of the world, and you fill it in with our vision. Your periphery is like frog vision or dinosaur vision (picks up on moving but if it stays still – unlikely to notice). The center of your vision is very high resolution but fades into low resolution when outside the center.

Problem of Relevance:

  1. How do you know where to focus?
  2. Even if you do know, how do you see it?

Original Cybernetic Theory

This states that there is a model, and then what you see. But that’s wrong, you have two models. What you see is also a model – in addition to your mental model (the world that you desire). And they can mismatch.

The reason you missed the gorilla is because you were watching the balls.

Your value structures don’t just determine what you want – they determine what you see. 

Question: What don’t you see in the world?

All of it (almost).

When your computer crashes, you curse. The same circuit (you use) as monkeys detecting eagles, leopards, snakes is activated. There’s a circuit that links to an instinctive utterance for the monkeys to represent what to do in reaction to a category (snakes etc..)

Why do you curse? Your old circuit that used to react to anomalies in your environment (predators) are now triggered in response to modern anomalies (computer crashes) – Why else would you want to hit it?

Peterson was writing an essay when his computer crashed. It turns out that the power grid went out. But he wasn’t able to identify that reason in the beginning. The takeaway is that our interactions with the world are purely functional. We don’t really interact with the computer when typing – we’re interacting with the keyboard and symbols on a screen. That’s our level of analysis. We don’t think about all the things that are needed to keep the computer and our activity possible (political system, electrical power grids, economy, no natural disasters). We just think about the simplest level of analysis to move us to the next step – instead of generalizing to larger generalizations. When arguing with a loved one, do you argue by addressing the argument – or do you question the premise of the whole relationship?

If your car has a flat tire, you don’t buy a new car, you fix the tire. If you get bad service at a bank, instead of cursing the entire capitalist system – it’s better to look for a simpler, more functional level of analysis that’s more useful, pragmatic. It’s important because you have limited time and resources.

Limited Perception

Think about everything about a person. (political, familiar, ecological, microscopic) levels. But you don’t see that. You see very little – you’re limited by your perceptions. This is a Piagetian idea – if you’re well socialized, you’ll play the game – you don’t have to understand the rules.

Why do people want to maintain their culture? It’s not for the individual – it’s for the culture. It’s because everyone is playing the cultural game – and to keep things functioning and peaceful – they learn to play that game.

Music can be a thing in itself (has multiple levels of analysis simultaneously). Known and unknown. Predictable and not predictable. It isn’t just your opinions that are biased, it’s your perceptions that are biased. We compress a very complex reality through a very small cognitive keyhole.

Fundamentalists and Atheists Have the Same Problem

Fundamentalists believe that the Bible is composed of literal truths – equivalent to scientific truths – but they’re missing the point. There are different kinds of truths. The fundamentalists are equating biblical truths with ontological truths. The atheistic scientists say that those are literal truths but they’re wrong. That’s a stupid argument.

The people who wrote the bible weren’t scientists. No one thinks like a scientist (confirmation bias). Scientific thinking isn’t an automatic way of thinking about the world. Science in its articulated form has only existed for around 500 years.

Maybe you don’t need just one way of looking at the world – maybe you need two ways.

  1. What’s the world made of?
  2. How should you conduct yourself while you’re alive?

There’s no reason to assume same approach can answer both questions. Physics, Biology, Chemistry all have different methods of obtaining truths. Why would we assume that moral truths are only bounded by one method?

Your emotional health, interactions with other people depend on a value system. But value systems can’t be scientifically justified. Should you then abandon them? If you did, there would be no down or up. There would be no rationale for moving in any direction or to continue living. You can’t function without a value system. You need to know how to live in the world. You want to be able to recognize the good and bad between people and within a person.

Death Anxiety

Walls are a good idea – they protect you from danger. It’s not conceptual, it’s practical. It’s not that we want to protect ourselves from death anxiety, we want to protect ourselves from death.

Liberals don’t believe having walls is important. Conservatives believe in walls.

Open people like to live in the periphery in boundaries and break out of them. Interesting things happen when you think outside the box. That’s what open people do.

Openness vs Orderliness

When you meet open people, you realize that they’re very disorganized. Everything they talk about is associative – it’s like they’re in a constant dream. They’re very interesting to talk to but they have a hell of a time getting their lives together because they’re interested in everything and their attention is all over the place. The problem is they see no utility in order. Openness also correlates positively with intelligence.

Orderly people want everything to be properly structured – ordered in multiple boxes inside other boxes. There’s utility in that. It’s associated with disgust sensitivity – when things are touching that aren’t supposed to be touching. Disgust is associated with boundary separation. They want barriers to voluntarily modulate information flow.

Sexual Discrimination

The most fundamental form of discrimination is sexual partners. Age, physical attractiveness, health, strength, wealth, education. It’s justifiable because “you get to say no to me if I get to say no to you.” In Brave New World, the idea of family was abolished, children were produced in factories. One of the slogans was that everyone belongs to everyone else. It was a social faux pas to exclude anyone.
Brave New WorldMaps of Meaning 5 Notes 1

Boxes inside boxes

We create towns that are just boxes inside boxes. We create rooms inside rooms. Then there’s organization within the room. Tables, chairs, etc… Setting up stages and laying out dramas, assigning functions to our furniture. There are rules that apply within that bounded space. That’s one form of bounding.

Political Bounding

Another form of bounding: people segregate themselves into micro-groups –  democrats and republicans. We produce games that everyone can play to simplify reality. When people go to a political convention (they don’t all have the same ideas) but there are a set of procedures in place. People agree to play by the rules.

Physiological Bounding

Then, your physiological structure simplifies the world. Your perception (as discussed before). Size, intelligence etc… You have a certain degree of strength or articulation. Your limitations allow you to discover some things but not other things. That’s a problem (we can’t see germs) – but it’s also a good thing (no information overload ex: the internet).

Body-Mind False Dichotomy

We make a false dichotomy between our brains and bodies. They’re very much connected. Freud’s idea of the properly functioning mind was something like this: The Id is compulsion, drive. The Ego had to suppress the Id in service of the superego. No idea of integration. But it is understandable why he thought that. His patients weren’t well integrated – so only thing to do would be to control (suppress Id) if you can’t do it in a sophisticated way.

The Brain

Prefrontal cortex: Organization of motor action.

Motor cortex: helps you plan voluntary actions.

Prefrontal cortex grew out of motor cortex through evolution.

Reflex actions (something happens to you – you respond) elaborates to motor system (act in the world) – elaborates into prefrontal system (how you might act in the world).

Prefrontal cortex: Complex, sophisticated voluntary thought. Ex: Generating avatars of yourself in hypothetical worlds to figure out if they would survive if you implemented them into action.

One of the weird things you discover psychologically is that there’s no correlation between conscientiousness and intelligence. People think that intelligence is planning etc… It’s not.

Learn Your Lesson

Remembering is purely pragmatic. Many things are useless to remember. Other things that you remember – should be used as tools to act better in the future. Retool perceptions and actions until the probability of doing it again is minimized. Your mind won’t leave you alone until you learn your lesson.

Conscientious people: “if something bad happens to me – it’s my fault.”

What you should do is a situational analysis. Things didn’t happen to you because of things you did necessarily.  

Relationships: Two partners have incompatible personalities. Good luck getting that to work. Very hard to mediate huge temperamental differences. You wouldn’t expect to mediate intellectual differences, for example.

Hippocampus vs Hypothalmus

Hippocampus: tracks mismatch between what you perceive and what you expect.

Hypothalamus: if you remove a cat’s entire brain – except hypothalamus, the cat is still functional. It constitutes the major frames. The cat will be able to eat, drink, regulate temperature, mate (if female), and will be hyper curious. A cat with no brain is curious about everything (counter-intuitive).

The reason you’re not curious about everything is because you master things and then you ignore them. Great artists remind you of the things you’ve mastered and forgotten about (taken for granted). Ex: Flower etc…

DNA fixing itself

Motivations and Emotions

Humans come into the world with pre-packaged motivational systems for existence (play, hunger, thirst etc.) Your nature is divided across these subsystems – or sub-personalities. If you’re hungry – it’s not a deterministic drive – it’s a sub-personality that has a goal. And then it has action patterns that work in reference to that goal. It has perceptions that suit that goal. It organizes emotional responses around that goal. To think about it as a personality is a much more intelligent way to look at it.

Skinner’s Rats

He would reward rats with food and get them to do anything. But his rats were starved to 75 percent down of their body weight, they’re genetically altered from real rats, but they’re also not as complex as real rats because they’re starving. But a starving rat is a good model of rat, and rat is a good model of person. But a lot of our behavioral models were based on starving models.

Motivation determines goals. That organizes perceptions (cancel the irrelevant). It helps you concentrate on the things that facilitate movement forward. That facilitates positive emotion. If you encounter things that move you forward, you feel positive emotion. If you encounter obstacles, you feel negative emotion (frustration, anger, disappointment, grief). How do you decide when you’ve encountered an obstacle so big that you should quit and go do something else?

Not obvious. Can get to counterproductive persistence really easily.


Addiction has a personality. People who are addicted lie all the time. They will say anything and use tools (practical) to get to their goal. And when they do, they strengthen that sub-personality. This makes it more likely for them to deceive later.

One of the ways to control the hypothalamus (that dominates your action) is to avoid going to places that would force you to experience these emotions. It’s not about inhibitory control – it’s about staying where you belong.

Basic Motivations

  1. Hunger
  2. Thirst
  3. Pain
  4. Anger
  5. Thermoregulation
  6. Panic
  7. Affiliation/ Care
  8. Sexual desire

(9,10 can be nested in different systems)

  1. Exploration
  2. Play


  • Ingestive
  • Defensive


  • Reproductive

You don’t just want to eat, reproduce, defend yourself. You want to be able to do it over the longest span of time. You need the rest of your brain to regulate these drives and integrate them with your personality so that your personality is integrated with other people.

You don’t get an education because you’re hungry. You get an education because – in the future – you don’t want to be hungry. What we’re trying to do is keep most of the world irrelevant.

The Relevant Framework

What you see in the world are entities of functional significance, and those are not objects. They’re not the same thing. Your framework is predicated on relevance perception, not object perception. And if your framework is functional then most of the things you encounter are mildly positive. That’s how you know what you’re doing.

We’re trying to build up a case for analyzing the nature of the structure within which you organize your perceptions. We tend to think that those are predicated on object perception, but they’re not. They’re predicated on relevance perception.

Does it help you, get in the way, or is it irrelevant?

The Maps of Meaning Lectures 

Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of BeliefMaps of Meaning 5 Notes 2

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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