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Read the "Introduction"

Excerpt from Essay 1: What is Modeling?

Does Experience Have Structure?

Charles Ames created a most incredible room. You look through a hole in the wall at one end of the room as two people enter it from either side. The person on the left is dwarfed by the window and walls and appears to be a midget. The person on the right, however, is clearly a giant, his head barely clearing the ceiling. A miracle occurs when these two people walk past each other to switch places. As they cross the floor you see the giant shrink and the midget expand!

Ames Room

Ames created this very compelling illusion by constructing the room so that it looks square and regular from your point of view, but is in fact very eccentric in its angles. The right corner is near you while the left is actually far away.

There are dozens of other well-known examples of perceptual illusions. You are probably familiar with Necker cubes, M.C. Escher's "impossible" paintings, and the Muller-Lyer lines that appear to be of different lengths, though in fact they are identical. Here is another that may be new to you; look at squares A and B:

Grey Square Illusion

Though square A looks considerably darker than square B, they are actually the same shade, as you can see when they are joined:

Grey Square Illusion Proof

"Grey square optical illusion" original by Edward H. Adelson

Another, striking illusion is that of the "Rotating Snakes":

Rotating Snakes Illusion

"Rotating Snakes" created by Akiyoshi Kitaoka

What is perhaps most remarkable about these illusions is that knowing they are illusions - indeed, even taking them apart to see how they are constructed - does not stop you from experiencing the illusion. Perception, then, is not strictly a matter of simply recording or taking in that which is being perceived. What we perceive is a product of the interaction between what is "out there" and the perceptual structures we are using to make sense of what is "out there." Sensory system illusions reveal the extent to which underlying perceptual structures generate our perceptions.

The impact of underlying structures extends into every aspect of human experience. Many such examples can be found in Edward T. Hall's books in which he compares the experiences of time and space in different cultures. In The Dance of Life, for instance, he describes fascinating experiments by Alton De Long on the influence of scale on the perception of time. De Long created environments that were 1/24th, 1/12th, 1/6th and full scale, then had his subjects "project" themselves into the test environment and imagine interacting with the human figures he had placed in there. The subjects indicated when they thought thirty minutes had passed, while De Long kept track of the actual time. The interesting result was that subjects who were "in" the 1/6th scale room had sixty minutes of subjective experience in ten minutes. Then it got even more interesting. Those projecting themselves into the 1/12th scale room had a sixty-minute experience in only five minutes of elapsed time, and those crammed subjectively into the 1/24th scale room experienced an hour in two and a half minutes of clock time. Apparently our sense of time is predicated on relative movement through space. If our subjective sense of time is to remain constant, then, being in a smaller space requires speeding up the subjective experience of time in order to cover a "normal amount" of movement and interaction in the limited space available. (Edward T. Hall, The Dance of Life, pp. 136-138)

The De Long research, the Ames room and other sensory illusions point to the existence and pervasive influence of underlying sensory structures in perceptual experience. But does the influence of structure extend only as far as sensory perceptions? Can we identify structure operating at the level of human abilities, most of which involve not only sensory perceptions, but behaviors and cognition as well?

During World War II, Viktor Frankl was a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps. His body had been confined, but not his mind. In his book, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl had many profound and moving things to say about his experiences, and about what it means to be a human being in such horrific circumstances. In particular, he tried to understand how it was that some prisoners seemed to give up hope (and usually soon thereafter die), while others maintained hope in the face of constant physical, emotional and psychological battering, and persevered (even when facing death). Frankl recognized four patterns that were characteristic of those who continued to hope in a seemingly hopeless situation.

The first of these common patterns was believing that whatever has been lost could be regained, that "health, family, happiness, professional abilities, fortune, position in society - all these were things that could be achieved again or restored" (Frankl, p.103). The second pattern they shared was that of realizing that the future was unknowable and, so, could in an instant bring about significant changes - including good changes - in their situation. Frankl describes the third pattern:

But I did not only talk [to my fellow prisoners] of the future and the veil which was drawn over it. I also mentioned the past; with all its joys, and how its light shone even in the present darkness. Again I quoted a poet - to avoid sounding like a preacher myself - who had written, "Was Du erlebst, kann keine Macht der Welt Dir rauben." (What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you.) Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind. (Frankl, p.104)

The fourth pattern characteristic of those who continued to hope was that they maintained a compelling future, that is, they were responsible for something or someone in the future and, so, had to live to fulfill that responsibility:

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any 'how.' (Frankl, p.101)

So, what is the "structure" we are pointing to here with these examples? In the context of modeling, structure is the set of interacting elements of experience that make it possible to manifest a particular ability. The four elements that Frankl identified (believe that what has been lost can be regained, recognize that the future is unknowable, recognize that one's past and thoughts are not lost, and have a compelling future) together constitute the structure underlying the ability to hold onto to hope, even when one is in a horrible situation.

This is not an isolated example. In fact we can look at virtually any human ability and find that there is always an underlying structure that generates that ability. You can test this out for yourself right now with a small experiment: Select one of your own abilities - for instance, the ability to dance gracefully, or find solutions to business problems, or enjoy making cold calls, or explain math to children - and identify just one belief you are holding when you are manifesting that ability. (For example, suppose you are good at explaining math to children; perhaps you believe, "Every child is capable of learning.") Now imagine you are in that context, manifesting your ability, only this time you are holding a belief that is opposite from the one you identified. (In our example, you would imagine explaining math to a child while believing that "not every child is capable of learning.") What happens to your ability? You probably found yourself feeling somewhat different, making different assessments in the situation, and saying and doing things differently. In fact, inverting that one belief may have even entirely undermined your ability.

Repeat this little experiment with any ability you wish, changing any element you identify as part of your experience (belief, feeling, pattern of thinking, behavior) while manifesting that ability. You will discover that making even one change does, in some way, affect the manner in which you manifest your ability. Some changes will have a small or subtle impact, and others will have a substantial effect, perhaps utterly changing your responses in that situation. But in all cases, any change will affect you.

The simple experiment you just ran with yourself is actually quite profound in its implications. First of all, it demonstrates that:

There are structures underlying human abilities.

That is, underlying each of our abilities there is a set or array of elements of experience that make it possible to manifest that particular ability.

Second, your experiment demonstrates that:

Human experience is systemic in nature.

When you ran the experiment you probably noticed that altering that one belief resulted in some change in your behavior as well, or what you were feeling changed, or that you started noticing different things in the situation. If instead you try the experiment again, but this time alter only your behavior, you will discover that this also changes other aspects of your experience (how you are feeling, what you are thinking, even what you are believing). In fact, changing any one element of an ability will have ramifications throughout many or all of the elements of that ability (though, as we shall see in later Essays, to varying degrees and of varying kinds, depending on the system and the nature of the change). The underlying structure operates as a dynamic system, and not a simple checklist of elements.

The third point made by your experiment is that:

You can change your experience by changing its underlying structure.

Clearly, abilities have underlying structures, and changing those structures systemically transforms the ability. If instead of merely imagining the belief change you tried in your thought experiment, you integrated that change as a consistent aspect of your experience whenever you actually manifested that ability, you would be feeling, thinking, and behaving differently. That is, you would have changed.

These three observations - that there are structures underlying human abilities, that human experience is systemic in nature, and that you can change your experience by changing its underlying structure - form the conceptual basis for all modeling of human abilities.

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Read the "Introduction"