GOING DEEPER: Capturing Experience
The fact that experience always comes as a "package" of simultaneously operating elements makes it necessary to make distinctions in order to "capture" it in description. When we pull into the foreground of our experience something that previously had been in the undifferentiated background, we are making a distinction. Distinctions matter because they determine what we attend to in experience. The distinctions we use to do modeling are intended to take us inside the experience of the exemplar. These distinctions are employed in a graphic called the Experiential Array. The Array operates as an information gathering tool, helping us keep track of patterns as we model. The Array is also a conceptual tool that helps us perceive how significant dynamics within the exemplar's experience operate to generate their ability.
One of the many ways we have of dividing ourselves into groups is by race. It is obvious that the light-skinned, fair and straight-haired folks in Scandinavia form a distinct group from the dark-skinned, black and curly-haired folks of sub-Saharan Africa, and that the olive-skinned, black and straight-haired of people of southeast Asia are distinct from Scandinavians and sub-Saharans, and on and on. When we see someone, we notice their skin and hair color, hair texture, eye color, body form, and so on, and instantly classify that person according to race. Differences in skin and hair color are real, of course. And they are so manifestly there for all to see, that classifying folks by these features into races seems obvious and even objective. As it turns out, however, using these features as a basis for assigning race is completely arbitrary.
In taking up the question of what constitutes race, physiologist Jared Diamond describes how the peoples of the world would be grouped into races if we used qualities other than physical appearance. For example, some groups of people carry genes (such as the sickle-cell gene) that give them significant resistance to malaria. If resistance to malaria were the quality by which we divided folks into races, then the race of "resistants" would be made up of people from tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, the Arabian Peninsula, New Guinea, Italy and Greece. The "non-resistant" race would include folks such as the Swedes and the Xhosas of South Africa. If instead we identified races by their ability to digest cheese and milk (those that have the enzyme lactase, and those who do not), the race of "milk digesters" would include Swedes and the Fulani of Africa, while the race of "milk avoiders" would include most black Africans, the Japanese and American Indians. Even fingerprints are characteristic of groups. The "loops" race would include most Europeans, black Africans, and east Asians; the "whorls" race Mongolians and Australian aborigines, and the "arches" race Khoisans, some Indonesians, Jews and other central Europeans. (Jared Diamond, "Race Without Color," Psychology Today, November 1994, 83-89.)
If these new racial divisions seem fanciful, it is only because they are not the ones we grew up with. They are just as real as skin color, however, and just as arbitrary. Given a different social evolution of humankind, characteristics like these could have formed the basis for how we distinguish the races today. They would have become virtually transparent to us, just as the classificatory "truth" of skin color and facial features is transparent to us now. Had that twist in attention occurred, perhaps today the race of "digesters" would be casting aspersions on the "avoiders" as people with "no real stomachs," and the "avoiders" scorning the "digesters" as creatures obviously willing to swallow anything. And, of course, perhaps a different course of human developmental history would have left us today without any notion of race at all.
But we do have the notion of "race." It is one of the distinctions we make about people. When we look into the endless abundance of our background experience and identify something in it as being different, discreet or separate, we are making a distinction. And usually, once it has been pulled from that background welter of experience - made distinct - it remains distinct to us. It was always there; now it is noticed. It is much like looking at a photograph of a huge crowd of people - just a mass of human faces - then suddenly you see the face of a friend. It "jumps out" at you, becoming distinct from the rest of the crowd. In fact, it becomes forever distinct; you can never look at that photograph again without noticing that friend. In the same way, somewhere along the developmental line, we looked into the family album of humanity and recognized groupings of visible physical characteristics, and called that "race." We have also found good, bad, liberal, conservative, anarchist, libertarian, right, left, moral, immoral, amoral, trustworthy, successful, kind, generous, stingy, powerful, loving, and on and on.
Of course, we make distinctions about things other than the qualities of people. In fact, we can and do make distinctions about everything in experience. For instance, we notice changes in weather during the year and make the distinctions spring, summer, fall and winter. (Of course, these are distinctions for those of us who live in temperate latitudes. People who live along the equator will make different distinctions about yearly changes in the weather. In the American Southwest, five seasons are recognized. The fifth - "monsoon" - occurs between summer and fall.) Crimson, fire-engine red, scarlet and cranberry are some of the distinctions we make regarding "red." In the world of chairs, there are armchairs, deck chairs, adirondacks, Eames chairs and rocking chairs. And in the world of art, expressionism, abstract expressionism, neo-expressionism, neo-impressionism, post-impressionism and postmodernism are all distinct styles of painting. You get the idea (or perhaps for you it is closer to being a notion, or a sense, or an impression). Human beings are relentless makers of distinctions, marking out differences in their experiential world whenever and wherever they are noticed.
Do making all these distinctions matter? Is this just playing with words? Julian Jaynes answers this clearly following his charting of the evolution of such words as "psyche" from meaning "physical life" (blood and breathing) in the Iliad to becoming "the conscious subjective mind-space" in the Odyssey:
"Let no one think these are just word changes. Word changes are concept changes and concept changes are behavioral changes. The entire history of religions and of politics and even of science stands shrill witness to that. Without words like soul, liberty, or truth, the pageant of this human condition would have been filled with different roles, different climaxes." (Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p.292)
Jaynes argues that this transition of "psyche" created a consciousness "imprisoned in the body," laying the foundation for the "huge haunted career" of dualism throughout subsequent human history in the Western world.
It is easy to confuse words with distinctions. Words are not the distinctions themselves. Distinctions are differences in experience. Words are a way of capturing and expressing those experiential distinctions.
The distinctions we make orient our attention and, so, our experience. That which was in the background - there but without meaning, significance or even presence - now comes into the foreground of experience, indeed, becomes experience. Whether the distinction is as trivial as the difference between an armchair and an Eames chair (trivial unless you are an interior decorator, of course), or as profound as the difference between good and evil, it will affect what and how you perceive your world.
Many of the distinctions that we make are "held" and passed on by culture through language, art, architecture, food, tempos and so on. Despite being subtle and often completely transparent, these cultural distinctions are undoubtedly the most pervasive and affecting. Superb explorations of the distinctions presupposed in different cultures will be found in all of Edward T. Hall's books. As just one example: regarding "time," all American-European languages make the distinctions of past, present and future, and this creates a world in which time is spent, lost, managed, things disappear into the past, work for the future, and so on:
"The Hopi language does not do this. No past, present, or future exists as verb tenses in their language. Hopi verbs have no tenses, but indicate instead the validity of a statement - the nature of the relationship between the speaker and his knowledge or experience of that about which he is speaking...Summer and hot are the same! Summer is a condition: hot. There is nothing about summer that suggests it involves time - getting later - in the sense that is conveyed by [American-European] languages." (Hall, The Dance of Life, p. 35. Also, works by Lakoff and Johnson explore the pervasive effects on experience and behavior of distinctions and of distinctions as metaphors. See their Philosophy in the Flesh and Metaphors We Live By.)
Clearly, distinctions matter.
Whether they come to us through the cultural waters in which we swim, through encounters in education or on the street, through books, or through personal discoveries, distinctions bring new experiences into awareness. In your travels through life, you have probably seen Dante chairs, murrey red, and pointillist paintings, but they did not stand out in your experience as distinct from other funny-looking chairs, reds and paintings. Like the photograph of the crowd containing an unrecognized friend (whose image is falling on your retina, even though you do not see it), the world of experience is an infinitely rich crowd, and distinctions allow us to perceive certain of the experiences milling about in it.
A painter friend of ours gave us a lesson in this while crossing a bridge one afternoon in a small town in Denmark. We stopped halfway across to admire the gently rippling, gray-green waters below us. At least that is how the water appeared to us, until she remarked on the lovely pinks. After the requisite, "Pink? What are you talking about?" we began to see the pink as well. In fact, it became obvious. It also made it possible to notice pinkness and other (unexpected) colors whenever we looked at bodies of water from that time on. (And, not insignificantly, could see then see the verity in paintings - by Monet, for example - that depicted water swirling with colors, including pink.)
Our experience on the bridge was an unexpected gift of a distinction from a friend. There are times, however, when we are intentionally pursuing a deeper understanding of something. Since the distinctions we use in that pursuit will determine what and how we perceive, it makes sense to consider the appropriateness of the distinctions we are bringing to that exploration. For instance, to describe the structures that create the ocean patterns we call "waves," oceanographers specify such things as "trough height," "speed," "littoral incline," and so on. These are some of the distinctions they use; these are not the only ones that can be made. Distinctions could as well be made about the colors of the water (pink?!), the kind of plankton it contains, its temperature, and the age of the sand on the beach. However, this set of distinctions is probably insignificant in terms of describing how waves form along the shoreline. (Of course, these distinctions may be very significant to an ecologist, a painter, or a geologist.) The oceanographers' distinctions allow them to describe the formative patterns of the phenomenon of waves. Similarly, we want to describe the patterns inherent in experience that come together to form the waves of human abilities. And for that we need distinctions.
There are not good and bad or right and wrong distinctions. Rather, different distinctions will influence you in different directions. The test for any distinction or set of distinctions is, Do they take us in the direction we want to go? In the case of the oceanographer studying wave formation, if she devoted her time and attention to the kinds of plankton populating the surf she would probably not come up with a description of wave formation that would be of much use. The distinctions that she does use, however, are ones that have proven useful in describing the patterns of wave formation.
Human experience is far more complex than waves, or weather or computer programs by many orders of magnitude. Nevertheless, here we are, setting out to explore experience through modeling, to understand how it works and, ultimately, to change and evolve our own experiences through that exploration. And so we will want to use distinctions that give us experiential access to someone else's ability. That is, we want distinctions that describe an exemplar's ability in a form that we can use to re-pattern our own experience. How can we engage with the mass of "stuff" of human experience in a useful way, in a way that fosters both understanding and access?
This is exactly the question the authors found themselves grappling with late at night at the abbey of Saint Gerard in 1988. We needed distinctions that would point us toward the most revealing and useful aspects of human experience and behavior. Our answer to that question then was - and still is - the Experiential Array.
The Experiential Array
The usefulness of a map is largely determined by whether or not the distinctions used to draw it are appropriate for its intended purpose. In looking at the range of the human "terrain," it is clear that, in broad terms, most of the things we do as human beings involve some combination of Beliefs (patterns of believing), Strategies (patterns of thinking), Emotions (patterns of feeling) and External Behavior (patterns of behaving).
Obviously, these "elements of experience" are significant to varying degrees depending upon the particular ability we are considering. Creating a comedy monologue, for example, relies heavily on Strategies (patterns of thinking) and very little on External Behavior. Delivering the comedy monologue relies more on External Behavior and less on Strategies. Nevertheless, most human abilities involve the simultaneous expression and interaction of all of the elements of human experience. When modeling, then, we want to at least consider all four areas in terms of their contribution to the ability we are modeling. These elements of experience are "captured" in the Experiential Array:
(As you can see, inside most of these elements of experience boxes are smaller boxes with even more distinctions. We go into great detail about all of these distinctions in later essays. For now, however, we will refer only to the larger distinctions of beliefs, strategy, emotions and external behavior.)
One of the virtues of the Array is that it does provide places within which to capture these different elements of experience. As was made evident by the folks in the seminar at Saint Gerard, we need more than a bathing suit when we go swimming in another person's experience. It may well be a flood of information. The Array helps us both stay afloat and maneuver by providing a way to organize the flow of information. Because the Array gives specific places to place specific elements of experience, it helps make obvious what we already know about the exemplar's experience and what elements of their experience we have yet to dip into.
In addition and, perhaps more importantly, having these places for the specific elements of experience makes information redundancy much more evident. The exemplar will often use different words and phrases as she tries to give us a rich and understandable description of her experience. As modelers, we are after the underlying patterns that generate experience. And, so, we need to be alert to the redundancy in how people express themselves, pulling from those various content descriptions the pattern that unites them all. The Array helps us do that by gathering together descriptions about a particular kind of distinction, allowing them to be compared more easily to reveal the pattern that generates them.
The Array is a conceptual tool. None of us have boxes in our heads, let alone boxes as small as those depicted in the Array graphic. The boxes in the Array are places to put certain kinds of information. The different sizes of the boxes in the Array is a matter of convenience and economy. They do not denote relative importance (as we just talked about), nor how much information you "ought to" find to put into any one of those boxes. The limitation on information is always its relevance to the ability, and not whether there is room in the box for it. There is endless room in each of the boxes for information.
And the Array is more than a repository for information. That is a function that could be served as well by any number of formats. The Array, however, also captures some of the dynamics of the system. Once you have identified any two (or more) places - like discovering where your friend lives in your neighborhood, or finding Denmark and Sweden on a map - you can see how they relate to one another. In the same way, the boxes of the Array show the relationships between the different kinds of information to be found in those "places."
THE FLOW OF EFFECT
Even though all of the elements of experience interact to make possible the expression of an ability, this does not mean that they necessarily exert equal influence on each other. Instead, there seems to be a "flow of effect." While your behavior does affect what you are feeling and thinking, the impact is not as great as that of your thoughts and feelings on your behavior. Similarly, your beliefs have a greater impact on what you think, feel and do than any of these elements has on what you believe at a moment in time. All of us can point to examples of trying to change our behavior even though our beliefs had not changed. In those situations, maintaining that change required that you be vigilant regarding your behavior. And it probably did not last through time. This is in contrast to times when you have changed what you believed, and instantly changes in your behavior naturally flowed.
Keep in mind that we are talking about what is going on in experience at the time an ability is being manifested or expressed. Clearly, over time, what you think, feel and do can contribute experiences that ultimately do change what you believe. But at the moment we are manifesting ourselves, the "flow of effect" is more from beliefs toward behavior than it is the other direction (relative size of the arrows indicates the "flow of effect"):
As you can see, there is no arrow going to "ability." In fact, "ability" is not even joined to the rest of the Array. This is because the ability is the rest of the Array. That is, when the elements of experience are there and operating, the ability is manifested. Nevertheless, we have put the ability in close relationship to "external behavior" because it is generally through external behavior that an ability is manifested, and it is certainly through external behavior that the world is affected by an ability. For example, the ability to effectively lead a group involves all kinds of internal beliefs, states and processing of information. But all that internal structure must be manifested in behavior for it to have an impact on the group. Of course there are some abilities that do not require being manifested in external behavior. One can be exercising the ability to spell well without doing anything in particular "on the outside." But it is still the case that the only way that this person's spelling can be known by, and have an impact on, the world is if it somehow gets expressed in external behavior.
The importance of the notion of "flow of effect" is that it reminds us that simply engaging in behavior is often not in and of itself sufficient to manifest an ability. Behind the natural manifestation of that behavior are supportive ways of think and feeling, and behind them all are supportive beliefs. It is the dynamic relationship between all of these elements that gives rise to the ability; that dynamic relationship is the ability.
Simultaneity of the Array
It is important to bear in mind that the flow of effect suggested by these arrows is not indicative of sequence. That is, the flow of effect is not one in which first beliefs are accessed, and then strategies are engaged, and then behaviors are manifested. Obviously, there are sequential things going on when someone is manifesting an ability. In particular, strategies are almost always sequential. But it is not the case that the exemplar engages his beliefs before engaging his strategy sequences. These happen at the same time and, of course, the beliefs continue to be engaged and exerting their influence on the exemplar as he continues to run through the sequences of his strategy.
For the most part, then, all of the elements of experience are engaged and operating more or less simultaneously. The flow of effect, then, is in terms of degree of impact or influence on the system: in general, beliefs have a greater impact on the system than do strategies and emotions, and strategies and emotions have a greater impact on the system than do external behaviors.
Nor does the flow of effect suggest that any one element is of greater importance than another. As the organs of the body learned when they argued about which of them is the most important, the functions of all are needed if the body is to live. Without any one of the elements of experience there is no ability. Each element contributes a different and essential function as they operate in relationship to one another.
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Except for external behavior, the distinctions that we are proposing to use in our modeling are all about what is going on "inside" the person. How do we get in there to discover what to put in the experiential boxes of the Array? The bridge between you and the internal experience of your exemplar will be built out of questions, and it is to the ins and outs of asking questions that we turn in the next essay on Asking Questions.