Consciousness of Abstracting

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources

Authored by Steve Stockdale

One of the expressed goals in General Semantics is what Korzybski referred to as “consciousness of abstracting,” or awareness of one’s own abstracting and evaluating processes. In other words, the objective of learning GS (or anything, perhaps) is to apply it in some way to one’s own circumstances, and one way to apply GS is to maintain an ongoing awareness of the abstracting process.

That’s all well and good, but then one can ask, “what is it exactly that I’m supposed to be conscious or aware of?” After all, abstracting, as you may have observed thus far in the course, can be a rather … abstract … notion to grasp.

Therefore the following table may help summarize some of the key differences between maintaining an awareness of your own abstracting processes, compared to remaining unaware of abstracting.

COA Table

Seeing (Visual Abstracting)

On this and the following pages, we present a variety of images, media files, and articles that illustrate different aspects of abstracting and evaluating.

Take care to note your reactions to the images and videos seen below in your Personal journal or in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

1. Visualizing Abstracting

Used/published with permission of the artist, Paul Dennithorne Johnston.

2. Benham Disc

This 3-minute video has no sound.

3. Vision Explained

From the Charlie Rose Brain Series (Da Cunha, 2009a), Dr. Eric Kandel and the panel explain how the visual system works, without using the word abstracting, but they summarize in detail the abstracting process that Korzybski articulated.

4. Vision Confusion

Also from the Charlie Rose Brain Series ((Da Cunha, 2009a), these examples illustrate how our eyes-brain-visual-system is not a perfect recorder of how we convert our “out there” sensations into “in here” sensory experiences.

In some cases, our brains have been trained to interpret certain visual stimuli in very specific, and sometimes misleading, ways. In other cases we can recognize certain images (such as faces) with very sketchy and ambiguous inputs.

In other words, the result of what we abstract is not the same as the object of what we are abstracting.

5. Seeing what’s not there

Too often we tend to think of the abstracting process only in terms of a reducing filter, selecting and rejecting the sensory stimuli. We forget or overlook a key part of the process – even at the neurological level, our brains have to make inferences and guesses as they try to make sense of what we sense. As demonstrated with the Benham disc, sometimes what the brain constructs and reports is only a rough approximation of the ‘territory.’

Here is another example. Can you count the black dots in this image?

Count the Dots
Can you count the dots?

Dimples and Bumps

Dimples or Bumps?

As one illustration of these visual abstracing principles, look at the following image. This image includes what might be considered as “dimples” which appear to recede into the image, and “bumps” which appear to come out of the image. How many “dimples” and how many “bumps” do you see?

Now rotate it 180 degrees. How many “dimples” and how many “bumps” do you see from this perspective? (It’s the same image, just turned upside-down.)

Dimples or Bumps?

Dimples and Bumps in the ‘Real World’

The two photographs below were grabbed from a story on (no longer accessible). Each depicts a satellite image as it was shown in the article, paired with the same photo rotated 180 degrees. What differences do you see, based on the orientation of the photo, with respect to relative height? Is the Citadel of Aleppo on a hill or in a crater? Is the Colorado River elevated above its surrounding terrain or at the bottom of a canyon?

Citadel of Aleppo, Syria

Aleppo, Syria

Colorado River, United States

Colorado River

Contribute to Ongoing Course Discussion      Add to your Personal Journal

Hearing (Auditory Abstracting)

Take care to note your reactions to what you hear below in your Personal journal or in the Ongoing Course Discussion.

1. Hearing Explained

From the Charlie Rose Brain Series (Da Cunha, 2013c), Dr. David Corey explains the hearing process. Again, he doesn’t use the term abstracting, but he describes the process that Korzybski highlighted 90 years ago.

2. A Listening Demonstration

This video illustrates that sometimes we need pointers to direct our sensing.

As of 14 Nov 2020, this video is temporarily unavailable due to webhost migration. Please check back soon.

3.  My Tinnitus


After extensive testing at the nearby veteran’s hospital (including an MRI), it was clear I was experiencing tinnitus, or ringing in the ears, a fairly common affliction associated with aging. My hearing wasn’t degraded in any way, it’s just that I have this continual whine in my left ear, predominantly, which isn’t really noticeable unless it’s quiet.

The medical community have a variety of theories about what causes tinnitus, but nothing conclusive. The only real treatment is to wear something that looks like a hearing aid that emits a masking tone (not dissimilar from noise-canceling headphones), but even that has mixed results.

It’s very strange. I hear something, but what I’m hearing isn’t “out there” … it’s something that my own brain is creating. And it’s not like hearing some other audible internal process like when your stomach growls, or … well, I won’t list other internal bodily processes that you hear on occasion. But it’s a very personal reminder to me that my brain is creating everything I experience – even when it’s self-created.


3 Buckets

Consider this demonstration in terms of differentiating between what happens on non-verbal levels as compared to what can be verbalized. What do the results of this activity suggest about verbal constructs such as absolute and relative?

If you have access to three buckets or large bowls, water and five minutes, you can gain some insights to the relative nature of your conditioning by doing this exercise.

Buckets Experiment

Put cold water in one bucket, or bowl, placed to your left, comfortably hot water in a bowl to your right, and lukewarm (“just right”) water in a middle bowl. Place your left hand in the cold water and your right hand in the comfortably hot water. Keep your hands submerged in the water for about a minute. Then raise both hands and place them in the middle bowl.

What do your senses tell you about the water temperature in the middle bowl?

You’re probably sharp enough to speculate what happens. (But go ahead and do it for yourself anyway.) Your left hand, conditioned by the cold water, tells you that the middle water is “warmer”; while your right hand, conditioned by the comfortably hot water tells you the middle water is “cooler.” You have only one stimulus – the middle bowl of water – but you have two different sensory responses. Which one is “right” or “true”?

Just like the left and right hands in the experiment, we are each ‘conditioned’ by our past. Each of us has lived through our own unique, no-two-the-same life experiences. To every new situation or experience, we bring our own unique perspectives and attitudes resulting from our past experiences. We therefore can’t help but experience each situation uniquely from anyone else. If we fail to recognize this – if we expect others to see or feel or smell or otherwise experience something exactly the same as we do – then we forget the lesson of the three water buckets:

This (warmer water to the left hand) is not that (cooler water to the right hand); or
This (high school experience of a student from Harwood Junior High) is not that (high school experience of a student from Euless Junior High);
This (what I find “pretty”) is not that (what you find “ugly”).
This (what I find “funny”) is not that (what you find “revolting”).
This (what I find “offensive”) is not that (what you find “satirical”).

Module 1 Pages

What is GS? | Alfred Korzybski | Consciousness of Abstracting | Language | In Their Words
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources