The Apperception Theory of Grieving

This is a draft of Chapter 3 of the
Second Edition of Surviving Your Crises, Reviving Your Dreams

© 2004 Donald E. Watson, MD


The theory described in this chapter explains what happens when we experience crises. Unlike the traditional theories of grieving, which mainly address losses of loved ones, this theory explains our reactions to any life change, whether dreaded or welcomed. More importantly, understanding this theory suggests what we can do to heal from our crises.

Theories are what we understand, not what we know. We know we're alive because we can observe it. But knowing we're alive doesn't satisfy us, because we wonder about not living, and whether there's an afterlife. We develop theories to answer these questions. If our theories do this well enough, we adopt them as parts of our core belief systems. Further, because our beliefs are central to the ways we live our lives, we become emotionally dependent on them. And we don't give them up without a fight.

Religious theories of life, death, and afterlife dominated our thinking until about four centuries ago, when scientific theories began to take hold. According to conventional scientific theories, living organisms are material objects, which contradicts the religious theories that we humans, at least, are animated by eternal souls.

At their core, religious and scientific theories are distinguished, not by the ideas they contain, but by their testability—the ability to test them against the facts we observe about the real world. Since religious theories are presented—and accepted—as revealed truth, only the faithless would consider testing them.

To qualify as scientific, theories must be testable, but no test can prove them true. Provided they are not proven false by testing, scientific theories are ultimately evaluated by their usefulness. To be useful, a theory of grieving must satisfactorily explain all the observed facts about the healing process. The various "stages of grief" theories, which are in vogue now, fail to explain the observed facts. Among their weaknesses, they apply to only a few people, and they don't account for secondary losses—those that follow from the initial crisis or loss. Further, they don't suggest what we can do to perform our grief work. Quite the opposite. They suggest that all we can do is wait for the stages to come and go. In short, the various "stages of grief" theories are useless for understanding grieving and for facilitating it.

Like scientific theories, religious theories must also be useful. Otherwise, they wouldn't be widely accepted. The religious theory of afterlife has been useful for grieving survivors largely because it's emotionally rewarding. Survivors find comfort in believing that their deceased loved ones live on in the afterlife and that they will eventually be reunited with them. As it turns out, the afterlife theory is also becoming a subject of scientific testing.

Traditional science, with its focus on the material world, has dogmatically dismissed the afterlife theory, but over the last century or so, a relative handful of revolutionary scientists have been gathering evidence of a spiritual realm that includes the afterlife. Even so, there hasn't been a scientific theory of life itself—including afterlife—until very recently, when the Theory of Enformed Systems (abbreviated "TES") was developed.(1) TES is a scientific theory of organization per se—its origin, maintenance, and evolution. The apperception theory of grieving described here is the first clinical application of TES. That is, it explains a crisis as a disorganizing process and grieving—indeed, all healing—as an organizing process.

The Apperception Theory of Grieving

Because the apperception theory is radically different from traditional theories of grieving it will be controversial, especially among clinicians who have been trained in the old theories. And they won't give them up without a fight! That's because they'll have to unlearn much of what they've been taught, including many of the words they habitually use—and that's a crisis. Yet, if clinicians do the work required to adapt to this crisis, they will be rewarded with a very valuable clinical tool.

But don't worry. You don't need to be a clinician to apply the apperception theory. Indeed, if you're not, it'll be much easier for you to discover the usefulness of the theory, not only because it explains what happens to us during a crisis, but because it shows the task we must perform to adapt to any kind of crisis. Turns out that this task is something we've been doing all our lives—learning.

Apperception is the foundation of learning. The term apperception means making sense of new material by interpreting it in terms of our existing concepts, languages, beliefs, and theories.(2) As a rule, we can learn new material only if it's presented in terms we can relate to our pre-existing ideas. Thus, the apperception theory of grieving explains how we perceive crises in terms of our pre-existing knowledge, and how we adapt to them by learning.

Language provides a familiar example of apperception. A word consists of a pattern of marks on paper, but this pattern is meaningless to us unless we can interpret it. We interpret the pattern by comparing it with patterns in a mental lexicon—the list of words in our vocabulary. If the lexicon identifies the pattern as a familiar word, it refers to a mental dictionary or encyclopedia that contains information about the people, objects, or ideas the word is associated with. Thus, as you read this description of apperception, you are using apperception. That is, you are comparing the words of this paragraph with patterns already contained in your mental dictionary and encyclopedia—for instance, the words lexicon, dictionary, and encyclopedia.

Psychologists use the Thematic Apperception Test to discover a person's ideas of themselves, their relationships to others, and the world in general by the stories they "read into" a standardized set of pictures. This test is useful because apperception doesn't apply only to learning new words, facts, and other material. We find meaning in all of our sensory experiences through apperception, because in a deep sense, every sensory experience is "new." When we see a trusted friend, for instance, we recognize him or her by comparing our immediate visual image to our pre-existing encyclopedia. Similarly, if we see a stranger who resembles a friend, we assign friend-like meaning to his or her clothing, hair style, mannerisms, and so forth. Con artists exploit this by acting and dressing like trustworthy people.

The World-image

Our mental encyclopedia of pre-existing concepts, beliefs, ideas, theories has traditionally been termed our apperception mass. To facilitate apperception, I've replaced this vague term with a more descriptive one: the world-image. According to the apperception theory, the main task in adapting to a crisis—grief work—is updating our world-image after a major change in our lives.

As its name implies, our world-image is our private, highly personal, mental map of the world that depicts reality, not as it is, but as we imagine it to be. This map includes images of our self (our self-image), our loved ones, our enemies, our language, our cultural myths, and everything else we perceive, including our relationships with each of our treasures. Obviously, the term image isn't limited to shapes. It is any depiction of our concepts of the world, real or imagined, including sounds, aromas, flavors, and other sensory memories, languages, theories, and ideologies. It also includes all the information we have inherited as human beings through our DNA. Thus, our world-image is the collection of everything we have inherited and learned.

Obviously, without a world-image, we could not find meaning in anything we see, hear, smell, taste, or feel. We couldn't survive alone because we would be even more helpless than infants. A newborn baby has its inherited world-image to rely on. All newborn mammals, including humans, need their inherited world-image to ensure their survival—for instance, through depending on its mother for nursing. The self-image part of the baby's world-image allows it to experience hunger and any other kind of physical discomfort. The baby's inherited world-image also evokes anger and fear if its mother disappears from view, because the baby instinctively knows it can't survive on its own. We never lose this part of our world-image, which accounts for much of our emotions and behaviors when we lose a loved one—someone we've come to depend on.

As we grow, we expand our world-image to increase our adaptability and independence by learning. A learning opportunity appears every time we encounter a situation or bodily change we haven't previously learned from. These are crises. Crises are emotionally difficult learning opportunities for children, as reflected in the behaviors of weanlings, "terrible twos," and adolescents. Of course, learning opportunities are also emotionally difficult for adults.

We define the term maturing to mean the process of updating our world-image to depict all the new demands on us and our hormones. By the time we are adults, we have updated our world-image with the information necessary for us to live our lives routinely. But because we rely on our world-image to navigate through life, we can safely chart our life-course only if our internalized map reliably represents the real world. We encounter a learning opportunity every time the real world changes—for instance, with major losses—and we must update our world-image to correspond to the new reality if we are to resume our lives. Further, since this principle applies to every major change in our lives, grieving for a lost loved one is only one of many ways we mature. That is, every crisis, whether wished for or unwanted, planned or unplanned, gives us an opportunity to continue to learn and mature.

In short, since our world-image is like a map, updating it through grief work is like map-making—redrawing our internal map of the world. This analogy suggests what we must do to perform out grief work. Map-making requires constant attention to reality, and we must use our mental skills of reasoning and reality testing. We can't heal if we try to cope with our losses by relying on myths, alcohol, mental habits, or any thing else that distorts our perceptions of reality.

Freud's Theory of Grieving

The usefulness of the apperception theory can be appreciated by comparing it with the "attachment" theories, which are the most widely used theories of grieving. Sigmund Freud contributed the first attachment theory in his 1917 book, Mourning and Melancholia. Before we look at his theory, it's helpful to focus on three of his most valuable clinical observations:

1. Grieving is a normal adaptation to loss. This seemingly obvious point can't be overemphasized. Grief is not an illness, and it shouldn't be treated as one. Instead, the powerful emotions of grieving must be seen as normal, just as the pain that accompanies a broken ankle is normal. If we try to "treat" a broken ankle by covering up the pain, we can't expect to walk well again. And if we try to "treat" grieving by covering up the sadness and anger, we can't expect to live well again.

2. Grieving persons must persistently confront the reality of their loss. Though uncomfortable, this focus on reality is absolutely essential. We can't redraw our world-image accurately unless we attend closely to the changed world.

3. Successful grieving requires hard work—"grief work." By emphasizing the need for grief work, Freud repudiated the old theory that time heals all wounds. Grieving would be easy, and consistently successful, if this notion were true, but it isn't. Believing that time heals wounds is like believing that time makes breakfast.

These observations of Freud are extremely useful for clinical work, but they don't constitute a theory. It's Freud's theory of grief—that is, his explanation of what happens during grief work—that isn't useful. According to his theory, we become emotionally attached to our loved ones by investing libido (psychical energy) in them. He theorized that nerve cells gain or lose this energy, accounting for changes in their sensitivity. Thus, Freud's notion of attaching and detaching is similar to chemical bonding, in which atoms attach to one another by energetic bonds, and become detached by reactions such as in burning. Under Freud's theory, grieving consists of severing these emotional attachments by withdrawing our energetic investments. The process of forming attachments is termed cathexis in the English literature, and the detaching process is termed decathexis.

John Bowlby's attachment theory expanded on Freud's idea of attachment, but Bowlby focused on external relationships, primarily between infants and parents, instead of internal mechanisms. But neither Freud nor Bowlby departed from the notion that detaching is the essential process of grieving.

The attachment theories aren't useful because they don't suggest what we can do to detach from our loved ones. However, the main reason the attachment/detachment theories are useless is their fatal flaw: We don't detach from our loved ones after we lose them. We merely perceive them differently. For instance, my son, Scott, died nearly two decades ago, and I am still bonded to him.

Ironically, Freud himself made the same observation. His daughter, Sophie Halberstadt, died from influenza in 1920, and he remained attached to her after grieving for his loss. In 1929, he acknowledged this in a letter to his friend, Ludwig Binswanger, whose son had recently died. Freud wrote:

My daughter who died would have been thirty-six years old today.... Although we know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and will never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else. And actually this is how it should be. It is the only way of perpetuating that love which we do not want to relinquish.(3)

Thus Freud postulated that it's our wishes that maintain our attachment to our loved ones. In contrast, TES states that "attachments" are permanent, and our wishes have nothing to do with it. Indeed, under TES, our bonds to our lost loved ones extend into the afterlife—as scientists have been demonstrating.

Even though Freud made the observation that disproved his own detachment theory, mental health professionals still habitually use the terms cathexis and decathexis to explain how we grieve. This observation reflects our strong emotional dependence on theories. If one theory is proven false and another theory isn't available to us, we will use the false one. That is, any theory will do, provided it allows us to believe that we understand something. Fortunately, we don't have to rely on a false theory any longer. We now have the apperception theory to guide us.

Requirements of a Useful Theory of Healing

Each of us is unique and each of our relationships is unique, so each way we adapt to our losses must also be unique. Therefore, a useful theory must not assume that we heal like everyone else, make us depend on stock cliches, or waste our time engaging in time-honored, but pointless, rituals. If we rely on a useless theory, we can block our healing.

A useful theory must explain three basic aspects of our relationships: First, it must explain the nature of our emotional bonds to our treasures in terms that suggest how to reorganize ourselves after any crisis. Second, it must show us how we develop mental habits, including how they determine our behaviors and how we can change them. And third, it must show us how and why we respond emotionally during our healing.

The apperception theory of grieving is useful because, if we rely on it, we are prepared to take control of our healing process. Healing demands our attention, effort, energy, reasoning, reality testing, and planning. The following sections describe how the apperception theory explains bonding, mental habits, and emotions, as well as how to mobilize our resources to accomplish our grief work.

Bonding and the World-image

When we identify "our self," we are referring to our self-image. This image defines our self in terms of internals—our thoughts, memories, feelings, and everything else that is contained within the imaginary boundary around our self. We consider these internals as belonging to us. We say, "my arm," "my thoughts," "my anger," and "my dreams."

We also bring other people and things into our world-image though the process of bonding. We bond with others, not by sending out emotional attachments to them like tentacles, but by making them part of our self. More accurately, we merge images of external persons and things into our self-image, where we perceive them as internals that belong to us. We say, "my son," "my home," and "my career." In reality, of course, internalized treasures remain external to us. We don't actually possess these things, but we do own our mental images of them. These images are truly ours.

The process of bringing external things into our self-image is termed internalization. (Internalization is discussed further in Chapter 5 as a mechanism for forming the "conscience" part of our world-image.)

We don't internalize all people, just those we bond to. Our world-image depicts other people, including imaginary ones, as external to us. It also depicts their relationships with us. For instance, the fabled "they"—our imagined, faceless, social critics—are so prominent in our world-image that many of us routinely fashion our behavior to gain "their" approval. Thus, a woman who has lost her breast in an operation might focus, not only on her self-image, but on "their" image of her.

It's important to realize that our image of the world isn't limited to people and things. We internalize intangibles, too, such as our mythologies, theories, ideals, and dreams for the future. Indeed, some of these intangibles are among our greatest treasures. Without their internalized religious theories, for instance, many people would feel lost and hopeless. This is also true for people who believe in scientific theories. In both cases, believers consider their theories to be sacrosanct—inviolable facts. That's why it's so difficult for people—and their cultures—to give up one set of beliefs and replace them with another. Yet, this does occur. The history of mankind has recorded many religious and scientific revolutions.

Since our world-image is itself internal, it represents our perceptions of externals, not the externals themselves. Every person who perceives people, objects, and ideas filters their observations through his or her unique world-image. That's why we idealize certain people, even if they aren't actually ideal. It's also why there are so many different interpretations of scientific theories and religious texts.

In short, our world-image consists of our entire collection of images—internals, externals, intangibles, and the relationships among these. Further, because of bonding, we never completely distinguish between internals and externals.

The World-Image After a Loss

When we internalize people through bonding, we experience intimacy with them. This produces the wonderful feeling of love. However, love does not generate wonderful feelings when we lose a loved one. Wrenching one of these parts from our self-image is painful, like tearing off an arm or leg. It can also make us feel as though a part of our self has died. Of course, this isn't literally true, but if we immediately and fully appreciated the loss, it would seem to be true, because the loss of a loved one would suddenly and permanently obliterate a large region of our self-image. Since we can't comprehend our own non-existence, it's no surprise that we numb ourselves in the immediate aftermath of the loss, or deny it altogether. We need time to begin to update our world-image—to redraw our internal map of the world.

We can also bond to people we hate. The more we center our lives on revenge, the more likely it is that we internalize the person (or group of people) we hate. Because the hated ones are made parts of ourselves, we live as much for them as for our loved ones. Doing this is self-defeating, of course, but it is quite common. Indeed, it accounts for much of world politics.

Since our loved ones, enemies, careers, objects, beliefs, theories, and dreams are all parts of our self-images, losing any of them can be frightening. Any major loss means losing familiar landmarks. Since the loss creates distortions in our mental navigation charts, we become disoriented and lose our bearings. Imagine awakening in a pitch black room. The bedroom part of your world-image shows a bed stand to your right. You reach for it, but find nothing. Suddenly, you are disoriented, perhaps even panicked. You don't know where you are, and you are afraid to even move. Your world-image has given you misleading information, and this has put you at risk for injuries.

Since our world-image is inaccurate after a major loss, we recognize, not only real things, but imaginary things—phantoms. In fact, all of our mental references are abstractions, so we can't identify them as real or imaginary by using internal standards. That's why we perceive the world, not as it actually is, but the way it is depicted in our world-image. For instance, to a child who believes in goblins, a strange shadow really is a goblin. To distinguish fiction from reality, we must use our reasoning—one of our most important map-making skills.

Immediately after a major loss, our mental map is not realistic. The world has changed, but our world-image hasn't. Our lost treasure is still on our map, and we continue to expect our senses to confirm its presence. Of course, they don't, yet we continue to rely on our obsolete mental map, denying the loss for awhile. This occurs normally immediately after a major loss. When our denial subsides, we might even think we see our loved one at times, mistaking someone else for him or her. Such illusions—misinterpretations through our world-image—are fairly common after losing a loved one.

We feel emotional discomfort when our eyes don't see what we expect to see, and our ears don't hear what we expect to hear—when a gap exists between "what is" and "what we expect." Our grief work consists of closing this gap by redrawing our inaccurate world-image to conform once again to our perceptions of the real world. After we have eliminated the gap, our distress stops. That's what happens when we grieve successfully.

On the other hand, if we don't re-draw our world-image to correspond to reality, the gap between "what is" and "what we expect" can extend our pain indefinitely. Indeed, by relying on an obsolete mental map, we are likely to make things worse: We can stumble over a cliff that our map doesn't show.

Some people resist redrawing their world-image by harboring the belief that the real world will eventually change to conform itself to their map. This type of mental habit is disastrous, because the real world never changes to grant our wishes. Instead of restoring their lost treasures, people who use harmful mental habits over the long term stand to lose even more—their jobs, their health, or their loved ones. Compounding these losses, whether they use harmful mental habits or reinforce their denial with alcohol or other drugs, they risk falling into long-lasting distress after a crisis: depression, physical illness, and ruined relationships. The only way to prevent such additional losses is to perform the work of grieving.

Phantom Limbs and the World-Image

The phantom limb phenomenon is a familiar example of how the world-image changes after a loss. Normally, people who lose a limb to amputation continue to feel their limb for a few days after it is gone. This phenomenon seems mysterious: "How can we feel a part of our body that isn't even there?"

This mystery is solved by understanding phantom limbs in terms of the world-image: We perceive, not our real body, but our body-image—our mental map of our body. People do this, of course, even after their limb is amputated. For awhile, rather than believing their senses of sight and touch, they read and believe their mental map, which still depicts the limb. This perceived image, this imaginary limb, is the phantom. Under the apperception theory, phantom limb phenomena disappear when amputees erase the image of the limb from their body-image. That is, they redraw their body-image into a realistic mental map that doesn't show their limb.

Neurologic theories have been advanced to explain phantom limbs, but they create a second mystery: Phantom limbs normally disappear in a few days or weeks. Yet the brain doesn't change to account for the disappearance.

Moreover, a few amputees continue to experience pain in their phantom limb long after their real limb has been amputated. Typically, this pain resembles the pain they had experienced before the operation—the pain associated with the disease that forced the amputation. The question here is, "Why doesn't the phantom disappear?"

The answer is straightforward: Because these amputees block their grieving by clinging to their previous body-image. To do this, they redraw their body-image, not to erase the limb, but to include the pain. Indeed, many people who suffer phantom pain say they have "learned to live with the pain." This common expression is unfortunate, for it reinforces the pain, making it chronic.

Dr. Donald W. Schafer, a widely recognized authority on chronic pain, explains chronic pain this way:

If people believe they must live with their pain, their unconscious minds conclude that they can't live without the pain. Naturally, they cling to their pain because they believe they need it to survive. Also, by keeping the pain, they can continue to deny that they have lost their limb: They reason, 'If it hurts, it must be real.' Of course, these beliefs aren't reasonable, but this doesn't prevent people from holding them in their unconscious minds. We know they do this, because amputees with phantom pain consistently dream of their bodies with their limbs intact.(4)

In addition to denial, people who suffer phantom pain block their healing by misusing another mental habit: They somatize. That is, they focus on the pain as if it were a somatic, or physical, phenomenon. In fact, phantom pain is a psychological injury that requires psychological healing. (Mental habits, including denial and somatization, are discussed further in Chapter 9, "The Skills of Healing.")

As a result of blocked grieving, phantom pain is an equivalent of chronic depression. That's why many people who suffer from this kind of pain find relief from antidepressant medication. However, most of them lose their phantom pain only after they learn to grieve for their loss. Because hypnotherapy can facilitate updating the body-image, it can be an effective method for helping people with phantom pain.

Other Phantom Treasures

Phantom phenomena are not limited to limbs. Every image in our world-image, including the image of each of our treasures, is a phantom. We don't usually recognize this until the real world changes, and exposes the phantom as a mere mental image.

Before my son, Scott, died, I perceived that he was as much a part of me as my right arm. My world-image held his likeness, his talents, his mannerisms, his sense of humor, and his many other facets. When he died, the part of the real world that corresponded to his region of my world-image was abruptly empty.

Scott's position in my world-image was enormous. When he died, his vigorous, living self was replaced with a silent, dark cavity in the real world. Wanting to avoid facing this emptiness, I looked inward. There, Scott's usual position in my world-image drew my attention.

For awhile, I could sense his presence everywhere. I imagined that I heard his laughter or his music when the house was actually silent. I was perceiving my distorted image of the world, of course, not the real world.

The Scott I sensed was not my real son, but my phantom son. I knew this, and I felt anger and sadness when I realized that I was merely imagining his presence, and that my real son was gone forever. I felt pain because my world-image didn't accurately mirror the real world. Moreover, my expectations failed. I had expected my son's presence to comfort me on my deathbed as my presence had comforted my father. If I had been dying before my world-image changed, I would have flailed desperately in disbelief and perplexity because I would have expected him to be there.

As I did my grief work, I redrew my world-image to show an external world without Scott. His previous region in my world-image receded, and a new region came into view, a place on my map that is occupied by memories of him. I know well that these are memories of Scott, not Scott himself. I no longer expect him to appear, and I have directed my attention to other areas of my world-image. These new areas represent my new life, my new treasures, and my new dreams.

Habits and the World-image

The apperception theory explains habitual behaviors and our mental habits as spontaneous reactions to a fixed world-image. The behaviors don't change because the world-image doesn't change. Habits are often thought to resemble the fixed behaviors of machines that are forced to conform to certain mechanical or programmatic constraints. For instance, we say that our behavior is "programmed"—as if we were computers. Though this analogy is useful for describing our biological heritage, it isn't entirely useful for the habits we have learned. It doesn't indicate that we learned the programs in the first place; they weren't simply imposed on us. Thus, it doesn't suggest how we can reprogram ourselves to act in other ways. Instead, it might leave us feeling helpless. Apperception theory, in contrast, points us in directions that make us feel comfortable with our ability to reprogram ourselves to grow and learn.

The key to reprogramming our behaviors lies in the distinction between behavior and information. We often hear that we inherit "instinctive behaviors." Is this true? Do we inherit behaviors? We don't. We inherit information, coded in our DNA, and this information directs us to behave in particular ways. In the same way, all of our behaviors are directed by information—or, more generally, some sort of pattern.(5)

Consider, for instance, the habit of smoking. Smokers pick up a cigarette and light it whenever they feel "the urge." This prompting comes in the form of information, and if the information is blocked, it doesn't come at all. Typically, the body generates information that's based on addiction—that is, the body reacts to low levels of nicotine as if it were hungry for it. When this is the primary basis of the urge, a smoker can change his or her smoking habit by providing an alternative source of nicotine in a tablet or patch. But addiction doesn't account entirely for the smoking habit. Many smokers feel the urge to light up when they are in certain situations, for instance, while driving. In these situations, too, information is necessary for the urge.

Our mental habits aren't obvious. Yet, the bulk of our behaviors result from mental habits, even in crises, and our behavior patterns are obvious. Our day-to-day behavior patterns result from our apperceiving the world in terms of our world-image. However, as with major losses, when the real world changes and our world-image hasn't changed to reflect it, our routine behaviors continue to reflect our mental habits.

When we find ourselves in a threatening situation, for instance, we try to adapt to it with the mental habits contained in our world-image—and these aren't always helpful. Say that the rumor of an impending lay-off is spreading at work. One person might apperceive the rumor as a sign that he or she has been a bad employee who has displeased his or her boss, then try to mollify the boss with flattery or other favors. Another person, one who compulsively "lives to work" might apperceive this rumor as a threat to his or her existence and become paralyzed with despair. Still another person, one who realistically "works to live," might apperceive the rumor as a signal to start looking for another job. Each of these patterns of behavior—infantile, child-like, and adult, respectively—reflects a mental habit that's consistent with certain personality types. Clearly, some mental habits are more helpful for coping with crises than others. (The impact of mental habits on healing is discussed in depth in Chapter 9.)

Emotions and the World-image

The previous discussion is directed toward our reasoning, but what about the emotions of grieving? Turns out, the Theory of Enformed Systems explains them, too. It's obvious that, as living organisms, our bodies must remain well-organized to live. TES explains the basic mysteries of life, including its origin and the maintenance of organization. Even the simplest organisms can monitor changes in their degree of organization and disorganization. We humans detect these changes, not as thoughts, but as emotions.

We can label a reduction in the degree of our organization with the familiar term, stress. Thus a stressor is anything, such as an illness or injury, that reduces our overall organization. Life crises are also stressors, but the stress they cause is mental, not physical. It occurs in our world-image, which disorganizes temporarily until we redraw it to correspond to the real world. For the period of time required to redraw our mental map, we are in a state of stress. Our emotions reflect these stresses in time, quality, and intensity.

The emotions we usually consider "negative"—anger, fear, and sadness—are actually positive, because they alert us to dangerous stresses. They can also help us to heal from injuries, both physical and mental. It's worthwhile to examine them more closely to see their roles in our lives.

Through our organization-monitoring ability, combined with our ability to reason and remember, we can detect whether our stress is increased in the present, has been increased in the past, or will be increased in the future. The types of emotions we feel correspond to these time frames. In the present, detecting a significant stress produces the specific type of signal that we identify as anger. For instance, we feel angry as soon as we discover we've suffered a major loss. If we infer a future threat of stress, we feel fear, and if we recall a past episode of stress, we feel sadness. Thus three of our four basic emotions signal past, present, and future threats to our integrity.

Thinking of stress in this way also explains our emotions when we confront the unknown. At a very deep level, uncertainty is the same as disorganization, so when we feel uncertain about the future, we feel fear. When we encounter uncertainty in the present—for instance, an unmarked fork in the road—we feel anger. And when we reflect on previous periods of not knowing—as we might about when a friend was dying—we feel sadness.

Our fourth emotion—joy—signals us that we have reduced our stress and reached a more stable state. It isn't as important as anger, fear, and sadness because it doesn't relate directly to our survival. Perhaps that's why we haven't developed specific words to distinguish the joy of past, present, and future reorganizations.

Because we humans have learned so many ways to hide, distort, displace, or otherwise pervert our emotions, it's useful to consider the example of a non-human animal to see how the emotions work naturally. Say that a rabbit is calmly munching on some grass when he sees a coyote stalking him. Since his world-image, as provided in his DNA, tells him that his physical integrity is threatened in the immediate future, he feels fear. This apperception triggers his "flight or fight" response. Apperceiving also that fighting would be futile, he flees. If he's lucky, he finds a crevice that's too small for the coyote to follow him into. He might feel joy at his escape, but joy isn't necessary. It's sufficient that he apperceives that he's alive to munch another day. If he's unlucky, though, the coyote catches him. At this point, he apperceives that his integrity is immediately threatened. He feels anger, and responds angrily. He bites, kicks, and squeals; rabbits have limited ways to express their anger. As far as we know, rabbits also have limited ways to feel sadness. However, judging from their facial expressions and behaviors, we infer that other animals feel sadness, especially our nearest relatives, the apes.

For we humans, fear and anger also motivate and energize us to avoid or solve problems that would otherwise disorganize us entirely, and joy rewards us for solving the problems.

In sum, the apperception theory gives us a way to understand how life crises create such profound discomfort, how they produce our emotions, how our emotions energize us, and how we can plan and conduct our healing process. In the following chapters, you will see how this explanation has pertained to the lives of a few others—and pertains to you.


1. Watson, D.E., et al. The Theory of Enformed Systems: A Paradigm of Organization and Holistic Systems. The Noetic Journal 2(2), 159-172 April, 1999. (Return to text)

2. Karl Jung's definition of apperception: "a psychic process by which a new content is articulated to similar already-existing contents in such a way as to be understood, apprehended, or clear" (Oxford English Dictionary). (Return to text)

3. Freud, Ernst L. (Ed.) (1975). Letters of Sigmund Freud. p. 386. New York: Basic Books. (Return to text)

4. Personal communication. (Return to text)

5. Under TES, the world-image consists of enformation, not information. Unlike information, enformation is non-physical, and is not stored in the brain. Because we don't change our brain to heal, this distinction does not affect how we apply the apperception theory to healing. (Return to text)

 Draft: February 12, 2005