Alan Strachan, Ph. D. Santa Cruz Area Marriage and Family Therapist
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The Importance of Information Theory to Process Work

           By Alan James Strachan, Ph.D





           In his introduction to River's Way, Mindell writes that process science is derived in part from electronic communication theory. Communication theory is also known as cybernetics, information theory, or systems theory. In this section I will use the more commonly used term information theory.

           One way of describing Process Work is that it is a signal-based system of psychotherapy. According to Goodbread, a signal is "any discrete piece of information which is perceived by the client, the therapist or both." (1987, page 154) The integration of information theory into Process Work is of central importance in understanding how a process-oriented therapist classifies and interprets perceived signals.

           There are a number of ways in which information theory is integral to the theory and practice of Process Work. These include a recognition of the fundamental importance of process, emphasis upon principles of organization, acknowledgment of the systemic nature of any therapeutic exchange, focus upon the informational value of events, and recognition of the significance of feedback.


  Recognition of the Fundamental Importance of Process


           By its very name, Process Work indicates that it, along with information theory, regards processes to be more fundamental than structure.

           Mindell defines process as the variation of signals experienced by an observer. He contrasts process with the idea of a fixed state, which is "an unchanging description of a situation which has been broken up into parts." (Mindell, 1985a, page 11)

           A state-oriented psychology would tend to create fixed descriptions of subsets of human experience, and would then be inclined to perceive clients in terms of these descriptions. The drawback in this approach is that, for example, a state-oriented therapist might insist upon a specific procedure for curing a client, and would be likely to miss or ignore signals indicating that the procedure was not accurately recognizing or addressing the uniqueness of the client.

           The process-oriented therapist forms hypotheses about the nature of therapeutic interactions, but must be prepared to immediately discard the hypotheses when they do not match what is occurring in the session. It is important to recognize the value of following a fixed routine when it is appropriate to do so, and then be alert enough to notice and respond to any anomalies in a routine pattern. In this way the process-oriented therapist attempts to recognize and respond to the dynamic and changing flow of events.


Emphasis Upon Principles of Organization


           Information theory focuses upon the principles of organization of a given system. Process Work does this by attempting to determine the process structure of a therapeutic interaction.

           A process worker follows the flow of information by noting specific signals and classifying them according to the channels in which they are occurring. He notes what the client does and does not identify with and classifies it in terms of primary and secondary process. By emphasizing process structure, and by employing terms such as channel and signals, Mindell is utilizing the language and epistemology of information theory.


  The Systems Perspective


           For many years modern psychology did not attempt to take a systems view, in part because it emerged from and relied upon the epistemology of the predominant scientific disciplines. In the 18th and 19th centuries physics and chemistry utilized the Cartesian-Newtonian epistemology to great effect. In the early years of this century psychology sought to be equally rigorous, and the results were reflected in both the assumptions and language of psychotherapy. Influenced by Descartes, psychotherapy generally referred to "mind" and "body" as though they were distinct entities. The emphasis was upon internal psychological processes as distinct from somatic processes or from interactions with the environment.

           For example, classical psychoanalysis is essentially a description of intrapsychic phenomena. Psychoanalytic terminology reflects this bias in that the only term which bridges the gap between intrapsychic events and external behavior is projective identification. This approach maintains the mind/body split, represents the individual as isolated from the environment, and portrays mental illness as an individual problem.  It wasn't until Bateson (1973), employing an information or systems theory perspective, that schizophrenia was clearly described in terms of interactions (double binds) between individuals.

           Influenced by Newton, psychoanalysis made reference to psychic "objects" being acted upon by "forces" or "energy" in a causal, linear fashion. Adopting the notion of "energy" as a determinant of behavior was problematic. Even Jung, who attempted to incorporate a systems perspective into his view of the psyche, was hampered by his use of the term energy as an explanatory principle. 

           Information theory maintains that a system is an integrated whole. Process Work clearly approaches psychotherapy from a systems perspective. In Working With the Dreaming Body, Mindell writes:


           Looking at my client and understanding his dreambody from his point of view is a very meaningful experience for him. Yet it is also important for me to understand and to see what my dreambody is doing in my dreams, body and environment.

           However, now as I talk to you about the dreambody's information system, I'm able, for a moment, to step outside the situation long enough to notice something. Namely, that the two of us form a unity, an inseparable system whose parts can be defined, but not divided from one another. The two of us, the therapist and client, or the two partners of any couple, form the basic particles of a system.

           These particles cannot really be taken out of the system and analysed separately from the field in which they live. You cannot take a child out of its family and understand the child completely. You have to see this child within its family structure to understand it as fully as possible., When there are two people, there are three things happening. There's you, your partner and there's also the system or couple which you create and which behaves differently than the mere sum of its parts. (1985b, page 75)


           Mindell has applied a systems perspective to working with body symptoms (1985b); small group, community and global processes (1989b); relationships (1987b); mental illness (1988a); comas (1989a); and general process theory (1985a).


  The Significance of Feedback


           By paying close attention to signals, the Process-Oriented therapist is very attentive to feedback received from the client. For example, suppose a client tell his therapist that he wants to change some aspect of his life. The therapist may then make a suggestion to the client about how this change might be achieved. The utility of the suggestion is determined by the feedback from the client.

           Feedback can be either positive or negative. According to information theory, negative feedback maintains a homeostatic or steady state condition. Homeostasis is a way of achieving and maintaining stability and predictability in relationships. If the client responds negatively to the therapist's suggestion, then the process-oriented therapist recognizes that he must try another alternative if he is to support the client's desire to change.

           If the client responds positively, then the therapist knows that this is the correct route to follow. According to information theory, positive feedback leads to a loss of equilibrium and results in change.

           Feedback from the client indicates the most appropriate way for the client to change. Feedback tells the process-oriented therapist how to adapt his approach to the idiosyncratic needs of the client. This is in contrast to a "state-oriented" approach in which the therapist follows a set program without regard for the client's feedback. In addition, by noticing and responding to feedback the process worker is modeling an open system for the client.


  The Information Value of Events


           Information theory is concerned with the information value of events rather than the events themselves.

           Mindell's emphasis on information enables him to avoid relying upon terms such as energy when discussing the nature of psychotherapeutic interactions. Focusing on information and identifying a wide range of channels in which signals occur allows the Process-Oriented therapist to track a process as it manifests in different aspects of the interactive system.

           The appearance of an information-laden signal in successive channels is known as "channel switching," and is an example of what Mindell has referred to in teaching seminars as the conservation of information. For example, a Process-Oriented therapist may observe that a client is having a strong proprioceptive experience. When the proprioception has proceeded as far as it can in that channel, it may then switch to a vision. This may in turn switch to a movement, and so forth. The information content of the original signal is being conserved, even while the channel in which the information is occurring is changing. It is the information being "carried" by the feeling, vision or movement that is of primary importance. This approach is extremely flexible and allows the process worker to track the client's process as it shifts in focus from mind to body, or from individual to society.

           As noted above, a key concept in information theory is that the more improbable an idea or event is, the higher its informational value. In process terminology, the signals of the primary process represent that which is ordinary and to be expected. Typically at some point the client will begin to double signal, i.e., will send a signal which contradicts the ongoing message of the primary process. These secondary signals, because they are relatively unusual and unexpected, have a greater information value than the primary signals. The attentive process worker will notice the secondary signals and encourage the client to amplify them so that the information they carry will become more accessible. Information theory provides a clear rationale for investigating the secondary signals.





Bateson, G.  (1973).  Steps to an ecology of mind.  New York: Ballantine Books.


Goodbread, J.  (1987).  The dreambody toolkit.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Mindell, A.  (1985a).  River’s way: The process science of the dreambody.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Mindell, A.  (1985b).  Working with the dreaming body.  London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Mindell, A.  (1987b).  The dreambody In relationships. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.


Mindell, A.  (1988a).  City shadows.  New York: Routledge, Chapman & Hall.


Mindell, A.  (1989a).  Coma: Key to awakening.  Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications.


Mindell, A.  (1989b).  The year one.  New York: Viking Penguin.




(Originally published in the Journal of Process Oriented Psychology, 1998)