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A Brief Explanation of Korzybski's Structural Differential

Alfred Korzybski developed this model in the 1920's as a means to visualize the process he termed abstracting. Now Korzybski used this term to convey something quite different from the "commonly accepted" definitions for "abstract". Rather than try to give an over-simplified and misleading definition here, I encourage you to read over the following and develop your own sense of "abstracting".

  • The "differential" in Structural Differential refers to an operational difference between what humans do and what animals do.
  • The difference between what humans do and what animals do is that, as the diagram reflects, an animal's ability to abstract is limited; a human's ability to abstract is virtually limitless.
  • Abstracting, in the context of Korzybski's model, refers to physiological-neurological activities, or processes, that occur on non-verbal levels. Put another way, abstracting is something that your body-brain-nervous-system is continually doing, without respect to whether or not you're aware of it.
  • The different levels that Korzybski defines in the diagram refer to aspects of the overall process which seem to consist of clearly-differentiated orders, or types, of activity.

Structural Differental

FIDO - "FIDO", or an animal, interacts similarly with WIGO at the Object level. However, FIDO's capacity to make inferences or related associations is finite, unlike a human's.

E - The raggedly-cut parabola represents "what is going on" (WIGO), or more correctly, "what we infer is going on", in the world around us, whether we are consciously aware or not. Each dot, or hole, stands for an aspect or characteristic of the sub-microscopic process level, or event level which comprises WIGO.

O - The circle labeled "O" (for Object) represents some human's (for example, mine) interaction with WIGO. Through my sensing organs and nervous system, I 'create' sights, sounds, smells, etc., from my interacting with WIGO. The lines, or strings, which connect the Object level to the Event level represent a specific aspect or characteristic of WIGO that I can sense and experience in some non-verbal way. Those strings coming from the parabola that I can not sense (representing, for example, radio waves), hang free and do not connect at the Object level.

D - The tag "D" signifies the first verbal level in the abstracting process. We can label this the "Descriptive" level, and try to remember that what I say, think, hear, etc., at this level about my WIGO-Object level experience 'should' be similar to what a good reporter would report - as close to "just the facts" as possible.

I - The tags labeled "I1", etc., represent the multiple levels of Inferences I might construct from my WIGO-Object-Description level experience. These inferences will determine what meaning or significance I draw from this experience. As the diagram implies, I can generate as many inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, conclusions, etc., as I might care to.

A - The arrow ("A") from the Inference level back to the Event level suggests feedback, or circularity, and 'time'. In other words, my most meaningful inferences from prior experiences can become Event-level aspects or characteristics of what I might experience in the future.

I think it's important to remember how 'time', or order, sequence, etc., plays into this model. Each level of the abstracting occurs in a given order, i.e.:

  1. Something happens (Event);
  2. I sense what happens (Object);
  3. I recognize what happens (Description);
  4. I generate meanings for what happens; etc. (Inferences)
In addition to considering the 'time', or order, aspect of abstracting in the vertical plane of the model, we can also envision a horizontal succession of these abstracting processes, one after the other, for every moment of our lives. In this case, with successive abstracting processes, we can picture the feedback, or circularity, arrow projecting from our prior inference to our next experience:

In terms of differentiation, we 'should' note that

  1. What happens (Event) is NOT ...
  2. What I sense non-verbally within my nervous system (Object), which is NOT ...
  3. What I can describe verbally about my sensing (Description), which is NOT ...
  4. The meaning(s) I generate based on what happened; etc. (Inferences)
Similarly, our experience/inference/meaning at Time4 is NOT the 'same' experience/inference/meaning at Time1.

Okay. "So what? How can I use this?"

Let's take a situation in which a friend - let's say, Emily - relates with some anger an experience she just had while driving to the store ... "somebody cut me off!" Here's an example of deconstructing her experience to emphasize the different 'levels' between what she experienced and what she evaluated.

Structural Differental E - What is going on? Cars, engines, tires, radios, trees, pedestrians, clouds, sun, rain, wipers ... all composed of sub-microscopic particles at a quantum level which we infer based on our latest knowledge of science ...

O - Emily's eyes capture (some of the) reflected light from (some of the) images in her (limited) field of view; the light is transformed (abstracted) by her visual system into nervous system signals that travel to her brain; neurons in her brain process the electrical/chemical signals and cause her to see ...

D - ... "I was driving about 25 miles per hour, maintaining perhaps 50 feet distance from the car in front of me. A dark-colored sedan driven by a middle-aged man emerged from my far right field of view. His car's speed was greater than mine. As his car came abeam mine, and then forward of it, his car appeared to accelerate and veer into the lane directly in front of my car. The following distance of my car to his was no more than 10 feet, which meant ..."

I1 - ... "This rude jerk was in a hurry and cut me off when he could've just waited and merged behind me!" ... (blood pressure rising, anger mounting, fists clench the steering wheel, eyes staring at the other driver, foot pressing on the accelerator, trying to catch up, swerving over to the next lane to pass, not checking the traffic ...) "Damn it! That &%$)=!@ made me almost have a wreck!"

I2 - ... "Men are such terrible and rude drivers!"

Can you see that "somebody cut me off" is NOT what happened? Can you see that Emily's hypothetical reaction to what happened is not the same as a description of what happened?

One of the powerful lessons of general semantics - illustrated by the Structural Differential and evidenced by a consciousness of this abstracting process - is that we can better train ourselves to respond conditionally to what happens to us. We humans don't have to react with a conditioned respond like Pavlov's dog, reacting to a substitute stimulus as if it were 'real' - but we often do. Our language helps confuse us, because we tend to say things like, "Ooh, it made me so mad!" We allow the 'it' - the event, the what happens, the stimulus - to determine our response. We need to remember that between the stimulus and your response, there's a YOU:

Time(1) -------> Time(2)-------> Time(3)

Again, 'time' is an important aspect of our conditional responses. Remember the old adage encouraging you to "count to 10" before getting mad? There's a lot of merit to be gained by practicing your ability to consciously - conditionally - delay your responses.

A Summary of "So What?" About the Structural Differential

  • Abstracting refers to ongoing physiological-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal levels
  • We can verbally differentiate certain phases, or levels or orders, of the abstracting process to analyze our behaviors and reactions:
    EVENT is not  OBJECT is not  DESCRIPTION is not  INFERENCE, etc.
  • We can acknowledge that our abstracting occurs at different 'times' ... we should expect different results, reactions, responses, etc., from different experiences at different 'times'
  • We have human limitations that constrain our experiences - we never experience 'all' of What Is Going On
  • Similarly, we can never 'say all' or describe 'all' about our experiences - more could always be said: Etc.
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of our past experiences (feedback, projection, etc.)
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of the unique capabilities of our individual nervous systems
  • We should therefore expect not only to 'see' things differently, we should expect to evaluate and react to 'things' differently
  • When we delay our responses and react conditionally, we tend to behave more sanely, more rationally, more appropriate-to-the-'facts' of the situation
  • When we react immediately, when our responses are conditioned and controlled by the stimulus (the 'thing'), we behave like Pavlov's dog and subject ourselves to control by others

You can use the Structural Differential when you want to analyze the behavior, responses, reactions, etc., of a particular individual in a specific situation. (Personally, I find this type of analysis works best when the "particular individual" happens to be my ownself.) Remember that the Structual Differential represents the process of abstracting:

1st ...
then 2nd ...
then 3rd ...
then ... etc.

Something happens ...

I sense (some of) what happens ...

I describe what my senses sense

I make meanings, inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, etc.

The more you 'use' it to analyze your own abstracting, evaluating, inference-making, belief-generating, etc.:

  • you will become more aware and conscious of your own abstracting,
  • you will better differentiate between: 1) what happens; 2) what you sense of what happens; 3) what you describe of what your senses sense; and 4) what you infer from what you've described
  • you will respond more conditionally to what happens in your life,
  • you will experience less conditioned responses (less like Pavlov's dog),
  • you will delay more of your responses, leap to fewer conclusions, snap to fewer judgments, make fewer inappropriate assumptions, etc.,
  • you will (fill in your own benefit),
  • etc.

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