Exploring relational psychocartography.

It’s 4:45 a.m. I’m in an airport hotel in Edmonton.  My flight is in two and a half hours.  I stand blurry-eyed and naked at the glass shower door.  I reach in and turn the water on full only to discover that the last person to touch the shower pointed the showerhead at the door… which I have open.  I’m now stand dripping on a cold soaked mat.  And so the day begins.  

As I point the shower head into the stall and struggle to adjust the water to a reasonable temperature, I think about how lucky I am to be able to enjoy a shower at all.  Running water, even cold and unwelcomed, is a luxury for which I’m grateful.

Today, my inner maps have various options available for me to navigate the world in a positive way.  I think about the day I’d like to invite. I think about the holiday I’m leaving for. I think about the year that is coming, and all of the changes of the past four months.

As I work my way through US customs, I notice how grey and flat the workers are.  They are doing their jobs almost like robots.  I wonder if it’s because it’s so early, it’s Christmas Day, and whether they’d rather be somewhere else.  Or maybe it’s because they’ve chosen to work even though the chaotic US government leadership has been unable to agree on the Federal Budget and many government services have shut down. The grey and flat workers are likely not getting paid for their work. 

I do my best to smile and to be kind.  It will make a difference no matter how small.  This is the essence of being in relationship with the world.  Every action we take, based on our own inner maps, will change the world around us. I’m lucky because today my maps hold these actions as possibilities, some days I’m unable to muster a smile even when I wish I could.  Though, even then, I usually try.  

We’re one and a half hours into the flight now – a baby four seats away has discovered its lungs. I’m trying to write the first draft of my book proposal. The ear-piercing screaming is making it harder to smile.  I feel for the parent.  My inner maps are showing me many options to navigate this experience, I will choose the one that seems mostly likely to lead to happiness.  

The constant tension between being aware of our ever shifting inner navigational maps and the various choices we can make is at the crux of transforming our inner and outer worlds.

Imagine for a moment what it might look like if you were to draw your inner navigational map – the great terrain of your options. We’re not talking about your immense databank of stored memories, wisdoms, and education, but rather about the various actions you could take at any given moment. Each pathway leads into new territory with new actions available, which become more clear once you’ve taken that path. You may have some idea of where the path may lead. Your memories and experience are there to remind you, but you cannot know all of the features on next map because it is not fully under your control to know or to create. This is because as you take an action you’ll receive new input from the outside world which opens up new possibilities.

Here’s a bit of a curiosity concerning our inner mapping systems. They function on input, inner input through your memories, wisdom and experiences, and outer input as you encounter and process the relationships and random events in the world around you. Much input is outside of ourselves.  If we accept that we move through the world as relational beings, that we don’t exist in isolation, then it follows that all relations have the ability to shift our inner navigational maps.  Perhaps you can recall a time when a friend or colleague helped you see different choices to look at the world. Or maybe someone ‘pushed your buttons’ and you reacted in a way that you wish you hadn’t.

Others’ ability to influence us is not limited to their understanding of our inner maps, in fact they may know nothing about us and still be able to influence us. They may do this without even being aware. Their ability to influence is enhanced if we share a common language, culture, and/or place. Where we share similar experiences we have more direct access to one another. There are large swathes of your inner maps that others may not be able to easily access because of your unique life experiences and your own personal narrative. These stories may form the core of your identity and make available to you choices about how to move in the world that may be yours alone. However, this does not mean that others can’t influence you through their relationship with you.

Two secrets

Secret One: A personal guide

Firstly, you have own personal sentinel and guide to help you see what input is coming your way from outside and also from inside, and to help you make choices. It is your own awareness.  You do have access to your awareness as you navigate the world.  You might think of this as your second you, one who is an expert in what we might call relational psychocartography – being aware, your guide has the ability to help you explore using your inner maps, perhaps showing which routes lead to the best and worst outcomes. This could be thought of as our helm control, helping us steer our way through worlds of infinite possibilities.

For example, at this moment my inner guide said, ‘you can wince every time that baby screams or you can get out your headphones’. There of course were many options, some of them pure fantasy.  This time I chose the headphones, and it’s likely helping me from becoming frustrated by the noise that I cannot control… nor seemingly can anyone else.  

Secret Two: Your superpower.

You have a superpower.  Working from the relational being perspective, just as others have access to your maps, you too have some access to the psychocartography of everyone around you and can open up choices for others through the way you engage with them.  

This means that you can alter the world by the way you choose to engage with it.  If you approach situations with anger you’ll see that anger multiply – anger creates anger.  If you feel joyful you’ll notice that happiness follows. In everyday situations we do not offer choice to those around us, in this – we merely present them with our own anger or joy. You create change in those around you at your own will and choosing.

As human beings, we thus have an incredible power, which we mostly wield without being aware: the ability to transform the outer world, and the inner world of others, into places which replicate our inner world order.

It’s pure magic.

This isn’t only a philosophical concept. In the mid 1990s a group of Italian scientists who were mapping brain functions of monkeys made an unexpected find that is beginning to shift the way we understand human interaction. During their experiment with macaque monkeys they discovered that neural patterns active in one monkey’s brain during actions, such as eating and grasping, were nearly identically mirrored in other monkeys that were observing the action. They developed the idea of ‘mirror neurons’, a type of cell that may respond equally whether we perform an action of some kind or observe another performing the same action (Gallese et al, 1996).

Their work spurred new research that may be helping us understand how human experience can jump from one to another through observation. I’m sure you can recall how it felt for you to witness someone experiencing something unpleasant like falling off their bicycle, or tasting something rotten. Or maybe you’ve been part of a gathering where an emotion moves through a crowd like a wave. Perhaps riots, group hysteria, or joy move in this way.

The idea of relational-being has a physiological basis. What we see others experience, we can also experience. This supports that idea that we are not isolated individuals, but rather interconnected in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

So, your superpower is there to use. You may choose others to feel pain, or joy, or anger or happiness. It’s up to you. It’s simple when you smile, you can activate a smile in someone else.  What we know, for now, is that others must be looking at you for mirror neurons to activate. That is the current understanding but I suspect we’ll learn that there are other ways.

Be Cautious.

Your superpower goes two ways.  Whatever you do you’ll get a little on yourself.  If you poke at the world with the stick of irritation, voila you’ll be rewarded with an irritating day.  If in contrast you choose to spread love, glitter and joy, you may find yourself rewarded for your efforts.

Every conversation and action changes the world in some way, what will you choose to create in the world today?

As always, I invite you to comment below, and sign up for future posts.

Vittorio Gallese, Luciano Fadiga, Leonardo Fogassi, Giacomo Rizzolatti; Action recognition in the premotor cortex, Brain, Volume 119, Issue 2, 1 April 1996, Pages 593–609, https://doi.org/10.1093/brain/119.2.593

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.