Double Bind 1969

Double bind theory was, for me, an exemplification of how to think about such matters and, in this aspect at least, the whole business is worth some re-examination.

Sometimes—often in science and always in art—one does not know what the problems were till after they have been solved. So perhaps it will be useful to state retrospectively what problems were solved for me by double bind theory.

First there was the problem of reification.

Clearly there are in the mind no objects or events—no pigs, no coconut palms, and no mothers. The mind contains only transforms, percepts, images, etc., and rules for making these transforms, percepts, etc. In what form these rules exist we do not know, but presumably they are embodied in the very machinery which creates the transforms. The rules are certainly not commonly explicit as conscious "thoughts."

In any case, it is nonsense to say that a man was frightened by a lion, because a lion is not an idea. The man makes an idea of the lion.

The explanatory world of substance can invoke no differences and no ideas but only forces and impacts. And, per contra, the world of form and communication invokes no things, forces, or impacts but only differences and ideas. (A difference which makes a difference is an idea. It is a "bit," a unit of information.)

But these things I learned only later—was enabled to learn them by double bind theory. And yet, of course, they are implicit in the theory which could hardly have been created without them.

Our original paper on the double bind contains numerous errors due simply to our having not yet articulately examined the reification problem. We talk in that paper as though a double bind were a something and as though such some-things could be counted.

Of course that's all nonsense. You cannot count the bats in an inkblot because there are none. And yet a man — if he be "bat-minded" — may "see" several.

But are there double binds in the mind? The question is not trivial. As there are in the mind no coconuts but only percepts and transforms of coconuts, so also, when I perceive (consciously or unconsciously) a double bind in my boss' behavior, I acquire in my mind no double bind but only a percept or transform of a double bind. And that is not what the theory is about.

We are talking then about some sort of tangle in the rules for making the transforms and about the acquisition or cultivation of such tangles. Double bind theory asserts that there is an experiential component in the determination or etiology of schizophrenic symptoms and related behavioral patterns, such as humor,

* This paper was given in August, 1969, at a Symposium on the Double Bind; Chairman, Dr. Robert Ryder; sponsored by the American Psychological Association. It was prepared under Career Development Award (MH-21,931) of the National Institute of Mental Health.

art, poetry, etc. Notably the theory does not distinguish between these subspecies. Within its terms there is nothing to determine whether a given individual shall become a clown, a poet, a schizophrenic, or some combination of these. We deal not with a single syndrome but with a genus of syndromes, most of which are not conventionally regarded as pathological.

Let me coin the word "transcontextual" as a general term for this genus of syndromes.

It seems that both those whose life is enriched by trans-contextual gifts and those who are impoverished by transcontextual confusions are alike in one respect: for them there is always or often a "double take." A falling leaf, the greeting of a friend, or a "primrose by the river's brim" is not "just that and nothing more." Exogenous experience may be framed in the contexts of dream, and internal thought may be projected into the contexts of the external world. And so on. For all this, we seek a partial explanation in learning and experience.

There must, of course, also be genetic components in the etiology of the transcontextual syndromes. These would expectably operate at levels more abstract than the experiential. For example, genetic components might determine skill in learning to be transcontextual or (more abstractly) the potentialities for acquiring this skill. Or, conversely, the genome might determine skills in resisting transcontextual pathways, or the potentiality for acquiring this latter skill. (Geneticists have paid very little attention to the necessity of defining the logical typing of messages carried by DNA.)

In any case, the meeting point where the genetic determination meets the experiential is surely quite abstract, and this must be true even though the embodiment of the genetic message be a single gene. (A single bit of information—a single difference—may be the yes-or-no answer to a question of any degree of complexity, at any level of abstraction. )

Current theories which propose (for "schizophrenia") a single dominant gene of "low penetrance" seem to leave the field open for any experiential theory which would indicate what class of experiences might cause the latent potentiality to appear in the phenotype.

I must confess however that these theories seem to me of little interest until the proponents try to specify what components of the complex process of determining "schizophrenia" are provided by the hypothetical gene. To identify these components must be a subtractive process. Where the contribution of environment is large, the genetics cannot be investigated until the environmental effect has been identified and can be controlled.

But sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander, and what is said above about geneticists places an obligation upon me to make clear what components of transcontextual process could be provided by double bind experience. It is appropriate therefore to re-examine the theory of deuterolearning upon which double bind theory is based.

All biological systems (organisms and social or ecological organizations of organisms) are capable of adaptive change. But adaptive change takes many forms, such as response, learning, ecological succession, biological evolution, cultural evolution, etc., according to the size and complexity of the system which we choose to consider.

Whatever the system, adaptive change depends upon feedback loops, be it those provided by natural selection or those of individual reinforcement. In all cases, then, there must be a process of trial and error and a mechanism of comparison.

But trial and error must always involve error, and error is always biologically and/or psychically expensive. It follows therefore that adaptive change must always be hierarchic.

There is needed not only that first-order change which suits the immediate environmental (or physiological) demand but also second-order changes which will reduce the amount of trial and error needed to achieve the first-order change. And so on. By superposing and interconnecting many feedback loops, we (and all other biological systems) not only solve particular problems but also form habits which we apply to the solution of classes of problems.

We act as though a whole class of problems could be solved in terms of assumptions or premises, fewer in number than the members of the class of problems. In other words, we (organisms) learn to learn, or in the more technical phrase, we deutero-learn.

But habits are notoriously rigid and their rigidity follows as a necessary corollary of their status in the hierarchy of adaptation. The very economy of trial and error which is achieved by habit formation is only possible because habits are comparatively "hard programmed," in the engineers' phrase. The economy consists precisely in not re-examining or rediscovering the premises of habit every time the habit is used. We may say that these premises are partly "unconscious", or—if you please—that a habit of not examining them is developed.

Moreover, it is important to note that the premises of habit are almost necessarily abstract. Every problem is in some degree different from every other and its description or representation in the mind will therefore contain unique propositions. Clearly to sink these unique propositions to the level of premises of habit would be an error. Habit can deal successfully only with propositions which have general or repetitive truth, and these are commonly of a relatively high order of abstraction.98

Now the particular propositions which I believe to be important in the determination of the transcontextual syndromes are those formal abstractions which describe and determine interpersonal relationship.

I say "describe and determine," but even this is inadequate. Better would be to say that the relationship is the exchange of these messages; or that the relationship is immanent in these messages.

Psychologists commonly speak as if the abstractions of relationship ("dependency," "hostility," "love," etc.) were real things which are to be described or "expressed" by messages. This is epistemology backwards: in truth, the messages constitute the relationship, and words like . dependency" are verbally coded descriptions of patterns immanent in the combination of exchanged messages.

As has already been mentioned, there are no "things" in the mind—not even "dependency."

98 What is important, however, is that the proposition be constantly true, rather than that it be abstract. It just so happens — coincidentally — that abstractions, if well chosen, have a constancy of truth. For human beings it is rather constantly true that air is present around the nose; the reflexes which control respiration can therefore be hard-programmed in the medulla. For the porpoise, the proposition "air around the blowhole" is only intermittently true, and therefore respiration must be con-trolled in a more flexible manner from some higher center.

We are so befuddled by language that we cannot think straight, and it is convenient, sometimes, to remember that we are really mammals. The epistemology of the "heart" is that of any nonhuman mammal. The cat does not say "milk"; she simply acts out (or is) her end of an interchange, the pattern of which we in language would call "dependency."

But to act or be one end of a pattern of interaction is to propose the other end. A context is set for a certain class of response.

This weaving of contexts and of messages which propose context—but which, like all messages whatsoever, have "meaning" only by virtue of context—is the subject matter of the so-called double bind theory.

The matter may be illustrated by a famous and formally correct99 botanical analogy. Goethe pointed out 150 years ' ago that there is a sort of syntax or grammar in the anatomy of flowering plants. A "stem" is that which bears "leaves"; a "leaf" is that which has a bud in its axil; a bud is a stem which originates in the axil of a leaf; etc. The formal (i.e., the communicational) nature of each organ is determined by its contextual status—the context in which it occurs and the context which it sets for other parts.

I said above that double bind theory is concerned with the experiential component in the genesis of tangles in the rules or premises of habit. I now go on to assert that experienced breaches in the weave of contextual structure are in fact "double binds" and must necessarily (if they contribute at all to the hierarchic processes of learning and adaptation) promote what I am calling transcontextual syndromes.

Consider a very simple paradigm: a female porpoise (Steno bredanensis) is trained to accept the sound of the trainer's whistle as a "secondary reinforcement." The whistle is expectably followed by food, and if she later repeats what she was doing when the whistle blew, she will expectably again hear the whistle and receive food.

This porpoise is now used by the trainers to demonstrate "operant conditioning" to the public. When she enters the exhibition tank, she raises her head above surface, hears the whistle and is fed. She then raises her head again and is again reinforced. Three repetitions of this sequence is enough for the demonstration and the porpoise is then sent off-stage to wait for the next performance two hours later. She has learned some simple rules which relate her actions, the whistle, the exhibition tank, and the trainer into a pattern—a contextual structure, a set of rules for how to put the in-formation together.

But this pattern is fitted only for a single episode in the exhibition tank. She must break that pattern to deal with the class of such episodes. There is a larger context of contexts which will put her in the wrong.

At the next performance, the trainer again wants to demonstrate "operant conditioning," but to do this she must pick on a different piece of conspicuous behavior.

When the porpoise comes on stage, she again raises her head. But she gets no whistle. The trainer waits for the next piece of conspicuous behavior—likely a tail

99 Formally correct because morphogenesis, like behavior, is surely a matter of messages in contexts. (See G. Bateson, "A Re-examination of 'Bateson's Rule,'" Journal of Genetics, in press.)

flap, which is a common expression of annoyance. This behavior is then rein-forced and repeated.

But the tail flap was, of course, not rewarded in the third performance.

Finally the porpoise learned to deal with the context of contexts—by offering a different or new piece of conspicuous behavior whenever she came on stage.

All this had happened in the free natural history of the relationship between porpoise and trainer and audience. The sequence was then repeated experimentally with a new porpoise and carefully recorded.100

Two points from this experimental repeat of the sequence must be added:

First, that it was necessary (in the trainer's judgment) to break the rules of the experiment many times. The experience of being in the wrong was so disturbing to the porpoise that in order to preserve the relationship between porpoise and trainer (i.e., the context of context of context) it was necessary to give many reinforcements to which the porpoise was not entitled.

Second, that each of the first fourteen sessions was characterized by many futile repetitions of whatever behavior had been reinforced in the immediately previous session. Seemingly only by "accident" did the animal provide a piece of different behavior. In the time-out between the fourteenth and fifteenth sessions, the porpoise appeared to be much excited, and when she came on stage for the fifteenth session she put on an elaborate performance including eight conspicuous pieces of behavior of which four were entirely new—never before observed in this species of animal.

The story illustrates, I believe, two aspects of the genesis of a transcontextual syndrome:

First, that severe pain and maladjustment can be induced by putting a mammal in the wrong regarding its rules for making sense of an important relationship with another mammal.

And second, that if this pathology can be warded off or resisted, the total experience may promote creativity.


G. Bateson, "Social Planning and the Concept of Deutero-Learning," Science, Philosophy and Religion; Second Symposium, L. Bryson and L. Finkelstein, eds., New York, Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in their Relation to the Democratic Way of Life, Inc., 1942.

"Minimal Requirements for a Theory of Schizophrenia," A.M.A. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1960, 2: 477-91.

, Perceval's Narrative, A Patient's Account of his Psychosis, 1830-1832, edited and with an introduction by Gregory Bateson, Stanford, Calif., Stanford University Press, 1961.

, "Exchange of Information about Patterns of Hu-man Behavior,"

Information Storage and Neural Control; Tenth Annual Scientific Meeting of the Houston Neurological Society, W. S. Fields and W. Abbott, eds., Springfield, Ill., Charles C. Thomas, 1963.

100 K. Pryor, R. Haag, and J. O'Rielly, "Deutero-Learning in a Roughtooth Porpoise (Steno bredanensis)," U. S. Naval Ordinance Test Station, China Lake, NOTS TP 4270

, "The Role of Somatic Change in Evolution," Evolution, 1963, 17: 529-39.

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