For many years I have been searching for ways to extend the concept of imaginal thinking to other forms of “sensorial thinking”. I know many XIPs who are not very proficient in their visual information processing, but clearly prefer to think in ways that are comparable to imaginal thinking, using other sensorial input. And because they are XIPs, they do this in an intense way that may interfere with their own, or somebody else’s, “verbal thinking conclusions”. They cannot explain what happens but ignoring their “sensorial thinking” leads to inner conflicts.
This summer my research reached a sudden breakthrough.
In this blog I am sharing this breakthrough and the perspective that has arisen. Please do not be put off by a somewhat abstract start; relevance and practical application will follow and are, in my opinion, very worthwhile!
The blog has also become a bit longer than usual.
Rational system and experiential system
Since early summer I have been happy and excited about my acquaintance with the so-called Cognitive-Experiential Theory by Seymour Epstein (1926-2016), in short CET, formerly referred to as CEST (… Self-Theory).
This theory explains how each person simultaneously uses two information processing systems: an “experiential system”, which automatically learns by experiencing and a “rational system” that is a verbal system of logical reasoning.
Our experiential system is similar to that which higher animals have developed over millions of years of evolution, although it may operate in a more complex way due to our larger brain capacity. Our rational system is unique to humans because it requires the use of grammatical language.
What is your skill and your preference?
CET is a personality theory that compares “rational thinking” and “experiential thinking” in a clear way and explains how both forms can influence or dominate each other and thus determine all our actions. It has to be emphasized that the rational system is not considered superior to the experiential system. Logical reasoning is not always the best solution to a real-life problem.
Every person has and continues to develop a certain skill level in each of the two systems, and a certain degree of preference to use each. Some people act strongly from their experiential thinking and rarely from their rational reasoning skills, while others do it the other way around.
It is plausible that one’s skills in either system play a role in determining one’s preference, but there may also be strong emotional reasons for preferring rational thinking.
CET provides a basis for becoming (more) aware of one’s inner polarities and for learning how to handle these more effectively.
A new, more integral perspective on the XIP
I am content because this theory allows me to explain more clearly why people do the things that they cannot refrain from doing. I can also explain the diversity within the gifted and extra intelligent population more distinctly to others and to myself.
I am excited because the theory fits seamlessly with the findings of all kinds of recent neurological research about which I have written blogs, for example about the role and effects of various emotions. Think of Antonio Damasio’s quote “I feel, therefore I am”, or Richard Davidson’s concept of Emotional Styles. The theory also fits in with the conclusions of, for example, Frans de Waal about the recently discovered similarities between higher mammals and humans, where – certainly in the past – the focus was on proving the differences while illustrating the absolute superiority of man.
The theory encompasses the entire human being, or the entire XIP or gifted individual, rather than – arguably – limiting itself to the parts that can solve puzzles well and hopefully will help to win the Nobel Prize. Overexcitabilities and intuition, characteristics in our target group, have their place in a coherent whole, instead of being a difficult “additional” factor.
A concise overview of the two systems
Of course, I cannot fully explain the theory and impact for gifted and/or extra intelligent people in this single blog. It is a paradigmatically different way of thinking about thinking.
Below, I present a first interpretation of the characteristic differences between the rational and the experiential system, as can be found in Epstein’s book Cognitive Experiential Theory, an Integrative Theory of Personality. Again, the starting point of the theory is that every person makes use of both systems simultaneously. They operate in parallel and interactively. Sometimes one system is dominant, sometimes the other. Sometimes we think we are behaving strictly rationally, while our experiential system subconsciously influences our reasoning and choice. And vice versa.
|Rational system||Experiential system|
|Solves problems by conscious reasoning||Solves problems in living by what was automatically learned from experience|
|Verbal: Encodes information in abstract symbols, including words and numbers||Nonverbal: Encodes information often in images, "movies" or other sensorial modalities|
|Motivated by reality principle: by what is regarded as logical and accurately observed||Motivated by hedonic principle: reaction based on what feels good or bad|
|Free of emotions and desires||Driven by emotions to a certain extent, depending on one's personal history|
|Cause and effect relations among stimuli, responses and outcomes||Associative connections between stimuli, responses and outcomes|
|Behaviour mediated by conscious appraisal of events||Behaviour mediated by automatic representations of events and feelings|
|Energy-intensive processing of information. Capable of long-delayed action||Effortless and rapid processing of information. Oriented towards immediate action; impulsive|
|Changes more readily: Can change with the speed of thought||Resistant to change: Changes with repetitive or intense experiences|
|Experienced actively and consciously: Reasoning considered under conscious control||Experienced passively and preconsciously: We are seized by our emotions and ego-alien thoughts|
|Requires validation through logic and evidence||Self-evidently valid: Experiencing is believing|
|Rational system||Experiential system|
Isn’t it amazing how completely different the two systems are, but at the same time how recognizable you find both descriptions?
Could you immediately set a preference for one of the two, or come up with situations where you will act in either way?
Below are some of my current findings and questions about what the application of CET brings to those topics, directly or indirectly: Hopefully this will inspire your own perspectives too.
Extra intelligence from a CET perspective
Acknowledgement of your own extra intelligence and intensity requires the use of your experiential thinking. To answer the five questions about your Xi you have to dive into your memories, and quite often also deal with the emotions these memories may bring.
As a consequence, you may experience an inner conflict with your rational thinking, for example: “I can’t be extra intelligent, because I had low marks at school. But why does the subject touch me so strongly, and why do I always have natural and inspiring connections with people who I consider much more intelligent than me?” Depending on the intensity of these memories and new observations, you may come to new choices about your self-image: “I am ready to assume (or conclude) that actually, I am an XIP.”
Some XIPs want rationally valid proof and also go for an IQ test.
Giftedness from a CET perspective
When your giftedness is “officially established”, you must at least have a very high skill in rational thinking, because you need it to obtain a sufficiently high score on an IQ test. In addition, you possess sufficient calmness to use that rational thinking during the test. Subsequently, your rational system can simply conclude that you indeed have a very high intelligence since the score of the IQ test has shown this.
But does your experiential system also believe this to be true, based on your own experiences up to that moment? What about your skills in experiential thinking and your daily preference to use one of the two? How do you handle internal conflicts between the two systems?
Can such conflicts hinder the effective application of your unusually strong rational thinking?
Could this be the connection with the notorious label “underperformer” or with the persistence of an Imposter Syndrome?
Verbal thinking and imaginal thinking
I see a direct application of the theory in understanding the difference between verbal thinking and imaginal thinking. Just consider the strong overlap in characteristics between rational thinking and verbal thinking on one hand and between experiential thinking and imaginal thinking on the other hand: Illustrated by the table above or the comparison between an ‘auditory-sequential learner‘ and a ‘visual-spatial learner‘ as formulated by Linda Silverman on this Gifted Development Center webpage.
But experiential thinking involves much more than is covered by the word imaginal: thinking with a strong visual component. We do have more senses that provide us with information, so you may encounter many “alternatives” to imaginal thinking, depending on one’s skill and preference in handling (for example) tactile or intuitive information and their emotional aspects.
Implicitly assuming that “all thinking that is not verbal thinking can only be some form of imaginal thinking” muddles up the description of what imaginal thinking entails and what imaginal thinkers obviously like to do. Additionally, someone’s unusual non-visual expression of experiential thinking may remain unnoticed and underdeveloped, nor appreciated for its level of excellence.
Finally, especially in the case of the more extreme XIPs, there is often a “sufficient” skill in verbal thinking, which means that a possible excellent level of experiential thinking may pass unnoticed, undeveloped nor used. However, as the experiential system usually becomes stronger in the course of one’s life, one may see a sudden coming out of those qualities, and possibly a switch of career.
By now, I dare state that extra intelligence of the rational system always implies one or more “extra” facets of the experiential system.
What these facets are and whether this leads to an excellent interaction between the two systems may be obvious to some, but a long search for one’s authenticity to others. In any case, I have the idea that CET offers a helpful context as well as instruments to investigate, reflect, and apply.
So much for this blog. But I am already aware of more applications and will most certainly continue to write about them.