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Chinese Quote from Laws of Form Chinese Quote from Laws of Form


Laws of Form
G. Spencer Brown
Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Julian Press/NY in 1972

A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©1999


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This book has had a monumental effect on my life since I first read it sometime about 1977. It is couched in abstract mathematical terms, in fact, so abstract that one has trouble at times holding any meaning from the terms. But the very abstractness of the Laws of Form engenders a pervasiveness of application that is extraordinarily useful. In this prefatory note, Brown says:

[page v] The theme of this book is that a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance. The act is itself already remembered, even if unconsciously, as our first attempt to distinguish different things in a world where, in the first place, the boundaries can be drawn anywhere we please.

After presenting his definition and two axioms, I will state simply the first two laws of form, and then indicate how I have come to apply them to the field of psychological science.

[page 1] Definition: Distinction is perfect continence.

Axiom 1. The law of calling. The value of a call made again is the value of thecall.

Axiom 2. The law of crossing. The value of a crossing made again is not the value of the crossing.

The primal distinction is the drawing of a boundary so that a point on one side cannot reach the other except by crossing the boundary. The mark of the boundary is Token. The mark can be used to designate the value of the content which may include a motive, intention, or instruction to cross the boundary into content. Using the mark of the distinction, Brown states his two laws of form which derive directly from the axioms as:

First Law of Form: First Law of Form . [called the form of condensation]

Second Law of Form: SecondLaw of Form . [called the form of cancellation or annihilation]

The equal sign may be understood to mean "is confused with" or "can be replaced by." If we reverse the sides of the equation, the First Law of Form becomes the form of replication and the Second Law of Form becomes the form of creation.

There are four forms of psychological realities in the world of the individual - one is a process that when applied to itself creates more of itself, or simply extends itself by continuing in operation. Included in this category are all the conscious or non-spontaneous processes which, when they are applied to themselves, create more of themselves. Also included is the "More of the Same" processes that some neurotics follow in their "Pursuit of Unhappiness," which is the subtitle of the Watzlawick book referenced below. That is shown in the "reversed form of the First Law."

Reversed Form of the First Law: Reversed First Law of Form . [replication.]

In the normal form of the First Law are the processes that when applied merge into a union or condensation. These processes lead to groups of realities or processes forming into one unity like a Bose-Einstein Condensate. [See ARJ: Quantum Self by Dana Zohar.] Where there were formerly two or more there is now one: the more is now like the more of a chord or choir singing as one note or one voice.

First Law of Form: First Law of Form . [called the form of condensation]

On the other hand there is the complementary category which contains the unconscious or spontaneous processes. When the processes from this second category are applied to themselves, the process is instantly annihilated. This leads us to the very useful process named by Paul Watzlawick as the "Be Spontaneous Paradox." [See ARJ: The Situation is Hopeless, but not Serious ]That is shown diagrammatically in the Second Law of Form.

Second Law of Form: Second Law of Form .[ annihilation]

In the last form is the process of creation in which something comes from nothing in the process of making a primal distinction. When Newton aligned the falling motion of the apple to the Earth with that of the Moon to the Earth, he made a vital distinction in which all falling motions were distinguished from other kinds of motion and thus created the Law of Gravity. Where there was formerly non-sense, Newton brought sense.

Reversed Form of the Second Law: Reversed Second Law of Form [creation]

In the beginning of the Notes Section of the book, Brown writes about Chapter 2:

[page 77] It may be helpful at this stage to realize that the primary form of mathematical communication is not description, but injunction. In this respect it is comparable with practical art forms like cookery, in which the taste of a cake, although literally indescribable, can be conveyed to a reader in the form of a set of injunctions called a recipe. Music is a similar art form, the composer does not even attempt to describe a set of sounds he has in mind, much less the set of feeling occasioned through them, but writes down a set of commands which, if they are obeyed by the reader, can result in a reproduction, to the reader of the composer's original experience.

In doyletics the instructions for doing a doyle trace take a similar injunctive form, and the tracer, by following the trace instructions, can reproduce the tracer's original experience in a cognitive memory form. Stated simply, a musician by executing a piece of music re-creates the composer's original experience. One executing a doyle trace re-creates one's own original experience and thereby converts it into a cognitive memory.

When that original experience occurred, i.e., before one is five years old, a doyle was stored in one's primitive memory system (doylic memory) for the very reason that one's cognitive memory system was not fully developed at that time. Later, after five years old, when one is experiencing the doyle, if one places oneself systematically back in time to earlier and earlier ages until the doyle disappears, one has effectively erased or annihilated the doyle. The doyle is not really erased, but rather it never arises again upon presentation of the same stimuli that previously evoked it, thus it is effectively erased. What has happened is the following: the original event, when one returned to before the original event occurred, was converted into a cognitive memory, since by definition, one's cognitive memory is now operational because one is older than five, and it is a more efficient means of storing the original event.

One does not know beforehand, that is, before the trace, at what age the original event occurred. One has only the current doyle and the current age at which it is occurring. One begins at the current age and current doyle and, holding the doyle constant, begins to vary the time marks or age by placing oneself at systematically earlier time marks or ages until the doyle disappears. One caveat: for various reasons the doyle may seem to taper off or disappear before one reaches the time mark of five years old, and when that happens, one must re-trigger the doyle, either by thought or by external stimulus. That may involve recalling the recent event that triggered the doyle, or re-presenting to one's senses the sensory data that triggered the doyle, such as a taste, smell, visual, auditory, muscle tensions, or bodily positions.

One continues back in time until the doyle disappears and no effort to re-trigger the doyle is successful. When that happens one can deduce the original event as having occurred between the two ages or time marks when the doyle disappeared. If, for example, the doyle was still present at age four and, when one went to age three, the doyle disappeared, then the original event occurred at the age of three years old. All we can deduce is that the original event occurred sometime during the age of three.

As soon as the doyle has disappeared, one should ask oneself the following question, "What is a plausible thing that could have happened to me during that time period [from three to four] that would have stored this doyle that I have just traced?" When one asks this question, one's brain is presented with the option of either returning a cognitive memory or creating a nonexistent event in answer to the question. Since feeding up a cognitive memory is an easier task, one can expect the brain will take the path of least resistance and return a cognitive memory which has the following specifications: age three and that doyle just traced. That completely specific the original event. Thus, by using the very techniques of doyle tracing, one has not only removed the unwanted doyle, but one has retrieved the original event newly stored as a cognitive memory for the first time just moments before. Retrieving the original event is not necessary for the doyle trace to be effective: the doyle will still never be evoked upon presentation of the original triggering stimuli, but retrieval of that original event will confirm to oneself instantly that the doyle trace was effective, without need for any future testing. If the trace was done with the assistance of a trainer, it is very useful for the trainer to suggest that the tracer ask the plausibility question immediately upon completion of the doyle trace, i. e., as soon as the tracking back to earlier ages is terminated because the doyle has disappeared.

To summarize: a doyle trace is a set of injunctions, that is, instructions that direct, prescribe, or impose an order on one's actions, that lead one to recover in cognitive form an original and unique event in one's life before five years old with the salubrious result that the unwanted doyles will no longer arise upon one's encountering the stimuli that previously triggered them.

Later Brown tells us on page 79 that, "We cannot fully understand the beginning of anything until we see the end." My wife and I watched the movie Saving Private Ryan last night for the second time and she mentioned how much it added to the depth with which she watched the first part of the movie to have already seen the last part of the movie when we see the young James Ryan morph into the old James Ryan on Normandy Beach a half century later. For the same reason a piece of music will return to the key note with which it first began after its foray through the circle of fifths.

Achaan Chah recommends that if we must cling that we cling only to the "suffering that ends all suffering," [See ARJ: A Still Forest Pool.]by which he means meditation. To further relate the Laws of Form to doyletics, it occurs to me that a doyle trace is an application of the Second Law of Form. It is an example of a "suffering that leads to the end of suffering." It is equivalent to the six o'clock position of my Cycle of Creation [See Article "Art is the Process of Destruction"] where Destruction is placed. Destruction, which dissolves Sameness and eradicates kitsch, is the same process as the suffering that leads to the end of suffering.

This Second Law of Form can be used to remove any spontaneous process by giving a command to perform it. This form is used so often by parents and others to prevent the very behaviors they wish to occur, that it seems some expansion is necessary on the subject. Here are some common examples: "Smile!" "Drink your milk and enjoy it!" "Go to sleep." "Tell me you love me." How much better it would be if they understood the implications of what they're doing and began to appreciate the possibilities inherent in applying the process to create desired behaviors in their loved ones: "Please frown until I get the camera ready." "You can stay awake as long as you want as long as you stay quietly in bed with the light out."

More subtle are the applications of the second law to some processes that when operated on themselves wipe themselves out. Here are two examples: Resistance and Judgment. The important thing, however, is not to have examples, but to understand the process so that, on the spot, you will be able to figure out if the process you want wiped out is of this nature. If someone is resisting doing something you would like them to do, get them thinking about what they're doing with you at the moment and ask them if they find doing that irresistible. A similar thing applies for judgment: if you try to judge your judging you will find it impossible and your judging will stop. To work this on someone else is a bit tricky, but sometimes simply commenting, "Look at what you're doing." will suffice to get them to apply their ubiquitous judging process on their very process of judging and thereby stop it.

The key to applying these two laws of form to psychological daily realities is figure out whether the process you want more of or want less of is covered by the First or the Second Law of Form. If applying the process to itself creates more of the process, it's the First kind, whereas if applying the process to itself wipes out or at least completely interrupts the process for a while, it's the Second kind.

There are some people who will resist any suggestion you give them. For them you can stop any process they're doing usually by earnestly requesting more of it. They seem to operate within the Second Law in all the things they do. Fortunately they're easy to spot. Another easy-to-spot type is the kind that finds an objection to every suggestion you make to them. This type can be identified quickly by their repetitive use of the response, "Yes, but . . ." A favorite technique of mine was one that I honed on a Crisis Line job. One counselor I knew would spend hours of frustration on the line with these callers, who were never in an emergency crisis. To assist such callers quickly and effectively, as soon as I identified one of these types, I'd offer as many quick suggestions as I could think of, then after a long series of "Yes, but's" I'd pause, and say in my earnest voice, "In all my years of counseling people, I must tell you that in my professional opinion, your case is hopeless." Then I'd pause and wait for them to respond. Invariably, they stutter a bit, and say something like, "Yes, but . . but . . maybe I ..." and offer some reworked bit of advice I or someone else had given them. I'd listen and then say, "Yes, that might work for somebody else, but could it work for you?" I'd maintain their own "Yes, but . . ." stance from then on and they would pull themselves into considering real alternatives to their problem.

At the top of my Cycle of Creation wheel in the 12 o'clock position is Creation [In my to-be-published essay "Art is the Process of Destruction"]. Creation leads to replications of itself and conforms with the First Law of Form. It is also the same process as the suffering that leads to more suffering. An artist who copies the style of another artist experiences a struggle in self-understanding that will never end for the simple reason that they are living in someone else's reality. Only by Destruction (six o'clock position of the Cycle of Creation) of the models, paradigms, and styles that impinge on one from the exterior, can one come to understand oneself in a process that leads to a resolution of the struggle to understand, to an end of suffering. Often in email posts, I will use the closing "in freedom and light" and what I mean by freedom can be thought of as the suffering that leads to the end of suffering, because it is no small feat always to ask permission and show gratitude when using others' ideas. By light I mean the Light of Christ which radiates from His suffering to end all suffering in His deed on Golgotha.

In the opening paragraph of this review I mentioned that the Laws of Form were couched in abstract terms. This leads to an elegance in performing the calculations, which makes it easy to use, and to "an elegance in the descriptive context, which can make it hard to follow." (Page 82) Symbols are more complicated than signs, as anyone who has delved into Jung's analytic psychology will readily attest. Simply put, a sign points to one thing and a symbol points to an unspecified number of things. With this as prologue, the following passage from Chapter 2 may be better understood. The token is and the instruction referred to is in this command: "let the crossing be to the state indicated by the token."

[page 81] This double carry of name-with-instruction and instruction-with-name is usually referred to (in the language of mathematics) as a structure in which ideas or meanings degenerate. We may also refer to it ( in the language of psychology) as a place where the ideas condense in one symbol. It is this condensation which gives the symbol its power. For in mathematics, as in other disciplines, the power of a system resides in its elegance (literally, its capacity to pick out or elect), which is achieved by condensing as much as is needed into as little as is needed, and so making that little as free from irrelevance (or from elaboration) as is allowed by the necessity of writing it out and reading it in with ease and without error.

How powerful is this token, this simple symbol: Token ? Here's what the G. Spencer Brown says about it in Appendix 2:

[page 117] For example, everything in pp 98-126 of Principia mathematica  can be rewritten without formal loss in one symbol Token provided, at this stage, the formalities of calculation and interpretation are implicitly understood, as indeed they are in Principia.

In addition to the conciseness that Brown's Laws of Form provide (he estimates a 40,000 to 1 reduction of those 28 pages to one symbol), they also lead to the ability to calculate using imaginary values of logic equations. Just as imaginary numbers are used everywhere in mathematics, physics, and engineering to produce real results, so does the use of imaginary values in logic equations lead to real results.

[page 99] The fact that imaginary values can be used to reason towards a real and certain answer, coupled with the fact that they are not so used in mathematical reasoning today, and also coupled with the fact that certain equations plainly cannot be solved without the use of imaginary values, means that there must be mathematical statements (whose truth or untruth is in fact perfectly decidable) which cannot be decided by the methods of reasoning to which we have hitherto restricted ourselves.

One can attempt to solve the equation: px2 + qx + r = 0 by writing it in recursive form by "subverting the equation" as Brown calls it, that is, solving the equation in terms of itself, thus:

x = -a + [-b/x]

where the entire value of x to the right of the equation is systematically substituted into the x under -b on the right side. Thus, the value of x may be said to "in-form" itself.

[page 100] Such an expression is thus informed in the sense of having its own form within it, and at the same time informed in the sense of remembering what has happened to it in the past.

When one is calculating a recursive or subverted equation such as the one above, one always reaches an endpoint in which the value of x is determined and then is fed upwards into the equation until a solution is calculated. In an infinite sequence of such calculations, some limit on x or the number of recursions is specified, so that the calculation terminates in a reasonable time with acceptable accuracy.

We humans are in-formed by what happened to us in the past, by our personal history which includes both our cognitive memories and our doyles. A doyle trace is, in a sense, like solving a recursive equation: we work backwards without knowing the time mark of the original event, always assuming that there was one, till at some point below the Memory Transition Age (Five Years Old), the doyle that has been informing us disappears (i.e., reaches an acceptable lower limit) by being converted into a cognitive or conceptual memory. Brown's passage from page 99 helps to explain why the subverted form of the doyle trace is necessary: if we attempt to reason directly as to what happened to us before the age of five that led to this doyle being stored, we get nowhere. To do so is to attempt to use our cognitive memory to retrieve a memory that has not yet been stored in it. It's patently impossible to do so.

Yet this is usual method that persons attempt to use and then they wonder why they fail. Or how such a thing is possible. Here's a quote from someone recently that will illustrate the difficulty that people typically have in understanding this facet of doyletics: "So I do think there are some aspects I could address with your system - but can't quite see how to identify those things that might originate before the age of five." We can never quite see how to identify those things that might originate before the age of five for the simple reason that we had no cognitive memory before five with which to identify such things! It is reasonable to attempt to use one's cognitive memory thus, but it just won't work. There are exceptional circumstances in which such an attempt seems to work, but as I point out in The Trauma of Birth, what actually occurred was an unconscious doyle trace, either in daily life, or, e. g., during many sessions in psychoanalysis. Food dislikes are easily traced by doyletics, and yet most food-dislikes disappear as many people simply grow older. That can be taken as hard evidence that unconscious doyle traces go on all the time. I dare say that people are attracted to certain entertainments, amusements, and occupations for the singular reason that, sooner or later, they hope, if they can just continue to trigger these same persistent doyles in themselves, they will be able eventually see how to identify those things that happened to them before the age of five!

We fail with both direct and indirect approaches for the simple reason that we need to solve first for the time (age) of the original event, and that can only be done by tracing, in a subverted form, to a time (age) when the doyle is no longer present, at which point we will have bracketed the time (age) of the original event between the two time marks: one where the doyle was present and the next one where it disappeared, e.g., ages three and four.

A common plot in movies is similar to one I saw the other night: this magician did death-defying acts, Houdini-fashion, until, after he nearly lost his life, he discovered that his twin brother as a child did not die in the refrigerator due to his negligence, but had been rescued by the estranged father and kidnaped. His hope was to reconstruct the events of his twin's supposed death, for him to personally experience going through those feelings over and over again, and it eventually led to his lost twin as an adult relocating him. We as individuals are like those twins: one of us, our pre-five-year-old self was lost in a locked fridge, and we cannot guess what happened to our lost twin because we have no cognitive memory of the event. So we continually and unconsciously find ourselves in that same fridge [life situations] as our lost twin [our pre-five-year-old self] and hope that this time a cognitive memory will pop out. It hardly ever does with the exceptions noted above.

What does work systematically and quickly is to place ourselves consciously into that fridge, and go back in time by saying, "I'm the age I am now, say x and I'm in the fridge (experiencing this doyle).", "I'm x-10 years old and experiencing this doyle." Each time you go back ten years you are subverting the equation of you and furthering the process of moving recursively to locate the age you were when that doyle was stored. You locate that age by going back before the age in this subverted way. The doyle disappears when you go before the original event and a new cognitive memory of the original event is created in your brain. You can immediately access this cognitive memory by asking this simple question,

"What's a plausible thing that could have happened to me at that age?"

Only you can ask that question and interpret the results. Your brain will return the cognitive memory that you just asked for right away because it's easier for the brain to return a memory trace that is already there than to make up a new one. Taking the path of least resistance, your brain will return the original event in some form that will make sense to you, given everything else you know about your personal history at that age. Your brain will return the cognitive memory of the original event to you because you asked the question in the right way at the right time. Previously you couldn't get an answer because no cognitive memory existed. Previously you didn't know what age you needed to ask the question about. Both these questions have answers available to them by virtue of a successful doyle trace.

We are all constructed, like Indra's Mirrors, of reflections inside of reflections, of recursions inside of recursions, like the physicist who Brown tells us is trying to describe the composition of the physical world:

[page 105] Now the physicist himself, who describes all this, is, in his own account, himself constructed of it. He is, in short, made of a conglomeration of the very particulars he describes, no more, no less, bound together by and obeying such general laws as he himself has managed to find and to record.

Thus we cannot escape the fact that the world we know is constructed in order (and thus in such a way as to be able) to see itself.

Those of us left unsure of our recursive nature would do well to pay heed to G. Spencer Brown's words:

[page 106] We, as universal representatives, can record universal law far enough to say "and so on, and so on you will eventually construct the universe, in every detail and potentiality, as you know it now; but then, again, what you will construct will not be all, for by the time you will have reached what now is, the universe will have expanded into a new order to contain what will be."

This is the essence of the evolution of consciousness, rightly understood, and the evolution of consciousness is furthered by each individual human being who undertakes the process of understanding the universe. We may each thank G. Spencer Brown for furthering our understanding of the universe by creating this fine book in which he formulates and explains how to use his Laws of Form.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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