Praxis für Psychosomatische Medizin u. Psychotherapie, Coaching, Mediation u. Prävention
Dr. Dr. med. Herbert Mück (51061 Köln)

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What we "know" of the world, we have constructed ourselves

The basis of my thinking and my work is called ‘radical constructivism’. This “weltanschauung” (contemplation of the world) assumes that we will never be able to completely decipher/realize the world. We can only create our own images (‘maps’) of it. These images are mainly dependent on the possibilities of our organism (especially our sense organs and our abilities to process the respective information). Therefore our inner pictures are no 1:1 reproductions of reality – whatever it may be – but the result of chemical and electrical processes taking place in the dark.

Countless experiments show how little we can rely on our sense organs. They demonstrate impressively how easily we are deceived. We complete structures which aren’t there. (Example: the blind spot of the eye) We project forms and shapes into arrangements, which are not necessarily there. (Example: we see ‘triangles’, where there aren’t actually any. With ambiguous illusions, we always choose just one version. We determine more or less randomly what we consider as the fore- or the background of our life experience.)  Perception is therefore never just a mere ‘reproduction’ of our environment, but also always the result of an active mental processing going on within us. In this context we mainly tend to perceive the ‘information’ that fits to our already existing structures of cognition.

What we ‘realize’ or ‘know’ has little to do with ‘truth’. Knowledge is nothing else but recognition. It mainly distinguishes itself by helping us to survive in our world. It is the result of successful repetitions which make it easier for us to abstract from individual cases and to generalize.  Knowledge allows us to make predictions, without guaranteeing us that they will come true. So ‘knowledge’ is something ‘useful’. It has proved useful (viable) in dealing with those problems, which are important for our survival.  Knowledge induces us to perceive phenomena in a way that they match our already existing knowledge.

Knowledge cannot be easily transferred. Everyone has to acquire it himself based on his own experiences. New ‘knowledge’ can only be integrated if it acommodates existing knowledge. Once existing structures do therefore have a strong influence on what else can be added to them. (Example language learning: It is easy to learn the first language. Its structure, however, can already strongly impede the acquisition of a second language.) ‘Information’ is consequently always accompanied by ‘deformation’ as well. Once ‘informed’ it is basically impossible to view the world without the filter of that respective information. This is possibly the explanation why people constantly bombard themselves with information (‘beliefs’, ‘convictions’ ‘assumptions’). It seems as if this is a more or less subtle form of ‘gentle external manipulation’ – because, if the information succeeds in entering the other person’s ‘knowledge system’, it will take possession of his thinking, his feeling and his behaviour.

We randomly pick out single segments (‘punctuation’, dissection) out of the entirety of the life cycle, comparing them to each other. On our search for stability we look for identity, similarity and difference. We are constantly creating connections between the segments created by ourselves. As a result of our effort we produce time (= repeated perception of an identical phenomenon) and space (= simultaneous perception of various different phenomena). ‘Causality’ is a construct which allows us to experience two phenomena as identical despite them being different, since there is a causal link explaining the change. It apparently improves our chances for survival if one can recognize regularities in our experiences. The term ‘fact’ (from Latin ‘facere’ = do/make) in itself illustrates, that the world (the ‘facts’) is a result of our own actions in the end. What we do, see, hear or feel has much more to do with ourselves (our own structures) than with phenomena we imagine to be outside our own selves.

Every person has his very own knowledge, which is more different from anybody else’s knowledge, than we are usually aware of or want to be aware of. Unfortunately many people keep holding on to their wrong presumption that the other person has the same knowledge as they do. It is plausible, however, that every person has his very own ideas when it comes to terms like ‘father’, ‘mother’, ‘success’ or ‘happiness’. All these terms are deeply connected with our personal experiences which cannot just easily be presumed or understood by other people.  Whoever uses one of those above mentioned terms (constructs), cannot expect that the same experiences are evoked in the listener’s memory as in his own. It all comes down to the following formula: The receiver decides about the content of a message.

New knowledge always emerges through some kind of disruption (confusion), which forces us to enlarge or to modify our existing knowledge. We usually tend to align information and interactions with our existing ideas and habits. (=to assimilate) (when meeting others, we assume a ‘typical development). Only ‘disruptions’ compel us to vary our ideas and habits in a way as to fit better to the respective disruption and make dealing with it easier (= to accommodate).

Whoever thinks and acts in accordance with radical constructivism automatically becomes more tolerant towards others. Since you cannot take anything for granted concerning other people, you are constantly forced to gain insight into their way of thinking.  ‘Meanings’ in particular cannot be presupposed, but always have to be worked out anew as a common construct by way of often lengthy and cumbersome negotiations.

Whoever thinks and lives as a ‘constructivist’, acknowledges that we have to live in a state of constant uncertainty. This can actually be reassuring, because one must not constantly and strenuously watch  for so-called security or regularity any more. Since you can’t take anything for granted with another person, life remains full of surprises and therefore exciting.

For my work as a psychotherapist this means

  • that I try to get to know the ‘world of experience’ of my patients

  • that I try to disturb as often as possible in order to open up to ‘new knowledge’ or to support development

  • that I choose and offer new information in a way that they fit to the existing structures (experiences) as much as possible, thus being ‘accommodatable’

  • that I encourage to make new experiences, because they are the basis for new knowledge (and apparently the nervous system processes them differently than predominantly theoretical information)

  • that I make clear to my patients that they mainly saying something about themselves, when they attribute certain characteristics and behaviour patterns to other people.

  • that I try to get my patients to share my enthusiasm for constructivist thinking and acting, since it helps being more tolerant towards yourself and others and also causes greater equanimity towards ( the mostly unpredictable) life.