More Than Just Mental Health Is At Stake

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 102 (March/April 2008)

Photograph courtesy of Elan Sun Star


The U.S. Surgeon General’s Office reported, even back in December 1999 when most things in this country appeared to be going relatively well, that nearly 60 million Americans have mental health problems, most of which go untreated. That is a lot of human suffering. It is also a very unproductive cost to the economy you and I live in. I propose, here and now, a way to prevent nearly all future such problems, suffering and cost.

I am pretty certain that no one who, in his childhood, was much exposed to key elements of General Semantics, especially to one particular aspect of General Semantics, would later be susceptible to mental illness. Please note as I say this that I am not a semanticist or General Semanticist, I’ve never had the training, and I’m not associated with the relevant organization. Further, my own perspective has moved somewhat far afield of that of General Semantics. But — here is why I believe that the early experience of at least key aspects of General Semantics would prevent mental illness.

Polish count Alfred Korzybski, in the 1920s and ’30s, sought to codify the outlook of scientific inquiry. In so doing, he founded General Semantics. He was one of many who noticed that the structures of our own language lead our perceptions astray. Astray from what? — Not only into our internal inconsistencies, but from a reality which exists no matter what our senses report and what our language lets us see.

Similar to Benjamin Bloom in his widely accepted Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, and like the leading educator, John Dewey, who drew such close parallels between good science and good citizenship, Korzybski held that the job of science is that of finding closer and closer approximations, better approximations, in one’s maps, of whatever that reality actually is. In one of the Great Books of the 20th Century, his Science and Sanity: An Introduction to General Semantics, Korzybski held that, to be sane, one must orient himself toward getting his perceptions, ideas, understandings, opinions — all of these being merely “maps” of reality but clearly different from being the reality itself — getting all these maps toward becoming better and better approximations of whatever reality those maps are maps of.

A further, most crucial point, among his many others:

Korzybski observed that in our experience to date, no two things are absolutely identical. They are not alike in every way, nor in every detail. There is always at least some difference. Therefore, there is, necessarily and by definition, always at least some error in our perceptions about anything, in our thoughts about anything, in our knowledge about anything, in our beliefs about anything. To be sane, Korzybski argued, one must deeply accept that such error is there, and work to minimize that error by working toward better and better approximations of the reality.

Personal experience

I got to reading Korzybski’s “big blue book” at age 11 years, and it made a huge difference for me. It’s to that book that I attribute today many of my present abilities such as they are, including the ability to freely and deeply entertain many hypotheses or propositions way different from my own notions or those of everyone else. Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory” thesis enabled me to improve on, and keep on improving, my notions by continuing to seek out and incorporate corrections toward reality. I am secure in the knowledge that my own perceptions, thoughts and ideas are necessarily to some degree wrong, and happy to continue getting them toward becoming more right.

My ideas about everything are wrong to at least some extent, and it’s part of my job, whether as a citizen, as a scientist, or just as a human being, to keep on making them better. It is not shattering when you do find yourself wrong on something, rather that is good news because you are moving ahead in your job. Even though most of our intelligentsia, academics and scientists appear terrified to be found out to be wrong on anything, the most productive outlook in science has been very close to Korzybski’s thesis, and has been the basis for science being as effectively self-correcting as it is.

Being found wrong is not a contingency you have to guard yourself against at all costs, even if you’re wrong. The job is in the correcting, not in defending “being right.”

That should seem to go without saying. Except that from what I’ve observed in others, this seems to be a very different mindset from that which most other people work from, and in that regard I think that those most other people are correspondingly at some disadvantage.

A curious further element of personal experience which appears relevant:

I’ve always been at least somewhat creative, though certainly not to the extent of recent years via recent techniques. A high proportion of creative people (but certainly not all of them) suffer some degree of bi-polar disorder — in other words, are mildly to severely manic-depressive. The association of this with creativity? Their “ups” help them try out new things and break through into new configurations and ideas. Their “downs” are useful in helping them “pull the weeds,” discarding one’s own less worthy creations.

As a child, while I wasn’t clinical, I certainly had my ups and downs.

Then I read Korzybski and I “got” that my feelings about things were not those things as such, they were only maps of those things. What I was experiencing as a “bad” day, or even a truly awful day, usually had little to do with that day itself and to other or further things encountered in that day: it was only my internal state at the time, coloring my experience. My emotions were in no way diminished by this perspective, that’s certainly for sure! They just tended to become more relevant to what was actually going on around me or in my life.

That proved to be virtually the end of my “downs.” Nearly all the time since, I’ve been in my “up” state, and it takes truly extraordinary circumstance to get me “down” and even then but briefly. As different, “better” things come along, I’m usually free to respond appropriately to them.

This mindset has left me much more productive — I’d like to think more useful — and certainly a lot happier and life-rewarded, than would otherwise have been the case for me.

This mindset also corresponds fairly closely to what I think a state of good mental health should approximate. (Some, looking from their own perspectives at things I’ve done, said or written, no doubt might come to somewhat different conclusions!)

The mindset that Korzybski helped me build wasn’t and isn’t perfect; in fact I’ve evolved somewhat into a different mindset. But Korzybski has helped me notice that when something or someone does injury to me, we generally do 90% of the injury to ourselves. If we can stop ourselves from participating in being victims, we are almost “invulnerable.” With that security, we can afford to let ourselves be “vulnerable” — open — in the ways which gain us access to richer human experience.


Was Korzybski right? Philosophically speaking, was the polar opposite of his view just as valid? That polar opposite is seen in Berkeley’s Solipsism or in contemporary “Positive Thinking,” Psychocybernetics and, partially, in the currently fashionable idea of The Law of Attraction, and may be summed thus:  The only reality we can truly know is our own perceptions, our own awareness, our own experience. Change these and you change reality. In some corners of these doctrines, if you believe something well enough, you will cause it to be.

These may philosophically be as validly argued as was Korzybski’s proposition, but in practical terms, I see a tremendous difference in mental health outcomes, especially for children. In Korzybski’s “the map is not the territory,” as in much of the best science, self-correction is built in. One necessarily responds on an ever-learning basis to reality, and while our responses may not always be the most appropriate, they tend to be much more so than when we embed ourselves with old battles and no-longer appropriate responses.

In the solipsist perspectives, one may work toward greater internal congruency, but there is no defense against drifting further and further away from reality — an external reality whose existence is denied — into an ever more isolated personal world. If we allow, as a working assumption, that there is an external reality, one from which our maps necessarily differ, and that it’s part of our job to reduce the difference between our maps and the territory, self-correction becomes the most natural response and the person becomes more and more competent at responding appropriately in a changing world.

Even in those extreme cases where neurosis or insanity is the result of a major imbalance in brain chemistry, Korzybski’s proposition provides a road to recovery (and a way to prevent mental illness from developing from that chemical imbalance). More generally, I believe that to train children, from as young an age as possible, in the basic “map is not the territory” and its ramifications, would most profoundly improve the incidence of good mental health in the next generation.

The mindset which this key tenet of Korzybski builds simply does not leave ways for most forms of mental illness to ever develop.

Please note:  these should be taught as working propositions. We don’t want people to be locked into any particular philosophic view, including even the Korzybskian. My own notions have evolved to a position not recognized in either camp. For me, Korzybski provided some useful working assumptions. I don’t have to believe them (though they do make some sense to me), they are just darned useful.