A Living Systems Perspective as a Metaframework
for Viewing the Dynamics of Human Experience

Elaine R. Parent, Ph.D.
P.O. Box 12214
LaJolla, California 92093


This paper describes a new metaframework for understanding the dynamics of human experience, on both an individual and group level. It builds on the traditional living systems model of input-throughput-output. 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.

The conceptual model emphasizes the importance of information feedback and feedforward processes in influencing the pattern in how, as individuals and as members of social-cultural groups, we live our everyday lives. The results of both positive and negative information feedback (about what has already happened) and information feedforward (instructions, about what one wants to happen) are reflected in the decisions we make about how to channel our life energy flows.

These include the physical energy invested in sensor- motor and motor activity, in mental energy reflected in perception, cognition and memory, and in the emotional energy we represent as feelings. Other systems concepts and principles are relevant: system boundaries, system balance and equilibrium, the importance of goal-direction and evolutionary change.

The conceptual model focuses on the individual’s subjective perception of the meaning of his/her day-to-day experience. It is the personal meaning - - the results of our individual interpretive processes, that determine how we channel our life energy flows. In the study of groups, particularly in cognitive anthropology, attention is focused on those shared meanings that reflect cultural norms and prescriptions.

The conceptual model accommodates individual differences in abilities, aptitudes, and prior experience, as well as the unique way we each represent them mentally. It accommodates research activity into both the idiographic and nomothetic aspects of human experience. The model has potential as a unifying metaframework for all areas of psychology by directly accounting for person-environment interaction.

Keywords: living systems, information feedback and feedforward, life energy, human experience, pattern.

A personal Note

In 1969, the author was in the audience when George A. Miller, outgoing president of the American Psychological Association, urged fellow members to find ways to "give psychology back to the people." He argued that much had been learned about human behavior in the psychological laboratory, and urged that ways be found to make that information available for ordinary people to use in their everyday lives. In the years that followed, that challenge became part of a personal mission statement for the author. Some vision of exactly how that translation of theory-into -action might be done came gradually, with an increasing fascination with systems thinking and the apparent utility of a system perspective for viewing human experience in general and the life experience of the individual, in particular. The conceptual pieces began to fall into place, finally, with the author’s contact in 1991, with Miller’s (1978) Living Systems, and then subsequent applications ! of living systems theory in the work of the Fords (Donald and Martin, 1987, 1992). The result of that personal philosophical and conceptual search is the metaframework, based on a living systems perspective, described below.

The Conceptual Model and Metaframework

Human experience is viewed in the context of interaction between two interdependent systems. The first is the individual person as a unique system of systems - - biological, physiological, cognitive and psychological.

The second is the unique, personally experienced environment (physical and social) in which each person lives his or her everyday life. The operational model is described in terms of information and material-energy inputs -- throughputs - - outputs between individual subsystems within the individual as well as between the individual and the environment.

System principles include (a) a focus on the whole as well as interrelationships and interdependencies among the parts; (b) the role of dynamic equilibrium - - the process of maintaining stability in the process of change; (c) the developmental movement from simple to complex structures and relationships; and (d) the importance of balance and harmony in each individual person-personally-experienced (or subjective) world system.

A Brief History of System Science and Systems Thinking

The history of systems science and its gradual ascendance in engineering, mathematics, computer science, biology, economics and the management sciences is well documented. (Bertalanffy, 1968; Laszlo, 1973; Sirgy, 1988; Bahg, 1990; Levine & Fitzgerald, 1992). Less well established is the history of its impact in the social sciences.

In psychology in particular, the use of systems concepts, principles and ways of thinking about various aspects of human experience, has progressed slowly but steadily since the 1980's. Although a focus on interaction between the person and the environment appeared in the writings of psychologists earlier in the century: (Kantor, 1924; Koffka, 1935; Lewin, 1935; Murray, 1938; Allport, 1960; Kelly, 1963; Endler & Magnusson, 1976; Watzlawick, 1978;), it was Living Systems Theory (LST) (Miller, 1978) that set the stage for identifying the processes which account for stability, adaptation and change in open systems, at eight levels of organization and complexity.

Equally important was Miller's explanation of the hierarchical structure of all living systems and the evolutionary processes (shred-out) which facilitate, on a physiological level, the process of change. The impact of Miller’s work has been particularly strong in the area of developmental psychology (Gibson, 1988; Ford and Lerner, 1992; Thielen and Smith, 1993, 1994;), in organizational development (Forrester, 1973; Vickers, 1983; Drucker, 1989; Wheatley, M.J., 1992; Ackoff, 1994) and in the planning of educational change (Plas, 1986; Jasnoski, 1991; Banathy, 1992;).

Recent developments in the physical sciences (Feigenbaum, 1980; Capra, 1982, 1996; Prigogine & Stengers, 1984) have contributed to our understanding of complex, nonlinear systems. The result has been a change in our understanding of our universe and of systems dynamics in particular. The development of analytical tools in psychology followed. (Levine & Fitzgerald, 1992) These are based on a view of systems in terms of the interaction of a set of many feedback loop processes that change the system's state variables over time. The assumption is that these feedback mechanisms are related to the flow, accuracy, and timing of the information in the system. In addition, human systems are viewed in terms of goal seeking and goal conflict activities and the roles that feedback loop structures play in these processes.

Applications of Systems Thinking in Psychology

These ideas about systems dynamics have been incorporated in a variety of recent studies in specific domains in psychology. They are as diverse as the study of the U.S. Army (Ruscoe, 1982); in therapy (Bateson, 1991; Greenberg, 1992; Yank, Barber & Spradlin, 1994); the family (Bronfenbrenner, 1986); of attitude change, (Kaplowitz and Fink, 1992). A growing number of psychologists, with different models and perspectives (Olds, 1992; Walsh, Craik and Price, 1992; Matzger, 1989; Kindermann, 1989), work from a specific person-environment interaction framework. The area is known as person-environment psychology.

In the seminal work reported by the Fords (Donald and Martin, 1987), a living systems framework is used to describe the person as a self-organizing, self-constructing living system. This same model is the basis for Developmental Systems Theory, (Ford, D. and Lerner, R, 1992) and for Motivational Systems Theory, (Ford, M., 1992).

A Systems Perspective on the Dynamics of Human Experience

In the proposed metaframwork, human experience is defined as those patterns of individual human behavior which result from each person's unique and continuous interactions and transactions with changing environments, in space and over time. Although the overall developmental pattern of the life experience is the same for all individuals (conception-birth-infancy-childhood-adulthood-death), individuals vary in their personal characteristics, their life experiences and the unique way they represent the meaning of their experience mentally. In addition, there is variability in both the specific social-cultural influences as well as the physical constraints and facilitating conditions in the environment that affect individuals’ pattern of interaction (M. Ford, 1992).

An important assumption in the model is that members of a particular social-cultural group share certain prescribed patterns of environmental interaction as well as similar mental models or world views. (Hutchins, 1980; Cole and Means, 1981; D'Andrade, 1995; Cole, 1996).

The basic framework is the traditional input-throughput-output system model, with information and material-energy exchanges playing a central role in system operations in general, and in living systems in particular (Miller, 1978). This human species model emphasizes the importance of information feedback (from the environment) and information feedforward processes (in the individual) and their effects on individual thought, emotion and action. (Mandler, 1984; Bandura, 1989; Lazarus, 1991)

The components (or subsystems) of this conceptual model are those of each individual person in continuous interaction with his/her personally-experienced (or experiential) world. This person-experiential world system, in turn, is a subsystem of the larger physical and social environment in which each is embedded - - that part of the outside world that is ‘real’ and relevant to the individual.

Characteristics of the Person-Experiential World System

The individual person-experiential world system is described as an open or organismic system, which is both concrete (the person and the larger physical and social environment) and conceptual (the individual’s model of his/her experiential world). It exists in space and time. Each person-experiential world system is self-regulating, within the boundaries which have developed vis-à-vis their respective environments as well as the biological and physiological constraints present in the individual.

Interaction and the exchange of information and materials takes place (a) between individual components of the person-experiential world system and (b) with the components of the larger physical and social environment.

Characteristics Shared by Members of Social-Cultural Groups

In the group or human species context, the model specifies a composite of human qualities and characteristics common to members of a particular social-cultural group. These include, for example, the group-approved and habitual ways of thinking and behaving, their interests and value systems, their definitions of the meaning and role of causality, space and time. The experiential world consists of mental representations specific to a particular group. It includes regularities, in the form of beliefs and assumptions, that are part of that groups' shared worldview or mental model of their world. (D'Andrade, 1995)

Characteristics of Individual Human Beings, as a System of Systems

The most recent and comprehensive effort to understand human behavior using a living systems framework is that of the Fords - -Donald and Martin, (1987, 1992). In the Ford Living Systems Framework (LSF), the individual person is viewed as a system of systems (physiological, biological, cognitive and psychological). Each individual is considered as a unique combination of genetic, biological and psychological characteristics and attributes. These features are represented in patterns of behavior (thought, feelings and action) that reflect the effects of life experiences that are unique to each individual. These are termed behavior episodes, their mental representation as behavior episode schemata.

In the Ford model (as well as those of a number of other writers, (including White, 1959; Holyoak, 1969; Gergen, 1985, Pervin, 1985) the individual is described as an active, causative agent, striving to achieve desired effects in his/her experiential world. The effects of the environment (both material-energy transactions and information feedback to the individual about these effects) are part of the input of each person-world system. How that input affects system operation is a function of what takes place in the throughput, specifically in the activities of the executive and governing activities of what Mandler (1984) terms the cognitive-interpretive system. The latter coordinates the actions of various information-processing structures as well as production systems for structuring consciousness, for physiological-arousal (for emotion) and for sensori-motor action systems.

Information-processing mechanisms include structures for the bottom-up processing of information feedback (of incoming sensory impressions from both the inside and the outside world - - about what has happened), on a moment-to-moment basis. They also include top-down processing or the information feedforward which reflects the results of the individual's cognitive activity - - the expectations, anticipations, plans - - about what may happen, about what the person wants to happen. These latter computations are based on the individual's past experience and the content of that person's knowledge structures and personal meanings system. These guide the system output, or behavior. The coordinated effects of these two processes are summarized in Ford, 1987:

When feedback and feedforward are combined, a dynamic control system potential emerges that can combine information about past, present and projected future events to guide the flow of its current activity in a variable environment to either maintain or alter its current steady states.

Ford, Donald H. Humans as Self- Constructing, Living Systems,

1987, pg. 69.


Characteristics of Each Person’s Personally-Experienced (Experiential) World

Each person's experiential world is described as that part of the external world that is represented (or can be constructed, on the basis of past experience) mentally by each individual. It includes information about that part of the physical and social environment that is available in consciousness (or that can be brought into awareness) for each individual person. It is that part of the external world that is real-- and has personal meaning or significance for the individual. Its contents are available through introspection and awareness-inducing activity. It could be thought of as a figure/ground relationship, with the individual’s experiential world as figure in the ground of the larger, external social and physical environment. Each experiential world (or mental model of that world) is unique.

The physiological and biological system functioning in the individual provides both facilitating and constraining conditions on that system’s operation. However, it is the decider or executive function (Miller, 1978; Ford, 1987) performed by the cognitive-interpretive system (Mandler, 1984) which apparently determines the level and quality of person-experiential world system functioning.

Systems Principles Embedded in the Conceptual Model

  • that the whole is more than the sum of its parts and that systems and their elements can only be understood in terms of their pattern of interactions, in their relationship to each other, and to the whole.
  • there are individual differences in the person, in the nature of each person's interaction with his/her experiential world and how that person represents it, as well as individual differences in the nature and patterns of the behavior which result from that interaction.
  • a hypothesized executive subsystem in the individual that receives inputs from all other subsystems and transmits to them the information that controls the output (behavior) of the entire system (Ford, 1987). In this model, a cognitive-interpretive system (Mandler, 1984) coordinates the interdependent relationships between cognition, physiological and emotional arousal, and sensori-motor arousal and activity.
  • there are boundaries, at both the individual component as well as the system level. In this model these boundaries are psychological and social as well as physical. Emphasis is on the individual's psychological boundaries (including the content of the individual's personal meaning system) and how they determine the nature and extent of that person's interaction with his/her experiential world.
  • the process of change in open systems takes place over time and is usually evolutionary. In this model, there is an assumption of unique biological patterns (or blueprints) which influence if not determine individual physical growth and development.
  • there are self-organizing, self-constructing and self-stabilizing activities and processes in all human systems and in their relationships with their subsystems.
  • in human activity systems (Checkland, 1989, Banathy, 1996) the focus is on understanding rather than predicting future human behavior.

  • the role of information and energy and how they determine the pattern in how we live our everyday lives:

information input: its available quality, accuracy, adequacy and relevance (and the way it is interpreted) influence the quality and appropriateness of our thinking and decision-making, and the emotions and actions which follow.

life energy output: its availability, direction and intensity and how we channel it - - into our thoughts, feelings and actions, is reflected in the patterned way we live our everyday lives.

Note: An application of this metaframework, in an educational model for life planning and change, is reported in another paper.



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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 Doctorat
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2000, Elaine R Parent, Ph. D.