Mind Mapping and Mind Masking
Mind mapping is the brain-based psychology of interacting with other people. It’s the brain’s ability to make a mental map of another person’s mind. Mind mapping is an intuitive process, and it satisfies our inherent desire to figure out other people. Whenever you interact with people, your brain automatically creates mental pictures of their minds. What does he want? What is she like? Is he smart? Why is he looking at me, or not looking at me? Can I trust her? Should I be afraid of this person? Is he sexually attracted to me? Is she enjoying my presence? Does he think he’s superior to me? It then looks at these pictures and makes inferences about them. Then your brain uses these attributions to predict what other people are going to do and adjusts your agendas and behaviours accordingly. First and foremost, mind mapping is about predicting other people’s behaviour, whether it’s a stranger, or someone you interact with regularly, like a boss or co-worker, or personally, like a child, spouse, or parent. For example, if you’re walking towards someone on the street, you observe their clothes, their gait, where they’re looking, and their expression, paying particular attention to their eyes and mouth. You start attributing a personality to them. And within seconds you’ve gleaned enough information to determine if you’re going to keep your head down and ignore them, to avoid something unpleasant, or meet their gaze in anticipation of a friendly smile.
Mind mapping is an intrinsic part of being human, and quickly develops in children. Signs of mind mapping emerge soon after birth. Babies begin sharing eye contact (“mutual gaze”) with caretakers when they’re 3 months old. Another shared experience is directing their parents’ attention toward objects that interest them (“declarative pointing”). By 18 months, babies can follow someone’s attention to objects outside their own visual field, such as monitoring the eyes of someone seeing an object hidden behind a screen. In other words, by this age a baby can track something in another person’s mind. From this point until they’re about 4 years old, children demonstrate “implicit” mind mapping ability, meaning they clearly have mind mapping ability, but lack the verbal skills to reliably demonstrate it. As children’s verbal skills improve, they demonstrate “explicit’ mind mapping ability. Around the age of 4, children can understand that what people do is directly connected to what’s in their minds. They know that, if they can figure out what’s going on in your head, they can predict what you’re going to do. 4 year olds have enough mind mapping ability to detect lying and false beliefs, and from that can determine if someone is trustworthy or worthy of respect, and if and how they can be manipulated to get what they want. Around age 11, a child’s mind mapping ability reorganizes into adult form, allowing the child to understand sexual motivations and complex social interactions. They can detect if you’re not being completely honest with them. Teenager’s disrespect toward their parents often stems from disappointment seeing how their parents lie and act blind to themselves.
Knowing how early mind mapping abilities develop, it’s not surprising how early children shape stories about people and the world around them, based on what they mind map in parents, caregivers, siblings, and other influential people around them. And these early neural pathways develop a large core of how we interact with others later in life, whether we tend to be open, assuming others are generally loving, or tend be closed, assuming others are generally manipulative and/or not trustworthy. The primary purpose of mind mapping isn’t to facilitate bonding, it’s about survival. Growing up in an unstable environment with poor or less than nurturing parenting, often produces excellent mind mappers. For example, if someone grows up with a father who goes from calm to violently angry in seconds, they’re going to hone their mind mapping abilities to improve their chances of predicting when he might blow. Or if mother is an alcoholic, they’re going to map her all the time to identify triggers that push her to drink, so that they can steer her away from them.
Another level of mind mapping, involves mind masking, which is the ability to screen your mind from other people, making it more difficult for them to accurately and rapidly detect your inner mental states. This could involve shielding what you actually want, know, think, feel or believe. Mind masking always entails some degree of deception, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always antisocial. There are times where mind masking facilitates positive intent, like waiting for a private moment to share bad news with your partner, or avoiding controversial topics at the family gathering, or ignoring a dangerous-looking stranger trying to get your attention.
In adult love relationships, mind masking is a fact of life. We often present ourselves to others as we would like to be seen, which often differs from who we really are, as a way to manage our fear of rejection. But of course, continued mind masking is going to get in the way of real intimacy. Detecting when your partner masks his/her mind is particularly important if you’re in a committed relationship. Mind masking frequently occurs when couples experience serious difficulties that could destabilize their relationship, like medical or financial issues, or infidelity, by putting on a “happy face” to hide their anxieties. Mind masking often leads to suspicion and insecurity. Couples often become so enmeshed in mind masking, it creates an emotional gridlock in which neither partner reveals his or her mind, and both partners are suspicious.
When mind maskers are confronted or questioned they’ll often deflect, respond with a question, steer the conversation a different direction, or in some other way skirt around the question without ever giving a clear answer. Really good mind maskers will hide the fact that they’re masking in a variety of ways, such as:
- Substituting false content
- Not tampering with more of the truth than necessary
- Appearing to be forthcoming, even eager to comply
- Showing a picture of their mind they know people want or expect to see
- Creating plausible deniability
- Taking umbrage when they’re caught withholding important information
- Talking obliquely or abstractly and glossing over details
- Being convincing or confusing, and not necessarily accurate
Knowing these techniques can help you identify when someone is mind masking in your presence.
As troubled homes create highly skilled mind mappers, so too they create highly skilled mind maskers. If you’re growing up in an unstable household with irresponsible, untrustworthy parents, you get good at mind masking out of necessity. You learn to map other people while looking like you’re not paying attention to them. Mind masking, like mind mapping, is a survival skill. Dysfunctional families will often demand that family members maintain a positive facade in public, hiding the mayhem happening at home. Mind masking becomes second nature. When you grow up in a household that is loving, and nurturing, there’s less incentive to develop mind masking ability because you don’t feel compelled to guard your back at all times.
How well do you mind map those around you? How well do you know yourself? Partners, children, and others can often see us where we may be blind to ourselves. How often are you pretending, being deceptive, or in some other way masking your mind? How might that be impacting your relationships?
For more information on mind mapping and mind masking, as well traumatic mind mapping, read “Brain Talk: How mind mapping brain science can change your life and everyone in it” by Dr. David Schnarch.
Shari Derksen, MA, is a Registered Psychologist with the College of Alberta Psychologists and specializes in the areas of relationship issues and intimacy, as well as many others. For more information on Shari, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.