Unitials: Cognitive Constructions, Closure to the Core

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The biopsychosocial model as proposed by George Engel models trajectories of biological and social wholes. Biologically, the causal chain contains molecule, organelle, cell, tissue, organ (system), nerves (system) and person. Socially, this person participates in two-person interacts, family, community, culture, society and biosphere. However, the psychological axis of the person is reduced to “experience and behavior”. I suggest that there is a causal chain along the psychological trajectory missing that is independent of the other two. (Engel, 1980, p. 537)

Beyond Regulatory Fit

First, there is Self-Discrepancy Theory. If ones own behavior does not match one’s ideals, then there is depression. If it does not match one’s oughts, there is anxiety. (Higgins, 1987)
Second, there is Regulatory Focus Theory. One either has a tendency to promote goals (the ideal axis), with joy in the success case, and depression in case of stand-still. Or one has a tendency to prevent failure (the ought axis), with a comfortable feeling in the positive case, and anxiety if one closes in to undesired states. (Higgins, 1997) Third, there is Regulatory Fit. People are supposed to feel better about actions and decisions that match their regulatory focus. So if a person is in goal oriented promotion focus and an idea is presented in promotional terms, that person is said to spend more effort and feel better about choosing that alternative. The same applies to prevention focus. (Higgins, 2000)

Therefrom, a couple of questions arise:

  • What if one does not feel better about a decision, but feels better about feeling better in a decisional situation, i.e. one feels good about the regulatory fit that one is aware of?
  • What if one feels bad about feeling better in a decisional situation, i.e. is aware of the decision (a rational situation) and about how one is feeling (an emotional state), but deliberately wants to separate the two, no matter whether there is regulatory fit or not?
  • What if in one instance one likes to conform to one’s regulatory fit, and in other instances takes care to stay equanimous?

Maybe in one situation, where one feels good about a decision that is presented according to one’s regulatory focus, one will stop and suddenly feel bad about feeling good. One caught oneself exhibiting an emotional response in a rational situation and wants to eliminate the bias, voluntarily countering the associated emotion. Grown-ups are expected to be able to do this. Or if I for some reason am in an avoiding mood, and somebody presents me ideas of racial bias, I will suddenly feel bad about my avoiding bias and counter it with a wave of empathy. These alternatives are common behavior. The first case exhibits common sense for anybody who does not constantly want to be fooled by merchandise marketing. The second case is necessary to create even minimally worth-while societies. People who cannot exhibit that behavior may be considered ethically questionable.

Cognitive Constructions

The connecting element between the above steps, their transition, in all cases is done by the same. The prior dichotomy becomes an object of observation in a cognitive transformation. First, behavior/idea discrepancies produce feeling. Then, promotion-prevention biased feeling produces feeling. Then discrepancies between promotion-prevention biased feeling and experienced feeling produces feeling. In all these examples the production of feeling stems from cognitive judgment of the perceived discrepancy. Cognition in the process advances from idea and behavior (that produces emotion) to the more integrated view of emotions themselves.

As these dichotomies span a potential of behavioral tendencies, one may illustrate this principle by producing the cognitive generalization:

E’ = [ E ]

where [ ] stands for both George Spencer-Brown’s mark (cf. Laws of Form), and Vygotsky’s meaningful generalisation. In analogy to differential and integral, let’s call this form and unit creating, meaningfully abstracting generalisation a unitial.

Here, a new phase of epistemology E’ emerges as unitial from a prior epistemology E once its dynamics have been transcended by the razor blade of intelligence turned upon E. In this process, the dichotomy itself, not its contents, becomes an object of observation. This differential is likely the most intrinsic function of human intelligence and reflects neurons at work. The elements of E’ are new knowledge, new perspectives. With new unitials, also new phases become available in the chain of construction: new wholes that have been created by the re-entrant process of cognition. The elements of E at this point become irrelevant with regard to context E’. They can be seen as underlying constituents of a dynamic when focusing on them, but they are not part of E’s directly experienced phenomena. Transitioning from one experiential phase to another thus is a discrete step, not a continuous function.
These experiential phases can be seen as produced by cognitive closure, the re-entrant cognitive process. Thus, because of the causal forward-loop within experiential states, self-similar, but also periodic and chaotic phenomena may arise.

The Conscious Hierarchy

Reviewing the ancient Samkhya model of perception, we can get a decent picture of what meditators observed as mental phenomena upon introspection. Starting from the senses, with the operation of cognitive closure described above, we can draft a psychological (experiential) hierarchy of conscious emergence:

1. There is sensation (in eye, nose, ear, tongue, body)
2. Form arises as sensation of sensation (shape, smell, sound, taste, touch, internal tone).
3. Idea (thought) arises as form of form (items, scent, tone, food, affect), merging forms from other senses with verbal forms (words).
4. Mind arises as idea of ideas.
5. Identity arises as mind of mind.
6. Person arises as identity of identity.
7. Actors arise as persons of persons.
8. Observers arise as person of person.
9. Buddhas arise as conscious awareness, when consciousness observes merely its own operation.

Following Vygotsky’s developmental approach, each transition comes with a shift in experiential gravity, which changes the way we perceive the world and in turn produces a profound progression in epistemology. (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 28-36)

External stimuli are always brought by sensation, the biological cause on which conscious experience can arise from. Each epistemology within this causal chain of construction displays a different way of reacting to sensational stimuli. Within few cognitive differentials from sensation, conscious beings react associatively. The higher order one’s current cognitive closure, the less one is driven to react but may rest centered. So, unitials characterize cognitive contents that have been made comprehensible by prior cognitive analysis. Mindfulness meditation aims at this cognitive generaisation by first becoming an observer and subsequently observing observation.

Concentration aims at the opposite, i.e. to absorb conscious awareness into one particular phenomenon that may reside on any level. At the Buddha stage, further integration is not known to be achievable for human beings. It is the highest integrated state known and produced by the subtlest differentiation of cognitive phenomena. Beyond, there can only be myth.


Engel, G. L. (1980). The clinical application of the biopsychosocial model. American Journal of Psychiatry 137(5), 535-544

Higgins, E. T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review 94(3), 319-340.

Higgins, E. T. (1997). Beyond pleasure and pain. American Psychologist 52(12), 1280-1300.

Higgins, E. T. (2000). Making a good decision: Value from fit. American Psychologist, 55(11), 1217-1230.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.



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