Process Metapsychology

My intellectual endeavors have focused especially on trying to understand my experiences with altered states of consciousness, which powerfully shook me out of my dogmatic slumber. Beyond psychological explanations and phenomenological descriptions, what I ultimately was seeking was a way of incorporating these extraordinary experiences into a new worldview that made sense also of science and the everyday life-world. I finally discovered the paradigm I was looking for in the writings of Alfred North Whitehead and the related area of thought known as process philosophy. This essay briefly explores some of the ways that Whitehead’s philosophy might usefully serve as a foundation for the field of psychology. To illustrate this contention, I draw upon my own special areas of interest, including neuropsychology and transpersonal psychology: the study of spirituality and other extraordinary states and experiences.

Of central importance to psychology is Whitehead’s metaphysical generalization of “experience” to account for the fundamental make-up of all real entities in the universe. This is “radical empiricism,” in the Jamesean sense of the term (James 1996). By understanding experience in terms of the primitive reception, transformation, and unification of past activity into a new pulse or moment of “feeling,” Whitehead is able to use a single mode of interpretation for the many levels and types of entities that comprise our world—for example, subatomic particles, atoms, molecules, cells, and the various combinations they generate to make up the universe. Here, Charles Hartshorne drives home the significance of Whitehead’s philosophical innovation: “Causality, substance, memory, perception, temporal succession, modality, are all but modulations of one principle of creative synthetic experiencing, feeding entirely upon its own prior products. This I regard as the most powerful metaphysical generalization ever accomplished” (Hartshorne 1983, 107). Whitehead’s notion of prehension—the direct “feeling” of the feelings of other past actualities, or the feelings from within one’s own experience—provides a single unifying concept for understanding the essential nature of energy, sensation, memory, emotion, thought, and perception: this I regard as a metapsychological tour de force. To have one’s ideas flow seamlessly between the energy pulsations of physics, chemistry, and biology, and on through the human activities of memory, emotion, thinking, and perception and their objects, all within one coherent system of rationally interconnected concepts, is precisely what is needed in a discipline like psychology, which spans the diverse phenomena ranging all the way from molecular brain activity to mystical experience.

By interpreting the universe in terms of mostly unconscious, synthetic experiential activity, it is possible to understand not only the interactions between the molecular and cellular activity within the human body, but also how the body and mind, and the mind and world, can be in coherent relationship. In Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, the mind—or, more accurately, the psyche, or “dominant occasions”—is conceived of as a series of moments of experience synthesized primarily out of feelings of the brain’s neural activities. The dominant occasion is not merely the summation of brain activity, it is a novel subjective event with an existence beyond the brain matrix out of which it rises and falls. And although the dominant occasion is based primarily upon its feelings of neural activity, it also draws upon feelings from the entire body, its own past moments of experience, and the world at large. The key point is that through these interflowing feelings (“prehensions”) the dominant occasion is in continuous interaction with the brain’s neural events, and the rest of the body, albeit more vaguely. Through these feelings the brain and body exert causal influence on the dominant occasion and, reciprocally, the dominant occasion exerts a causal influence on them. Philosophically speaking, this is a monistic theory of substance, where all enduring entities are comprised of moments of “creative synthetic experiencing” in constant interaction with each other. (Perception of the outside world is similarly understood in terms of data transmitted by pulses of atomic and molecular events, which are then felt and synthesized by the neural occasions of the body’s sensory system.)

These questions of mind/body interaction, and how we have access to an objective world outside our minds, represent two of the most vexing metapsychological issues of the last several hundred years. Usually they are simply ignored by the field of psychology and declared beyond science’s province. This attitude seems wrongheaded and defeatist to me. By providing a coherent way of envisioning the basic relationship between our bodies and our psyches, as well as how we can obtain objective information about the world, I believe that Whitehead puts psychology on a solid foundation, something that until now has been sorely lacking. By using a generalized notion of human experience as the metaphysical paradigm of reality, Whitehead places psychology at the heart of scientific and philosophic inquiry.

Whitehead conceives of the nature of consciousness along the same lines as William James, America’s greatest psychologist, but in a more metaphysically coherent fashion. As with James, consciousness is understood not as a “thing,” but rather as a way of experiencing reality. Consciousness is defined as a mode of feeling, which occasionally arises out of the unconscious experiential activity of certain high-grade organisms. Therefore, Whitehead’s variety of “panpsychism” attributes primitive (unconscious) experiential activity to all actualities, but conscious experience only to highly complex organisms. This helps circumvent such problems as whether simple animals, or even plants and rocks, possess consciousness, which have been the undoing of less sophisticated panpsychist philosophies. Also bearing on this issue is Whitehead’s important distinction between the many types of social organization in the universe. For example, while animals generally possess a centrally organized social order, a tree is a more diffuse society, and a rock even more so. In the case of a rock, the question of experience is more accurately addressed to the true enduring individuals that make up the rock: its unified experiential centers—namely, the individual atoms and molecules composing the rock aggregate.

While this may seem a bit far-a-field and philosophical for an essay on psychology, the question of how to define consciousness or experience takes on great relevance when, for example, similarities are drawn between human and computer intelligence. From a Whiteheadian perspective, the similarities are interesting, but not fundamental: a matrix of computer elements seems simply incapable of generating the central or dominant occasion that arises from the rich nexus of neural feeling found within the human brain. Thus a computer inherently lacks the kind of synthesizing and unifying center that is capable of generating complex experience. This is primarily a matter of “feeling”: the highest experiential activity composing a computer “brain” (atomic and molecular feelings) is much more primitive than the neural activity found in a human brain (complex cellular feelings). One involves the electrical flow of data through circuitry; the other involves the transmutation and creative synthesis of feelings from other entities in the environment. One produces information for the benefit of human activity; the other produces the activity of human experience. Since most psychologists are still debating what consciousness is, it is not surprising that they might have difficulty distinguishing a machine from a human being. This is not a good situation, to my way of thinking, and I find it extremely useful to have Whitehead’s ideas to sort out and clarify such issues at a foundational level.

Whitehead refers to these increasingly complex levels of organized centers of subjective experience in terms of “organisms of organisms of organisms.” Charles Hartshorne has made more explicit this crucial Whiteheadian insight with his theory of the compound individual. In the example above, the human dominant occasion is an individual that “compounds” itself out of past subatomic, atomic, molecular, and, especially, cellular events from its neural matrix. At each new level of compounding of organisms—from the atomic, to molecular, to cellular, to human—there is a heightening of capacity for intensity and complexity of feeling. This compounding occurs through the internal relations established by the occasion’s direct feelings of the feelings of other past events, via Whitehead’s notion of prehension. Prehensions provide a metaphysical mechanism to account for the kind of “compounding of consciousness” argued for—but not coherently explained—by Fechner and James (James 1977, 83-100). Thus in a computer, the flow of feeling between events is a “horizontal” transmission of information similar to the kind that transfers incipient sensory data from an object to the human sensory organs. Computer “thinking” involves the highly complex routing and organization of this data transmission. However, this “lateral” flow of information does not begin to provide the kind of heightened intensity of experience that results from the “vertical” compounding of organisms occurring in the human brain. It is not simply the extraordinary number of neural pathways that generate the complexity of human experience; it is the capacity for compounding levels of increasing complex organisms that gives human experience its distinctive character.

Another matter in the area of neuroscience deserves comment, one directly related to the mind-body problem discussed above. To the extent that neuroscientists leave the human psyche out of the picture, that field will be hard pressed to account for the true nature of brain activity. From the perspective of process psychology, the psyche’s dominant occasion creates the final integrative unification found in human experience, drawing primarily on neural activity or feelings. However, the dominant occasion also influences brain activity: directly and causally impacting neural activity through its achieved experiential integrations. To the degree to which this crucial interaction between brain and psyche is left out of the equation, neuroscience will remain impoverished and incomplete.

A similar criticism might be directed at the study of memory and brain function. I should note that cognitive psychology has been much more inclined to consider the role of human awareness in memory consolidation and retrieval, probably motivated largely by experimental necessity. Nonetheless, from a process perspective, there still remains a major omission in their approach. Attributing all memory to various types of neural storage mechanisms ignores the fundamental source of human memory, according to Whitehead: namely, the psyche’s direct feeling of past events, which is the metaphysical basis of all memory. Of course, the brain and its neural networks represent an important dimension of the past events that are being felt by the dominant occasion, and certainly play a crucial role in human memory; but another dimension of memory is the psyche’s direct perception or “prehension” of its own past occasions of experience. Helping to determine how the brain and psyche interact to produce the unique and complex phenomena of human memory could be a revolutionary contribution of process psychology.

Neuropsychology, with all its associated biological specialties, is perhaps the area where Whitehead’s ideas will prove most fruitful. Imagine the possibilities of scientifically mapping the details of how prehensions occur and interact at the cellular and molecular levels within the human nervous system. Imagine understanding in experimental detail how neurons store and transmit the flow of causal feeling, as well as articulating the actual transmutation of this data into the final synthesis of human experience, as the prehensions of the dominant occasion tap into the pooled data of key brain areas. The possibilities here seem almost unlimited.

Understanding human experience and consciousness as arising out of the flow of past feelings from one’s world, one’s body, and one’s own past moments of experience has many other important implications for psychology. Turning to the opposite end of the spectrum from neuroscience, we find transpersonal psychology. This field studies those experiences that lie beyond the realm of our average everyday lives, for example, psychical phenomena such as telepathy and telekinesis, mystical revelation and spiritual insight, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences. By envisioning the human psyche as creating itself not only out of its brain activity, but also from its vague intuitions of the entire past universe, Whitehead’s metaphysics makes process psychology take seriously the extraordinary range of transpersonal phenomena that appear within human experience. Whitehead himself suggests in several passages that telepathic communication is a real possibility in his philosophy (PR 308, SMW 150). More generally, this “telepathic” intuitive potential (i.e., physical prehensions), characteristic of all moments of experience, offers a mode of experiential access to all entities and processes in the universe. This, by itself, opens up a powerful point of departure and grounding for the serious investigation of transpersonal and spiritual experiences, which are so often ignored or marginalized in modern scientific and philosophic practice—and even in psychology.

Generally speaking, transpersonal psychology investigates the significance and validity of spiritual and nonordinary experiences and tries to understand their meaning and implications for our world and for ourselves. Its approach is broadly phenomenological, in that it is open to experience as it presents itself; its methodology is determined by what is most appropriate and effective for the phenomena being studied. Thus it is fully empirical: both in its subject matter and in its deference to the integrity of the experience itself. While some subject matter, such as parapsychological phenomena, can to some extent be studied profitably through conventional scientific procedures involving controlled and repeatable experiments, phenomena such as nonordinary states of consciousness and mystical experiences are not amenable to strict control or repetition; they therefore need to be approached through subjective reporting, clinical observation methods, and other approaches more appropriate to the phenomena at hand.

Thus transpersonal psychology, which is deeply involved in investigating novel dimensions of reality and developing new methodologies attuned to these novel elements, is necessarily thrust into questions of philosophy, metaphysics, and cosmology. It also tends to seek a unifying framework within which to locate its emerging worldview. A reliance on philosophy by a field such as transpersonal psychology should not demean its scientific status. According to Whitehead, all new scientific undertakings require this sort of philosophical clarification: “in the infancy of science, when the main stress lay in the discovery of the most general ideas usefully applicable to the subject-matter in question, philosophy was not sharply distinguished from science. To this day, a new science with any substantial novelty in its notions is considered to be in some way peculiarly philosophical” (PR 10). I believe the field of psychology still qualifies as a “new science” and would benefit from rigorous philosophical scrutiny of its “most general ideas.”

Transpersonal psychology is not wedded to any particular philosophical position, including the strictures of Western science—especially its materialistic and mechanistic dimensions that at times can drive modern science into dogmatic scientism. In fact, transpersonal research has raised serious questions about any strictly deterministic or materialistic interpretation of reality. My own belief is that transpersonal psychology, and the field of psychology generally, is best served by working explicitly within a Whiteheadian philosophical orientation. Such a move offers many benefits, of which I will mention only a few of the most important for a psychology of spirituality and nonordinary experience.

First of all, Whitehead’s philosophy is specifically built upon the notion that its primary value arises from its ability to unite science and religion within one coherent metaphysical system: philosophy “attains its chief importance by fusing the two, namely, religion and science, into one rational scheme of thought” (PR 15). At its heart, process thought seeks a way of interpreting spiritual experience, in all its manifestations, that is at once philosophically and scientifically sound.

Secondly, Whitehead’s philosophy is empirical in the broadest sense possible. It seeks to find a system of ideas capable of interpreting all experience. And all of reality is understood in terms of a metaphysically generalized notion of human experience: experience is paradigmatic of reality. Thus spiritual experience is of real importance for understanding our world, and not to be simply dismissed as epiphenomenal, reduced to brain activity, or diagnosed away as psychiatric symptoms.

Thirdly, Whitehead’s theory of experience describes a mode of perception, “causal efficacy,” that provides a direct means of access to the world. Perception in the mode of causal efficacy, as the direct feeling of other entities in the universe, offers a mode of “nonsensory” perception underlying our everyday conscious sensory experience. I generally conceive of transpersonal manifestations of this process in terms of an increased flow of primitive feeling from the unconscious—resulting from elevated neural and psychological stimulation or a heightened permeability in the psyche’s repression barrier, or a combination of the two—producing a flooding of conscious awareness by normally unconscious elements and data (originally derived from “physical feelings”). This nonsensory intuition of reality forms the basis for possible explanations of spiritual phenomena ranging from telepathy, to true empathic intuition, to mystical revelation. It also gives objective credibility to these phenomena by locating them within a coherent, realistic epistemology. In sum, Whitehead’s theory of perception is encompassing enough to account for our everyday sensory experience of the world and for those special moments of conscious intuition and insight into a deeper spiritual reality pervading our universe.

This openness to the world—occurring primarily through enhanced perceptions in the mode of causal efficacy being successfully raised into conscious awareness—is the key to experiencing the vast array of spiritual possibilities available to humankind. Transpersonal psychology studies the experiences thus revealed, what they tell us about our universe and ourselves, and how to enhance and intensify authentic experiences of spiritual openness. Whitehead’s process philosophy provides a metaphysics for understanding how spiritual experiences occur and a cosmology for understanding what these spiritual experiences reveal.

For Whitehead, the depth unconscious ultimately consists of the entire past universe: the unconscious is the past. Each moment of experience originates from a flood of primitive feelings from the events of its past world. This formulation coincides well with mystical insights concerning the universe as an interrelated whole to which we are all intimately related, while avoiding the paradoxes and contradictions that arise in most attempts to articulate theories of the Absolute or the “One.” It also meshes well with Stanislav Grof’s cartography of the human psyche, in which the personal and perinatal levels of the unconscious are embedded within a transpersonal dimension that opens up to all of reality (Grof 1988, 3-160). Thus in dreams, meditation, trance, and other nonordinary states, it is possible to move beyond the personal unconscious of our memories, our subconscious, and our body, in order to access more distal aspects of the past universe that reside in the depths of our most primitive feelings.

Finally, the empirical evidence uncovered by transpersonal psychology is (with due caution and rigor) considered to contain real data about the world in which we live. This evidence is not merely “subjective,” but can reveal important information concerning our universe and the nature of reality. Whitehead’s metaphysics and cosmology provide a philosophical context for understanding how transpersonal experiences may occur and why they are capable of accessing extraordinary data from the objective universe. In turn, this evidence from transpersonal psychology supports some of Whitehead’s more controversial notions, such as memory without a material substrate and experiential access to data from the universe via modalities other than normal sensory perception (Grof 1988, 161-62).

This exemplifies Whitehead’s view of science and philosophy as mutually supportive endeavors: philosophy provides inspiration and interpretation for science’s fundamental terms and concepts and facilitates communication between the various disciplines; science renders evidence and theories that challenge and correct inadequate philosophical generalizations. Thus speculative philosophy is always in the process of refining and revising its concepts in light of new empirical evidence in accord with its search for greater generalizations and a more accurate representation of reality: “Rationalism is an adventure in the clarification of thought, progressive and never final. But it is an adventure in which even partial success has importance” (PR 9).

In the area of psychotherapy, Whitehead offers a synthetic way of thinking through the contributions made to the psyche by its present social relationships, the body, and the enduring effects of past relationships and experiences. All of these sources of feeling flow together from the depths to contribute to the formation of each new occasion of experience. Personality deviations and behavioral disorders can be envisioned in terms of habitual patterns of emphasizing, or blocking (“repressing”), these various sources of feeling through more or less effective strategies, mostly unconscious in operation.

Thus a Whiteheadian perspective suggests at least three preliminary avenues to pursue for approaches to psychotherapy: one’s relationship with one’s own past moments of experience, one’s relationship with one’s body, and one’s connection with one’s world of ongoing social relationships. All three have served as therapeutic paradigms in the West, individually and in combination. For example, various types of body-oriented psychotherapy are aimed at restoring the body’s natural vitality and spontaneity of movement through freeing up the blockages formed in the past as character armor, to use Wilhelm Reich’s phrase. Of course, in Reich’s view, the muscular armoring of the body is a direct correlate of the individual’s psychological defense mechanisms, while releasing these blockages and the related defense mechanisms allows the individual greatly increased freedom and creativity in their contemporary social life. The overlap and interplay of these various dimensions of causal influence is readily apparent, as is the need for theoretical clarity to adequately deal with these psychological complexities. Whitehead’s theory of past feeling flowing into new occasions of experience, thereby synthesizing and unifying the world, our bodies, and our own past, provides a useful way of understanding how these various sources contribute to our psychic structure and also offers clues for how to resolve problematic modes of adaptation.

Many of these differences between therapeutic models and styles involve a matter of emphasis on which of these three dimensions to use as the starting point for initiating psychological change. Whitehead’s ideas can be helpful for sorting out these questions of therapeutic emphasis, methods, and goals. In an essay in Searching for New Contrasts, John Cobb makes some insightful suggestions in this regard (Cobb 2003, 207-24).

The complexity of the interaction between the flow of feeling from the body, the past psyche, and the larger social environment leads Cobb to argue for “a complementarity of healing practices through body and soul for both bodily and psychic problems,” as well as for the employment of “alternative approaches” or strategies to these problems (212). A human being is such an enormously complicated organism that there is no single system of healing fully capable of taking into account this complexity. Thus a variety of psychotherapeutic methodologies are called for. Cobb also refers to the interplay (within a process model of psychology) that occurs between the causal influences of the past, the freedom of each new occasion to help determine how these influences will be integrated, and the spiritual dimension—a “force operative in all living things that works for healing and growth” (218). Here Cobb has delineated two sources of psychotherapeutic change: the creativity and freedom inherent in each new moment of human experience; and the spiritual influence underlying and guiding all affairs in the universe. Cobb concludes with a word of caution about problems that may arise in psychotherapy from the use of substantialist—versus process—modes of understanding, which can lead “in some cases to encouraging self-centeredness, in others to seeking a lifelong, fixed potential, and in still others, to celebrating the autonomous individual” (224).

I have focused on areas of process psychology that are of special interest to me: namely, philosophy of psychology, neuroscience, transpersonal psychology, and psychotherapy. However, a quick review of the process psychology bibliography, compiled by the Center for Process Studies (in Claremont, CA), reveals that I have barely scratched the surface of the work already started in applying process thought to various psychological issues. Permit me to illustrate this diversity with a partial summary of some other areas where process psychology is underway: psychiatry and psychoanalysis (Brown 1998), Jungian thought and Archetypal psychology (Griffin 1989), feminist theory (Keller 1986), pastoral counseling (Brizee 1998), chemical dependency treatment (Crawford 1990), cognitive psychology (Brown 1977), evolutionary psychology (Birch 1973), physiological psychology (Wolf 1981), developmental psychology (Flynn 1995), personality theory (Regan 1990), artificial intelligence (Barbour 1999), nonhuman experience (Armstrong-Buck 1989), consciousness studies (Sperry 1970), parapsychology (Griffin 1993), and phenomenology of time and space (Bagby 1957). One area that might be particularly ripe for development within a process perspective is “ecological psychology,” as originated by Ulric Neisser. The fundamentally organic and relational nature of Whitehead’s philosophy should make it readily amenable to most any authentic ecological theory. While this list of current applications of process psychology is impressive, there remains a great deal of work to be done. The task of constructing a unifying theoretical basis for process psychology has barely begun, and despite all that has been accomplished, it will be no easy job. Hopeful signs are appearing, though, such as the rapid rise in interest in process thought in China, and the resurgence of Whitehead’s ideas in Europe—where much excellent work in process psychology has recently appeared, in no small part to the efforts of the editor of this volume. But I believe the horizon holds much greater possibilities: both for the articulation of a process psychology and for embedding such a psychology within a wider interdisciplinary paradigm growing out of the insights and continuing development of process thought.

Works Cited and Further Readings

Armstrong-Buck, Susan. 1989. “Nonhuman Experience: A Whiteheadian Analysis,” Process Studies, 18, 1, 1-18.

Bagby, P. H. 1957. “Whitehead: A New Appraisal,” in Beyond the Five Senses, edited by E. Garrett (Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott), 279-97.

Barbour, Ian. 1999. “Neuroscience, Artificial Intelligence, and Human Philosophical Reflections,” Zygon, 34, 3, 361-98.

Birch, Charles. 1973. “A Biological Basis for Human Purpose,” Zygon, 8, 3-4, 244-60.

Brizee, Robert. 1998. Eight Paths to Forgiveness (St. Louis, Chalice Press).

Brown, Jason. 1977. Mind, Brain, and Consciousness; the Neuropsychology of Cognition (New York, Academic Press).

Brown, J. W. 1998. “Psychoanalysis and Process Theory,” in Neuroscience of the Mind on the Centennial of Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology, edited by Robert M. Bilder and Frank LeFever. (New York, New York Academy of Sciences), 91-106.

Crawford, Robin. 1990. “Accompanying People through the First Three Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous,” PhD. dissertation, Claremont School of Theology.

Cobb, John Boswell, Jr. 2003. in Searching for New Contrasts, edited by Franz G. Riffert and Michel Weber (Frankfurt-am-Main, Peter Lang).

Flynn, Mark. 1995. “Conflicting Views on the Importance of Emotion to Human Development and Growth: Piaget and Whitehead,” Interchange, 20, 4, 365-81.

Griffin, David Ray, ed. 1989. Archetypal Process: Self and Divine in Whitehead, Jung, and Hillman (Evanston, Northwestern University Press).

Griffin, David Ray. 1993. “Parapsychology and Philosophy: A Whiteheadian Postmodern Perspective,” The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 87, 3, 217-88.

Grof, Stanislav. 1988. The Adventure of Self-Discovery (Albany, State University of New York Press Press).

Hartshorne, Charles. 1983 [1970]. Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (Landam MD, University Press of America).

James, William. 1977. A Pluralistic Universe, a volume in The Works of William James, edited by Frederick Burkhardt and Fredson Bowers (Cambridge, Harvard University Press).

James, William. 1996 [1912]. Essays in Radical Empiricism (Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press).

Keller, Catherine. 1986. From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self (Boston, Beacon Press).

Regan, Thomas. 1990. “The Matrix of Personality: A Whiteheadian Corroboration of Harry Stack Sullivan’s Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry,” Process Studies, 19, 3, 189-98.

Sperry, W. R. 1970. “A Modified Concept of Consciousness,” Psychological Review, 76, 6, 532-36.

Wolf, George. 1981. “Psychological Physiology from the Standpoint of a Physiological Psychologist,” Process Studies, 11 4, 274-91.

Author Information

John H. Buchanan
Independent Scholar [Ph.D. Emory University 1994]
2865 Lenox Road NE, #409, Atlanta, GA 30324

How to Cite this Article

Buchanan, John H., “Process Metapsychology”, last modified 2008, The Whitehead Encyclopedia, Brian G. Henning and Joseph Petek (eds.), originally edited by Michel Weber and Will Desmond, URL = <>.