a Living Systems Perspective on Human Experience:
an Educational Model for Life Planning and Change
R. Parent, Ph.D.
San Diego, California 92122
The purpose of the educational model described below is to provide a
metaframework, based on systems principles, for individuals to use in
getting 'the big picture' of how they are living their everyday lives.
This is the first step in becoming aware of the patterned relationships
between their cognition, emotion and actions. It is a necessary precursor
for effective life planning and personal change.
The educational model builds on a traditional living systems model of
input-throughput-output and the interdependent relationships between
information and material-energy flows. Information exchange and interaction
via material-energy flows, between each person and his or her personally-experienced
(or subjective) world, is viewed as a micro-system, a subsystem of a
larger person-environment system. Each micro-system is unique, in terms
of (a) individual capabilities - - aptitudes, abilities and experience
to date, as well as (b) how these experiences are interpreted and represented
The focus is on helping individuals develop their unique metacognitive
skills, to become more aware of their interpretive abilities - - and
how these determine what we think, how we feel and what we do in our
day-to-day lives. It involves becoming actively aware of the role of
information feedback (about what has happened) and information feedforward
(instructions about what one wants to happen) in determining the decisions
we each make and the behavior (thinking, feeling, acting) that follows.
Learning more about how, as a species, we "work" sets the stage for
understanding more about our own dynamics, about how we, as a unique,
human being, "work." Increasing our awareness of our intrapersonal communication
activities (or our self-talk) is an important first step in this process.
A number of metaphors help readers translate abstract systems ideas
and principles into everyday language. They include Life as a Game,
the importance of developing a Personal Game Plan, the role played
by our individual Personal Meaning System. Also identified
are the rules, personal and social, which determine how we play our
'game' in the three theaters (or subsystems) of human activity - the
physical world, the social world and our unique, individual psychological
world. They define as well the roles and the relationships that constitute
our experiential world, at any point in time.
human experience, information feedback and feedfordward, educational
model, life energy, self-talk.
An Overview of
the Educational Model
Part I presents a summary of a metaframework for viewing the
dynamics of human experience - - about how, as human beings, we "work."
The intent is to provide a context, a "big picture" for individuals
to use in taking an informed look at the pattern in how they are living
their own day-to-day lives. The focus is on the interdependent connections
between their thinking, feelings and actions. The rule is "it isn't
actually what happens in our day-to-day lives but what we tell ourselves
about the meaning of these events that determines how and what we think,
how we feel and what we do.
Part II presents a description of the steps involved in putting
the conceptual model to work. It can be used in a group setting, or
in a self-instructional format.
Part I: A Systems
Perspective on the Dynamics of Human Experience
Let's take a closer look at the dynamics of human experience from a
systems perspective and begin by defining the relevant terms. I find
it helpful to think about our individual lives as each person in communication
and in interaction with different aspects of his/her experiential (or
subjective) world. Although we occupy the same planet, the part that
is 'real' to us, and in our active consciousness is unique. We communicate
with aspects of our personal world, via information feedback and forward
processes. This provides us with the raw materials we need for our thinking
and decision-making. Interaction with our experiential world, via life
energy flows (physical, mental and emotional) provides the fuel necessary
for the action (thinking, feeling, and acting) which follows.
Taking the systems framework one step further, I view each person's
experience as taking place in three theaters or sub-systems of human
activity. This expanded, two-level framework makes it possible to be
more specific in considering what we need to do to increase our sense
of personal well-being and improve the psychological quality
of our everyday lives. It includes viewing the following:
- our actions and
interactions with physical objects, physical events and physical
states of affairs in the outside, physical world of Planet Earth.
e.g. I balance my checkbook; the water in the pond freezes; we have
an early spring.
- our actions and
interactions with social objects, social events and social
states of affairs in the social theatre of activity. These involve
transactions with human others, individually or as members of a group.
e.g. I write a letter; join a club and am elected to office; I am
registered to vote.
and communication with various parts of ourselves, in the psychological
theater (or world) we create and re-create as we live our lives. e.g.
I make New Year's resolutions; I think about how my career is going;
I make a mental note to be more careful in my conversations with my
Here the word communication implies a continuing two-way exchange
of information. The sources of this information can be external: e.g.
when I hear the insistent ringing of a doorbell; when I drop a glass
and see it shatter or when I observe the grimace on the face of a companion
at something that I have said.
Or it can be an internal communication, such as a feeling of constriction
because my belt is too tight, or the distress of suddenly realizing
I forgot to return a promised phone call.
Here the word interaction refers to two-way flows of energy,
between each person and his/her experiential world. This can be the
kind of physical energy, which is involved when I ride a bike; or the
emotional energy that fuels an argument with my spouse
It can be the kind of spiritual or esthetic energy and the feeling of
awe I experience when I view the Grand Canyon or catch sight of a spectacular
snow-capped mountain. Or, it might be the mental energy I need as I
puzzle out the next move in a close game of chess.
A systems metaframework permits us to view important aspects of our
experience in our world: the quality of our communication and the direction,
duration and intensity of our energy flows. Free-flowing communication
(accurate, reliable and unambiguous information) and appropriate, unobstructed
energy flows influence the psychological quality of our life and determine
how successful we are in playing the particular Game of Life
we have decided to play.
It offers us conceptual tools we can use to assess our communication,
in the messages we receive and send to others. It includes ways to assess
the accuracy of our "self-talk," the messages we give ourselves about
the personal meaning and implications for our actions, in each of these
three theaters or subsystems of human activity. It has techniques we
can use to improve the process of communication itself - - to increase
the effectiveness of our communication with ourselves and with others.
How we Channel
our Life Energy Flows
This is the energy flow that we are most aware of. For example: we chop
wood, row a boat, climb a ladder, thread a needle, ride a bicycle, run
a mile. Our physical energy flows into activities that can be viewed
directly, as when we move an arm or leg. It also fuels the world of
internal activity, often below our awareness, as in our breathing and
digestion. It is energy which keeps us moving and on the move!
This is energy that we channel into the kinds of mental activity that
we refer to as thinking or thought. It includes perception, the process
of organizing and interpreting incoming information from our sensory
systems. The outcome is represented in our vision, our hearing, and
our sense of smell. For example: we hear the bells; we view a sunset;
we smell smoke.
Mental energy is channeled into our cognition - our thoughts, ideas,
fantasies, daydreams, our memory. We organize information into concepts
- - information which we abstract and use to create or construct what
we consider to be the "facts" of our experience. e.g. "she is concerned
about justice," "the mirror is round," she is president of her organization,"
"the child acts like a typical two-year old."
We organize information into ideas, about potential or future relationships,
which we gradually construct on the basis of our experience. e.g. "I
am afraid I'll never to be able to learn that language." "I believe
he would make a good engineer," "A stitch in time saves nine," etc.
We categorize information about what we perceive to be the relationships
between these "persons," "ideas" and "things" to provide answers to
our questions about both their properties and the relationships, between
and among them.
We express this in the feelings (positive or negative) which accompany
many of our thoughts and our actions. Whether these feelings are intense
or weak, positive or negative depends on how we interpret and evaluate
the personal meaning or the "so what" of what we are experiencing. This
can be done consciously or be below our awareness. For example, two
individuals can witness the very same events (the "what") yet have different
interpretations of the "so what." e.g. We feel homesick; we cry during
a sad scene in a movie; we are excited with anticipation as we open
a gift; we laugh at a joke; or we are frustrated with something that
These feelings can be either positive or negative or fall somewhere
along that continuum. They reflect our emotional reactions to what we
perceive and interpret to be the meaning of our day-to-day experiences,
or to our recollections of earlier, personally-meaningful events.
Spiritual or Aesthetic
This is energy which poets often write about. It can be a release of
positive energy when we have a "peak experience." Or it can be a sudden,
unexpected perception of something that is beautiful, awe-inspiring,
aesthetically pleasing or unusual.
For example, we may be awed by the sight of a majestic waterfall or
have a feeling of reverence and a sense of timelessness when we visit
a holy shrine.
We may have an unexpected burst of insight as we suddenly perceive new
patterns or relationships in our lives. Often this happens when we become
"meta" to our current experience and are suddenly able to perceive new
meanings in our lives, to become aware of new opportunities and choices.
Feedback in Each of the Three Theatres of Human Activity:
Distinguishing between our experiences in each of the three theatres
of activity (physical, social and psychological) can be useful since
each involves different kinds and different sources of information feedback.
Each has a different set of rules (or laws) for interpreting and determining
the meaning of incoming information, for making predictions about actions
and events in the future.
How we organize
and interpret information feedback about our experience in the physical
theatre of activity:
Many of the events of our lives here are described in the universally
accepted, formal bodies of knowledge we call science. This includes
the physical sciences (physics, chemistry and mathematics), the biological
sciences (biology, zoology, physiology, etc.) and the social sciences
(psychology, anthropology, linguistics, etc.). Here the rules of logic
are used in finding answers to the questions of the "how," "what," "where,"
"when," and "why". We learn these rules about how to organize, interpret
and determine the meaning of this information as we gradually progress
through the grades in our public schools.
- e.g. Water boils
at 212 F. and freezes at 32 F.
- It is possible
to be both male and an American.
- A=B; B=C; A=C
- pi = 3.124
The first step is to organize and interpret the flow of incoming sensory
data and express them as information about
- e.g. physical
objects: a funnel cloud in a tornado
- e.g. physical
events: tornado strikes town, residents \ take cover
- e.g. physical
state of affairs: the resulting devastation. physical objects,
physical actions and physical states of affairs.
Gradually, we organize and structure additional information in terms
of the physical properties or attributes of these objects, events or
states of affairs. For example, for the young child, ice cream is "cold,"
dogs "bark," and daddies "go to work." Later, we organize and structure
information according to the physical relationships we perceive between
these objects, events or states of affairs.
relations: we organize and express them as similarities, differences
and identities. They answer the questions of "what."
e.g. ice cream
comes in a variety of different flavors: chocolate, strawberry,
e.g. dogs bark and cats meow; daddies go to work on the train
or drive their car;
e.g. the word thirty means the same as the number 30.
relations: which we express as more than, less than, equivalent
to. They answer the questions, "how much," "how many."
e.g. he has
less ice cream than I do.
e.g. that dog is bigger than mine is.
e.g. we both have exactly the same amount of lemonade.
- Cause and
effect relations: they answer the questions of "how" and "why."
e.g. The ice
cream melted because the door was left open.
e.g. that dog is tied up because he bites.
e.g. Daddy won't be home for dinner because he's working.
- Temporal and
spatial relations: these answer the questions of "where" and "when."
e.g. the ice
cream store is at the corner and it stays open until dark.
e.g. that particular species of dog lives in Siberia.
e.g. Because of the distance, we started early.
Changes in our
experience in the physical world over time
As infants, our actions in the physical world are simple, such as grasping
a rattle, learning to balance and then take our first tentative steps,
to ride a tricycle, etc. As we move into adulthood, our actions become
more complex, and eventually include such abilities and competencies
as piloting an airplane or climbing a mountain!
As a result, we have more complex information to organize, to structure
and to make sense of, in order to understand and master the world we
live in! What we tell ourselves about our experience here is reflected
in our personal sense of competence, our sense of self-determination,
our sense of being able to create the kinds of "effects" we want to
create in our world. How our "self talk" influences the quality of our
life depends on the quality (accuracy, reliability and relevance) of
the information we use in our thinking and the kinds of feelings which
How we organize
and interpret information about our experience in the social theater
We use the same organizational framework (of objects, events, states
of affairs) in processing information about day-to-day events in
the social theatre of activity.
- social objects:
we organize information according to our culturally- prescribed social
identities and roles.
role as a teacher, as a parent, a taxpayer; my identity (how
I define myself) as a Christian or a Jew or a Muslim, as a responsible
citizen, a free thinker, an American, etc.
- social events:
examples include a wedding or baptism, the installation of new officers
in an organization, the celebration of a national holiday, a post-election
- social states
of affairs: such as a record rate of inflation, the establishment
of a new democratic government, an epidemic of the flu, a change in
Our communications and interactions in this social arena of activity
include our experience with human others, as individuals or as members
of a group.
This includes our social relationships with individuals, such as a next-door
neighbor or with members of a social group, with a college fraternity
or a citizen's advocacy group. How and when we communicate and interact
with these social "others" is usually determined by the identities we
assume, the role(s) we occupy and the social groups to which we belong.
The quality of our relationships depends on the information we receive
and how effectively we communicate with others.
What we tell ourselves about our experience in this social theatre of
activity affects our self-evaluations of how well we are doing (in playing
our chosen roles), in our sense of self-worth and self-esteem, in our
sense of being valued and accepted by significant human others. Whether
or not our behavior is considered acceptable, appropriate and respected
usually reflects the "norms" or rules of the particular social community
to which we belong.
How our behavior is evaluated by ourselves and others depends on the
particular social role we are playing and what our peers and colleagues
consider acceptable. In other words, what might be considered appropriate
behavior for a child at a playground might be frowned upon if engaged
in by an adult. Certain types of communications would be acceptable
from a member of one's own family but completely unacceptable from a
How our relationships
with others change over time:
Earliest social communications and interactions are between infant and
parent or caretaker and/or other members of a close, family group. This
circle of human relationships gradually expands to include neighborhood
playmates, the children and teachers in one's school, shared membership
in other community groups such as Girls Scouts, a local softball team,
As we move into adulthood, there is an expanding circle of "others"
we communicate and interact with, in a widening circle of social identities,
social roles and social settings. What we tell ourselves about the personal
meaning and implications of our activity here reflects the rules and
relationships that we accept and internalize as part of being a member
in a particular social group.
How we organize
and interpret information about our experience in our psychological
As in the other two theaters of activity, we structure incoming information
in terms of objects, events and states of affairs. We regard
ourselves as an "object" when we think about ourselves in relation to
the social roles we play and the various identities we assume, as part
of our Personal Game Plan.
- e.g. of objects:
"I am a good speller, a conscientious citizen, a poor athlete."
- e.g. of events:
"I remembered where I put it;" "It was the most satisfying talk I
have had with her;" "I was so embarrassed when I didn't recognize
who she was."
- e.g. of states
of affairs: "I have no confidence in my ability to play bridge, "I
become self-conscious when I have to speak before a group;" "I take
responsibility for the way the program turns out,"
At the center of our psychological world -- where we continually engage
in "self talk," is a complex, self-reflecting information-
processing system and data bank. We continually "reflect back" on the
personal significance of both new, incoming as well as already stored
information. The results of this activity are reflected in our moment-to-moment
sense of competence and worth, our sense of being valued, of being loved,
Acting much like a radar tower in the information-processing system
described above is the self-system, a system of self- appraisal
filters. They continually evaluate and interpret all incoming information
which refers to the "I," the "me," the "not me," the "mine" and the
"not mine" aspects of our experience. They define and redefine who we
are and how we are doing, according to the social roles we play and
the social identities we assume.
- "I am a physicist,
not an engineer".
- "That dress does
not look like me; it is too tailored."
- "I'm not interested
as I don't have any mechanical ability"
- "Those pictures
These self-filters help us to continually evaluate what we perceive
to be our success or failure, of how well we are doing in accomplishing
our goals. The results reflect positively or negatively on our general
sense of competence, our sense of personal worth, on our feelings of
self-esteem. We evaluate our personal attributes as well as our success
or failure on such rating scales as good-bad, important-unimportant,
valuable-not valuable, pleasant-unpleasant, etc. Changes in our self-filters
often follow as we gain more self-understanding and self-acceptance.
- "I know now I
am important in their lives."
- "I hoped to get
a better grade than I did."
- "Spending time
with her always makes me feel better, gives me a boost."
Other filters provide us with information feedback about how self-determined
we seem to be, how well we seem to be able to "control our own destiny"
or to "paddle our own canoe." Positive feedback can lead to a sense
of potency and power, of being an active agent, able to create the kinds
of "effects" we want to create. Information that gives us negative feedback
can result in feelings of impotency, of powerlessness, of a lack of
hope. This is the "I" we refer to in our dialogs with ourselves.
- "I feel so inadequate
in situations like this."
- "I expect to
be promoted soon."
- "I don't feel
that I can do anything right."
- "I am not willing
to give my power away."
Another frame of reference to use in viewing our self system which develops
over time is in terms of the following three aspects:
- The cognitive
aspect: this is the "self as object, the self as a social product.
It is the organized form of the self-image, the "me." This aspect
of the self is involved in defining oneself interns of a social, organizational
or occupational role. e.g. "I am a good citizen, a devoted mother,
a gourmet cook."
organizing process is self-definition.
- the affective
aspect: this is the self as something valued; it involves continuing
self-appraisal in terms of self-worth and self-esteem. This aspect
of the self-system continually interprets information feedback according
to whether it reflects positively or negatively on the worth of a
person. e.g. "I could have done a better job as a parent;" "I am a
reasonable person and open to new ideas," etc.
is central in this process.
- the active aspect:
this is the self as "subject" rather than "object"; it is the self
as an active agent, as the "I." It involves feelings of potency (or
being potent), feelings of self -confidence, of hope. It is reflected
in statements such as "I am a self-starter;" "I feel that I can handle
that without difficulty;" " I look forward to the future with optimism,"
to this aspect of the self is the process of self-confirmation.
Incoming information is processed through these sets of self-appraisal
filters. Information which "fits" with our mental model of who we are
and what is role-relevant and/or desirable is incorporated into our
personal data bank and information system. Information that doesn't
confirm or conform is either deleted or changed through re-interpretation
"What they are
saying doesn't apply to me -they must be talking about someone else."
in this area of activity:
At first, the scaffolding of the "inside" mental model we create of
our activity in the "outside" world is sketchy and primitive. In infancy,
these early information-processing structures may consist mostly of
"wired-in" neural connections that control the physical responses we
call reflexes. With new experiences - - and new information about them
to be processed, our mental model gradually develops into a complex
network of personal meanings and relationships.
Over time, our mental model serves two interrelated functions -- that
of being both content and process. Let me clarify. In general, new incoming
information which "fits" is incorporated directly into our information-processing
structures; the descriptive term is assimilation. Information which
doesn't fit either flows through or is discarded. If it must be accommodated,
changes are made in our mental structures to permit it. For example,
for a young child who has a frightening experience with a dog, the meaning
associated with the word "dog" may be negative and future contacts with
dogs regarded with fear. Later positive experience with another friendlier
dog can lead to gradual revisions in the manner in which future contacts
with dogs are interpreted and reacted to. This is a process often referred
to as "learning from experience" or expressed as "I view things differently
Our mental model of our world serves as a complex information-processing
and feedback system. It acts as a series of interconnected frames of
reference we use in processing new, incoming information and re-interpreting
stored information, to determine its meaning. It involves a continuing
process of organizing and structuring, of determining if the new information,
combined with already stored information is personally relevant, and
if and where it "fits."
a newspaper for news about the monthly meeting of a certain group
and passing over or mentally ignoring non-relevant information.
At any time, our mental model of our world serves as a repository and
an "on-line" representation of our current personal meaning system.
the looked-for news article, making a "mental note" that the group
meets on the second Tuesday of the month.
Implicit in the explanation above is the role of an information-feedback
system operating between each person and his/her world. The result is
a continuing exchange of energy and information - - the thoughts, feelings,
and actions which are the fabric of our experience in the world.
Summary: The information we acquire, as we live our lives, becomes
the "raw material," the building blocks of the mental model we construct
to represent our subjective world. Information about the meaning and
the implications, about the "what" and the "so what" of our experience
is incorporated into our personal data bank and information- processing
system. Our mental model becomes the control tower of our everyday life,
directing the exchange of information and the channeling of our life
energy as we play our own personal Game of Life.
Part II: Application
of the Conceptual Model
The Game of Life and the Personal Game Plan metaphor are
used to translate the language of the individual person-personally experienced
world conceptual model into ordinary language that individuals can use
in thinking about and planning changes in their own lives.
The following structural
analysis shows the main features and relationships of the Game of
I. It has elements common
to all games:
As in all games,
there are four principal components:
- our purposes
(here translated into goals);
- the barriers
(or constraints and limitations) and
- the freedoms
(opportunities or facilitating conditions)
- the choices
we make, either deliberately or by default.
II. Game rules:
Usually there is a set of agreed-upon rules that specify the freedoms
(choices) and the barriers (limitations) for playing the game.
In the Game of Life, our personal rules specify the "what, where,
when, why, and how," of our game-playing activity. The freedoms and
barriers we experience are both internal (personal) and external, in
III. We play our
Game of Life in three theaters or worlds of human activity:
- the physical
world: the "outside" physical environment
- the social
world: our relationships with human others
- the psychological
world: our "inside" personal, subjective world.
IV. Our Personal
Game Plan is like a road map for the future;
goals can be simple
or complex, explicit or implicit, short or long-term. Our goals can
be thought of as our specific wants to BE, to DO and to HAVE.
V. Our Personal
Game Plans usually reflect our:
these are general packages of mental and emotional energy. They
serve as direction-finders and determine how we channel our life
energy. Our game-playing preferences and strategies help define,
stake out and narrow the playing field we decide to play in.
these are specific packages of ideas of the goals we want to achieve
plus the positive motivat ional energy we need to carry them out.
They reflect the "what" and "how" of our game playing activity.
the social roles we assume and the parts we play. They are like
the garments in a wardrobe and they effect how we play our game.
Ideally, we are able to move in and out of a given identity at will;
getting stuck in an identity can cause upsets and disabilities.
VI. We channel our
life energy, in varying amounts, into the following activities:
our potential to express our individuality, to be "who we really
ourselves, in having children and grandchildren to continue our
genetic heritage, in being part of a close family group.
- having friends
and acquaintances, in relationships with individuals and groups
who share our interests, values and goals.
with other living things, as part of the world of nature; in our
concern with Planet Earth.
our spirituality, feeling more in tune with the universe.
VII. The role of
information and energy in determining how we live our everyday lives:
its available quality, accuracy, adequacy and relevance all influence
the quality of our thinking and decision-making.
- energy: the
availability, direction and intensity of our life energy flows (mental,
emotional and physical) determine the direction, strength, appropriateness
and effectiveness of our intentions and actions.
for periodically assessing the psychological quality of our everyday
lives, for assessing our current sense of personal well-being:
assessment of information feedback from the outside world: reviewing
data based on systematic review of how well our personal game plan
is "working," by comparing and contrasting our perceptions of our
current "real scene" with the "ideal scene" we have envisioned.
appraisal of our current level of satisfaction with who we are,
with how things are going and how we are personally doing in each
area of goal activity.
Game Plan Stage
1: The Life Review Process
The purpose is to help students become more aware of the pattern in
how they are currently living their daily lives and to identify areas
where they would like to create change. This includes their goals and
purposes for both the present and those projected for the future. This
process involves using a variety of questionnaires, survey instruments,
and assessment techniques to clarify their ideas about their abilities,
interests, values and goals and identify the patterns in how they have
been living their lives. This data collection process can be done on
materials provided in a floppy disk or in a laboratory manual format.
Game Plan Stage
2: The Game Plan Development Process
This is the active planning stage. A series of assessment materials
has been developed for this purpose. These include worksheets to use
in specifying individual goals for what students want to be, to do and
For each goal or group of related goals, students (a) identify the barriers
and freedoms both personal and in the environment that may effect their
success; and (b) estimate the degree of confidence they have about their
ability to both achieve a particular goal as well as obtain the needed
resources and support of the environment; and (c) outline the major
steps and list the individual activities involved.
Game Plan Stage
3: Periodic Review and Revision
Materials are available for students' periodic, systematic evaluation
of the status of each of the individual goals they specified in their
Personal Game Plan. The process is similar to the periodic review
and evaluation activities of organizations using the Management by Objectives
and other databased approaches. Students indicate, on a scale of 1-10,
how satisfied they currently are with "how they are doing," with their
progress to date in moving from the real scene they started with,
to the ideal scene they originally envisioned. Identifying the
additional information they need and actions to take is the next step.