Each of us has his/her story about the world and ourselves. That story is constructed from the experience of the outside world, the epigenetic rules or selection apparatus of the body, the genotype of physical makeup, the cultural recipes of those with whom we live and the personal theory of meaning that we give to this combination.
There is a reality outside of us, although just what it is would be difficult to define. There are objects and events that occur in the ‘real’ world. Our perception of these, however, is limited, first by natural constraints and then by the filters that we create. But lets start from the beginning.
At some time, probably while in the womb, the individual experiences his/her first sensations. Sensations come from our senses, the major of which are sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. If one or more of these senses are diminished by a genetic anomaly, there is a genetic constraint on the perception of the experience. In addition to that, there are neurological constraints that are inherent to the species. Grinder and Bandler in The Structure of Magic have articulated some of these constraints.
We are aware that our central nervous system is in some way designed to limit the amount of information that gets to us. Some examples of these limitations would include sound waves that are below 20 cycles or above 20,000 cycles per second, which we cannot hear although they exist in reality. Visual detection exists only between 380 and 680 milli-microns; above and below are undetectable.
Our ability to perceive being touched at two points on the surface of our skin varies dramatically. If we are touched in two places on the thumb or on the back will determine whether we can even know.
The central nervous system is a regulator of what we are able to see, hear, feel, smell and taste and these constraints shield us from the ‘reality’ outside of us, even if we are genetically typical. Once we have the experience, it also becomes less and less likely that we will experience that same object or event with the same profoundness the next time it occurs. In fact, we fairly quickly become habituated to experiences and ‘block out’ of consciousness mundane concerns.
I will cite an example from my own experience with habituation. I once traveled to a different part of the state with a high school group and was provided a room in a family home. We arrived after dark and after becoming acquainted with the family, I was shown to my sleeping quarters and went to bed. At some point during the night a train coming through my bedroom startled me. The light actually flashed on the wall and the roar was, it seemed, right upon me. Now the family, who had lived with this train for some time, did not even wake up. They had forgotten to tell me about it, because they essentially no longer heard [or felt] the train passing. This was inexplicable to me – but I have learned over time that this is the way it works.
This constraint on the sensations of the train was not based on the limitations placed by the nervous system. If we had been awake and talking, my reactions would have brought the train sound, light and feel to the family’s consciousness and they would have experienced it. But habituation is a significant part of our experiences of the world, as we will see later.
Returning to our prototype individual, s/he experiences an event and through the collection of data from his/her senses ‘feels’ [in a physical sense] the sensation of the experience within the parameters of his/her neurological constraints. At this point, certain epigenetic rules are implemented. Genes prescribe epigenetic rules, by which the individual mind assembles itself [Wilson]. …Martin Seligman …called it ‘prepared learning’. He said that….”humans are innately prepared to learn certain behaviors, while being counter prepared against – that is, predisposed to avoid – others.” These epigenetic rules are the algorithms of growth and differentiation that create a fully functioning organism.
One of the most profound of these rules is the rule of association. Human beings associate or link one thing with another seeking to define a pattern within random perceptions. Our pattern making propensities are so good that we can ‘see’ patterns in random design. Our prototype individual has no prior experience, so s/he has no comparables with which to deal with this experience, so s/he will explore the experience in a data driven or ‘bottom up’ manner, taking the experience on the face value of what is presented, discovering utility [pleasure or pain] from it. The next experience, however, may be similar or dissimilar, but this prototype individual will seek to associate elements of the first experience to that of the second experience. S/he will seek analogous elements that might be comparable. For example, though each experience may have been totally different, each may have given pleasure or pain, and in that way they are comparable.
The choices that s/he makes about these experiences, how s/he compares these experiences, are the beginnings of his/her individuality. There is no reason to believe that s/he will in this first sample or ever after make choices in the same way as other people. But it is assured that the choices made over time will be uniquely individual. It would also be unwise to believe that the pattern s/he perceives actually exists, for as with random design, the pattern is as much in our mind as it is in the environment.
Through an exponentially increasing number of random experiences, the prototype individual, based on another epigenetic rule, will begin to generalize about experiences. Such generalizations are abstractions that differ from both the actual experience and the sensation [which is its own abstraction or generalization of the experience]. This is a different level of logic.
One of the common experiences that all individuals perceive is the interpretation of common experience by other people in the ecosystem. Of particularly importance are the interpretation given by those people of significance to the individual. These outside interpretations have profound influence on the meaning or interpretation of the experience and are gradually absorbed and habituated into the prototype individual’s psyche. This experience of culture [social constraint] is somewhat like the experience of gravity, at once profound and unnoticed.
Bandler and Grinder referred to this set of constraints implemented through other people as social genetic filters and point out that this constraint includes all the categories or filters to which we are subject as members of a social system: our language, our accepted ways of perceiving, and the socially agreed upon fictions.
They give as an example, the language system. Within any particular language system part of the richness of our experience is associated with the number of distinctions made in a given area of sensation. In Maidu, an American Indian language of Northern California for example, only three words are available to describe the color spectrum. English has eight [specific] color terms.
Bandler and Grinder indicate that while human beings are said to be capable of making 7,500,000 different color distinctions in the visible color spectrum (Boring, 1957), the people who are native speakers of Maidu habitually group their experience into the three categories supplied by their language. The person who speaks Maidu is characteristically conscious of only three categories of color experience while the English speaker has more categories and, therefore, more habitual perceptual distinctions.
Thus, the social constraint or culture is limiting in a) what concepts it provides to the individual for consideration, and b) how it reinforces the prototype individuals social performance [interaction]. If the individual generalizes something that is contrary to the culture, the impact may be profound. Galileo discovered this when he promoted the Copernican idea that the earth was not the center of the universe.
With epigenetic rules, neurological constraints and social constraints, the prototype individual is still struggling to make sense of the world, to be able to predict what will happen next with some degree of accuracy. S/he is testing out generalizations and creating hypotheses about why things happen and trying to give meaning not only to individual events, but also to the world. Finally, s/he begins to form a ‘grand unified theory’ of everything, with the major generalizations being about self, others and personal future prospects. This theory takes shape somewhere between the ages of four and seven. At this point, the process of evaluating and comparing experiences becomes ‘top down’ and theory driven rather than data driven or ‘bottom up’. Thus, the individual has now set up individual constraints that will limit what s/he perceives. As Grinder and Bandler tell it our individual experiences begin to differ more radically, giving rise to more dramatically different representations of the world. The individual constraints are the basis for the most far-reaching differences among us as humans.
By individual constraints we refer to all the representation we create as human beings based upon our unique personal history and our interpretation of it. Every human being has a set of experiences that constitute his own personal history and are as unique to him as are his fingerprints. And these experiences are generalized into a theory of meaning – they describe just what the world means to this individual.
Now the individual is seeking confirmation of his/her theory. Unfortunately, this causes the individual to implement an inherent confirmation bias.
When trying to assess whether a belief is valid, people tend to seek out information that would potentially confirm the belief, over information that might disconfirm it. [Gilovich]
While the tendency to impute order to ambiguous stimuli is wired into the cognitive machinery we use to apprehend the world [epigenetic rule], the tendency is so strong and so automatic that we sometimes detect coherence even when it does not exist, as we did with the random design. Unfortunately, once a person has (mis)identified a random pattern as a ‘real’ phenomenon, it will not exist as puzzling, isolated fact about the world, but is quickly explained and readily integrated into the person’s pre-existing theories and beliefs.
This grand unified theory of meaning, sometimes called a map or model of the world, then serves to bias the person’s evaluation of new information in such a way that the initial belief becomes solidly entrenched [Gilovich].
But here it is – the world functions in this way because….
Is the individual’s grand unified theory true? Is reality what I think it is? How could it possibly be true and/or real? The prototype has only experienced the world randomly through three or more different categories of constraints, and then was required to hypothesize why something happened or did not happen. This was not a systematic exploration that occurred without bias. It was not even public! One tenet of scientific endeavor is that the scientist makes public his/her theories so that they can be challenged and amended by others. Here we have an individual with a grand unified theory of the world which is not only not public in the sense that others can grasp the totality of the theory, but it is not even public in the sense of being conscious to the individual him/herself!
But whether the theory is true or not is of little concern. In fact, we know that if the theory is slightly more positive, more ‘rosy’ than other people’s theories, this is a good thing. The real question is not whether the theory is true, but rather whether it is useful or utile [bringing more pleasure than pain]. If the theory of meaning is effective in helping the person enjoy life – it is a good theory. But if our prototype says s/he is unhappy, anxious, angry, etc. – s/he probably needs help in examining his/her theory and replacing it in part or in toto.
Now before we start to explore how to change theories of meaning, lets outline another way of looking at the process we just articulated. Again we have the stimuli and the experience of it that causes a sensation [abstraction]. We call it an abstraction because our sense organs summarize, conclude and reduce the experience. Let us say, just for example, that the overwhelming conclusion is pain. We know that pain is an experience that is not harmonious with a pleasant life; in fact, it is the body’s method of warning us that something is very wrong and needs attention. But how we interpret the pain has some impact on how disruptive it is to our life. If the pain is interpreted as excruciating and chronic, it might lead the individual to conclude that life is not worth living. If, on the other hand, the pain is interpreted as tolerable and limited, the individual may be able to become habituated to it in the same manner that the family habituated the train – yes it is still there, and if I think about it [bring it into consciousness], it hurts – but I don’t always think about it.
The first structure [coded memory] created by the central nervous systems is the physical sensation, which in coded form is called the reference structure. We develop this reference structure by coding it with submodalities – qualitative characteristics of sensory inputs. For example
Visual qualitative characteristics might include: shape, color/black-and white, movement, brightness/dimness, depth, distance, location…
Auditory qualitative characteristics might include: volume, tempo, pitch, frequency…
Kinesthetic qualitative characteristics might include: temperature, pressure, texture, location, moisture, pain, pleasure…relating to body sensations. The term kinesthetic is used to encompass all kinds of feelings including tactile, visceral and emotional.
This coded memory of the experience is the reference structure and we can return to the experience in our imagination and may re-experience these submodalities on a feeling level. In fact, in re-experiencing the event we can change the submodalities and that changes the experience itself.
The individual goes on to internally make sense of the experience by describing it [to themselves] in linguistic symbols – words, but not entirely words. The fact that a single word can have several meanings based upon the context in which it is embedded, indicates that the word itself is not the only symbol. Usually the representations used at this level are sensory words and this second level abstraction is called the deep structure. This is not deep in the sense of more profound, but deep in that it is closer to the fundamentals of the experience – the real stimuli as coded in the reference structure.
Again, we must remember that each logical or abstraction level is a generalization of the previous level and therefore reduces the amount of information about the experience while [hopefully] expanding one’s understanding of the world by association. When the person decides to talk about or communicate the experience to others, a third level of abstraction takes place. The individual does not relate the entire deep structure, but selects representations [words and linguistic structures] to covey the message to others. This selection is called the surface structure, simply because it is on the surface and observable to an auditor [listener]. The word selection that an individual makes has proved to be very important, since what is presented gives clues to the deep structure. There are linguistic markers that draw the attention of the auditor to certain parts of the conversation. These include deletions, generalizations and distortions, as well as causation statements, equation statements, values words and ideas, presuppositions and modal operators.
When any of these linguistic markers are apprehended the intuitive native speaker will often ask for clarification. The auditor, who is specifically listening for these markers and understands their meaning not only intuitively, but also formally, is able to use them to identify areas of impoverishment of the individual’s theory of meaning. Obviously if the theory of meaning is impoverished – suggesting that their thoughts are deteriorating as they exhaust the fertility or quality of life, leading to problems in living.
We continuously think about our thoughts, the mind is in constant movement – what are you thinking right now? – at least as long as you are conscious. We think about our thoughts, and the levels of abstraction are infinite. We generalize, organize and classify all sorts of information. Therefore we are able to go to different levels of abstraction. To think about these levels, think about a specific thing – e.g., your car. You can then go to a next level and think about all of the cars like your car – same color, make, model, year. Then you can generalize at the type of car and think about all of that make or brand name [year, color, etc.]. Then, of course, we can think about all cars. Since cars are primarily built for transportation [status is a secondary cause, isn’t it?] you can think about forms of transportation [cars, trains, airplanes, etc.]. And so it goes. Each logical level demands a new abstraction. And each higher level takes us further and further away from our original level – your car.
If we wanted to examine the individual’s beliefs about transportation, we may benefit by going down step by step to your car. Of course, we could then go below [beyond] your car to talk about what qualities [color, touch, smell, etc.] make that car either pleasurable or painful to you. We could also explore the options to the car for transportation – airplane, bus, horseback riding, walking – that may get you where you want to go.
In the same manner, if we want to change a person’s reality and/or interpretation of that reality [My life is a living hell!], we must change his/her thoughts and beliefs [representation and value]; and to do that, we are better off getting back closer and closer to the fundamental experience sensations – and then re-interpreting those sensations in a more helpful way. As the coach always says – when things go wrong – go back to the fundamentals.
That a physical process mediates the cognitive process is well known. We must have a physical nervous system and a brain and the electrochemical processes in order to think. However, the fact that the cognitive process mediates the physical process is less well known. While the chemical makeup of the brain is vital to enabling us to carry out certain actions; our thoughts can and do change the brain’s chemistry.
In fact, research has indicated that ideas are not just responses of the brain, but can be used to ‘trigger’ brain activity as well. Neuroscientists have learned that thoughts are electrical impulses that trigger electrical and chemical switches in the brain. Thoughts are not just psychological in nature, they are physiological – electrochemical triggers that direct and affect the chemical activities of the brain. When given an electrical command – a thought – the brain immediately does several things: it responds (to the thought) by releasing appropriate control chemicals into the body and it alerts the central nervous system to any required response or action [Helmstetter].
So the thoughts and beliefs that we hold to, even if wrong and not useful, create the reality in which we live. We create our own hell.
“Every belief is a limit to be examined and transcended.”
John C. Lily
We have already articulated some elements of addressing these distressing thoughts and even overcoming the confirmation bias. Go back to the fundamentals. Get closer to the real sensory experience and re-interpret the experience. Make the thoughts conscious and public [include someone else in the process]. Seek evidence and identify errors. When distressing thoughts are found, replace them with new, more rational and better-balanced thoughts that can be habituated to nonconsciousness.