Practice: Abstracting and Awareness

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Practice with the Structural Differential

To demonstrate how our nervous systems limit perceptions of reality, Korzybski (2000) created a visual representation of the abstraction process—the structural differential. He proposed that this diagram could be used to explain semantic reactions, noting both intellectual and emotional responses of human beings during abstraction. Moreover, the structural differential explains how we think-feel-evaluate, leaving out characteristics as we move from the event (WIGO) to object level (our senses), and even more details as we use language in the descriptive and inference levels.

Because maps are self-reflexive, we can use language to talk about language, often confusing descriptive and inference levels.  Korzybski (2000) warned about this “false-to-fact ‘is’ of identity”: using an inaccurate map to make further inferences. Consequently, he advocated using of the structural differential to explain our experiences because we could involve several senses and our kinesthetic centers when we state, “this is not this,” engaging the ear, with the eye focused on the motion of the hands, indicating the big distance between WIGO and inferences.


Some people, however, seem to appreciate Stockdale’s (2009a) abstracting model (Figure 2). They find the nonverbal world easier to comprehend because of the five senses pictured and the phrase “what I sense is not what happened” (p. 29).  Additionally, students appreciate the explanation of the verbal levels: “what we describe is not what we sense” and “what it means is not what we describe” (p. 29).

Verbal/Non-Verbal Abstracting
Verbal/Non-Verbal Abstracting

Structural Differential Worksheet

Use the following worksheet to analyze your abstraction process in a recent miscommunication with another person. The worksheet has key terms from Steve Stockdale’s “somebody cut me off” story, which you also read to complete the Abstracting-Evaluating discussion in Module 1.

Once you have completed the worksheet, explain your abstraction process to a friend. Remember that Korzybski proposed using the structural differential to explain abstracting would involve the whole body as one states, “this is not this,” engaging the ear, with the eye focused on the motion of the hands, indicating the big distance between the event, description, and inference levels.

Click to download a printable PDF version of the worksheet shown below.

Practice with Sensory Awareness

Kodish and Kodish (2011) proposed that nonverbal (sensory) awareness exercises help people explore how structures and meaning emerge as a function of their senses.

In addition to using the structural differential to explain recent miscommunication events with others, explore using Kodish and Kodish’s (2011) “sensory awareness” exercises to become more aware of the nonverbal world. For example, they suggest the following exercise to experience a world without words:

  • What are you doing right now? As you [hear] these words let yourself become aware of how you are sitting or lying down or standing . . .
  • How can you allow yourself to feel the support of what holds you up?
  • How much do you need to hold yourself up?
  • Where do you feel unnecessary tensions?
  • Do you feel tension in your jaw?
  • In your face?
  • Where do you feel ease?
  • How clearly do you feel yourself breathing?
  • Many events are occurring inside and outside your skin right now. Can you allow yourself nonverbally to experience these activities? When you focus unnecessarily on labeling and explaining, you may miss something important going on in and around you. (Kodish & Kodish, p. 105–106)

The following exercises (some of which are included below) help you focus on one sense at a time:

  • Day 1: Touch the cloth of your clothes. Notice the sensation in your finger, your hands. Allow the sensations to travel where they will. Move to a different part of your clothes. Notice any differences in sensations.
  • Day 2: Listen to whatever sounds come to you right now . . . Do you find yourself labeling what you hear? Listen again and this time if you begin to label sounds just notice that you are doing it and allow yourself to come back to the sound again.
  • Day 3: Choose something to look at. Without words, take in what comes to your eyes. Continue looking: what else come to you?
  • Day 4: Consider the sounds, sights, aromas around you as structures to explore. Pick an “object” such as a stone or a pencil. Examine it closely, silently, for several minutes. Use “all” of your senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move it. How well can you do this without labeling or describing? (adapted from Kodish & Kodish, 2011, p. 106)

After completing these exercises, answer the following two questions:

1. What “structures” emerge as a function of this sense?

2. What “meanings” do you discern?

Reflecting about “structures” leads to an awareness of abstraction: recognizing that our senses limit what we know about WIGO. Discerning “meaning” reminds us that we can delay evaluation: revising meaning (maps) with more exploration of the “territory.”

Keep your answers from each exercise, noting progress, or lack thereof, toward experiencing the nonverbal world. Many of us in the United States struggle with such exercises because we have not been taught to be silent, let alone to find value in silence. However, these exercises encourage “semantic relaxation,” making us more aware of ourselves as “map makers” (Kodish & Kodish, 2011, p. 104).

Korzybski (2000) believed that because both “affective, or ‘emotional,’ responses and blood pressure are neurologically closely connected, [then]  it is fundamental for ‘emotional’ balance to have ‘normal’ blood pressure, and vice versa” (p. lix).  Much like the relaxation techniques you might have learned in a yoga or exercise class, Korzybski worked with students to relax tensions, to be “more open to their experiences, better able to take in and evaluate information” (as cited in Kodish & Kodish, 2011, p. 104).

In addition to the nonverbal awareness exercises focused on our five senses, Kodish and Kodish (2011) recommended the “means whereby” to focus on the “how” (p. 108) we move through the world.  I have students practice getting up and sitting down, and walking around a building, trying to focus on “how” they move. We find this nearly impossible to do, as our senses focus on the weather, others’ movements, and the terrains across which we traverse.

Ultimately, these experiential approaches help us practice what Korzybski meant by an extensional orientation: giving “priority to ‘facts’ or nonverbal happenings rather than verbal definitions and labels, and maintaining our consciousness of abstracting” (Kodish & Kodish, 2011, p. 98).

Nonverbal Awareness Exercises

Listen and Reflect

Answer the following in a journal or notebook after listening to and viewing the files below.

1. What “structures” emerge as a function of this sense? (Awareness of abstraction)

2. What “meanings” do you discern? (Delay evaluation)

Audio File 1

Listen and follow the guidance you hear.

Audio File 2

Listen and follow the guidance you hear.

Watching Exercise

[fvplayer id=”2″]

This exercise is not just about watching “a sunset,” but it’s watching “the sun set” and becoming more aware not only of a visual scene, but a sense of how much change is possible in just 6 minutes.

All 5 Senses

Find an apple. Write down all of the characteristics of the apple. Push yourself to describe all of the characteristics you can observe. (The more you dislike the term the better according to Korzybski)

Cut into the apples and use a magnifying glass. Now write down all of the characteristics that were not previously observable.

Eat the apple. Use all of your senses: see, hear, touch, smell, & taste it.

Module 2 Pages

Allness | Allness Case Analysis | Practice with Abstracting and Awareness
Assignments, Discussions and Quizzes | References and Resources