MOL paper

[From Bill Powers (990802.0836 MDT)]

The following is the text of a handout I prepared for the MOL (Method of
Levels) workshop that preceded the CSG conference this year.


The Method of Levels
An overview for a workshop
By Bill Powers
July 18-21, 1999

The method of levels is an experimental approach to counselling or
psychotherapy. Its bases are Hierarchical Perceptual Control Theory and the
naturalistic observation that a person's consciousness can apparently
operate from different viewpoints within the brain's organization. The
objective of this method is to draw a person's attention to perceptions at
levels higher than perceptions in the primary or central focus of
attention. When a level shift has occurred, the same process is repeated,
and so on for as many times as possible or useful.

This simple procedure seems to facilitate therapeutic change , with
productive sessions lasting only about half an hour or even less. In this
workshop we will describe and demonstrate how this method works in practice
and teach participants how to direct an MOL session, with and without
coaching, participating as both guide and explorer.

At the end of this workshop, participants should understand the method well
enough to test it by themselves when they return home. One approach that
has worked well is for individuals to organize discussion groups in which
they pass on what they have learned and gain experience with each other,
trading roles to develop their understanding of both sides of the process.
We hope that this will lead to an internet discussion group aimed at
further supporting the application and teaching of the MOL.

How the method may work

Most people have had the experience of being engaged in some train of
thought or conversation, while at the same time being aware of a background
thought, attitude, or feeling as a commentary about the foreground
experience. It's as though a person can operate at two levels of attention
at once, with the second "meta" level being less vivid and explicit than
the first. While this second level can be like an intruding thought about
something completely different, it is often about the first level in some
way, or about the person in whom the thoughts at the first level are

This phenomenon may have something to do with the basic organization of the
brain as envisioned in Hierarchical Perceptual Control Theory, or HPCT.
According to this theory, the brain is organized into layers of control
systems, one control system at one level operating by adjusting the goals
toward which some set of systems at lower levels works. At the same time,
the perception that the higher system is controlling is made up from sets
of perceptions at lower levels.

For example, a perceived relationship like "The pencil on the table" is
composed of perceptions of objects - the pencil and the table, which can
each be perceived independently of any relationship between them. In that
example, we can be aware of the pencil and the table as individual objects
without paying any attention to the "on" relationship, or we can be aware
of the "on" relationship specifically. When attention is on, say, the
pencil, we can be aware of its color, its size, the sharpness of its point,
any lettering on it, and so forth. In the backs of our minds, we may be
aware of other objects, and even of relationships among the objects, but
those perceptions are not clear and central. They only become the center of
attention when we perform a hard-to-describe act and somehow bring the
relationships into mental focus. Then we specifically notice the
relationship, the "on"-ness.

It's not difficult to see that the perception of "on-ness" may have been in
existence all the time, even though not in conscious awareness. And it may
even be possible that some control process may have been going on, in which
"on"-ness was being controlled (putting the pencil on the table), but that
one's attention was on finding and picking up the right pencil to put on
the table. Although unlikely in this simple example, it could be that some
difficulty or misunderstanding had arisen about which pencil was to go on
the table, and that in working out this problem the person's attention had
focused on the characteristics of the pencil to the exclusion of the
purpose involved in finding the right pencil.

In that case, the process of finding and picking up the pencil might be in
the foreground of attention, while the reason for wanting to do so has
retired into the background. Most people have experienced this, too. Have
you ever found yourself looking into a closet or a refrigerator and
wondering what brought you there? After a moment you become aware of the
purpose, and answer your own question, but in the time just before you
remind yourself, you're in an interesting condition of pursuing some goal
but not being aware of the higher goal that led to the setting of the lower

When we consider things like getting a shirt out of a closet, this kind of
episode doesn't seem very important. But suppose that what you find
yourself doing is feeling an instant dislike for someone you have just met.
You do not want to talk to this person or even be around this person - and
you don't know why. Something inside you, clearly, is perceiving something
in this situation that is to be avoided, and as a way of avoiding it is
setting a goal of immediate departure or non-interaction, a goal which,
unsatisfied, leaves you with a great urge to be elsewhere. All you've
aware of, though, is the desire to get out of there.

At this point a psychologist might go into high gear and start speculating
about traumatic childhood incidents, phobias, guilt, and all sorts of other
possible explanations of this "irrational reaction." All sorts of
treatments might be suggested, from a prefrontal lobotomy to electroshock
to tranquilizers to desensitization therapy. But what we would look for
under the method of levels is simply the next level up. We would assume
that this goal of getting away is there for a reason, and the reason is
that a higher system has specified this goal as a way of controlling
something else.

Since we haven't the least idea about what this next higher system is or
what it's trying to accomplish, the best thing we can do is ask the person
having the problem. And rather than lead the person with suggestions and
analyses, what we really need to do is to help the person move to a point
of view from which the actual cause of the problem can be seen: the next
level up. Then the person can tell us the right answer, if he or she wants to.

This is the principle behind the method of levels. By directing a person's
attention to materials relating to the next level up, we effectively move
the person's attention to that level, from which perceptions and intentions
that were formerly in the background become a new foreground. If the
unexplained reason for the behaviors in question now shows up as a
foreground thought, the chances are that some kind of change will
immediately take place or begin to take place. The reason for the "phobic"
reaction may become immediately obvious ("My God, he talks just like that
son-of-a-bitch Uncle Charley"). Or nothing dramatic may happen, but the
person for some unknown reason loses interest in escaping the situation.
One of the typical and obvious consequences when a person succeeds in going
up a level is a complete and sudden change in the emotional content of

How an MOL session works

I've already suggested that in an MOL session, we don't try to psychologize
or advise or analyze, but instead focus on getting the person to go up a
level.. This may seem to be a vague and unhelpful description of what we
do, but in fact going up a level is an easily recognizable phenomenon both
to the guide and to the client. And for the most part, once the client
catches on, the client will let the guide know what the next level is.

The MOL is conducted as a rather peculiar kind of conversation between the
client and the guide (these terms, guide and client, are open to revision.
Some prefer guide and explorer). In this conversation, the client picks
some subject to talk about, quite likely some difficulty being experienced.
The guide asks questions aimed at getting more details about the subject of
discussion, but what the guide listens for are not the answers to those
questions. The guide listens for meta-comments that are about what is going
on: for example, a comment like "Am I doing this right?"

Pouncing on every meta-comment is not very productive, but the guide needs
to listen for more comments that help establish the nature of the
higher-level point of view. The client says , scattered here and there, "I
hope I'm doing what you want," and "I'm not sure I'm doing what I'm
supposed to," and "I hope I'm not being too dumb about this," and
eventually the guide will interpose another sort of comment: "Are you
unsure of what you're supposed to be doing? Tell me more about that."

To make it plain what's being asked, the guide can elaborate. "I'm just
asking what you're thinking or feeling about that right now, while we're
talking - not what you think in general, or might be experiencing, but what
you can see really going on in your mind right now. Just a kind of
observer's report." If that doesn't do the trick the guide can elaborate
further: "This unsureness - is that the right word? - are you feeling it
right now? Are you thinking thoughts about it? For example? Does any
physical feeling go with it?

Eventually the guide can get the client talking freely about the former
background thought, feeling, or attitude, so it really becomes the
foreground of the conversation. And as it becomes established in the
foreground, the guide starts listening again for meta-comments (or watching
for body language, or listening for tones of voice - any source of
information) that will point to the next level up.

And that's basically the method. That's all the guide does. The focus of
the method is not on helping the client or solving the client's problems or
making the client feel better or giving the client advice or encouragement
or prescribing behaviors for the client. The focus is entirely on getting
the client to go up a level, and when that happens, to go up another level.

How does a session end, then? Once again, the client lets you know. It's
unusual for a person to go up more than four or five levels in a session,
and it's often less than that. The session ends when the client expresses
satisfaction or progress or boredom or starts talking about lunch. It can
end with the guide saying, "I've kind of lost track of where we are - would
this be a good place to stop?" or "Would it be OK with you if we leave it
here until next time?" Sometimes the client likes to review the session,
noting the level shifts. Sometimes the guide, after the session has clearly
ended, asks what was going on at some point where he or she found the
proceedings mysterious.

In other words, there's no hard and fast rule.

Why is the method so limited and simple?

The short answer to that is that when we help other people, we seldom
really know what we're doing, so the best thing to do is as little as
possible. This principle is somewhat like the admonition in the Hippocratic
Oath: first, do no harm.

Perhaps a better, or more serious, answer is that there are dozens of
psychotherapies and probably hundreds of individual variations on how to
conduct them, yet in every psychotherapy there is some success rate.
Obviously, if one therapy is nondirective and another is highly
prescriptive, yet they both work, then directiveness or prescriptiveness
can't be an explanation of why they work. If one therapy uses operant
conditioning and another employs meditation, yet they both can help people
overcome phobias, then clearly neither operant conditioning nor meditation
explains their success.

The method of levels can be thought of as an attempt to express what is
common to most successful psychotherapies. Most interactive therapies
entail "listening with the third ear," meaning listening not just to what
the client is saying, but to the meta-content, the background, the
up-a-level comments. And most progress in therapy comes about when the
client has a sudden realization, sees the familiar old problem from a new
point of view, finds a new level of self-awareness. It has been said that
successful therapists, with experience and the passage of time, come to
conduct their business in more nearly the same way, regardless of their
theoretical foundations. They listen more and talk less. They analyze less.
They advise less. They lead less. They stand by while the client works it
out. They wait for the client to have the insight instead of trying to show
how brilliant they are (unlike Robbie Coltrane's psychologist character,

The method of levels is about as minimalist as one could imagine a
therapeutic method to be. Maybe it's too much so, but we'll never know that
until we try it. To mix it with any other approach is inevitably to confuse
matters, and of course makes it impossible to judge whether the MOL is
worth anything in its own right. The implication of the MOL is that most of
what goes on in other therapies is (a) unnecessary, and (b) possibly
detrimental. If you're a therapist, reading about the MOL will, I hope,
suggest to you that you ask yourself what the effect of your various
interventions is supposed to be, and how you know they are helping progress
in therapy. And I hope that in the interests of science you are willing to
suspend your customary approach long enough to test the method of levels in
as pure a form as possible.

Bill Powers
July 10, 1999

Date 8/3/99

Thanks for the paper. I intend to make copies and distribute it to all the
clinical staff at the residential treatment center where I work. We will
make it a topic at one of our monthly meetings. I will let you know what

In my work with DID( multiple personality) patients, they sometimes present
with fragmented experiences. A "body symptom" such as burning on the back
may happen. When the symptom is made the center of attention, the incident
in which occurs may all of a sudden be remembered. Would you consider this
to be an example of "going up a level?" I am guessing "no" because the
remembered information is not "a comment" about the experience fragment.


From: David M. Goldstein, Ph.D.
Subject: Re: MOL paper [From Bill Powers (990802.0836 MDT)]

[From Bill Powers (990803.0729 MDT)]

From: David M. Goldstein, Ph.D.
Subject: Re: MOL paper [From Bill Powers (990802.0836 MDT)]
Date 8/3/99

In my work with DID( multiple personality) patients, they sometimes present
with fragmented experiences. A "body symptom" such as burning on the back
may happen. When the symptom is made the center of attention, the incident
in which occurs may all of a sudden be remembered. Would you consider this
to be an example of "going up a level?" I am guessing "no" because the
remembered information is not "a comment" about the experience fragment.

The theory behind the MOL says that in order to describe the experiences
one has from a given point of view, one must view from a higher level than
the level at which the experience took place. An unexplained body symptom
such as you describe, I would think, would draw attention to itself pretty
strongly; the viewpoint would be that of simply experiencing it from some
level. When you ask the person for thoughts about the experience, the
person has to move to a level higher than the thoughts in order to describe

Your observation that doing this may suddenly reveal an associated memory
is interesting. As you know, in B:CP I speculated on the role of memory in
a control hierarchy, and proposed that there is memory associated with each
level of control, so that remembering will have a different sort of content
dependent on level. I didn't discuss the role of memory association, but I
did discuss associative addressing, in which memories are retrieved by
presenting the addressing system with some part of the data. In an
associative memory, this is how other data are retrieved. So, if only in a
tentative way, this suggests how attending to a fragment of an experience
might evoke other memories in which that fragmenht is a part. The concept
of level-specific memory suggests why going up (or down!) a level could
change the content of subjectively-accessible memory, and thus change the
effective associations.

I would agree that the evoked memory is not "going up a level." However, in
order to evoke it, the person must be asked for background experiences, and
we know that this tends very strongly to bring about a level shift. The new
memory may then arise before anything else is said from the new viewpoint.


Bill P.