A few brief remarks on mental maps
Before I start out, a few random remarks about other matters: I ran 43 km last week, I’m in excellent shape at this point. I had a doctor’s appointment Tuesday where I was told that my Hba-1c was 6,9%, given the DCCT- HbA1c metric. The numbers look so good that the nurse decided against ordering a lipid panel for the next appointment, even though this is something you normally get done every year; she thought it would not be worth it and I agreed. When viewed from one angle I’m in very good health, yet from another angle it’s also so poor that I’d die without access to my medication. Oh well…
So anyway the reason why I wrote this post is that I have been thinking a little bit on and off about other people’s mental maps – that is to say, how they perceive the world. So for example, do other people see colour the same way I do? Given the existence of colourblind individuals we already know the answer to that one; at least some people perceive light in a different manner. Blind people would be another obvious example; they don’t perceive light at all (/or they are unable to interpret the light waves they do perceive). Of course there is also some variation when it comes to how people’s eyes refract light, some people suffer from myopia, some from presbyopia, etc. – so when other people see stuff, it’s far from obvious why the default assumption should be that they’re seeing the same thing you are. And why for that matter limit the analysis to humans – how do other living creatures perceive the world? As Dawkins points out in The Ancestor’s tale: “mammals in general probably have the poorest colour vision among vertebrates. Most mammals see colour, if at all, only as well as a colourblind man.” How different they must perceive the world! When I was a child I remember asking my father if (and if so, how?) the cat actually knew I was a living creature like itself – if/how it could deduce that the huge lump of cells which was much bigger than it was and which was moving around in various ways was actually one living thing, rather than a big ball of disjoint materials, a huge ball of fur or perhaps something else. I remember also thinking about whether it could tell I was me, rather than some other human walking around there and I tried to come up with a way to test this, without luck. I realized it could tell I was a living creature and I remember finding the thought that it actually could do these things fascinating; it was only later I realized that precisely abilities like these – like, say, the ability to tell the difference between one bunch of living cells and another, and the ability to tell the difference between a bunch of cells and other stuff which are not collections of cells – are extremely useful for living creatures and so it should not be surprising that the cat had evolved senses which could help it figuring out this kind of stuff. (Though perhaps some people would say that this observation should only if anything increase my fascination – I’m not sure if I disagree, I do try to be amazed…).
But vision is but one aspect of our mental map of what the world is like. What about stuff like sounds? Do other people hear and interpret soundwaves the same way you do? I’ve touched upon that one before. In general they probably don’t, at least not completely. There’s a lot of variation – some people are deaf, some people don’t hear very well, some people have excellent hearing; and some people are old and hear sounds of a high frequency much worse than you do; for example my grandmother’s hearing is so bad that without a hearing aid she probably can’t hear birds singing at all. A specific example most people probably are also familiar with is the way other people hear your voice vs the way you hear your own voice and believe you sound like when you talk – most people have, I assume, experienced hearing recordings of their own voices and then been surprised at how they actually sound like. Again the variation in how different organisms approach these things only increases when you include animals in the analysis.
One notion unrelated to sensory stuff which sometimes will surprise me is how other people can actually think about you and talk about you when you’re not around. This always seemed somewhat weird to me that people might do that. Part of why I feel that this is strange or weird is presumably that I don’t really ever think much about this – if I don’t think about it, they can’t be doing this stuff, right? (Wrong). Another factor is this: Why would anyone waste time talking about me, when there are so many other, more interesting, people or subjects around that they might talk about? In a way it’s a mental double standard of sorts to consider that weird and I’m aware of it – I know that I’ll sometimes talk about other people I know when engaged in conversation with others, so the idea that you can talk about other people that way is not unfamiliar to me and such behaviour is not unnatural and I do engage in it. So it’s not that I’m completely in the dark as to why people do it. But the thought that other people are doing this, that I might be one they talk about – that’s somehow a very strange notion to me. I am aware that for some people this is not a strange notion at all, but rather an aspect of human social interaction that they give a lot of thought; and I find this interesting. Some people will worry a lot about what others say about them when they’re not around, if they perhaps recently did something which might lead others to say bad things about them later, how to minimize this risk, etc. Some people are probably much more prone to this kind of thinking than are others; I assume there are gender differences early on (‘teenage boys threaten or beat up their enemies, teenage girls slander them..’), and cost-benefit aspects are also relevant to include here given the underlying coalition-forming and -building aspects – if it’s somehow important that the other person likes you for some reason, you’ll presumably worry more about this stuff and be more likely to engage in this type of thinking than you otherwise would. On a related note we think more about the people we care about than we do about the people we don’t, and so we’re probably also more likely to talk about the people we care about when engaging in conversations with others.
How you look matters when it comes to how other people behave towards you – for some people it matters a lot, for others it matters less. I find this interesting, that some people give this aspect much more attention than I do, because I so very rarely spare a thought about how I happen to look at any given point in time. I don’t have to look at myself much so I don’t really see why I should care how I look, except to the extent that other people care – and I’m aware part of the reason why I do not care is that I do not have much of a reason to care at this point; I rarely interact with other people in the real world, and I never interact with the people who might be the most interested in the way I look – viz. potential romantic partners. Incidentally it seems a reasonable assumption to me that when it comes to this aspect of people’s mental maps – romantic stuff – people who are in relationships think differently about other people in their social spheres than do people who are not. But I’ve never really given it much thought. It seems to be a commonly voiced complaint that males without a romantic partner are highly likely to approach females with this particular type of framework in mind – ‘a woman is a potential sexual partner until proven otherwise’ – whereas women are more likely (it is claimed) to perceive of a male using a different framework; is he a potential friend/ally/…? Anyway, looks is but one of many aspects; people’s mental maps are so different from each other that it’s presumably a very common experience to have people judging you based on criteria you consider to be irrelevant and do not give a moment’s thought. Just as it’s presumably a common experience to have people judging you harshly for the behaviours you consider to be amongst your most virtuous.
A thing that should make it easier to conceptualize how different the mental map of another individual may look like is to try to remember that the other person with whom you’re interacting is always the main character in his or her story.
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