Maps of Meaning

[Monday evening: 3.2 miles; today 3.2 miles]

Before I get into the main topic, I wrote awhile ago about our neighbor who was in jail. A few days ago he was found unresponsive alone in his cell in the morning and died. They are doing an investigation and we hope to learn what happened. I guess he had some health issues so maybe it was natural causes. Or maybe someone is passing around fentanyl in the jail. Or maybe something else. But we were sad about that.

I think the reason he was in the jail was for being a felon and having possession of a gun. And I think he had possession of a gun because he had some sense of being in danger. So maybe the danger caught up with him. I hope they sort it out.

Saturday we had a funeral for Mr Fleming, the neighbor who owns the land behind us and has let us hunt and fish on his property. He had been unsteady on his feet for quite awhile. And apparently he had a fall and hit his head. He lingered in the hospital for awhile but I don’t think he ever regained consciousness.

So in the course of 10 days or so we’ve lost two neighbors.

A half-baked book report.

I’ve been slowly reading Maps of Meaning by Dr Jordan Peterson. It is not a new book. I think it may have been his dissertation, not sure.

Anyway, he starts really low level talking about the response of rats to stimulation. He describes putting rats into a new environment. They cower in fear for awhile. Then they start making exploratory actions to figure out where they are and if there are any good or bad things going on. If given a new situation again, like introducing another rat or a cat or something, they do the same thing, be fearful for awhile then get used to it.

His story is that rats, and people, are wired so that the usual stuff takes less work and when something different pops up there is more work to manage not only figuring out the situation but coming to a new normal.

According to him, people extend the rat situation by building expectations in “maps” of what could change and potential ideas about how to manage the changes that may come. The idea is to keep stress low so that we can enjoy a bit of peace and quiet and we aren’t huddled in a corner someplace.

That all seems sensible enough.

Then he starts talking about how these maps can turn into a group project as people communicate in societies. If you do this thing you run the risk of these bad results. A big aggregation of these maps becomes a mythology. Then he says that ancient cultures built these mythologies which have distinct patterns in common, or stories. And those stories are how we pass along from generation to generation the way we view what is going on in the world.

I’m not sure I have that all correct, but I think I’m in the neighborhood.

I’m about 100 pages into the book. The first part is construction of this basis for the cultural mythologies from the basic blocks of minimizing stress.

I have a couple of things that I don’t get. One is: if these stories are fundamental in some way, is that because they were simultaneously discovered by various cultures around the world? Or will he make a claim that they have some central origin? I haven’t seen that either way.

The second thing is outlier events. He goes into some explanation on how we are built to notice differences from the current static state and those get our attention. Like when a cat is introduced to the rat farm. The static state, what we are used to, can melt into the background and we start to not even notice it anymore. Presumably something that is most dangerous or most unexpected* will cause the most disruption. So why do these common stories arise if the larger shocking events are less often occurring? If some aliens came to ancient Aztecs and helped them build giant spider patterns in the mountains, it seems that would be shocking enough to be known for a long time. Wouldn’t that mean the stories, if they were independent, would be the most unique that they could be?

I am a long way from done, so I’ll see if he has anything to say about it. Maybe the really really strange events are too rare to survive as a believable story. If something is super rare, maybe we don’t bother to spend much stress on it.

After the Maps of Meaning section, (the title of the book is also Maps of Meaning), I believe he will have some chapters to explore some of these common stories. I have not yet gotten that far.

*There is also a thing about our attention being primed by our expectations. You can do this to yourself and other people. If you tell them to look for some event to occur, they will be more likely to notice it when it happens. But doing that you can also distract them from other things. That’s how magicians work, they get you primed and distracted then they can do something right in front of your eyes, something you aren’t looking for, and you won’t even see it. So there is some complex interplay between expectations, attention, and these cultural stories.