Systems Psychology: Feeling Tone Theory

Also musician Steve Roach describes his creative process in terms of feeling tones.Click here for an excerpt from his interview in KULTUR!NEWS

Various researchers comment about Emotional-Perceptive Cycle Theory

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The article below appeared in the newsletter On the Beam

Teaching with Feeling in Mind

by Paul A. LaViolette

(Reprinted from On the Beam, Volume 6(2) (1986))


Our approach to teaching is strongly influenced by your understanding of how the human mind functions to form thoughts. Modes of classroom instruction currently in widespread use are based upon the outdated "robot model," which views the brain as an input-output information storage and processing unit. Computer analogies, however, are unable to account for a key feature of intelligence, one that is central to the learning process, the phenomenon of creative thought formation.

Recently, however, a novel theory has been developed which sheds some light on the creative process. This theory conceives creative thoughts as emerging spontaneously from a fabric of sensation and emotion composed of experiential units called "feeling tones." According to Bill Gray,(1) basic feeling tones, like the primary colors of the rainbow, combine in a nearly infinite number of ways to form a whole spectrum of shades and these represent all aspects of our internal and external experience. Just as Mozart's 41st symphony and Beethoven's 9th may both be played from the same set of musical notes, so too the rich variety of mental experience that bombards our consciousness may be represented by means of the same fundamental set of feeling tones.

Like people and cars in a city, these complex feeling tone structures , or "compositions," are always on the move through our brain. Just as a well-designed city allows people to meet one another and form rich sets of associations and relationships, so too the brain provides an environment within which feeling tones are able to link up with one another and spontaneously form more complex combinations of a meaningful nature. These syntheses are what we call thoughts.

Robot model theorists conceive thoughts to be neuroelectric impulses which, like the binary coded electrical impulses in a computer circuit, derive their various meanings by travelling along specific "wires" or nerve fiber pathways. However, this hard-wired mechanistic conception unfortunately leads to a physicalistic view of the mind, conscious experience being conceived as inextricably bound to the physical architecture of the brain. The feeling tone model, on the other hand, conceives the meaning of thoughts to be intrinsic to the thoughts themselves, the information content of a thought being embodied in its specific feeling tone code or neuroelectric waveform shape. Like their feeling tone relatives, thoughts are on the move too. Thus mental information is portable and free to move throughout the brain.

According to this new view, the brain may be conceived as a kind of sophisticated loom, one which is suited to the weaving of mental fabrics.(2, 3) However, this is a very unusual loom. For, these feeling tone tapestries have the unique ability of themselves being able to run the controls of the loom. Thus the fabric is able to weave itself in a self-determining fashion! Because of this self-referential process, the mind is capable of independent evolution to states of complexity far exceeding that of its biological matrix, the brain.

The brain/mind relation in many ways resembles the mother/child, womb/embryo relation. The brain provides a unique environment within which that living entity the mind is spawned. Unlike embryonic development, however, there are no pre-existent chromosome blueprints. Rather, the "genes which shape the mental personality are continuously created on-the-spot, these spontaneous birth events being our creative insights and ideas.

It goes without saying that such a model of mental phenomena suggests an approach to education quite different from that currently practiced in schools. According to this approach, understanding is best accomplished through a process of facilitation, rather than through rote instruction. Teaching is not a programming process, the feeding of information into computer-like brains. Rather, it is an agrarian process -- the acquisition of knowledge being likened to the raising of crops. The teacher's purpose is to provide sunlight, fertilizer, and water, and an environment free of predators in which sensitivity, caring, and curiosity are free to develop. The learning which ensues must be viewed as a birth process, one which must not be rushed. Confusion results if material is delivered at a pace faster than the student can assimilate, since the evoked thoughts require sufficient time to take full root in the student's personal feeling tone fabric that he is perpetually weaving.

1) Gray, William "Understanding creative thought processes: An early formulation of the emotional-cognitive structure theory." Man-Environment Systems 9 (1979):314.

2) LaViolette, Paul A. "Thoughts about thoughts about thoughts: The emotional-perceptive cycle theory." Man-Environment Systems 9 (1979):1547.

3) LaViolette, Paul. A. "The thermodynamics of the aha experience."  Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Society for General Systems Research, San Francisco, Jan. 1980; Reprinted in: (1982) W. Gray, et al. (eds.) General Systems Theory and the Psychological Sciences (Vol. I). Intersystems Press, CA.

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