Shadow Boxing

A blog that probes the mind's dark secrets

Your Cognitive Positioning System

Our mental maps influence our lives, which has its good side and its bad.

As part of my series on “I-contact” for writers, here's an overview of what I call the CPS, or cognitive positioning system. It affects your perspective, your interpretations, and your decisions.

Like a GPS, the CPS is about your “situated existence” – where you are. Unlike a GPS, the CPS actively positions you, usually outside your awareness. It frames how you see the world around you.

How?

A cognitive positioning system develops from experience and education, both of which are filtered through the brain’s defaults. Some of these defaults are just part of being human, while others are part of being you.

Your CPS is comprised of a unique network of influences and shortcuts that affect (and infect) your mental processing. All of your interpretations and subsequent decisions are made within this frame.

Our brains tend to be lazy. We prefer familiarity, simplicity and closure, and our mindsets affirm situations that comply and give us the feeling of “that’s right!” This can prevent us from thinking things through.

For example, in an experiment, 50 homicide investigators and 68 undergraduates were given evidence from a homicide case and offered two potential hypotheses. The students showed bias in accord with their initial hypothesis, but were open to disconfirming evidence.

However, investigators – especially those with a high need for closure – were more likely to automatically view evidence as incriminating. They accepted disconfirming evidence only if it aligned with their initial hypothesis. Their training and experience had biased them toward guilt.

Contrary to common belief, rational thinking is not automatic. Some information goes through disciplined channels and some through intuitive channels. The latter are faster, so they have the first impact. If the results feel right, that’s where we tend to stop.

Intuitive responses are automatic, subconscious and highly influenced by emotion. Conclusions form quickly. Thus, they’re vulnerable to errors from personal bias and limited experience or education.

We make automatic judgments from within our frames of reference. Constructs we learn from our social and familial milieu, such as gender roles, rules of thumb, and racial stereotypes, have a significant subconscious impact on how we see – and act in – the world.

Repeated experience with these constructs forms our mental schemas. We then script situations with construct-specific expectations.

We encode, recall, and recognize our “situated existence” according to a familiar frame. Our brain then links our perceptual sets with our physiological systems, so that our habits become encoded. We form body memories.

In the 1940s, researcher E. C. Tolman ran rats through a maze, finding that once they became familiar with it, they could make their way through it with fewer errors during later trials – even with roadblocks placed in their way. If the maze was filled with water, they could still swim the correct route. He surmised that they had internalized the route. That’s a body memory. Other researchers have confirmed this in humans, too.

So, back to the CPS. Although the metaphor of a spatial map is easy to comprehend, a cognitive map is not limited to space. It's how we orient, psychologically.

Thanks to constructs that frame our perspective, we see what we expect to see, and our recall is usually more consistent with personal beliefs and feelings than with facts. Contradictory information is generally ignored. Sometimes, it’s not even processed.

Here's the good part: Our CPS helps us to sort through an abundance of information so we can organize it and respond. Here's the bad part: Undetected unconscious bias can thwart a full analysis, falsely guide us, and even limit us.

Those writers with perspective on their personal CPS are open to a greater range of information and experience, which enhances the creative process.

Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., an expert on murder and other shadow themes, teaches forensic psychology and has published 46 books.

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