The Nuts and Bolts of Mind Mapping
I love studying mind mapping because it reveals the incredibly sophisticated processes your brain goes through to accomplish things we all take for granted. For instance, when making a mental map of another person’s mind, your brain has to keep track of whose thoughts are whose in your own mind. Are you picturing your own thoughts and feelings or someone else’s? It turns out one part of your reptilian brain is responsible for representing the contents of your own mind while another part tracks the minds of others.
Your brain also relies on two separate but related “attention networks” to alternately focus your concentration. Your “dorsal” system tracks other people while your “ventral” system tracks yourself. By switching back and forth between your ventral and dorsal attention networks, your brain forms a cohesive picture in your mind of other people’s minds as well as your own. When I first learned this, I was amazed! I’d never even considered that distinguishing between your map of your own mind from your map of another person’s mind could be a problem, and yet scientists already figured out how your brain does it! I could hardly believe brain science had advanced so far! I began reading everything I could find on this subject. I had to know how the brain actually pulls off this whole mind-mapping thing!
My knowledge advanced greatly in 2011 when I encountered a sophisticated model of mind mapping published by Drs. Ahmed Abu-Akel and Simone Shamay-Tsoory. I’d followed both scientists’ extensive mindmapping research careers ever since they’d collaborated on a simpler model in 2003. This time around, they not only integrated the latest neurophysiology research, they added crucial new information about mind-mapping’s neurochemistry that was missing from their previous model. That’s how much brain research had been conducted in the intervening eight years. I was literally jumping out of my chair as I read it!
I, myself, have never been wild about memorizing parts of the human anatomy. But when clients learn how their brain actually pulls off this amazing feat, they pay more attention to mind mapping, so a brief summary of this model should be helpful. But rather than giving you an anatomy lesson, I’ll give you a functional picture of how your brain works. (For those who are interested, the anatomy appears in Appendix A.)
To begin with, your brain’s mind-mapping system consists of three physically distinct but interacting parts, which aligns nicely with the triune brain model I mentioned earlier.
First, there’s a “representational” component located in the reptilian (rear) portion of your brain. This is where your mind maps initially arise. Your brain constructs two maps for you and two for the other person. One is a “cognitive” map of thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge. The other is an “emotional” map of feelings and hard-wired as well as socially-based emotional reactions.
Secondly, there’s an intermediate “attribution and information processing” component in the mammalian portion (middle) of your brain. This is where the process of attributing mental states to yourself and others occurs. For instance, this is where your brain decides you’re a good person; but the guy walking down the street is a creep, and his hot girlfriend would be better off with you.
Finally, there’s an “application/execution” component in your prefrontal neocortex, the uniquely human region of your brain located in your forehead. This is where your brain makes decisions about implementing or acting upon your maps of yourself and others. In other words, here’s where you decide that even though you’re probably smarter than this dude, you’d rather not have him pound you into the cement for coming on to his girlfriend.
These three areas are interconnected by neural pathways and brain chemicals that relay signals between neurons (“neurotransmitters”). Recent discoveries reveal a complex system that staggers my imagination. It turns out dopamine and serotonin work together to form an integrated regulatory system that innervates all three mind-mapping regions. These two neurotransmitters work in concert to develop your mental maps and assist in updating and maintaining them. In other words, this dopamine—serotonin neurochemical system turns on and off to form your initial map of another person’s mind and then modifies it based on actual errors in predicting his or her actions and behaviors.
This is pretty amazing information. But you can’t really appreciate the neurochemistry of mind-mapping without a more sophisticated description of its neurophysiology. So bear with me for a moment while I regale you with a more complex picture of what’s taking place.
- There are actually two separate mind-mapping networks. One is the cognitive network which maps your own and other people’s thoughts, knowledge, and beliefs. The other is the affective mind-mapping network, which maps your own and other people’s feelings and emotions. Together they form the larger mind-mapping system by your brain’s integrating these cognitive and emotional maps into an integrated whole.
- These cognitive and motional mind-mapping networks share connections in the reptilian (rear) region of your brain. This is where your brain actually creates representational cognitive and emotional mental maps, and your brain distinguishes maps of your own mind from those of other people.
- Previously I said your ventral and dorsal attention networks track different streams of information regarding your own versus other people’s mental states. Your brain alternately turns these two systems on and off to direct information to the correct areas of the self-other mind-mapping system in your reptilian brain. It also uses this mechanism to shift your attention from focusing on your own mind, to focusing on other people’s minds, and then back and forth endlessly. This is how your attention “decouples” from your current focus and allows you to refocus on something else.
- Norepinephrine, another neurotransmitter, plays a critical role in this ventral-dorsal switching process which distinguishes maps of your own mind from maps of other people’s minds. Norepinephrine is a third part of the neurochemistry of mind-mapping, and how it interacts with the serotonin-dopamine system is still being discovered. Norepinephrine also promotes vigilance, increases your arousal and alertness, enhances memory formation and retrieval, and mobilizes your brain and body for fight-or-flight reactions. It’s pretty cool that this neurochemical not only helps you track other people’s minds, it also prepares you to act on what you’re mapping.
If you want the whole incredible story of how the brain produces mind mapping, all the neurobiology and neurochemistry, and what interacts with what, it’s succinctly laid out in Appendix A. Researchers continue to discover new neural connections between brain regions in the mind-mapping network, and incredible secrets of its neurochemistry are still being revealed. At this point, for example, scientists can only speculate about research findings which indicate that oxytocin (a neurohormone) greatly improves healthy subjects’ mind-mapping abilities when sniffed!10 But some things aren’t likely to change. For instance, growing up blind doesn’t change the neural basis of mind mapping.
Mind Mapping Shapes Your Life Story
I’ve just given you a rough idea of how your brain maps your own and other people’s thoughts and emotions, and maintains or changes these maps over time. Here’s how it stores and retrieves these maps: Researchers have long known the human brain is functionally subdivided into left and right hemispheres, with each side contributing specialized functions. What researchers haven’t known until recently is the extent to which the left and right hemispheres of the brain are differentially involved in mind mapping.
Although your left and right brain hemispheres are integrated and work together, their respective abilities differ. Left-brain thinking is verbal, analytical, and deductive. It processes information sequentially, first looking at details, then, after putting them all together, coming to conclusions. Leftbrain abilities include logic, linear and verbal thinking, mathematics, and an astute memory for facts and song lyrics. Your left brain uses deductive logic and reasoning built on facts, ideas, and recalled memories. Your ability to use language comes from this part of your brain. Your left brain talks to itself in words. When you read this book as text, you’re using your left brain.
Right-brain thinking, in contrast, is nonverbal, intuitive, and holistic. It relies on pictures rather than words, and processes information in an instinctual, instantaneous way. It first looks at the whole picture, then the details. It focuses on feelings rather than facts. Right-brain abilities are holistic thinking, nonverbal communication, imagination, intuition, daydreaming, art skills, rhythm, and remembering the tunes of songs. Visualize your first kiss. Remember the way you felt the moment your lips touched. In doing this, you just engaged your right brain.
Mind mapping involves both brain hemispheres, working back and forth in powerful combination. In addition to mapping out your and other people’s thoughts, beliefs, and knowledge, your left brain stores your “autobiographical memory”––the story of your life based on remembered past events including your mental maps of your own and other people’s mental states at the time. This information is actually distributed in various parts of the brain rather than stored in a single location. In contrast your right brain, which maps out feelings and emotions, is also responsible for retrieving and re-assembling your autobiographical memory.
Here’s why this is important: Many of my clients are stunned when a completely different picture of their lives emerges, having spent hundreds of hours (and thousands of dollars!) on prior psychotherapy. The flaws in their previous understandings become obvious. They realize insight-oriented talk therapy can only go so far, leaving them with the mistaken impression that they comprehend their past. Because their understanding is based on deductive logic, words, and remembered details, they often fail to see the bigger picture, which has much greater power and meaning. This awareness typically arises when I help them recognize gaps in their autobiographical memory of pivotal events in their lives. From years of experience, I know exactly where to look to expose this gap.
Without fail, what’s missing in clients’ autobiographical memories of prior troubling experiences is their mind maps of the people involved. As I’ll explain in Part Two, a right-brain retrieval error often occurs when you try to remember past traumatic events. Common stereotypes suggest people don’t remember prior bad experiences at all—that they are repressed in the unconscious. But my experience indicates complete amnesia is unnecessary because the absence of mind-mapping information about the people involved sufficiently changes the meaning of things to make remembering the event itself tolerable.
A variant of this involves instances where you can remember an event and you can retrieve your maps of the self-perceptions, knowledge, ideas and thoughts of the people involved. However, you still misinterpret their mental states because maps of their emotions and feelings (a right brain process) are absent. When clients put the mind-mapping information back into their autobiographical memories, the meanings of their life stories change significantly. Digesting these new pictures can be upsetting.
Part of the shock comes from realizing your mind-mapping information has been absent from your memories. Most clients had no idea anything was missing! This realization encourages re-examining other memories through the lens of mind mapping, trying to retrieve what their nemesis (the person in their memory engaging in cruel, destructive, or traumatic behavior) was thinking and feeling towards them at the time.12 After the initial shock of recognition wears off, clients feel more relaxed and grounded.
Getting to this point can be challenging. When clients try to fill in the gaps in their autobiographical memories, without fail, they attempt this using their left brains. For instance, they try to work off historical facts, like “My father used to take me fishing as a child.” Using deductive logic gives them a (false) sense of moving forward, but, unfortunately, they’re using a method that’s guaranteed to fail. Their left brains are simply incapable of retrieving the missing mind-mapping data.
Clients usually have no difficulty retrieving detailed memories using right-brain methods I’ll describe in Part Three, including those who initially reported remembering virtually nothing of their childhoods. Their story often changes to something like “My father took me fishing so he could get away from my mother. There was little conversation between us. I got to tag along while Dad did what he liked to do.”
You only get part of the picture using your left brain to retrieve missing mind maps. But I’ve come to the conclusion this mistake is purposeful. Leftbrain attempts to access missing mind-mapping information are actually a defense mechanism that prevents your brain from becoming dysregulated by seeing upsetting things. This way is like looking at something using only one eye. Sure, you can see something, but it’s only two-dimensional. Using both eyes produces stereoscopic (three-dimensional) vision which contains much greater details.
Whenever clients try to grasp the meaning of their past intellectually—for example, by offering theories they’ve polished in years of prior therapy––I interfere and push them to describe what they actually see when they look at their memories. People who are avoiding the emotional impact of their leftbrain, intellectual theories always fail. They say, “I understand it intellectually, but I don’t get it emotionally.”
I reply, “Well, if you don’t get it emotionally, then you don’t get it! And if you want to get it, stop telling me your theories and tell me what you see!”
To produce a more accurate autobiographical memory by retrieving mind-mapping information, you have to visualize the picture and watch what’s happening rather than intellectualizing, rationalizing, or speculating about what things means. This, as I’ve explained, is a right-brain process.
Be aware of this as you read this book and sift through your autobiographical memories. Mind maps of your antagonists are probably missing in your memories, whether they involve your spouse, children, parents or siblings, employer, or co-workers. To retrieve these maps, use your right brain to visualize what’s happening in a particular remembered event. Keep watching your memory as if you were studying a videotape, watching the action develop. You’ll see things that aren’t evident in your verbal descriptions and summaries. If you keep at it, eventually you’ll see the meaning of the entire picture suddenly come together all at once. You’ll get an entirely different picture of the event and perhaps your whole life. I’ll show you exactly how to do this in subsequent chapters.
Mind Mapping Impacts Your Brain
Mind mapping lies at the heart of your connections with other people. Mind mapping constructs your understanding of people and events as they occur in real time. Likewise, your ability to accurately retrieve mental maps of other people and yourself greatly shapes your autobiographical memory and the story of your life. How you think and feel, what you desire, what you refuse to see in yourself—all this and more dramatically impacts those around you for better and for worse. The same holds true for other people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors profoundly affecting how you feel about yourself, how you see the world, and what you say and do.
It’s less obvious that mind mapping also changes your brain as well. But mind mapping profoundly interconnects us all, down to the level of interpersonal neurobiology. Traumatic interpersonal experiences can have far-reaching negative neurobiological impacts on your brain. I’ll explain this in Part Two where we’ll dive into the murky world of traumatic mind mapping.
These negative impacts, however, are not set in stone. In Part Three, I’ll show you how to reverse damage done by traumatic mind mapping and heal yourself in the process. Moreover, you don’t have to wait until then to use mind mapping to create positive neuroplasticity for yourself and those around you. It’s actually quite simple. Do something positive that’s completely out of character for you. When you violate other people’s mental maps of you, it grabs their attention; and they’ll start re-mapping you to make sense of what’s going on. If you keep this up, their maps of you and how they interact with you will change.
Do you want your aloof, adolescent daughter to be less adversarial? Want your husband to stop glancing at the football game and have a real conversation with you? Wish your employees were more motivated? Just do something positive that challenges their map of you. You’ll not only have their undivided attention, you’ll be changing your brain and their brains for the better. Most people are amazed to discover the breadth and depth of mind-mapping’s impact on their lives. This particularly happens when they learn about children’s mind mapping abilities. Once you know how early this starts, and the full extent to which they can map you, you’ll never look at your kids the same way again. This is where we’re headed in our next chapter.