A system called the structural differential, designed by Alfred Korzybski in the 1920s, is quite possibly the most powerful tool out there for those who wish to function effectively in our world. It provides a map of how we see the the world the way we do, and the errors we tend to make as we do so. It is relevant to running and can be used as a powerful peak performance tool, however, to do so only would be a gross underuse of its potential.
It's far too complex to adequately discuss in a short article, so all I can do here is give a quick sense that will nonetheless suffice as at least the beginning of a tool up to the task.
So without further ado, here is a quick look at Korzybski's model:
In our daily experience, we start with an event. An event is anything with a time and date- you sitting here reading this, me writing this article, whatever is happening at a given moment somewhere. An event has infinite data related to it. Let's take a man sitting on a bench in a given moment and place as an example.
The moment we look at the him, he becomes an object. This object has some finite amount of data to it- essentially everything we can perceive, know, and experience about the apple. Needless to say, this is far less than the infinite amount of data. And most mindblowingly, the man we perceive is not really the man! Its already some partial picture of him, not the totality of whatever he/the event is.
When we are working at the object level, we are talking about the lower nervous system. It is the unspeakable, silent level of immediate experience. Intuition, orientation, visualization all operate at this level.
The moment we look at the man and start labeling him, we are off to the next level of abstraction. Korzybski would call this the level of labeling, which includes descriptions and thoughts. It is no longer the unspeakable object, we are now in our higher nervous system describing the man to ourself- saying there is a man sitting on a bench, creating whatever our definitions of bench and man and whatever else is, determining whatever we can about what we are experiencing around it.
Labeling includes even less data, because we can't really describe our unspeakable experience at the object level, much less the infinite data of the event itself. It also includes whatever unspoken definitions including things that may not be able to be defined at all.
So each time we keep going in this process, there is even less data and its less connected to the initial event. That's not necessarily bad, because we need our higher nervous system and our abstractions to connect experiences to other experiences, without which we couldn't make broader sense of the world.
But this process doesn't always go in the order of event-object-label. In fact, it generally doesn't. And therein lies the rub.
For humans, labeling and more abstractions continue forever. Taking the man on the bench, we can start making inferences about him. He's sitting there, and perhaps based on his appearance he gives us the impression of laziness, among other things.
Say we continue our lives, and later on we see that same man. There he is, the lazy guy!
Here's where the problem is. Korzybski would call this confusing the levels of abstraction. We are seeing an object- the man- and instead of experiencing first the object, then beginning our process of labeling and abstracting with an open mind, we started with 'lazy man', then put that label on the object and went up the event-object-label-inference ladder. The guy never had a chance to be anything other than lazy! Thanks to a previous label, we start with him being lazy and then take it from there.
We do this with every level of abstraction. We see a chair, and confuse the chair (label and definition) for the object (chair). Say our definition of 'chair' includes comfy and something we can confidently sit on. And then we sit on that chair and fall down. Naturally, we get upset. What happened? We never saw the chair freshly, we just saw it through the lense of out label.
Some version of this happens all the time. My favorite example is an experience I analyzed through this process around a reaction I had with my wonderful partner. I noticed I was upset with her. Just that experience of being upset was a label- sensations in my body I interpret as upset, with definitions of how I don't like being upset and want it to stop. So then I am resisting my experience and getting even more upset because I am interacting with my labels and definitions rather than with what is actually happening. I am seeing my own experience and even body with disgust and avoidance because my definition of being upset requires me to do.
What's more, why am I even upset at her in this moment? She's doing something and not talking to me. That's the stripped down fact. I see it and label it as ignoring me, because I see my partner not freshly but instead I am seeing “my girlfriend” along with definitions of whatever that means. Definitions, it turns out to my chagrined amusement, that include the expectation that she pay attention to me whenever I want her to without me even having to ask for it!
And since she isn't paying attention to me, I'm upset.
So we can see just from that simple experience how much we confuse levels of abstraction (event, object, label, more labels and inferences). I interacted not with my experience of what was happening in my body but with my label of upset and my definition of how I don't like feeling upset. I interacted not with my girlfriend but instead with some idea inside my own head of my girlfriend.
Its as if instead of experiencing anything directly, we are constantly working backwards. Slapping labels, assumptions, definitions, inferences onto our experience. And then when our experience doesn't match with our labels, its jarring. And then we get upset in one way or another.
Since this is mostly a running blog, I'll give a running example too. Say we define the experience of running as something enjoyable and easy. Then a day comes when the run really isn't that great. We of course get upset, interacting with our idea of running and not with our experience of it. Instead of working with what is actually happening and coming up with fresh ways of managing it, we instead focus on how it was supposed to be enjoyable and now its not.
We do this even with reading. Most simply, say we read the statement “Man eats and sleeps”. Ah, we go, so man is an animal, because animals eat and sleep. Then we read the statement “Man cheats and steals”. Since we have already decided man is an animal, we see this next statement through that lense. Say we view animals as beings that need to be punished, controlled, trained, and so on when they “misbehave”. There's one way of describing how our justice system is the way it is.
With Korzybski's model, we can see that many issues that arise in how we relate to ourselves and others are due to confusing the levels of abstraction- acting as if our label is the object, our inference is really the description/label, the object is really the event, and so on.
We can also see some bigger implications of this system- that humility and mental flexibility are crucial to functioning effectively as human beings. By realizing that what we perceive is just a limited part of a larger event, by recognizing that our perspectives both illuminate some aspects while missing others, we realize that we aren't the sole deciders of what any reality is.
We can understand that everything is related to everything else, but never its never as simple as one thing being the same as another. Even an apple is different from the same apple a nanosecond later. And what we think is the apple isn't really the apple. As Korzybksi famously said, "The map is not the territory." We know this because we can't know everything about anything- the event is never fully knowable to us in its infinite data, and the object is never even fully known to us outside of the unspeakable level of direct perception.
We can realize that anything we consider to be truth or facts is just our best guess, only potentially applicable to a given time and place. Its a model of agreement because we realize that everyone's definitions, perspectives and assumptions are unique, which doesn't make them wrong- just different.
The key is to be conscious of our process of abstraction. When we know that we are doing it, we stop being rigid in our thoughts, judgmental in our experience with ourselves and others, able to adjust to the actual external reality as it is happening. We know that even internally, we are creating maps of who we think are. Without being conscious of our own maps, we remain trapped inside arbitrary limitations rather than daring to create a self that responds fully to the demands of each moment.
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