Worlds of Experience

As James Lawley and Penny Tompkins have said there are three main domains of experience the cognitive, sensory and symbolic, through which we represent the world. In this article I want to explore the nature of these worlds and the interrelationships between them.

The World of Cognition.

This world is dominated by language and represents our world as thought-about. We take our experience and make meanings from them which we then express in language, often following logical pathways. Yet since the expression of experience through language is subject to a necessary and, usually useful, set of transforms - deletion, generalisation and distortion - it is necessarily reduced from the full set of evidence, and the full set of possible interpretations of that evidence.

Our drive to find reasons for and make meaning of our experiences gives us the ability to be predictive about the world and to navigate the world in a relatively uncomplicated way. However the range of possible meanings and interpretations of experience is vast and it is the paradoxes and ambiguity that this leads to that drives the need to reduce the paradox by excluding and transforming certain sets of evidence, so driving our predictions and hence our behaviours.

A key feature of this world is that it represents the portion of our experience that has found expression through language. And follows the set of rules and logic established by previous cognitions that are expressed through our beliefs and values.

In NLP the use of the Milton Model of language invites the formation of meanings, or reformation of meanings from our other worlds of experience into our cognitive world. This process can have the effect of reducing the discomfort of the paradox and ambiguity.

The World of the Sensory

This world is the world of β€˜raw’ experience. It is essentially pre-language in nature and is the world as felt, smelled, seen, heard or tasted. The action of naming a portion of this experience serves to move it to the world of cognition and bring the named aspect of it into the foreground of our attention. It is the portion of our experience that Judith DeLozier refers to as the somatic. Even though it is outside of our experience, the experiences that we have here will drive our behaviour.

This is often described as intuition ?"I just knew". Or it can carry the description of our "unconscious mind". Since for it to be understood by self, it must move from the pre-language to the post language of our conceptual or cognitive world.

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell gives many examples of people making accurate decisions, outside of their own awareness. He calls this process 'thin slicing' experience. An example of this was when a statue was being purchased by the J. Paul Getty Museum. The museum spent 14 months subjecting the statue to scientific tests to verify its authenticity as a 2600 year old relic, which the statue passed successfully. When it was eventually shown to independent experts, their responses to its authenticity were different:

  1. Frederico Zeri was shown the statue and found himself 'staring at the fingernails'.
  2. Evelyn Harris was shown the statue and when the curator said 'Well it isn't ours yet, but it will be soon.' she said, 'I'm sorry to hear that'.
  3. Thomas Hoving on looking at the statue just had the word 'fresh' come into his mind.
  4. Georgios Dontas on seeing the statue immediately felt cold.
  5. Angios Delivorrias felt a wave that he described as 'intuitive revulsion'.

Following these responses the museum reconsidered its evidence and found that there were other interpretations for their scientifically induced conclusions, tests that had been accepted as evidence were found to be false. When these tests were questioned the statue turned out to be from the beginning of the 19th century, barely 200 years old.

The responses of the experts were not formed in language, yet were more accurate than the extensive scientific tests that had been applied.

In NLP the main function of the Meta Model is to re-establish the connection between the cognitive abstractions and the sensory evidence from which they have been abstracted.

In our every day lives the way that this sensory world can communicate with the cognitive is by increasing the signal strength until the message crosses a threshold of awareness and can be more consciously processed. Hence pain or discomfort if not responded to at an unconscious level, by moving position etc, will increase in signal strength until we pay conscious attention to it.

The World of Symbols

The world of symbols and metaphor is one where our experiences have been noticed, yet not interpreted. It is a rich medium and one that according to Lakoff and Johnson in Metaphors We Live By accounts for up to 80% of our communication. This is the world of experience that James Lawley and Penny Tompkins pay attention to in Symbolic Modelling.

This world is often expressed in language, yet not interpreted cognitively. It is the medium through which our raw experience of the sensory can find expression without interpretation. It is a world which has logic, yet is not bound by logic. When we express something as being 'like' we know that it is not the thing it is like.

This realm is used to express complex social and ethical concepts to children, through stories and fables. It relies on an inherent logic as distinct from an interpretative logic to convey the 'message'. It is largely our ability to notice patterns at a level of deep structure that makes this communication effective without the cognitive world needing to interpret and make formal meanings.

When a scientist interprets data from a Mars landing vehicle or from photographs of the planet, she will use her symbolic world to get a 'felt sense' of what Mars is like.

I believe that it is hugely important in conveying complex information from outside of awareness to within it, delaying the formality of conclusion and yet offering the intelligence of our deep structure to our conscious awareness.

In NLP the use of metaphor as demonstrated by Milton Erickson is the basis of many of the interventions that are used. Most interventions make use of an 'as if' frame - which is another way of saying 'its like'.

Hmmmmm - So what's it all about?

The beauty of being human is that these three worlds are not separate entities, they are interconnected and each makes unique contributions to the richness of life.

Each of these worlds operate as independent systemic structures, at the same time as being systemically interconnected with each other. A change in one is likely to have an effect in the others. If nay of these worlds were not present our experience and fulfillment of the world would be drastically impoverished. So whilst each has intrinsic limitations, each also has the key to freedom for the others.

In particular I would suggest that the world of metaphor is the main conduit through which our raw experience is able to find expression and be offered to our thinking.

And in concluding I would observe that this entire article is an expression of my world as thought-about. If it raises questions or commentary from you, I would be more than delighted to share that in order to refine and extend thinking in this area.

Derek Jackson

Derek Jackson


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