December 18th, 2001

Modes of Thinking

N. Arthur Coulter, MD

One of the basic ideas of human synergetics is the Mode Ladder.This idea was inspired by Hughling Jackson’s concept of “levels of function” in the human nervous system.

It will be convenient to describe this idea in terms of the human mind, to which it is directly applicable. However, it also may be applied to human groups, to organizations, to institutions, to economic systems, to political systems, to ecosystems, and so on.


Each rung of the Mode Ladder is a mode of function available to the human mind. The inputs to the ladder are the sense inputs — vision, hearing, smell, taste, touch, skin temperature, internal body sensations, etc. The outputs are the actions and communications of which a human being is capable.

At any given moment, an individual usually has a prevailing mode of function-one that characterizes the way he thinks and functions mentally. Actually, this is oversimplified; most or all modes are simultaneously active to a degree. But one is usually dominant.

Just as an emotional mood can change from time to time, so can a person’s mode change. On some occasions he may be near the top rung, perhaps even synergic. On others, he may be reactive or lower. Mode fluctuates from hour to hour, day to day, week to week, situation to situation. But at any given moment, it is usually possible to judge what a person’s mode is.

Let us now consider each rung of the ladder in turn, from the bottom up.

Identic Mode. This is the lowest rung of the ladder. This is the mode of a person who is under hypnosis. It is also the mode of a mind in magical thinking. The conditioning process that occurs when a Pavlovian conditioned reflex is established is part of this mode.

The common denominator of these states is a mental operation called identification. One mental content is linked to another, as if a switch were turned on connecting the two. Thereafter, whenever the first content occurs, the second follows and is equated to the first. There is no discrimination. There is no awareness as we understand it. If “peaches” is linked to “cream,” in the Identic Mode “peaches” equals “cream.” They are treated as being identically the same.

Thus, for example, the hypnotist says, “At the count of three you will open your eyes and see nothing.” He counts, and the subject opens his eyes and literally sees nothing. The words of the hypnotist have been linked to a shut-off of visual perception.

The witch doctor makes a voodoo doll of his enemy M’Komba. He sticks a pin in the chest of the doll and M’Komba feels a sharp pain in his chest. This is magical thinking-identification without discrimination or awareness.

The TV announcer says, in a loud and confident manner, “Blubberin works faster than aspirin.” He says it over and over, perhaps with a model of two stomachs showing Blubberin dissolving faster. Later, a viewer sees Blubberin in a store and buys it because it works faster than aspirin.

A bell is rung. Meat is placed in a dog’s mouth. Saliva flows. This is repeated several times. Then a bell is rung, but no meat is given. After a precise interval, saliva flows. A conditioned reflex has been established — a linkage between the sound of the bell and the flow of saliva.

And there is the man who, whenever a water faucet is turned on, finds, a short time later, that he has to go to the bathroom.

The Identic Mode is present in everyone. Anyone can be hypnotized if he agrees. But even when awake, all of us are somewhat responsive to suggestion, verbal or nonverbal. Advertising works, So does propaganda- Most of us would deny that we are identic, without awareness, without discrimination. But a close examination will show the existence and occurrence of identifications. These are especially evident when a person does the same thing day after day.

Reactive Mode. This is the mode of a person who is driven by emotion — fear, anger, hate, grief, greed, lust, guilt. The individual is aware and he does make simple distinctions. These are characteristically diametrically valued-good or bad, right or wrong, black or white. They are rigidly held. Evidence to the contrary is explained away, rejected, or ignored. There is no discrimination of degrees between extremes.

Emotional reactions can occur in everyone. When they do, reactive thinking is easy to observe. What is mine is good, pure, right. What is against me is bad, soiled, evil. Sometimes reactive thinking is cast in logical form. Reason is “good,” and therefore the forms of reason are used. But they are used to prove or demonstrate a belief that is already accepted, and that will be rigidly held, no matter what! (“My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with facts.”) It is a sad commentary on the human condition, but much of human thinking is reactive in mode. This is especially true in politics!

It should be emphasized that we do not consider all emotions as “bad.” Emotions are part of human nature; they give experience its meaning and life its zest. It is quite possible for a person to be emotional and not reactive in mode.

Uniordinal Mode. The next rung on the Mode Ladder is the Uniordinal Mode. In this mode of function, the mind not only distinguishes between extremes, but also differentiates degrees between extremes. Ideas are not so rigidly held, and the mind can change if an inconsistency is shown or a contradictory fact is presented. The mind is rational. A person is seen as not all good or all bad, but as sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes in between. A viewpoint is seen as neither right or wrong, but as being right in some ways, wrong in others, and “maybe right, maybe not” in others.

But awareness is limited. The individual views events from one perspective-usually his own. He acts to achieve his goals, without considering the viewpoints of others. If another viewpoint differs -from his, he doesn’t understand. He may try to “reason” with the other person to show him the “error” of his ways. When this does not succeed (as it seldom does!), he may become impatient or even angry.  He may conclude that the other is “dumb” or “stupid.”

The Uniordinal Mode is the characteristic mode of most normal human beings. By “normal” we mean “free of serious mental disorders.” It is a mode of limited rationality. Unless this mode is transcended by a “critical mass” of human beings, the future of the human race is not very bright.

Multiordinal Mode. As its name implies, this is the mode in which the mind views events from two or more perspectives at once. The individual acts to achieve his own goal of the moment, but is at the same time aware of the relationship of his action to other possible goals or viewpoints. In a situation where his action affects or may affect another, he considers the other’s viewpoint. He is able to “put himself in the other fellow’s shoes.” He doesn’t abandon his own viewpoint of the moment. But he is ready to modify his action to accommodate that viewpoint wherever he can do so without undue sacrifice of his own goals or interests.

By viewing an event or situation from two or more viewpoints, the individual often sees that a given action, if done in a certain way, can promote both viewpoints. His actions thus tend to be multipurposed.

If something happens that is relevant to a viewpoint other than his immediate goal, he quickly sees this. Sometimes this relevance to a second viewpoint is more important than the immediate goal. In science, this is called serendipity-the ability to see the significance or value of an unexpected finding. A person who is uniordinal in mode would fail to see this.

Synergic Mode. This is a natural development of the Multiordinal Mode. Clearly, there is a limit to the number of viewpoints a person can hold simultaneously since the human mind is finite. Furthermore, a person can become so preoccupied with finding multiple perspectives that he gets hung up on multiplicity, so to speak, and gets nothing done.

In the Synergic Mode, the mind is multiordinal, but it is also focused sharply on things that promote two or more viewpoints, goals, perspectives, etc., while impeding none. In addition, the mind is especially alert to basic viewpoints that embrace several other perspectives as “special cases.” This sharp, clear focus on synergies as they emerge quickens mental function beautifully.

But there is more to the Synergic Mode than this. As synergies occur more frequently, a new level of integration of the mind begins to emerge, a holistic level that is difficult to describe in words. So much goes on so fast! But more on this later.

The synergic mind is sane, in the sense used by Korzybski. (1) It clearly distinguishes between perceptual and verbal “maps” of reality and the “territory” those maps represent. There is continuous cognizance that verbal maps are often inaccurate in some ways and almost always incomplete. There is continuous correction and instant adjustment of these maps in accordance with new data. The distortions of wishful thinking and fearful thinking are eliminated.

The synergic mind is rational in the highest and best sense of the word. It does not use reason to justify beliefs already held. It uses reason to examine these beliefs in order to determine the consequences. It follows reason wherever it leads. It does not fear new ideas or shrink from strange concepts.

The synergic mind is ethical. It naturally thinks not only in terms of its own viewpoint and interests, but those of others as well. It selects its own goals and guides its actions so as to promote the interests and goals of others, or at least so as not to impede them. This needs to be clarified. The synergic mind is capable of recognizing when the goal of another is reactive, or when his interests are dysergic. It does not support a reactive goal or a dysergic interest. But it also makes a distinction between such goals and interests and the person driven by them and supports the person even while rejecting the dysergy. A person driven by dysergy is in pain. The synergic mind “reads” beyond the dysergy and finds a way to sooth the pain.

Indeed, this high ethics quotient (E.Q.) of the Synergic Mode is one of its most beautiful, remarkable and exciting characteristics. It is impossible for a synergic mind to perform an unethical action and remain synergic. This seems incredible, and it-does not mean that a person in the Synergic Mode is incapable of such an act. What it means is that if he does so act, he loses the Synergic Mode.

There is much more to the Synergic Mode than is described here. Many readers, I am sure, have encountered this phenomenon at some time in their lives and therefore know in concrete terms what I mean. What especially turns me on is the tremendous potential of the Synergic Mode; I have, so to speak, “gone synergic” on it. For the Synergic Mode is available to any human mind It is one of the sublime prerogatives of being human. And it seems clear that if more people used the Synergic Mode more of the time, the world would be a better place.

This, then is the Mode Ladder. It is the basic yardstick of synergetics. It is possible, using this yardstick, to estimate the mode of another person or to evaluate your own mode at a given moment. This yardstick is not, of course, as precise as those of the physicist or engineer, but it is very useful. With a little practice, one can make very shrewd estimates of the mode of a mind, or the mode of a group, or the mode of any functioning system. Knowing the mode, a syngeneer* knows what to do and what not to do-he suits his action to the mode.


Movement up the Mode Ladder is called traverse in synergetics. In terms of the Mode Ladder we can formulate the basic goal of synergetics very precisely: Evoke traverse.

The above passage is from Arthur Coulter’s Synergetics: An Adventure in Human Development. It will be published online early in 2002 by The Time-binding Trust.

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