I have a final line of thought on “the territory” that’s a lot less tidy than what you’ve read so far. Everything else in this sequence is a distillation, an attempt to communicate large principles that I’ve brought into sharp focus over time. In this interlude, I’ll be doing something different.

Here, I’ll be sharing a thread of investigation that’s still very much open for me. I’m not entirely sure what it’s about, but I think it has something to do with what it feels like to lower the map.

If you’re so inclined, I invite you to approach this as a fellow naturalist/investigator/curious kitten. I invite you to puzzle with me over how you might tell when you’re heavily map-focused, and when you’re not. What does it feel like to lower the map, to have it knocked forcefully from your hands, or to suddenly encounter something that’s not mostly made of your own perceptions and interpretations? And how does that sort of thing happen?


It is very interesting to me that it’s possible for some things to feel especially real.

One morning in college, I was half-sleeping through a poetry lecture in a dim classroom, when I looked out the window and saw a tree branch covered in spider silk. The silk shimmered in the sunlight. Strands of it hung from the branch and wafted in the breeze, and as they moved, the sunlight seemed to drip down the strands in waves. 

It caught me. I don’t remember anything about the lecture, but I’ll never forget the silk. Seeing it felt a lot like waking up from a dream. That tree seemed more real than anything in the classroom, and more real than anything else in my life from the previous month.
 


I’ve puzzled over this perception of “realness” off and on for years. I’ve collected a lot of reference experiences that are rich in this property, and I’ve tried to compare them to each other.

Here are a few quick examples:

  • A person said, “I’ll be real with you,” and then began to say things that did in fact seem more “real”. My brain says they “stopped lying”, but I think it’s more complicated than that.
  • Reciting the sentence “I have seen the smoke rising from the pipes of lonely men in shirtsleeves leaning out of windows” (and also much of the rest of “The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock”)
  • I was out for a walk in the early morning when I saw a patch of moss covered in dew.
  • The main character Max in the Dave Eggers novel The Wild Things feels more real to me than any other character I've encountered in fiction.
  • Once I was struggling with an essay, and had a feeling that I couldn’t stop saying “fake” things. So I decided to message a friend in text chat to tell him what I wanted to say in the essay. Talking directly to him, it was much easier for me to say “real” things instead.
  • To’ak’s “Rain Harvest 2018” chocolate bar.
  • (This one’s from my mom, a memory from when she was 6 or 7. She shared it when I asked whether some of her experiences seem more “real” than others.) “I was standing on a brick wall in my front yard with my arms held out and my face into the wind. That is all. The feel of the wind, the presence of it all around me.”
  • A few moments when I decided to stop [something? ”trying for fake”?] and started “trying for real” instead.

 

My current best guess about what these experiences have in common is the absence of a strong map-focus, perhaps combined with engagement.

This is especially clear in the essay example. One of the hardest things for me about writing an essay that’s meant to be read by many other people is that I know many other people may read it. Indeed, one of the hardest things for me about writing a letter to a single other person is that I know another person may read it. It’s much harder than journaling. 

In journaling, I say whatever I’m thinking, usually in whatever way it first occurs to me to do so. When I try to improve on the way that first occurred to me, I check alternatives against my sense of what seems right and good.

When I write to other people, though, I also check alternatives against my expectations about what their minds will do when they read it, what they’ll think I thought when I wrote it, and whether the world seems to them the way it seems to me. In other words, I’m less focused on whatever it is I’m trying to talk about, and more focused on maps (and maps of maps, and maps of maps of maps). 

The more people there are, and the more I care about how they’ll respond to what I say, the deeper and more salient these layers of anticipated interpretation become. Sometimes I completely lose track of both “what I want to say” and “what seems right and good”.

And when I manage to get back on track—often by talking to one particular friend, or by “journaling” in another tab instead of “essaying”—it feels just like lowering the map. It feels like looking to the left and seeing an actual creek, looking ahead and seeing a hill that I could climb with my feet if I wanted. It feels like waking up from a dream.

I think all the other experiences on the list involve something that prompts a similar map-lowering motion.
 

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Your description of journaling vs essays resonates with me. At work, my peers have given me feedback that (a) I write good documentation quickly, and (b) I need to write as if my writings will be read widely. These feel very difficult to combine, much more difficult than they "should". Like I've put a lot of levels into "think well; make the transcription of my thoughts as good as possible" but very few into "sanitize and blandify and restructure my thoughts into a form that other people won't be embarrassed to share with other other people". That framing, which is how it shows up in my head, is... revealing.

Recently I have noticed that what's "real" can be hard to find, doing data analysis. The raw data is incomprehensible. The naive summary statistics remove all usefulness. Just the right transform, on just the right scale, throwing away enough unneeded (but how to tell what's unneeded?) detail, and you've got what is very clearly a mixture of a uniform distribution and a normal distribution. And then it feels real. It's not as simple as abandoning perceptions and interpretations; it'd be like seeing a list of nerve firings or something when looking at a tree. You need some preprocessing to even start engaging.

I am also unsure of exactly what it is, but I used to fairly consistently induce a similar feeling in myself with 'mindful walks', also inspired by Original Seeing. For me, it was closely bound up with getting curious about things I'm used to looking at without seeing-- what are those marks on pavements? A lichen? Are they raised above the pavement? What do the different colours and shapes look like? Why are they round-ish and spaced out, rather than covering the whole surface, or some other shape?

This might not be 'true' curiosity-- I never looked up other people's maps for an explanation of the marks on pavements, for instance-- but it does fairly often give me a feeling of 'realness'. I was struck by how similar your not-a-SIM-key experience was.

Your example of a friend saying 'let me be real with you' reminded me of the concept of the 'press secretary'. Asking the right questions, and having a certain emotional quality, seems to trip up my press secretary for long enough that I can query the things behind her a little.

EDIT 19/03/22: Maybe in future I should finish sequences before I leave comments on them

Hypothesis: You could more reliably induce the sensation of realness in unfamiliar situations with unfamiliar sensory stimuli. (Your example of finally understanding how topo maps work seems like a possible instance of this.) There is a frisson of that going on in the examples you provide, and in my recollection of memories with a similar valence.

At the risk of being the Man of One Book (better than One Study, but still), I'm obsessed with Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clark. One of the many tantalizing conclusions he points to is that your eye cells and ear cells and nose cells are always dumbly doing the same thing, perceiving bits or spectra, and your brain qua many layers of {bottom-up data feeds versus top-down prediction algorithms} is fiddling with knobs to make those streams louder or quieter at the conscious level. 

And the main thing that makes them louder is that something unexpected is happening.  Obviously, your car-driving example is the reverse of this. Mostly, nothing unexpected happens when I drive, and I drive on autopilot and don't even make memories of the drive. I'm so good at driving that people swerving into my lane are almost never unexpected, because I know what that kind of person looks like and when they're likely to do it and have it factored into my subconscious model. 

But when I drive past an airstrip and there's a big-ass helicopter 20 yards from me practicing hovering and landing, bouncing up and down and spinning 90 degrees while airborne, a little child hopping and spinning in place to learn mastery of zir own motor skills except the child is powered by 3000hp and rotors that are buffeting my car, the sensation is like being in a movie, or watching one, or something.  Is that what "derealization" feels like?

I think when you stare at the SIM card removal ankh, you are forcing your brain to not merely predict that there's a SIM card removal ankh there and fail to receive sensory data that it's actually a snake, but to actually be surprised by the details of it.  Forcing your brain to care about the details.

Hello! I've been feeling a separation between my dissociated and non-dissociated self that feels in some ways and not others, similar to what you describe.

  • movement: dissociated, I move myself like a marionette; I get feedback, but its binary (efficient/futile); if anything original comes up its like it comes from a brute force search; pretty much like you wrote about moving through the territory with all the movement's goals being on the map level. The actual manner of my movement is really sprite-like; like those joggers who run like they're half-bouncing against an invisible wall in front of them, I move in a really repetitive way that accepts no feedback on how I'm feeling or what I'm moving through or around.

Non dissociated, every motion is completely free of the past. My ears wiggle around like a dog, no movement or body part has a definitional purpose, much stronger body-level intuition of physics, each motion feels like one of those sped up bean plant videos rather than something to which repetition is even relevant, however the need for comfort that the repetition grants my dissociated self, is already satisfied somehow. There's less doubt even though there's more confusion.

Memory-- dissociated, my memory is very much based on narrative and language. I also have developed an awareness of when my narrative is occluding reality, but the tools I have to defeat the blinders are very insufficient. When I'm trying to understand what is happening or what happened, I'll usually feel like I'm playing the peg game Mastermind where your guess of a secret four-color sequence gets scored on positionless and positioned accuracy. I try one thing, it feels vaguely wrong in a vague direction, I try another thing that might illuminate that direction, etc-- there is no sense to the path.

Non-dissociated, everything clears up, but NOT in the way of a mystery novel. Interestingly, it feels like my non-dissociated self was there living through all the stuff I was living through dissociated, and understanding it deeply and realistically (I mean, with a visceral knowledge that my actual body is doing these actual things on this actual planet) but I just wasn't connected to that part of me, so I was off wandering around in sky castles. In this writing you can guess which state I'm in by which one I call "I". With your stairs example that you wrote about, my dissociated self would not remember and be making guesses between ten and sixteen. My non-dissociated self, without needing to go up the stairs one more time, would be able to say how many stairs there were, although maybe not by using a number (maybe by imagining walking up the stairs and then you get a feeling of fulfillment at the end). And I do feel like there's communication with my non-dissociated self when dissociated, bit it feels very jointed and mystical, like when you try to remember the name of a song, give up, and four minutes later thinking of other things, the name pops out into your brain. It feels like I'm tracking the footprints and broken branches left behind by the non dissociated self, using my imagination to understand how they are moving, and translating their movements by the limitation that the translation had to traverse imagination.

There are other picks besides movement and memory, but I've been typing too long.

The obvious path to write toward would be " how do you transition between dissociated and 'present'"-- my friend who is a high school teacher says schools are really giving classes in embodiment, which is weird. I've seen and heard a thousand people talking about embodiment in the past decade in a manner that is eager in an disturbing way. I think embodiment in a way that dissociates yourself from, the parts of your body that are actively, intelligently, and compassionately choosing "disembodiment", is not good. When I tried to do it that way, I ended up trying to narrativize those parts as "moving from trauma, moving from fear, moving from fear of confusion, moving from fear of despair"-- all narratives that were patronizing toward the decision in a way that occludes the actual reasoning and life behind "disembodiment"/whatever to call it, castle in the sky building, virtualization. I think the fad embodiment is weird because it kind of gives a narrative that all you need is the right teacher or the right will or the right experience, which ignores the way that, when you're "in", it feels natural and free, you should be born living that way, and part of you, the part that knew how many stairs the whole time, is living this way currently. So its less of something to learn rather than a " break loose from the chains that are causing you pain", but on the other hand, its not something to break loose from, its you, and calling part of you a chain is going to keep you disembodied on some level.

Its hard to pull history out of narratives, but I think the idea of map vs territory, imagination vs embodiment, narrative vs reality, is formed by the coercive view of life and planet that came from colonialism. Colonialism is a narrative but it also like, extractively pulled and carved the territory into a statue of the map, in a manner so that when you look at parts of the territory, your mind jumps to the name that has been extracted out of it. The word territory, is pretty hard to divorce from territorialism, I.e. the person with the most manipulation power over the land is the person with the clearest and most reenactive map. And being mapless doesn't make land not territory; if its unknown /confused/dissociated territory, its potential territory, and if its potential territory, its territory. Which we can't separate from the way we territorialize our own bodies and imaginations.

Thank you for writing about this topic

I have the feeling that what you are getting at is related to what vaguenesses depending on vaguenesses. Things in the real territory not being easy to grasp, and shifting with time, person, and context.