Adam Blatner

January 16, 2007

Although there are words for meaning, self, society, family, happiness, and other experiences, we should recognize that these are states of mind are not a single phenomena, but rather they are the product of many— possibly hundreds—of component experiences of a variety of types. There is no “thing-ness” to such phenomena, but rather they should be noted to be, first, experiences, products of the mind. Second, these phenomena are not just one formula, theory, or anything that can be simply defined. Although people write about them as if they can be so encompassed, each of these are really something far more complex and subtle.

As an example, the concept of self has been described in many ways. On another paper on this website, I analyze this concept and note that self is an illusion that emerges out of scores of various operations at the level of body, mind, and socio-cultural and physical environment. It is an aggregate experience. Similarly, I hint at this idea in other papers on this website about meaning in life. However, the term, “aggregate experience,” has occurred to me more recently, and, I think, adds something to our understanding of such phenomena..

Number and Density of Connections

People are continuously interacting with their environment in thousands of subliminal ways. We stretch and move to make our musculo-skeletal system feel comfortable, we occasionally take a deeper breath, we greet others and feel more or less known by how others greet us. The psychiatrist Eric Berne, who originated a school of psychology and therapy called “Transactional Analysis” (rather popular in the 1970s), coined the term “strokes” for these social exchanges. Berne suggested that people need a certain number of strokes or their figurative spines would shrivel! I agree with his intuition, and want to elaborate on it.

First, we should recognize that the sense of connection and participation can be temporarily satisfied by pseudo-connections, substitutes. Television and other media can give people a sense that they are alive and involved when in fact they are only barely functioning, lost in a world of spectatorship and supported perhaps by the associated reinforcement of junk food.

Working from this, there are many cultural pastimes that similarly generate strokes. Let’s imagine that most folks need perhaps a thousand strokes a day, of some kind. For some, food is a stroke, for others, alcohol or drugs open the mind to the feelings of exchanging strokes, of heightened sensitivity and sociability, even if that’s not what is actually happening. All the compulsions and addictions, major and minor, serve this function!

Depth and Relevance of Elements

It’s not just a matter of numbers, though I think that too thin or too thick a density also creates problems, but the elements involved also carry different weights. I suspect that people who fill their lives with what they sense to be superficialities suffer from a deeper connectedness to a sense of meaning, or at least vividness of meaning. This undoubtedly varies, but often it helps to have some investment and actual interactions with themes, books, people, and activities that are felt to be more relevant, emotionally or philosophically or spiritually meaningful. For many, this is one of the functions of religion.

The variable of strokes interpersonally are also weighted towards those who are given more relevance because of status, emotional connection, need, being needed, and other variables of bonding and attraction. A word of praise from a parent who isn’t overly generous with such phrase carries more weight emotionally than praise from an acquaintance given to be undiscriminatingly generous with approval.

Meaning and Coherence

A related and overlapping dimension has to do with the sense of meaning. Again, the number sense to be considered here is in the hundreds or thousands, the number of mental images, cognitive constructs, stories, beliefs, known facts that the mind must connect with in order to generate a sufficient sense of coherence. If these images resist organization into a meaningful whole, if they are too disparate, then a deeply disturbing feeling results. This may operate unconsciously, because there are few words in our culture, and there is a degree of shame associated with this condition. For a while, the existential philosophers and writers called it the “absurd,” and the feeling was also associated with “angst” and “alienation.”

I think this feeling drives people to seek meaning, and to spend a fair amount of time reviewing those ideas and associations that, when woven together, confer a sense of meaningful story. For some, this may involve Bible study, and for others, reading about history or science. The point to be made is that it is the volume of interactions, not the content or cleverness of a single formula, that operates here.

For some, paradoxically, focusing on a more limited number of themes, as in a “mantra” or repeated prayer, serves as a simplifying agent that gathers together all of the previous social, emotional, and cognitive experiences. The narrative or story behind the meaning operates as a subtle background or foundation for what may seem to be a starkly austere practice. In fact, though, depth is being sought instead of breadth, the input and exchange may be subtle, but in terms of the economy of “strokes,” there is still an intensity of experience that must be achieved in order to maintain optimal psychological satisfaction.

The Experience of the Divine

I think we should recognize that our notions of God are also constructed as an aggregate experience. For most people, this notion is only slightly affected by the writings of theologians. A few more intellectual folks require a more tightly reasoned and argued conceptualization, but even then, many other components are in play that they may not consciously admit. For example, facing inner contradictions in their own religion, they work out ways of resolving them rather than face the obvious alternatives: (1) check out another religion—but those, too, tend to be laden with cultural elements that seem even more disconcertingly foreign; (2) forget religion, but this is to enter a world without the many supportive functions of one’s own roots; (3) construct one’s own religion, but it is questionable whether most people are able to marshal the components that would support this. In fact, of course, the problems of religion not infrequently drive people to explore the first two alternatives, but the point here is that we should take into account not only the intellectual objections, but equally if not more importantly, the shifts in social connections, the feeling of the relationships involved in belonging to a meaning-making community.

In calling attention to the aggregate nature of many experiences, including religion, or how we think about God, I am not presuming to make any statements about the “out-there” Deity. Our culture, and to some degree our basic makeup, tends to objectify, to project our inner experience outward onto the world. We tend to think of such categories as “out there,” and an argument could be made for there being “something” beyond the individual mind’s construction. However, we should more clearly recognize that a great deal of what is thought to be out there is elaborated and developed, interpreted and subjected to other feelings and images within the mind of the individual. Nor should the influence of the family, tribe, rituals, and cultural beliefs and narratives be underestimated. Thus, while I am not interested in engaging in a theological discussion about the nature of the Transcendent Realm associated with the word, “God,” I think it’s important to consider the psycho-cultural nature of this phenomenon. This paper, then, resonates with the following anecdote: Once, when Carl Jung was asked, “You’ve studied comparative religion for many years. What can you tell us about God?” he replied, “I don’t know anything about God. I only know what people think about God.”

These categories in fact are not discreet but overlap with each other. The pioneering sociologist Emile Durkheim noted that for many people society functioned as a god. I agree, with the modification that this may not be all there is to it, but the point to be noted is that for many people, the social input, the power of belonging, of sharing, of feeling together, this is significant.

Our culture has become in many ways too individualistic, making the “loner” somewhat of a hero, and the man who refuses to be “tied down” somewhat glamorous. There are these archetypal tendencies towards freedom, triumphing over the opposite tendencies to sacrifice one’s individuality in order to belong. Sometimes, the culture over-values one over the other. The point here is that we have collectively come to think of people as more separate than they are, to deny the degree to which human nature is familial and tribal.

(Part of this is due to the industrial revolution and the tendency to treat people as replaceable parts in a machine. The cost of leaving family and village-tribe is denied by both the factory owner and the worker himself, but the loss of social connectedness takes its toll.)

Other Collectives

I see spirituality and religion as being associated in the mind with the phenomenon of the collective, the way an individual is related to family, tribe, vocation, age, and other demographic, interest, or aesthetic category. (By aesthetics, I refer to anything that evokes pleasure or displeasure, and that goes beyond the more familiar categories of art, nature, and music. It includes sports, play, humor, curiosity, interest, intellectual challenge, dialogue, cuddling, hot tubs, rock climbing, and so forth.) To be for a cause, caught up in the need to keep one’s ethnic roots alive, sentimentally holding on to a house or a trinket, all these participate in the aggregate experiences of self, meaning, and belonging. For more on collectives, see the other webpage that addresses this subject.


The point to emphasize here is that we should recognize that a single formulation, insight, or even interpersonal influence is rarely sufficient to move people deeply. Generally, there needs to be a host of reinforcing experiences, often involving a range of modalities. For this reason, people feel grounded in, say, their religion, ethnicity, family, and so forth according to connections that are infused with taste, smell, the sense of place, history, stories, social networks and their meanings (e.g., who is a good example of what quality, and who is a bad example), feeling useful, needed, appreciated, really seen, heard, and understood, known, recognized for one’s efforts, the relevance of the cause or purpose of the collective, and so forth.

One of my continuing discoveries is in the direction of what so many other sciences seem to be doing, explosing the depth and extent of the complexity of our world. I hope that this concept of aggregate experience helps to clarify our understanding of the many dimensions of our life and how they interpenetrate and interact with each other.

I am open to your feedback, suggestions about what other kinds of aggregate experiences I may have overlooked, and comments .  A nice thing about a webpage is that I can revise it. Email me at

Return to Top