The “It’s All A Map” Game

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

The Neuro-Semantics Art
of Waking Up to the
Matrices of Your Mind

How to Quit the Semantically Reactive
“But My Experience!” Game
that Confuses Map and Territory
and Play a Game that Transcend
s “Events”

Description: There’s a dangerous game afoot that can undermine our growth, sanity, and resourcefulness¾it’s the “Experience is Real” Game. When you play that game, then your experiences control you¾they define you, determine you, and fate you. This undermines personal power and effectiveness. Our resourcefulness therefore depends upon learning how to refuse this game. Do you know how?

When it comes to experience, everyday every one of us gets lots of “experiences.” We do things, go places, interact with people, feel things, etc. This has been happening since birth. From our entry into the human experience, things have been happening. We call these happenings” experiences.” We are fed and clothed, we are nourished and loved, we are mistreated, yelled at, hated, we go to school, we learn things, we pick up language, we play, we have fun, we get punished, etc. Events happen.

Behavioral psychology at the beginning of the 20th century attempted to create an explanatory theory and system about humans, trauma, learning, etc. strictly from a Stimulus ¾> Response model. First a stimulus occurs and then we see a response. Forget the “black box” in-between; we can’t peer into that, so we really don’t know what “thinking” or “mind” is. Such imagined “entities” only confuse things. What we know is what we can see, hear, feel, smell, taste, weigh, measure, etc.

For Behaviorists, the Stimulus ¾> Response model provided a sufficient format for understanding and working with people. The stimulus of the experience or the event told it all. Responses were understood in terms of the stimuli.

Ah, that human life was so simple. But as we all know, it is not.

Later Behaviorists like Tolman invented the “I” and stuck it in-between Stimulus ¾Intervening Variables ¾> Response. Later, the Cognitive Psychology movement with George Miller, Karl Pribram, Eugene Gallanter, Noam Chomsky, and others specified those Intervening Variables. They talked about testing against criteria, cognitions, language. Later Bandler and Grinder enriched the model by specifying cognitions or thoughts as sights, sounds, sensations, smells, etc. ¾ what we call the VAK Representation System.

Today, we know that the stimuli does not tell it all. Interpretation, evaluation, encoding, and mapping play a very significant role from original Stimulus to the final Response. Mere stimuli do not make us have our responses. Events alone do not determine our responses, emotions, or life. Our interpretative frames explain how we encode and use the stimuli that impact us. This explains why our personal meanings and frames actually govern our everyday experiences ¾ and why we should not consider experience as primary. This now leads to numerous questions about experience itself:

What’s the best way to think about “experience?”
How real are experiences?
How much weight should we give to our experiences?
How much counsel should we take of our experiences?
If a person has an experience, does that give that person more understanding, wisdom, skill, etc. compared to someone without the actual experience?
How should we weigh and compare experience with learning? With reading?

Mapping the “Events” of Experience

Most people today know that it is not the event or experience per se that creates their reality. At least they know it in their mind. They know that they map things and that their map governs their experiences. At least, they know that intellectually. Emotionally, it’s a different story.

Emotionally most of us are pure old fashion Behaviorists!

Emotionally, when some event happens ¾ whether we are criticized, insulted, get word that we are going to be audited for our taxes, have to file bankruptcy, get assaulted, lose our job, get mugged, raped, see a murder, watch violence on TV or in the movies, etc. ¾ we feel as if the Event (the stimulus) creates and causes us to have the experiences we do!

When a loved one leaves or dies, when we crash the car, when the stock market drops in value, when someone betrays us, etc. ¾ we don’t want to hear anything about our interpretation of such events. In that moment, the experience is everything! At least it feels that way. And the experience seems so direct, unmediated, un-affected by us, perpetuated upon us, out of our control, etc.

In our calmer and saner moments we know that what and how we think about things greatly influence our feelings. But once we are inside of an emotional experience ¾ we seem to lose complete awareness of the ownership of our thoughts, our beliefs, our emotions, and our responses. Or, if we do have a glimpse of that awareness, that sense is so weak, so fragile, so impotent that it seems like a worthless insight.

Even at the first impact of the Event upon us, we seem to lose our personal power to choose our response.

Why is that?
What causes us to become so semantically reactive and to lose touch with our highest and greatest powers?
Could it be that we have been playing a certain game¾ the “But Experience is Really REAL” Game?

The Experience Game

Most of us have grown up in a culture that recruits us to play the “But Experience is Really REAL!” Game. We learn it from childhood. We learn it on school yard playgrounds. We learn it by using our bodies and nervous systems in a primitive way¾ “If I feel it, if I experience it¾ that’s the realest thing of all!”

In this Experience Game we make our final and ultimate court of appeal for what is “real,” “credible,” and believable in terms of what we experience. We default to Events. If we experience something, then that “has to be real.” Consciously or unconsciously, we set this up as our ultimate frame of validity, reality, confirmation, and existence. You can hear the Experience Frame Game in all kinds of statements:

  • “Yes, I know all about the research and studies on X, but my experience leads me to think that the truth is Y.”
  • “I’m from Missouri; I’ll only believe it if I see it.”
  • “That’s just book learning.”
  • “But you don’t understand, the aliens did beam me up into their star ship and molested me. Are you denying my experience?”
  • “But I X (spoke in “tongues,” saw the virgin Mary, was healed at the healing waters, walked on hot coals, etc.), so what you’re saying can’t be legitimate.”
  • “Well, you just read that in a book; I on the other hand have had the experience of X (managing a business, teaching NLP, curing phobias, parenting, kicking a drug addiction, etc.).”

In this way we learn how to default to experiences, events, and see-hear-feel happenings. We learn to interpret primary state experiences as “the most real.” Then, we learn to give events one meaning.

“Losing your job means failure, personal insult, harm, danger, worthlessness, continual failure in the future, etc.”
“Being raped means invasion, loss of control, powerlessness, victim, etc.”
“Growing up in a family where one adult was alcoholic means loss of self-esteem, caretaking patterning, repeating of the pattern, etc.”
“Being criticized means a personal insult and putdown, loss of friendship, etc.”

This set-up prepares us to play all kinds of limiting games that undermine true effectiveness. It sets us up for semantic reactiveness.

You are your experiences.
If you have had this or that Experience¾ it fates you to this or that consequence.
If you have experienced this or that event¾ you are a victim.
If you have not had this or that experience, you can’t really understand what I’m going through. Vicarious or empathetic understanding does not really count; it is not the real thing.
Only an alcoholic can really work with an alcoholic.
Only a former drug addict can really be effective with a drug addict.
Only a woman can understand another woman.

Transcending the Rigid “Experience” Game

Let’s first Name the Game. To rise above the rigid “Experience is Real” game we need to first understand it, detect it and appreciate it as a game. We’ve named this game as the “Experience is Real” Game, we could just as equally call it ¾

The Map/ Territory Confusion Game
Dis-Empowering to Experiences Game
Taking Too Much Counsel of Events Game
It’s a Stimulus¾> Response World Game
Events are all Determining Game
I have no Choice about my Responses; the Events Make Me!

Naming the game enables us to see the game for what it is. We see how the game creates limiting semantic reactions and prevents personal empowerment. From the constructionist point of view inherent in NLP and Neuro-Semantics, we realize that our nervous system maps the territory “out there” and build up constructs, mental, emotional and conceptual constructs. We realize the irreconcilable difference between map and territory.

“The map is not the territory.” Our map is just that¾ a map. It’s a symbolic representation of events. Even our neurological mapping (what we call “emotions”) is never the same as the territory. We never actually deal with “reality” directly. So, knowing that we operate with maps and see, hear, and feel things through our maps explains why “experience” is always liable to err, to map bias, to the uniqueness of each person’s neurology, state, history, frames, etc. And knowing this empowers us to be more tentatively flexible as we move through the world. We know that our maps are fallible and state-dependent.

Sure the game of experience feels real! That’s why most of us operate from the “common sense” predisposition that defaults to Events and to our emotions. That’s why we believe that a “Significant Emotional Event” is the cause of our experiences and character. They seem so real. And subjectively, they are very real. In our nervous system, we feel them. They move us. Or, so it seems.

Yet our somatic and emotional “experiences” are driven by the mapping we do, consciously and unconsciously. Actually our character and emotions result from our frames, interpretations, beliefs, values, understandings, history, etc. We register our mapping at the somatic level as “emotions.” That’s what an “emotion” is¾ a somatic or bodily registering of the evaluative judgment (Secrets of Personal Mastery). Our body and neurology goes into motion. From this has emerged such folk psychology as, “You can’t argue with experience.”

This explains why the map-territory distinction seems counter-intuitive. “But I see what I see.” People who lack sophistication in psychological understandings don’t immediately comprehend or believe the map/territory distinction. Many will even argue against it.

  • No, that book is “blue.” All you have to do is open your eyes and you’ll see blue, unless you’re color-blind!
  • It’s not just my thought, it’s “the truth.” Anybody with any sense knows that. What’s wrong with you, boy?

Many of the rest of us who recognize the Map/Territory distinction do not feel it. We don’t have it in our muscles as our way of being in the world. And that’s what we need. We need to let that frame become our felt way of being in the world.

Welcome to the Matrix of Your Mind

The world that we experience, the world that seems to be “out there,” actually is “in there.” It emerges inside of our “mind” via our brain, nervous system, neurology, etc. What we call “the world” and our experience of it arises as an interaction between our nervous system and the energy manifestations that impact our sense receptors of eyes, ears, skin, tongue, inner ear, etc. This makes “the world” a constructed matrix. It makes our sensed experience of the world a virtual reality¾ constructed within us.

To the extent that we all have similar functioning nervous systems, we experience the world at the perceptual level similarly. That’s why we can talk about the things we see, hear, feel, smell and taste, our sense of balance, etc. as if these are externally real. That’s why they do not seem like our shared reality, yet we only share them with humans and not with other sentient creatures.

Similarly, to the extent also that we use similar symbolic systems of language, reference structures, etc., we will experience things at the representational level pretty much in common. That’s why family, cultural, religious, and other groups live so much in “the same world.” And, to the extent that we use similar beliefs, values, understandings, concepts, frames, paradigms, histories, imaginations, etc., we will experience life at the conceptual level similarly due to our shared reality.

Of course, as we move up each level of experience (i.e., perceptual, representational, and conceptual), we tend to increasingly differ. And as that happens, our experiences increasingly differ.

Rising Above the Experience Game

There are several tricky things about the “Experience is Real” frame. First is the fact that we experience Events at the primary level and typically fail to notice the meta-levels of frames, ideas, and concepts that enter into the “experience” to texture, influence, qualify, and temper it. At the primary level experience is full of emotions, action tendencies, motor programs, rushing thoughts, etc. No wonder experiences feel so powerful! As mind-body states, they feel very real.

Yet as we now know that within such experiences we have multiple layers or levels of other thoughts-and-feelings, we can step back and catch it as a textured Game. So we name the game. We name it as a game that actually has meta-states lurking within it, driving, organizing, modulating and forming it. These meta-states don’t seem “meta” to it, we have to tease out such levels. Because they seem so much a part of the very fabric of the experience, they don’t seem distinct at all.

In Meta-States we say that this indicates the degree to which the higher levels of concepts have become “installed in the muscles.” This indicates the self-organizing powers of the meta-level attractor. It has percolated or coalesced into the sensory level of the experience. Yet what truly drives the experience are the higher frames¾ the higher frames of meaning and of reference, the higher Frameworks of the dynamic structure.

It’s these higher frames that actually participate in making the primary level experience of Events what it is.

As attractors in an self-organizing system, the higher frames creates the dynamic texturing of the experience so that any and every experience seeks to confirm and validate itself. Now we know. Now we can catch our experiences engaged in running “self-fulfilling prophecies.”

For example, consider the experience of “anger.” Typically, we feel anger in response to some Event. Someone says something ugly. Someone betrays a confidence. Someone acts in a selfish way that costs us something. Someone plays Win/Lose games with us. If we don’t have the Map/Territory well incorporated into our mind-body, we immediately react. Stimulus¾> Response! Event happens¾> I feel! He makes me angry. She upsets and frustrates me. That tonality bothers me.

Simple, right? Not quite.

What kind of anger do you experience? How have you textured and qualified your anger in response to that Event? Your answer, whatever it is, tells about your meta-frames (meta-states) that you’ve been building up for years, for a lifetime.

  • Do you have calm or tense anger?
  • Do you have kind or cruel anger?
  • Do you have patient or impatient anger?
  • Do you have mindful or reactive anger?
  • Do you have non-personalizing or personalizing anger?
  • Do you have helpful or destructive anger?
  • Do you have respectful or insulting and disrespectful anger?
  • Do you have gentle and loving anger or hurtful and uncaring anger?

Ah, we no longer have “anger” in its raw, pure, primary state. As we develop over the years, we map out frames of beliefs, values, identity, etc. that move us to experience only textured anger, textured states. It seems and feels like primary states… and so it should. Give any meta-frame enough time and practice, and it will coalesce into the primary experience or as Bateson said, it will sink down through habit formation to unconscious levels of mind.

There is more.

Every experiential state will seek out reasons, explanations, justifications, understandings, etc. to validate itself. Any “state” that’s going to last more than a few seconds or minutes will need a frame (actually multiple embedded frames) to support it. Otherwise, the state will just pass on. To sustain and perpetuate a state, to keep revisiting the state, to make a state an ongoing state of mind… and a sustained attitude, a state needs meta-level support. It needs Reasons.

This is where the psychological phenomena of rationalization comes in. Take any experience¾ any mental or emotional state: worry, anxiety, confidence, calm, love or apathy, jealousy or abundance, compassion and passion, purpose or drifting, etc. Experience that state. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and physiologies you need to have the experience will also need a frame if it’s to last. To accomplish that, a new character enters. Awareness of the meta-levels of “Why.”

  • Why do you feel that way?
  • Why do you think that?
  • Why are you experiencing that?

With the introduction of the Why Question, we begin building frames. As we answer, “Because…” we begin to do what we do best, we invent reasons. This initiates neuro-semantic reality. “Why” recruits us to build up our meta-state structures that explain, conceptualize, categorize, construct mental classes, and formulate our matrix of frames. We have belief frames, value frames, understanding frames, theology frames, expectation frames, history frames, imagination frames, etc.

Here we use language, and the formats of language, to invent our internal world of understandings, knowledge, etc. ¾ a whole Matrix of Frames. We build cause-effect beliefs, complex equivalence beliefs, value beliefs about importance and significance, conceptual beliefs, etc. Here we come into our own¾ as meaning-makers. Yet it is here also that we walk onto a mine-field of potential dangers because we can not only build enhancing constructs for mapping out human experience, we can also construct morbid and demonic constructs.

[By the way, this separates the field of Neuro-Semantics® that we have been developing from that which Chong and Fraser present and describe in their similar sounding name, Neuro-Semantic Programming. For Chong, the “Why” Question is bad, semantically unsound, always involves Blame, etc.

Playing the “It’s Just an Experience … Just a Map” Game

Now we are ready to move beyond the Experience Game. Now we can use the Map/ Territory distinction to set framework over all of our “experiences” and play the “It’s Just a Map” Game.

What I experience in my body is a reflection of my mapping. It’s only real to that extent, it only makes sense according to the interaction of my frames with external events.

This will alert and prevent us from buying into blindly reasoning from experience as if whatever we conclude about our experience is a function of the experience. It isn’t. That’s why lots of very sane and healthy people can take the same experience and “experience” it in many different ways. We can now also set other higher resourceful frames:

I am the meaning-making¾ not my experiences, not the Events I experience.
I will allow no Event to occur without giving it the most useful, positive, and productive frames possible.
I own my responses of mind and emotion¾ and can frame Events in ways that will serve me. I can Quality Control the events so that they do no unnecessary destruction.
Events are just Events; they have no meaning in themselves. The meanings I give to them will determine how I “experience” them.
I will refuse to set toxic and morbid frames about Events.
I can always frames things as, “Stuff happens” and shift to a solution frame: “Given what has happened, what are some of the most creative and useful things I can do for damage control?
As an information processor, I can classify, categorize, format, and frame this or that experience in a multiple of ways. What frames will allow me to maintain my sense of honor and dignity for myself and others?

As a meaning-making who always has the right and privilege to set frames of meaning, value, evaluation, identity, etc., we can take ownership of our four basic powers (thinking-emoting, speaking and behaving, Secrets of Personal Mastery, 2000) and use our reasoning, rationalizing, and asking “why” questions to build up a neuro-semantic matrix that enriches our everyday experiences.

How can I explain why these things happen to myself and others in a way that supports myself becoming more resourceful, authentic, alive, and human?
What frames can I and will I bring to these events that will make a difference in my life and in the lives of those that I can touch?

And now, with all of that in mind, just imagine how much easier you will find it to say, “No!” to the Events of your experience as the final arbitrator or determinant of what is real or what is possible. You no longer have to play the “But in My Experience …” Game. You no longer have to accept that what you’ve experienced is the last word about what’s possible, the best raw data from which to map things, or the limit of human excellence. Now you know better ¾ now you can become the Master of the Matrices of your Mind and choose how you want to texture, quality, and interpret the Events you experience.


Bateson, Gregory. (1972/ 2000). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: The University of Chicago.

Hall. L. Michael (2000). Meta-States: Managing the higher levels of your mind. Grand Jct. CO: Neuro-Semantics Publications.

Hall, L. Michael. (2000). Secrets of personal mastery: Advanced techniques for accessing your higher levels of consciousness. Wales, UK: Crown House Publications.

Korzybski, Alfred. (1941/1994). Science and sanity: An introduction to non-Aristotelian systems and general semantics, (5th. ed.). Lakeville, CN: International Non-Aristotelian Library Publishing Co.

Lakoff, George; Johnson, Mark. (1999). Philosophy in the flesh: The embodied mind and its challenge to western thought. NY: Basic Books.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., cognitive psychologist, international NLP trainer, entrepreneur; prolific author and international training; developer of Meta-States and co-developer of Neuro-Semantics. (P.O. Box 9231; 81501). (970) 523-7877.