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Maps Of Meaning Book Summary – Jordan B. Peterson

What you will learn from reading Maps of Meaning:

– How the world is both a place of things and a forum for action and what this means for the way perceive reality.

– How myths are less about trying to explain the world and more about exploring how to act.

– How every phenomena can have multiple meanings thus we need to avoid drowning in possibility.

Maps of Meaning Book Summary:


Is the world a place of things or forum for action?

The world can be validly construed as both a forum for action, or as place of things.

The world as forum for action is a place of value, a place where all things have meaning. This meaning, which is shaped as a consequence of social interaction, is implication for action, or-at a higher level of analysis-implication for the configuration of the interpretive schema that produces or guides action.

The latter manner of interpretation-the world as place of things-finds its formal expression in the methods and theories of science. Science allows for increasingly precise determination of the consensually validatable properties of things, and for efficient utilisation of precisely determined things as tools (once the direction such use is to take has been determined, through application of more fundamental narrative processes).

No complete world-picture can be generated without use of both modes of construal.


Things and their meaning:

The empirical object might be regarded as those sensory properties “intrinsic” to the object. The status of the object, by contrast, consists of its meaning consists of its implication for behaviour. Everything a child encounters has this dual nature, experienced by the child as part of a unified totality. Everything is something, and means something-and the distinction between essence and significance is not necessarily drawn.

The automatic attribution of meaning to things-or the failure to distinguish between them initially-is a characteristic of narrative, of myth, not of scientific thought. Narrative accurately captures the nature of raw experience. Things are scary, people are irritating, events are promising, food is satisfying-at least in terms of our basic experience. The modern mind, which regards itself as having transcended the domain of the magical, is nonetheless still endlessly capable of “irrational” (read motivated) reactions.

For the pre-experimentalist, the thing is most truly the significance of its sensory properties, as they are experienced in subjective experience-in affect, or emotion. And, in truth-in real life-to know what something is still means to know two things about it: its motivational relevance, and the specific nature of its sensory qualities.


Aesthetic in description but moral in disposition:

Prior to the time of Descartes, Bacon and Newton, man lived in an animated, spiritual world, saturated with meaning, imbued with moral purpose. The nature of this purpose was revealed in the stories people told each other-stories about the structure of the cosmos and the place of man. But now we think empirically (at least we think we think empirically), and the spirits that once inhabited the universe have vanished.

The principles that govern his society (and, increasingly, all others)  remain predicated on mythic notions of individual value-intrinsic right and responsibility-despite scientific evidence of causality and determinism in human motivation. Finally, in his mind-even when sporadically criminal-the victim of a crime still cries out to heaven for “justice,” and the conscious lawbreaker still deserves punishment for his or her actions.

We have become atheistic in our description, but remain evidently religious-that is, moral-in our disposition. What we accept as true and how we act are no longer commensurate. We carry on as if our experience has meaning as if our activities have transcendent value-but we are unable to justify this belief intellectually. We have become trapped by our own capacity for abstraction: it provides us with accurate descriptive information but also undermines our belief in the utility and meaning of existence.


The Death of Myth:

The great forces of empiricism and rationality and the great technique of the experiment have killed myth, and it cannot be resurrected-or so it seems. We still act out the precepts of our forebears, nonetheless, although we can no longer justify our actions.

Our behaviour is shaped (at least in the ideal) by the same mythic rules-thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not covet that guided our ancestors for the thousands of years they lived without benefit of formal empirical thought. This means that those rules are so powerful-so necessary, at least-that they maintain their existence (and expand their domain) even in the presence of explicit theories that undermine their validity.

Myth is not primitive proto-science. It is a qualitatively different phenomenon. Science might be considered “description of the world with regards to those aspects that are consensually apprehensible” or “specification of the most effective mode of reaching an end (given a defined end).”

Myth can be more accurately regarded as “description of the world as it signifies (for action).” The mythic universe is a place to act, not a place to perceive. Myth describes things in terms of their unique or shared affective valence, their value, their motivational significance.


Action and Value:

No functioning society or individual can avoid rendering moral judgment, regardless of what might be said or imagined about the necessity of such judgment.

Action presupposes valuation, or its implicit or “unconscious” equivalent. To act is literally to manifest preference about one set of possibilities, contrasted with an infinite set of alternatives. If we wish to live, we must act. Acting, we value. Lacking omniscience, painfully, we must make decisions, in the absence of sufficient information.


What is and what should be:

Myth, and the drama that is part of myth, provide answers in image to the following question: “how can the current state of experience be conceptualised in abstraction, with regards to its meaning?” [which means it’s (subjective, biologically predicated, socially constructed) emotional relevance or motivational significance].

Meaning means implication for behavioural output; logically, therefore, myth presents information relevant to the most fundamental of moral problems: “what should be? (what should be done?)” The desirable future (the object of what should be) can be conceptualised only in relationship to the present, which serves at least as a necessary point of contrast and comparison.

To get somewhere in the future presupposes being somewhere in the present; furthermore, the desirability of the place traveled to depends on the valence of the place vacated.

The question of “what should be?” (what line should be traveled?) therefore has contained within it, so to speak, three subqueries, which might be formulated as follows:

1) What is? What is the nature (meaning, the significance) of the current state of experience?

2) What should be? To what (desirable, valuable) end should that state be moving?

3) How should we therefore act? What is the nature of the specific processes by which the present state might be transformed into that which is desired?


The known:

“Narratives of the known”-patriotic rituals, stories of ancestral heroes, myths and symbols of cultural or racial identity-describe established territory, weaving for us a web of meaning that, shared with others, eliminates the necessity of dispute over meaning.

All those who know the rules, and accept them, can play the game-without fighting over the rules of game. This makes for peace, stability, and potential prosperity-a good game. The good, however, is the enemy of the better; a more compelling game might always exist. Myth portrays what is known, and performs a function that if limited to that, might be regarded as paramount in importance.  We change our behaviour, when the consequences of that behaviour are not what we would like. But sometimes mere alteration in behaviour is insufficient. We must change not only what we do, but what we think is important.

This means reconsideration of the nature of the motivational significance of the present, and reconsideration of the ideal nature of the future. This is a radical, even revolutionary transformation, and it is a very complex process in its realisation but mythic thinking has represented the nature of such change in great and remarkable detail.

The known, our current story, protects us from the unknown, from chaos-which is to say, provides our experience with determinate and predictable structure. Chaos has a nature all of its own. That nature is experienced as affective valence, at first exposure, not as objective property. If something unknown or unpredictable occurs, while we are carrying out our motivated plans, we are first surprised. That surprise-which is a combination of apprehension and curiosity-comprises our instinctive emotional response to the occurrence of something we did not desire.

The appearance of something unexpected is proof that we do not know how to act by definition, as it is the production of what we want that we use as evidence for the integrity of our knowledge. If we are somewhere we don’t know how to act, we are (probably) in ty trouble-we might learn something new, but we are still in trouble. When we are in trouble, we get scared. When we are in the domain of the known, so to speak, there is no reason for fear. Outside that domain, panic reigns. It is for this reason that we dislike having our plans disrupted, and cling to what we understand.



Human beings are prepared, biologically, to respond to anomalous information-to novelty.

This instinctive response includes redirection of attention, generation of emotion (fear first, generally speaking, then curiosity), and behavioural compulsion (cessation of ongoing activity first, generally speaking, then active approach and exploration). This pattern of instinctive response drives learning-particularly, but not exclusively, the learning of appropriate behaviour.

A compelling body of evidence suggests that our affective, cognitive and behavioural responses to the unknown or unpredictable are “hardwired”; suggests that these responses constitute inborn structural elements of the processes of consciousness itself.

We attend, involuntarily, to those things that occur contrary to our predictions-that occur despite our desires, as expressed in expectation. That involuntary attention comprises a large part of what we refer to when we say “consciousness.”


What happens when our plans break down?

When our attempts to transform the present work as planned, we remain firmly positioned in the domain of the known (metaphorically speaking). When our behaviours produce results that we did not want, however-that is, when we err-we move into the domain of the unknown, where more primordial emotional forces rule.

“Small-scale” errors force us to reconstruct our plans, but allow us to retain our goals and our conceptualisations of present conditions. Catastrophic errors, by contrast, force us not only to re-evaluate our means, but our starting points and our ends. Such revaluation necessarily involves extreme emotional dysregulation.

The “domain of the known” and the “domain of the unknown” can reasonably be regarded as permanent constituent elements of human experience-even of the human environment.


The Orienting Reflex:

The peculiar feature of the orienting reflex is that after several applications of the same stimulus (generally five to fifteen) the response disappears (or, as the general expression goes, “is extinguished”). However, the slightest possible change in the stimulus is sufficient to awaken the response….

Research on the orienting reflex indicates that it does not occur as a direct result of incoming excitation; rather, it is produced by signals of discrepancy which develop when afferent [that is, incoming] signals are compared with the trace formed in the nervous system by an earlier signal.

The “limbic unit” generates the orienting reflex, among its other tasks. It is the orienting reflex, which manifests itself in emotion, thought and behaviour, that is at the core of the fundamental human response to the novel or unknown.


The goal affects the motivational systems:

The affective systems that govern response to punishment, satisfaction, threat and promise all have a stake in attaining the ideal outcome. Anything that interferes with such attainment (little old ladies with canes) will be experienced as threatening and/or punishing; anything that signifies increased likelihood of success (open stretches of sidewalk) will be experienced as promising or satisfying.

It is for this reason that the Buddhists believe that everything is Maya, or illusion: the motivational significance of ongoing events is clearly determined by the nature of the goal toward which behaviour is devoted. That goal is conceptualised in episodic imagery-in fantasy.

The maps that configure our motivated behaviour have a certain comprehensible structure.  They contain two fundamental and mutually interdependent poles, one present, the other future.

The present is sensory experience as it is currently manifested to us-as we currently understand it-granted motivational significance according to our current knowledge and desires.

The future is an image or partial image of perfection, to which we compare the present, insofar as we understand its significance. Wherever there exists a mismatch between the two, the unexpected or novel occurs (by definition), grips our attention, and activates the intraphysic systems that govern fear and hope.


The foundations of the self:

Your encounter with the terrible unknown has shaken the foundations of your worldview, You have been exposed, involuntarily, to the un-expected and revolutionary. Chaos has eaten your soul. This means that your long-term goals have to be reconstructed, and the motivational significance of events in your current environment re-evaluated-literally revalued.

This means that simple movement from present to future is occasionally interrupted by a complete breakdown and reformulation, a reconstitution of what the present is and what the future should be. The ascent of the individual, so to speak, is punctuated by periods of dissolution and rebirth.


Meaning and Goals:

Things have no absolutely fixed significance, despite our ability to generalise about their value. It is our personal preferences, therefore, that determine the import of the world (but these preferences have constraints!).

The meaning we attribute to objects or situations is not stable. What is important to one man is not necessarily important to another; likewise, the needs and desires of the child differ from those of the adult. The meaning of things depends to a profound and ultimately undeterminable degree upon the relationship of those things to the goal we currently have in mind.

Meaning shifts when goals change. Such change necessarily transforms the contingent expectations and desires that accompany those goals. We experience “things” personally and idiosyncratically, despite broad interpersonal agreement about the value of things. The goals we pursue singly the outcomes we expect and desire as individuals determine the meaning of our experience.

Those (culturally determined) things we take for granted-and which are, therefore, invisible-determine our affective responses to “environmental stimuli.” We assume that such things are permanent attributes of the world; but they are not. Our situations-and, therefore, our “contexts of interpretation”-can change dramatically, at any moment. We are indeed fortunate (and, generally, oblivious of that fortune) when they do not.

Think about losing all your net worth, money suddenly matters a lot to you!

It is possible, however, to determine the conditional meaning of something, by observing how behaviour (one’s own behaviour, or someone else’s) is conducted in the presence of that thing (or in its absence).

Meaning depends on context; contexts-stories, in a word-constitute goals, desires, wishes. It is unfortunate, from the perspective of conflict-free adaptation, that we have many goals-many stories, many visions of the ideal future and that the pursuit of one often interferes with our chances (or someone else’s chances) of obtaining another.

We are capable of acting and of producing the results we desire because we render judgment of value, using every bit of information at our disposal.

We determine that something is worth having, at a given time and place, and make the possession of that thing our goal. And as soon as something has become our goal-no matter what that something is-it appears to adopt the significance of satisfaction (of consummatory reward).


Instability is stable:

The (variable) existence of the unknown, paradoxically enough, can therefore be regarded as an environmental constant. Adaptation to the “existence” of this domain must occur, therefore, in every culture, and in every historical period-regardless of the particulars of any given social or biological circumstance.

Traditionally, significance is attached to previously irrelevant things or situations as a consequence of learning, which is to that things mean nothing until their meaning is learned. No learning has taken place, say however, in the face of the unknown-yet emotion reveals itself, in the presence of error.

It appears, therefore, that the kind of emotion that the unpredictable arouses is not learned  which is to say that the novel or unexpected comes preloaded with affect. Things are not irrelevant, as a matter of course. They are rendered irrelevant, as a consequence of (successful) exploratory behaviour. When they are first encountered, however, they are meaningful. It is the amygdala, at bottom, that appears responsible for the (disinhibited) generation of this a priori meaning-terror and curiosity.


Fear and Conditioning:

Fear is not conditioned; security is unlearned, in the presence of particular things or contexts, as a consequence of violation of explicit or implicit presupposition.

Classical behavioural psychology is wrong in the same manner our folk presumptions are wrong: fear is not secondary, not learned; security is secondary, learned. Everything not explored is tainted, a priori, with apprehension. Any thing or situation that undermines the foundations of the familiar and secure is therefore to be feared.

Fear the a priori position, the natural response to everything for which no structure of behavioural  adaptation has been designed and inculcated. Fear is the innate reaction to everything that has not been rendered predictable, as a consequence of successful, creative exploratory behaviour undertaken in its presence, at some time in the past.

We have lost our fear of fire, not because we have habituated to it, but because we have learned how to control it. We have learned to specify and limit its “intrinsically” ambivalent affective valence, through modification of our own behaviour, in its presence. Fire, insofar as we can control it, has been rendered predictable, nonthreatening-even familiar and comforting. All things we can control (which means, can bend to our own ends) have been likewise rendered predictable-by definition.


Emotional regulation and social stability:

It is difficult for us to formulate a clear picture of the subjective effects of the systems that dominate our initial response to the truly unpredictable, because we strive with all our might to ensure that everything around us remains normal.

Under “normal” conditions, therefore, these primordial systems never operate with their full force. It might be said, with a certain amount of justification, that we devote our entire lives to making sure that we never have to face anything unknown, in the revolutionary sense-at least not accidentally. Our success in doing so deludes us about the true nature, power and intensity of our potential emotional responses.

As civilised people, we are secure. We can predict the behaviours of others (that is, if they share our stories); furthermore, we can control our environments well enough to ensure that our subjection to threat and punishment remains at a minimum. It is the cumulative consequences of our adaptive struggle-our cultures-which enable this prediction and control. The existence of our cultures, however, blinds us to the nature of our true (emotional) natures-at least to the range of that nature, consequences emergence.

Our emotional regulation depends as much (or more) on the stability and predictability of the social environment (on the maintenance of our cultures) as on “interior” processes classically related to the strength of the ego or the personality. Social order is a necessary precondition for psychological stability: it is primarily our companions and their actions (or inactions) that stabilise or destabilise our emotions.

We cannot see the unknown, because we are protected from it by everything familiar and unquestioned. We are in addition habituated to what is familiar and known-by definition and are therefore often unable to apprehend its structure (often even unable to perceive that it is there). Finally, we remain ignorant of our own true nature, because of its intrinsic complexity, and because we act toward others and ourselves in a socialised manner, which is to say a predictable manner-and thereby shield ourselves from our own mystery.


The right Hemisphere:

The right hemisphere remains concerned with the question “what is this new thing like?” (meaning “what should be done in  the presence of this unexpected occurrence?”) and does not care “what is this thing objectively?” “What is the new thing like” means “is it dangerous, or threatening (first and foremost), satisfying or promising?” Categorisation according to valence means that the thing is what it signifies for behaviour.


Transforming the Unknown:

When we explore, we transform the indeterminate status and meaning of the unknown thing that we are exploring into something determinate-in the worst case, rendering it nonthreatening, non punishing; in the best, manipulating and/or categorising it so that it is useful.


Humans are wired to explore and create:

Action and thought produce phenomena. Novel acts and thoughts necessarily produce new phenomena. Creative exploration, concrete and abstract, is therefore linked in a direct sense to being. Increased capacity for exploration means existence in a qualitatively different or even new-world.

This entire argument implies, of course, that more complex and behaviourally flexible animals inhabit (“construct,” if you will) a more complex universe. The less actions you take, the less things you explore the less complex you are.

We can communicate the results and interpretations of our manipulations (and the nature of the procedures that constitute that manipulation) to each other, across immense spatial and temporal barriers. This capacity for exploration, verbal elaboration and communication of such in turn dramatically heightens our capacity for exploration (as we have access to all communicated strategies and interpretive schemas, accumulated over time, generated in the course of the creative activity of others).

The word enables differentiated thought and dramatically heightens our capacity for exploratory maneuvering. The world of human experience is constantly reformed and renewed as a consequence of such exploration. In this manner, the word constantly engenders new creation.


Hemispherical Functions:

The right governs response to threat (and to punishment), while the left controls response to promise and, perhaps (although much less clearly), to satisfaction.

This basically means that the right hemisphere governs our initial responses to the unknown, while the left is more suited for actions undertaken while we know what we are doing. This is in part because everything thoroughly explored has in fact been rendered either promising or satisfying (or, at least, irrelevant).

The right hemisphere appears to come “on-line” when a particular situation is rife with uncertainty-appears particularly good at governing behaviour when what is and what to do have not yet been clearly specified. It might be posited, in consequence, that this hemisphere is still under limbic control, since the limbic system is responsible for detecting novelty and initiating exploratory behaviour. It also invites exploratory behaviour but safe exploratory behaviour like walking slowly whilst holding a weapon.

This archaic control mechanism would then “drive” the processes of imagistic “hypothesis” generation that constitute the processes of abstract exploration-fantasy-we use to give determinate (and oft-bizarre) form to the unknown. These are the images you conjure up when you think what could be lurking in the dark.


Every phenomena has multiple meanings:

We may be governed at one moment by short term simple considerations and at the next by longer-term, more complex considerations. Someone married might think, for example, “I find my friend’s spouse particularly attractive; I would like to make love to him or her”-evaluating that individual, positively-and then, immediately, correct: “My friend’s spouse flirts too much for his or her own good, and looks like a lot of trouble.”

Perhaps both these viewpoints are valid. It is certainly not uncommon for the same “stimulus” to possess competing valences. Otherwise, as I said before, we would never have to think.

Every apprehensible phenomenon has a multitude of potential uses and significances. It is for this reason that it is possible for each of us to drown in possibility.

When we represent a choice.  At any given place and time, we are considering only a fixed number of “variables” as means and ends. This is absolutely necessary, as action requires exclusion as much (or more) as inclusion. However, those things we consider as “relevant variables” (and their status as relevant, or not) have to be mutable.


Parents are cultural emissaries:

Children pick up language by interacting with adults, who embody language. Thus, they learn to speak, and learn to know they have language, and even to observe and study the fact that they have language.

The same holds true of moral behaviour and of the belief that “underlies” it. Adults embody the behavioural wisdom of their culture for their children. Children interact with adults, who serve as “cultural emissaries.” Obviously, a given adult may be a better or worse representative, just as a parent may be more or less literate. However, a bad example can be as exemplary as a good example; furthermore, children are rarely limited, in their exposure, to a single “hero.”


Categorisation and cognitive models:

Our natural categories, which are the groupings we generate spontaneously, do not consist solely of the consensually apprehensible properties shared by the things and situations we encounter. Neither are natural categories tightly bounded; their borders are fuzzy, and they overlap.

It is impossible to properly appreciate the nature of the categories of the mythological imagination without some understanding of the process of categorisation. The act of categorisation enables us to treat the mysterious and complex world we inhabit as if it were simpler-as if it were, in fact, comprehensible.

We perform this act of simplification by treating objects or situations that share some aspect of structure, function or implication as if they were identical. People are very good at categorising-so good, in fact, that the ability is taken for granted and appears simple.

If you are utilising a cognitive model, and someone asks you to describe its content (“What makes a dog?”), you might say, “I can’t say, but I know when one is around.” You know that a dog is, for example, something friendly, something to be petted, and something to play with-although such knowledge does not constitute everything that makes up what you regard as dog.

Most of the concepts you use are in fact embodied, at the most basic of levels-are habitual, procedural, motoric, behavioural. You can use them without thinking. Those that are not can only be applied slowly, with full conscious attention, and with effort.

We perceive the “cat,” for example, and infer the species that contains the cat or the subtype that makes it Siamese. Our basic-level categories generally occupy the middle of our conceptual hierarchies: we generalise when we move “up,” and specialise when we move “down.”

Cognitive models are characterised by membership and centrality gradience. Membership gradience implies degree of membership, which is to say that an ostrich, for example, is a bird, but perhaps not so much of a bird as a robin-because the robin has more properties that are central to the category bird. A thing can be a better or worse exemplar of its category; if it is worse, it can still be placed within that category.