Korzybski, Beck and sorry, I don’t follow.

I am listening to Don Beck’s ‘Spiral Dynamics Integral’ on the Audible.

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This is Don, the Texan professor of psychology and, let’s call it, the evolution of human development talking about his theories and those of his mentor, Clare W. Graves.

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I won’t expand here as a) it is all very complicated and I don’t quite understand and, b) I haven’t finished the book; I like to approach books the way we should regard humans if we are to avoid the Saville trap; that is the hazard of praising something before we know enough about the good and bad.

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Yes, I am digressing.

In the most recent chapter Don covered (superficially I suspect), the work of Alfred Korzybski, the Polish-American academic who worked on Semantics – that is, the meaning, purpose, utility and essence of words and language; (his most famous quote being, ‘the map is not the territory’).

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Taking a specific he raised (AK), and relating it to my world of medicine brings us to the clinical consultation.

The most basic set-up is patient and doctor; you could of course have patient and any other variety of clinician, but given that I am one, I will stick with the former; and, it isn’t always just the patient – there is often the husband or wife, son or daughter.

The greater the number of people present the greater the complexity and the higher the risk of falling into what I have decided to call the ‘Korzybski Trap’

This relates to the different meaning or conceptions people have for words.

That wasn’t a particularly elegant sentence; I couldn’t think of a better way to phrase it – my point, and I think one of AK’s was that when you say a word, for example, ‘blood’ this will result in a certain set of associations and ideas. Specific neural networks will fire that will inevitably be different from anyone else (I am me after all), and, the extent of the variation will relate to my world view – based upon my experiences, knowledge, preferences.

Therefore, ‘blood’ to a doctor – a general bod like me has specific associations, such as:

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The red stuff

Haemoglobin

Oxygen transport

Anaemia

Iron

You get the idea, yet, to someone else, the representation might either be narrower or just different:

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Infection

Contamination

Wine

Stigmata

Cut

And again, for someone who has more specific knowledge, say, a haematologist:

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Haematocrit

Poikilocytes

Thalassaemia

Von Willebrand

Philadelphia

 

You get the idea.

Now, society is based upon the idea that although we are using a common language and despite our different interpretations we can muddle-though; we have passed beyond the Tower of Babel, yet, what happens when the patient leaves the room? What do they understand from the phrases the doctor has used?

My blood is too thin

My blood count has dropped

I have too much blood

My blood is bad

The latter making me think of Taylor Swift, the recent book about dodgy Silicone Valley Tech and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study.

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It’s a wonder we get anywhere.

All along as I write this, I have had something niggling at the back of my mind and it harks back to the Heathcote Williams poem, ‘Mokusatsu’ which relates language to the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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The point of all this?

Perhaps it is for us to pause.

To reflect, the next time you hear something, perhaps someone say a word or use a phrase that generates a response inside you, that there might be more going on that you have at first understood.

None of us can help the reflex, that cuts straight to the amygdala’s (almond) emotional response, yet, perhaps there is learning of what to do after these brain cells have fired, before we take our next step.

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