How PCT developed, (Glasser)

[Dag Forssell (950216 1230)]

Bryan Frew just asked about the origins of PCT. I just scanned the
foreword to Stations of the Mind in order to send it to a friend.
I have used some quotes from this foreword for a long time. As I
review it, I notice that it provides a partial answer for Bryan.
This is not intended as a substitute for Bill P's own answer, but
I think CSGnetters may enjoy this foreword.

Best, Dag



William Glasser, M.D.

Harper & Row 1981


Bill Glasser has invented an unusual method for learning a new
theory: write a book about it. Judging from the result, I think I
can recommend this method for those with the intellectual honesty,
the energy, and the persistence to carry it through.

The new theory is called control theory. It's about forty years
old, which makes it an adolescent on the time-scale along which
scientific revolutions develop. Control theory started its major
growth in the 1930s, among engineers trying to design not
_controllable_ devices, but _controlling_ devices.

Without being particularly interested in psychology or biology,
these engineers succeeded in discovering a kind of organization
which could have inner purposes and which, instead of reacting to
external forces, could sense and act on the world around it and
thus control aspects of that world. The result, the servomechanism,
has caused a second Industrial Revolution already, but science is
just starting to realize that the industrial side of the revolution
may be far less important than the revolution in our understanding
of living systems that grows from this new concept of organization.

Scientific theories of human nature have never made much sense to
nonprofessionals. Scientific theories either have been so
statistical that they don't say anything interesting about
individuals, or have implied things about us that anyone with
common sense can see aren't true (for example, the preposterous
assertion that what we think can't have any effect on what we do).
Psychology in particular has been a disappointment, promising much
and producing essentially nothing with the power to change our
lives that, say, the transistor has had. Unless we have to take a
test to get a job or enter college, most of us aren't touched by
psychological theories at all. When we do brush against them, the
result is usually threatening or annoying.

Control theory, the theory of how living organisms control what
happens to them, does make common sense. It makes so much common
sense, in fact, that in this book you won't find anything that
sounds like technology, unless you count one diagram and about four
specialized terms. For example, you'll hardly encounter the term
"feedback," even though feedback is what makes control systems

What you will find are the basic organizational concepts of control
theory so cleverly worked into Glasser's exposition that most of
the time you're likely to think, "Great--but doesn't everyone know
that?" The answer is no, not by a long shot. Common sense can be
trusted only so far; it lets us down nearly as often as it works.
Scientific theories, when they get on the right track, can bolster
our common sensed, but also refine it and change it to fit more of
the facts. Control just reaffirm common sense. But one strong hint
that control theory is on the right track is that you won't have to
know any control theory in the mathematical or engineering sense in
order to grasp its meaning correctly. There's nothing that can be
said about control theory that can't be said another way in plain
language, still correctly.

Glasser has been scrupulously careful to check his understanding of
control theory with me every step of the way. If there are any
differences between his concepts and mine as the book now reaches
its final stages, they are unimportant, and tend to be in areas
where the theory itself needs work.

As far as the main concepts in this book are concerned, you can be
sure that Bill has checked his translation against my
understanding, and that in the background there is a solid
scientific foundation for what he asserts about systems that can
control their own inputs.

Bill Glasser didn't ask me for a book review or a testimonial; he
just asked if I'd write a little about the origins of control
theory as we use it. Having exercised my freedom of speech, I
suppose I'd better do as he asked. My path to understanding has
been devious, and I've worked alone for the most part, so this is
a personal story even though others have influenced and taught me
in degrees from a little to a lot.

Warren McCullouch first influenced me when I was in high school.
His daughter Taffy joined my class, and I became aware of her
father, a tall figure with a long straggly beard and fiery eyes
that scared the hell out of me. McCullouch lived in a house that
Charles Addams could have drawn, and I was certain that I would
never be like that mysterious and crazy-looking man. A
neurosurgeon, I heard--brrr! A theoretician--yuck!

He was in fact a famous neurologist who was already a leading
figure in cybernetics, of which I had never heard. Some of his
friends and colleagues were named Pitts, Ashby, Von Foerster, and
Wiener--Norbert Wiener, who while I was fresh out of high school
and immersed in learning electronics for the sake of World War II,
was starting cybernetics and launching this scientific revolution
that is still developing. None of these people knew me, but five
years later, in 1950, I came to know of them. I read most of what
they wrote, and was hooked.

In 1953 I became convinced that the phenomenon of feedback and
especially automatic control based on feedback held the key to a
new understanding of human nature. With only a BS in physics and no
funds for graduate school, I resolved to work on this new theory in
my spare time, earning a living in the fields of technology that I
knew. That approach became a habit; I'm still working at honest
labor and being a theoretician on the side, although my family
might disagree with that order of priorities. In retrospect I can
see that there was no other choice. My path diverged enough from
the paths followed by others that there was no way to pursue my
work in more conventional surroundings. Scientific revolutions are
not popular among their victims. There are good reasons why
theoreticians often work alone.

You've never heard of R. K. Clark (until now), but I owe this to
him. From 1953 to 1960 he headed a department of medical physics in
which I worked, and provided the means and the intellectual support
needed for my first concentrated work on my version of control
theory. Many parts of this theory were probably contributed by Bob
Clark, and I've never properly acknowledged this in print. My first
scientific paper on this theory was published in 1960 with Clark
and MacFarland (who provided some official blessing as a

From 1960 to 1973 I worked on electronic systems at Northwestern

University's department of astronomy, finally producing a book
called _Behavior: The control of Perception_. That book earned me
some recognition, and circulated about for a few years until it
eventually reached Bill Glasser, who seems to have been waiting for
it. He'll tell you what happened next, as soon as I'm through here.

You'll probably want to know how control theory stands today in the
world of competing scientific theories. I'd say it's just getting
to its feet. During the past seven years I've been invited to speak
at universities all over the country, to linguists, philosophers,
anthropologists, sociologists, and even psychologists. Scientific
journals seem quite willing to publish what I write on the subject.
Especially among the younger people, students and faculty, there is
a positive enthusiasm for control theory once the basic ideas are
understood. All told I'd guess that there are now two or three
hundred full-fledged life scientists who have accepted my approach
and are at least rolling up their sleeves getting ready to start
trying it out seriously.

In Philip Latham's wry words, the "grizzled veterans of a thousand
seminars" still sit in the back rows and frown. I can't see any
easy way to win them over. A lifetime of dedication to one point of
view makes it hard to grasp a different one, much less accept it.
I don't hold their reluctance or apprehension against them, because
basically I agree that science shouldn't latch onto new ideas
without a great deal of skepticism. Those of us who see the promise
of control theory can be confident that its day is coming, but
still a little more patience yet is needed.

One last word. I've found that most people take about two years to
reach the point where they suddenly realize that they understand
the basic concepts of control theory. It takes about a week for
them to _think_ they understand it. After the initial
understanding, don't be dismayed if a host of questions and
confusions arise; they always arise, because of beliefs that are in
conflict with the principles of control theory, but which don't
turn up until you encounter appropriate situations. Most of these
confusions and questions will clear themselves up as you continue
to think. The right answer always turns out to be the simplest one.
Just keep returning to one basic principle: _we control what we
perceive, not what actually exists, and not what we do_.

The meaning of that principle will grow deeper the longer you think
of it, and the more situations you encounter in which it clearly
holds true.

I'm beginning to lecture, and that's my signal to turn the floor
over to the author. Tell them, Bill (Glasser).

William T. Powers
May 13, 1980