The Structural Differential

The Structural Differential and the Process of Abstracting

Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950)

Alfred KorzybskiAlfred Korzybski developed this diagram in the 1920’s as a means to visualize the process he called abstracting. Originally a three-dimensional, free-standing model (imagine a colander, or strainer, in place of the ragged parabola at the top), this printed version appeared in his source book for general semantics, Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems.

Abstracting, in the context of Korzybski’s model, refers to physiological-neurological activities, or processes, that occur on non-verbal levels. These abstracting processes begin when our nervous systems are stimulated by something we see, hear, taste, touch, or smell.

Here’s how Korzybski once explained the process of abstracting using a simple push toy. This and the following videos incorporate audio recordings of Korzybski edited with available silent film footage and other graphics. (3:04)

Explaining the Structural Differential

Structural Differential with LabelsThe parabola represents an environment (the world around us) consisting of innumerable characteristics or events, depicted by the holes, or dots (activities, people, things, etc., including what occurs on microscopic and sub-microscopic levels (Event level).

Only some of these characteristics (the hanging strings) can be detected by human senses. Those which connect to the circle (Object level) represent a specific object sensed by a specific nervous system, which has abstracted a particular set of characteristics (those connective strings) from all possible characteristics occurring in the parabola.

These initial sensory data are further abstracted and transformed as the nervous system/brain recognizes and associates the data with a word or label. The tag below the circle represents the Descriptive level of abstracting, the first level of verbal awareness.

From the descriptive level, the verbal abstracting process proceeds with the Inference levels that can continue indefinitely (implied by the ragged bottom tag). In other words, from our descriptions of events we form inferences, assumptions, opinions, beliefs, etc., by generalizing this experience with our past experiences.

And we can continue, indefinitely, to form different inferences from one experience, which may then be subsequently recalled in future experiences, noted by the arrow and dotted line to the right.

As we become aware of these sensory experiences, we can talk about them, describe them, express how we feel, what they mean, etc.

Throughout this abstracting process, we need to remember that what we talk about is not the same thing that our brain registers as an experience, which is also not the same as our initial sensing, which is in turn not the same as the actual stimulus or event.

Abstracting is something that your body-brain-nervous-system does continually, regardless of whether you’re aware of it.

The differential in structural differential refers to a functional difference between humans and animals. An animal’s ability to abstract, depicted by the circle to the left (“Fido”), is limited; a human can continue to abstract and make inferences indefinitely, whereas animals are limited in their abilities to make inferences.

The different levels that Korzybski defines in the model refer to aspects of the overall process which seem to consist of clearly differentiated orders, or types, of activity — from perception, to nervous system construction of the experience, to cognitive evaluation, to our response or reaction.

Here’s a video review of the Structural Differential by Korzybski. (2:48)

Significance of Abstracting

”So what?” is a reasonable question to ask at this point. What practical difference can this differential make?

Redrawn DifferentialLet me try another explanation and then illustrate an example. The following figure depicts my own simplified version of Korzybski’s structural differential model.

E — The parabola represents the Event level, the “what is going on” (WIGO) in the world around us. Each dot, figure, and line stands for an aspect or characteristic of the sub-microscopic process level that comprises WIGO.

O — The circle labeled for Object represents a human nervous system (let’s assume mine) interacting with WIGO. Through my sensing organs and brain, I construct the sights, sounds, smells, etc., that result in my experiences. My experiences are incomplete and unique to my nervous system.

D — The first verbal level in the abstracting process is labeled as Descriptive. What I say, think, etc., at this level about my experience should be limited, as much as possible, to just the facts as I experienced them.

I — The I tags represent the multiple levels of Inferences I might construct from my experience. These inferences will determine what meaning or significance I draw from this experience. As indicated, I can generate as many inferences, beliefs, theories, judgments, conclusions, etc., as I might care to.

It’s important to remember how time, order, or sequence plays into this model. Each level of the abstracting process occurs in a given order, i.e.:

Something happens (Event);
I sense what happens (Object);
I recognize what happens (Description);
I generate meanings for what happens. (Inferences)

We can depict a succession of these abstracting processes over time, one after the other, for every moment of our lives. In this case, with successive abstracting processes, we can see how the inferences (or meanings) we generate from every experience can factor into later experiences.


Abstracting over time

In terms of differentiation, we should note that:

  1. What happens (Event) is NOT
  2. What I sense non-verbally within my nervous system (Object), which is NOT
  3. What I can describe verbally about my sensing (Description), which is NOT
  4. The meaning(s) I generate based on what happened; etc. (Inferences)

Similarly, our experience/inference/meaning at Time(3) is not the same experience/ inference/meaning at Time(1) but due to projection and memory, what we experience at Time(1) may well affect our Time(3) experience and what that experience means.

Let’s take a situation in which a friend — call her Emily — relates with some anger an experience she just had while driving to the store … “somebody cut me off!”

Example of the Abstracting Process

Abstracting ExampleHere’s an example of deconstructing her experience to emphasize the different ‘levels’ between what she experienced and what she evaluated.

Event — What is Going On? Street, traffic, trees, rain, wipers … plus microscopic and sub-microscopic particles and activities that we cannot observe, but which we infer based on current science.

Object — Emily’s eyes capture (some of the) reflected light from (some of the) images in her (limited) field of view; the light is transformed (abstracted) by her visual system into nervous system signals that travel to her brain; neurons in her brain process the electrical/chemical signals and cause her to see …

Description — I was driving about 25 miles per hour, perhaps 50 feet from the car ahead. A dark vehicle driven by a middle-aged man emerged from my right field of view. He was going faster than me. His car suddenly accelerated and veered into the lane directly in front of me, reducing my following distance to no more than 10 feet, which meant …

Inference(1)This guy’s a rude jerk because …

Inference(2)He cut me off and almost made me have a wreck!

Inference(x)I’m too upset to go to work. I need to go home and relax with my dog.

Can you see that “he cut me off” is not what happened? Can you see that Emily’s reaction to what happened is not the same as a description of what happened?

One of the powerful lessons of general semantics, illustrated by the use of this type of model to analyze the abstracting process, is that we can better train ourselves to respond conditionally to what happens to us.

We humans don’t have to react with a conditioned response like Pavlov’s dog, reacting to a substitute stimulus as if it were ‘real’ — but we often do. Our language helps confuse us, because we tend to say things like, “Ooh, it made me so mad!” We allow the it — the event, the what happens, the stimulus — to determine our response. You need to remember that between the stimulus and your response, there is a YOU who, to some degree, can control your response:


Time(1) ——-> Time(2)——-> Time(3)

Again, ‘time’ is an important aspect of our conditional responses. Remember the old adage encouraging you to count to 10 before getting mad? There’s a lot of merit to be gained by practicing your ability to consciously — conditionally — delay your responses.

Summary of Abstracting

  • Abstracting refers to ongoing physiological-neurological processes that occur on non-verbal levels.
  • We can verbally differentiate certain phases, or levels or orders, of the abstracting process to analyze our behaviors and reactions: EVENT is not OBJECT is not DESCRIPTION is not INFERENCE, etc.
  • We can acknowledge that our abstracting occurs at different times … we should expect different results, reactions, responses, etc., from different experiences occurring at different times.
  • We have human limitations that constrain all of our experiences — we never experience all of what happens.
  • Similarly, we can never say all or describe all about our experiences; more could always be said. Etc.
  • What we experience is, to some degree, a function of our past experiences (feedback, projection, etc.).
  • What we experience is a function of the unique capabilities and limitations of our own individual nervous system.
  • We should therefore expect not only to see things differently, we should expect to evaluate and react to things differently.
  • When we delay our responses and react conditionally, we tend to behave more sanely, more rationally, more appropriately to the facts of the situation and our experience.

When we react immediately, when our responses are conditioned and controlled by the stimulus (the ‘thing’), we behave like Pavlov’s dog and subject ourselves to control by others.

You can use this model and process whenever you want to analyze the behavior, responses, reactions, etc., of a particular individual in a specific situation. (Personally, I find this type of analysis works best when the particular individual happens to be my ownself.) Remember that the structural differential model, or any similar model, represents the process of abstracting.

4 Steps of Abstracting

The more you apply this process to analyze your own abstracting, evaluating, inference-making, belief-generating, etc.:

  • you will become more aware and conscious of your own abstracting;
  • you will better differentiate between: 1) what happens; 2) what you sense of what happens; 3) what you describe of what your senses sense; and 4) what you infer from what you’ve described;
  • you will respond more conditionally to what happens in your life;
  • you will experience less conditioned responses (less like Pavlov’s dog);
  • you will delay more of your responses, leap to fewer conclusions, snap to fewer judgments, and make fewer inappropriate assumptions;
  • you will ____________ (fill in your own benefit).

And finally, Korzybski explains the inspiration behind the diagram of the differential to illustrate abstracting. (2:44)

“Out of time we cut days and nights, summers and winters. We say what each part of the sensible continuum is, and all these abstract whats are concepts. The intellectual life of man consists almost wholly in his substitution of a conceptual order for the perceptual order in which his experience originally comes.” — William James