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Maps of Meaning

The Architecture of Belief

By Jordan B. Peterson
16-minute read
Audio available
Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson

Maps of Meaning (1999) argues that myths provide the key to understanding the human psyche and our shared culture. Combining classic psychoanalysis with psychology, social and historical analysis, Jordan B. Peterson reveals how myths convey morality and create meaning in our lives – and what we can learn from them to reach our individual potential.

  • Psychologists interested in ancient history, and historians interested in human nature
  • Jordan Peterson devotees who want to dive deeper into his system of thought
  • Skeptics who want to better understand the author’s controversial theories

Jordan B. Peterson is a clinical psychologist famous for his controversial views on human nature, culture, and politics. He’s a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. He gained notoriety with his popular self-help book 12 Rules for Life.

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Maps of Meaning

The Architecture of Belief

By Jordan B. Peterson
  • Read in 16 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 10 key ideas
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Maps of Meaning by Jordan B. Peterson
Synopsis

Maps of Meaning (1999) argues that myths provide the key to understanding the human psyche and our shared culture. Combining classic psychoanalysis with psychology, social and historical analysis, Jordan B. Peterson reveals how myths convey morality and create meaning in our lives – and what we can learn from them to reach our individual potential.

Key idea 1 of 10

Humans explore their environment out of a fear of the unknown.

If you place a rat in a new cage, its first reaction is to freeze. The rat is afraid – and understandably so. After all, grave danger could lurk in this new, unfamiliar territory. Only slowly, will the rat begin to explore its new surroundings – sniffing, licking, and scratching its way through the cage. The more it gets used to the new environment, the calmer it becomes.

Humans are much more complex animals than rats, but we navigate the world in a similar way.

The key message here is: Humans explore their environment out of a fear of the unknown.

For humans, just as for rats, the world is divided into two parts: the known and the unknown.

The known is the familiar cage. It comprises all things we can easily make sense of, either because we’ve encountered them before, or because we can access shared cultural knowledge about them. In this explored territory, we feel calm and safe.

The unknown, on the other hand, is everything we don’t understand yet: a novel situation, an unexplained phenomenon, an unexpected behavior – in short, an anomaly. Just as the new cage terrifies the rat, anomalies tend to stop us in our tracks.

Since we have no way of knowing what we’re dealing with when we encounter the unknown, anomalies evoke dual feelings in us. They’re both threatening and promising.

Imagine, for example, you received a letter with unknown contents in the mail, with the words Open at your own risk written on it. Is it blackmail? An unclaimed inheritance? Probably, you would feel both anxious and excited to open it.

Whether fear or curiosity dominates an encounter with the unknown depends on just how unexpected and unfamiliar the anomaly really is. If you knew the letter was sent by a friend, for example, you would probably be less nervous about opening it.

Either way, you would likely be bursting to see what’s inside. Just like rats, once we’ve overcome our initial fear, humans have a natural inclination to explore the unknown. In doing so, we hope to turn unfamiliar into familiar territory. This helps us reduce our emotional tension and regain our sense of safety.

Unlike rats though, we can explore the unknown not just through action, but also through thought. You would probably spend just as much time examining the letter as theorizing about who sent it and why.

Our thoughts and actions are the tools we have to turn the unknown into the known. With their power, we’re actively creating the world we know.

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