Bending Mental Maps

I’ve been reading a book called “Deep Survival” by Laurence Gonzales, about how some people pull through survival situations, while others die. I was particularly taken that the group we’d least expect to make it, children under 6 years of age, do pretty darn well at the survival game, while the greatest number of deaths happen in children ages 7-12 years.


There are many drawbacks to being a lost kid. Small children lose body heat faster than adults. They hardly have the life experience or training that would equip them to adequately assess the situation and figure out an appropriate set of actions. Most that age are too young to know how to read maps or survival books! It turns out, though, what they lack is the secret to what keeps them alive.

Small children lack a mental map that propels them to do dangerous things. They accept the world in front of them, and rely on their instincts. When they are cold, they look for a hollow tree to climb in. When they are tired, they rest so they don’t get fatigued. And if they don’t get sweaty, they don’t lose body temperature and get hypothermic. When they are thirsty, they drink. They can’t imagine that rescue or their families are “right around the corner,” so they don’t push on in search of them. In other words, they follow what their body tells them, and accept what their senses bring to them. All of these things keep them alive.

Bending the Map

Adults and older children, in contrast, have a very strong set of mental images about the world. These images are so powerful, that when the world fails to conform to them, they reject the world, instead of their image of it.

Hikers have been reported to smash their compass when it failed to tell them the direction they believed they were traveling. Other lost souls blamed a map’s failings for features that “should be there,” or when they are confronted with elements, like a pond, that tell them they are in the wrong place. The failure of logic is compelling in these situations. “This pond must have formed here this spring, and the map didn’t include it.” They end up “bending the map,” rather than accepting that they aren’t where they thought they were.

Don’t Turn Back

Another thing lost wilderness hikers tend not to do is to retrace their steps to more familiar territory. There appears to be a powerful human drive to “keep going,” especially when fear, danger, or panic overtakes us. Apparently, this must develop after age 6, because younger children aren’t compelled to travel on, in these same situations. As I said, they have no cognitive capacity to imagine that “over there” is better than where they are, so they accept their current environment in a “be here now” type of fashion. They start to use their senses and their imagination to familiarize themselves with what’s around them and to make the best of it. They don’t follow “rules” because they have no “rules.”

Ages 7-12: Mental Mapping Without Adult Judgment

By 7, however, something changes cognitively in these children. They now have the capacity to map their world internally. They have a sense for how things “should be,” and they work hard to make the outside world conform to the interior of this map. They’ve started to learn the rules of how to live, and the “short cuts” of their neighborhood world, but a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Inner city kids this age, it turns out, survive better than suburban kids because they’ve been exposed to predators (the human kind) and have learned to be alert and take better care of themselves–be more self-reliant. Children ages 7-12 often run in panic when lost, and ignore signs of thirst or fatigue. They’ll run across a road without stopping, when lost. They push on believing that to be “found” exists right over that next hill. They have the mental map, but not the emotional controls to rein in their fears.

Teaching Survival

Turns out, however, that you can teach children this age survival skills, and Mark Morey – of Vermont Wilderness Survival School-is doing just that. He teaches children to increase their observational skills and work together to develop empathy and group cooperation.

He took the author, Gonzales, on a walk. Every 20 feet, he’d point out something of interest, a tree, a plant or a rock, and link it back to something they’d seen earlier. They’d turn around to look at that earlier point, and then they’d go on. Without realizing it, Gonzales had created a new mental map of this territory, without compass or paper guide. He was not “lost” because the beaver dam was on his left, the hollow tree was ahead of him, and the unusual flower he’d admired was behind.

Recently, I took a completely different sort of hike than the ones I was used to, very similar to the one at the Survival School. It was with an artist friend of mine who kept the walk at quite a manageable pace, because she kept pointing out patterns, designs, and the world around us. I never saw the trail map, but I could point out where we found the great mushrooms and that interesting tree with the patterns crawling up it. She made the world contained within that hike familiar to me.

Looking Back and Going Back Down

One summer, when I was staying in a campground that had a stable, we’d always get a better ride when we took the horses backward, on the very same trail they were used to riding the opposite way. Horses, apparently, don’t look back either, so they were much more alert and willing to follow the rider’s lead when viewing their path from this different perspective.

We often forget to look behind us when we travel, but the view is totally different from this perspective, and it is the view we’ll be seeing if we should retrace our steps. Going back down a mountainous trail, even when we take the same route, is more dangerous, statistically, than going up. Some of the reason is physical: we have to put our foot out first, and allow our weight to follow. But the more important part is psychological–our guard is down. The thrill of reaching the top is over. We move faster, even when we are more tired. We aren’t as careful because, the hike feels finished, despite the fact that it is actually half over. We are now anxious to get home. And, like the 7-12 year old, believe we can take shortcuts because we think we ‘know where we are going.’

Dominant Maps and Beginner’s Mind

Emergencies, by definition, aren’t familiar. Only 10-20% of people can stay ‘cool’ in the face of a survival emergency. These few can perceive their situation clearly, without becoming dominated by their pre-existing mental maps. They can begin to plan (but not too far into the future) and take self-directed actions. They have a ‘beginner’s mind’ that is open to what their senses tell them. Meeting a changing environment, they rapidly adapt to what they’re confronted with, instead of what they expected to be confronted with.

A ‘beginner’s mind’ refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would. One author wrote: In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.

All of you, Dear Readers, who have been kicking around the Peak Oil movement long enough, have allowed your mental map of “modern culture” to be shattered by a shockingly different understanding. You’ve tolerated the discomfort of living in “unfamiliar terrain” within your mental image of the world. You’ve been willing to admit that “help” might not be right around the next bend, and so you’ve recognized the need to become more self-reliant.

No doubt, though, you’ve also taken comfort in creating a new mental map, one more fitting to your current understanding of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. But this map, too, can lead you astray if you trust it more rigidly than your own senses, your own common sense.

As a member of the Peak Oil community, in these changing times, I have to strive to keep a beginner’s mind. Reality is not the same as my mental map of it. Just as I’ve let go of the more traditional view of our culture once I learned about Peak Oil, more is expected of me. I must be willing to ‘let go’ of my Peak Oil map of the terrain, as need be, and deal with my changing circumstances on its own terms. I have to accept ‘what is,’ instead of what I expect to see.

Wondrous Uncertainty

Like small children, we’re better off if we assess and familiarize ourselves with the environment we now find ourselves in, and listen to our bodily needs. Can we exercise our ‘beginner’s mind’ and not fall into a trap of assuming we know what is the ‘next big thing’ that is going to happen (even if we have a mental map that helped us predict it?) And even when our mental maps have been on target repeatedly, can we continue to hold these cognitive maps lightly? Can we recognize that they aren’t reality and never will be? These maps are nothing more than interpretations of what’s happening. When we try to predict ‘tomorrow,’ it will only ever be a fiction.

True survivors, according to Gonzales, familiarize themselves with pain, and are not unduly rattled by it. They accept the experience of pain, without allowing it to panic them or distract them.

Survivors also have a sense of humor and see the ‘big, big picture.’ Can we use our imagination when confronting what’s happening, to make it familiar, even entertaining? Survivors do. They keep their sense of humor, in the worst of it because, as Gonzales says: “In a true survival situation, you are, by definition, looking death in the face, and if you can’t find something droll and even something wondrous and inspiring in it, you are already in a world of hurt.” p. 27

True survivors are open to being wrong about what they think, and reassess. Like airline pilots, they are off-course a large percentage of the time, and have to modify their direction-quickly. But unlike pilots, other than their intention to survive, they aren’t certain that they know where they are going, or if they are on the right path. They look at the ‘next right thing’ that brings them closer to surviving, and do it. They are enormously empathetic, while being complexly cold-hearted. They don’t let raw emotions dominate, yet they tune into their sensory needs. They feel incredible fear, yet they direct that fear in constructive ways.

The Funny Price of Gold

I thought about the quote about survivor wit, as my dear friend Kathy Harrison and I were talking about the price of gold, being over $1040. “I don’t know why I’m chuckling” she said. “You’re giddy,” I said “because you know just how serious this indicator is, and finding humor in it is a sign of a survivor.” We were both commenting on the terrain that had appeared before us, and we were playing with our mental maps of it. “I thought it would be the stock market, but it might well be the dollar that does it” she told me, referring to the ‘tipping point’ in the economy, when the speed of the collapse picks up. I thought back to the course I taught in Sex and Money, years ago, and how gold had grazed $1000 then, before it sunk back down. “Maybe,” I thought, “Maybe this time or maybe not.”

My Own Economic Wilderness Journey

Two years ago, I wasn’t panicked or afraid, because my economic future was a lot more certain than it is now. Back then, I was at the precipice of my builder business, and losing that business was an abstraction I thought I knew about. I was enthusiastically teaching these ideas, but I didn’t know the fear that went along with the steep slide down. I could not anticipate how the mental maps I had set up for what was to come-useful but intellectual maps of gold prices and economic hardship–would mislead me when I, myself, would go through it. I had to learn to ‘shake off the shock,’ and I still do. It has become exceedingly hard to trust what my senses bring me, because I feel bombarded by stimuli. It is a challenge for me to know when to block out the constant flow of doomer information coming at me, without becoming isolative and over-reliant on my own senses to guide my understanding. I’m learning how to float on the waves that are crashing over me, instead of trying to dig my heels deeply into the sand of my previous understanding. But I’m a ‘tough nut.’ I’ve had to swallow a lot of salt water, and get pretty close to drowning, before I figured I needed a new attitude. That’s the problem with cognitive maps. “It ain’t what people know that’s the problem,” said Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). “It’s what they know that ain’t so.

So now, I’m trying to access what’s in front of me, instead of what I think should be there. I have strong mental maps that cloud my vision, and even today, lead me to doubt what I see before me.

I can’t tell you today whether what I am going through is still shock or a new level of calm. I can tell you that back then, I was overconfident, a very grave trait in a survivor. Overconfidence leads a person to take actions that they wouldn’t otherwise take. I remember saying last year, at the worst of it: “We’ll take a cash advance because if we don’t have the money to pay it off when its due, we’re doomed anyway.”

A truly asinine statement.

I wrote about the dangers of credit card debt, but I believed that for my family, good times were right around the corner. “Doomed” seemed to have some abstract meaning for me then, not the grinding, boring reality of debt. Truly, I was chock full of arrogance and overconfidence but had no clue I was this way.

But despite what I’ve been through to date, I’m still curious to see what is going to happen next. I’m a lot less certain that I know anything about the terrain, however, or that anyone else knows either. I’m interested in people’s speculations, but now as “stories,” and not guideposts. I remain curious to see how my fate, and those I love, will play out through all of this, but I’m much less certain how the drama is going to unfold. And as I’m going downhill, I try to put one foot in front of the other, I try to focus on ‘the next thing,’ that I do my best to direct. I’m much less sure that I know much of anything. Humility. That’s another survivor trait.

Kathy and I will mark the occasion, if gold hits $1050, by getting together for tea, or perhaps something stronger. There is nothing magical about the amount of $1050. It will be our way of noting “that unusual rock, on this path, or that dramatic bend in the tree on our left.” It will be our new marker in our new mental map of this unexplored terrain.

The smartest of us admits that truly we are in the deep wilderness economically, and while some of us have mental maps we are quite fond of, they may be of little use in guiding us through. In fact, all of our mental preparations may even be a hindrance, if we insist on ‘bending the map’ to fit what we are ‘expecting’ to happen.

Nice to be back, you’all. If you got ‘em, don’t forget to buckle your seat belts…

About Kathy McMahon

Kathy McMahon Psy.D. is a clinical psychologist who is internationally known for her writing about the psychological impacts of Peak Oil, climate change, and economic collapse. She's written for Honda Motors, and has been featured in American Prospect, Greenpeace International, the Vancouver Sun, Freakonomics, Itulip, Ecoshock Radio, and Peak Moments Television.


  1. This is a wonderful post that goes to the heart of the Peak Oil aware mindset.

    For me, at any rate, one of the real awakenings that came with Peak Oil awareness was a sudden realisation of the extent to which I’d managed to coast along for five decades without anything more than the haziest mental map of the territory my life inhabited.

    That realisation led to a two-year explosion of exploration and learning (mainly through reading books and blogs) in order to try to understand more about finance, politics, business, psychology, geology, economics/mysticism, physics and so on. As a family, we have also done stuff like getting out of debt and reducing our dependence (slightly) on the fossil food/energy grid.

    All this has filled in many of the spaces on my map that were hitherto populated with hazy suppositions or lazy imaginings.

    But has it made me better prepared for the reverse side of the Hubbert curve? Perhaps – but not in the way I’d have expected.

    A few days ago, for reasons related to a lifelong tendency to depression, I didn’t eat for 36 hours and spent a whole day lying out in the woods without shelter, getting decidedly cold and hungry. In some ways, it was the physical manifestation of the unexpressed fear of deprivation/abandonment/starvation that I think middle class, middle aged Westerners (in particular) feel when they talk of the future repercussions of the Peak Oil predicament.

    Anyway, with nothing to distract me except birdsong and the rush of wind in the trees, it was a good time to turn over in my mind everything I’d learned during this two-year crash course in personal reorientation. Maybe, I figured, stripping away all the paraphernalia of daily life would help me to see a direction forward: to plan the steps I might take to increase the likelihood that I would be “among the survivors.”

    Did that happen? Not really (traditionally, the sitting under a tree thing takes a good few years, I believe!). The one thing that struck me with some force was that I was not going to try change anything in my mind in order to become a “survivor”. There seems to be nowhere on my mental map that is “better” than another place (or the place I happen to be at any one moment) in terms of future survivability in an unknown situation. In today’s shrunken, globalised world, there is nowhere for anyone to run to to escape the coming train wreck.

    Short of literally holing up in a cave somewhere, as a hermit living off leaves and mushrooms, there is no real life-changing action that any of us can do – be it becoming more ‘self-sufficient’ or joining a transition group – that intrinsically detaches us from industrial civilisation.

    Individually, our chances of surviving the eventual wreck of that civilisation, assuming that it occurs during our lifetime, are likely to be 90% due to pure luck and 10% down to using awareness and foreknowledge of to avoid making bad moves when and if the heavy stuff starts flying around.

    I think I’m quite happy with the knowledge that I’m just going to “be”. I’ll see what happens about being a survivor when and if the time comes.

  2. Welcome back. One thing I have found about mental maps of the life terrain, is that as I have gotten older, the maps appear to be etched on titanium, very hard to change. I find I have too much of a been there done that mentality, when in reality we are entering a wilderness unlike any we have seen before, and no, we won’t have been there or done that. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

  3. Cassandra of the Remnant says:

    As I was reading this article I realized that being a trauma survivor might actually have some benefits when dealing with Peak Oil.
    A child who has lived through a trauma may at one time have had maps to guide him through his exterior environment. But once the slip was on, life would start at ground zero and those maps would have been erased or no longer would exist. Instead he would have to live back at age 6 and react from a more instinctive place. Through trial and error he would learn how to deal with new trauma as it unfolded purely from a primordial place. Because he could not trust anyone from a position of authority and would need to rely on his own senses he would either gain from the experience and become more adept and trusting of his own decisions, or he would become truly dysfunctional and ineffective.
    Any new trauma or crisis would be seen as further opportunity to trust in his own decisions. Anything short of death would be perceived as a challenge because once one has come face -to-face with death anything short of that is just a challenge-maybe a tough challenge but nothing that would scare one any longer.
    Now as an adult :Enter Peak Oil. Just a little blip of mustard on the chart of “almost death”, quite unpleasant but not unable to handle.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Edmund. I believe that there are stages in peak oil awareness, and one of them is “all this preparation is useless.” I whole-heartedly agree that it is difficult to anticipate how this awareness will impact you, as you first begin your journey. Beliefs I held initially, I’ve rejected along the way. No one is going to be free of impact, but I do believe that some situations are a whole lot better than others, for a variety of reasons. The trick is to take a lot of variables into account, and give each its proper weight. And, sometimes reflection, alone, won’t do it. You have to change your life in concrete ways, and allow your mind to follow. Take the popular notion “buy local.” If you live in London, or NYC, you realize that there’s no chance that “buy local” has any concrete meaning. But starting the process anyway brings a person to experiences that open up possibilities, esp. if they make the effort to “go to the course.”

    Chuck, older people do have more stubborn cognitive patterns. There’s just much more “history” to rely on that does dig those grooves and shortens one’s experience of summer vacation!

    Interesting point, C of R. I hear you saying that if you’ve figured out how to manage the symptoms of PTSD, or HAD no reaction of that sort when confronting survival situations, you’ve had some practice. On the one hand, too many survivors aren’t working on all cylinders emotionally. They have symptoms like panic attacks, startle responses, nightmares, numbness, flashbacks etc that they are ‘surviving,’ but it reduces their effectiveness in the world. On the other hand, figure out how to eliminate these symptoms, and you have a handy tool box to deal with the next crisis that comes along. Kids that have been abused are, by definition, “survivors” that, as you say, have repeatedly exercised their ‘failure muscles’ until those muscles are stronger than the average bear. They’ve figured out how to get by with less. That’s a lesson most of us will live through.


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