Application of a Living Systems Perspective on Human Experience:
an Educational Model for Life Planning and Change

Elaine R. Parent, Ph.D.
P.O. 12214
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 mentally

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.

Keywords: 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. transactions 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 anxious neighbor.

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

Physical Energy:

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!

Intellectual or Mental Energy:

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.

Emotional Energy:

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 doesn't work.

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 Energy:

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.

Evaluating Information 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.

These include:

  1. qualitative relations: we organize and express them as similarities, differences and identities. They answer the questions of "what."
  2. e.g. ice cream comes in a variety of different flavors: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, etc.;
    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.

  3. Quantitative relations: which we express as more than, less than, equivalent to. They answer the questions, "how much," "how many."
  4. 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.

  5. Cause and effect relations: they answer the questions of "how" and "why."
  6. 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.

  7. Temporal and spatial relations: these answer the questions of "where" and "when."
  8. 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 result.

How we organize and interpret information about our experience in the social theater of activity:

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.

    e.g. our 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 party.
  • 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 migration patterns.

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 stranger.

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, etc.

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 world

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, etc.

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 are "mine".

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:

  1. 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."

    The central organizing process is self-definition.

  2. 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.

    Self-evaluation is central in this process.

  3. 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," etc.

    Central 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 and/or generalization.

"What they are saying doesn't apply to me -they must be talking about someone else."

Developmental changes 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 now."

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."

e.g. Scanning 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.

e.g. Finding 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 Life metaphor

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 the environment.

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:

  • interests: 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.
  • intentions: 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.
  • identities: 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:

  1. developing our potential to express our individuality, to be "who we really are."
  2. reproducing ourselves, in having children and grandchildren to continue our genetic heritage, in being part of a close family group.
  3. having friends and acquaintances, in relationships with individuals and groups who share our interests, values and goals.
  4. relationships with other living things, as part of the world of nature; in our concern with Planet Earth.
  5. developing our spirituality, feeling more in tune with the universe.

VII. The role of information and energy in determining how we live our everyday lives:

  • information: 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.

VIII. Techniques for periodically assessing the psychological quality of our everyday lives, for assessing our current sense of personal well-being:

  • Objective 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.
  • Subjective 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.

The life-planning process:

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 to have.

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.


Welcome Part I: Books in Progress
Psychology Toolbox PR sheets
The Big Picture: Finding Purpose and Meaning in our Day-to-Day Lives
The Psychology of Everyday Life
Playing the Academic Game: Strategies for Successfully Completing the Doctorate

PR sheets
Part II: Papers

© 2000, Elaine R Parent, Ph. D.