The consequences for our sense of self in the world of change that exceeds our capacity to make meaning of it.

Human growth and development is governed by the open systems principle that all biological systems must gain energy and information to increase their coherence and the complexity of themselves as systems by constantly and continuously are engaging with the world.  Failure to gain information leads to the dissipation of the system’s coherence and the complexity of its organization, in the extreme death.  By contrast success brings growth and development, though it is inevitably time limited.  But open systems theory is ‘cold’ whereas human functioning and experience is hot. 

I propose a ‘hot’ version of the first cold principle in a phenomenological experiential form:  Humans are continuously attempting to gain meaningful information that increases their sense of self in relation to the world of people and things and to their own self, such that when they are successful they experience the deep pleasure of being in the world, what Jung and Davillier speak of as a numinous experience when they are uniquely successful, along with feelings of expansion and connectedness.  Failure to gain meaning is experienced as ominous and as shrinking of the sense of self, what Klein thought of as the experience of annihilation.  Infants make meaning without language or symbols using psychobiological meaning making processes including behavior, neuroendocrines, and genetics; that is they make meaning with somatic systems.    

The psychobiological meaning making processes of infancy continue to function into adulthood but other powerful processes, language, self-awareness, abstract thought  come into play.  Infant or adult all make meaning in their actions on the world and often more successfully when interacting with others.  Indeed deprived of meaning making with others they cannot form what Erikson called an Identity, a sense of self that extends and incorporates the world, especially the sociocultural world.  Additionally, others provide meaningful information and regulatory resources to the individual to scaffold their meaning making processes.  Unfortunately, when the pace and push of events and change comes at a rate and rhythm that individuals cannot successfully organize into their in the moment coherent sense of self in the world, what Piaget referred to as a failure of assimilation or accommodation, they either become inflexible in an attempt to preserve the remaining coherence of their sense of self in order to contain and fight off the experience of annihilation,  Freud might call this becoming defensive.  Or they become incoherent and dysregulated, what Modell sees as a psychic catastrophe , a shattering of the sense of self in the world, a coming apart.  Either way of becoming might now be seen as a lack of resilience in the face of threat. 

How to succeed in creating a coherent sense of self in the face of the challenges our sense of self confronts now, is not clear, but at the very least it will involve processes of social engagement, not unlike parental scaffolding and buffering of the infant as it faces the world, between and among people.  Accepting that scaffolding demands what Fonagy thinks of as a shared epistemic trust and the issue becomes one of knowing how to create trust in and with the other.  The talk will be illustrated using videos of infants and children in meaning making engagements.



  1. The participants will learn the fundamental principle governing the functioning of open biological systems, including humans.
  2. The participants will learn the experiential effects of how success or failure to gain meaning about their self in relation to the world and to their own selves.
  3. The participants will learn how psychobiological systems are part of the meaning making process.
  4.  The participants will learn the mismatch-reparation-match model of meaning making in infant/adult-adult interaction
  5. The participants will learn about the critical role of social processes in scaffolding the psychobiological meaning making process.