Episode 48: Piechowski's Insights on Positive Disintegration

Chris Wells & Emma Nicholson with guest Michael M. Piechowski

Release date: November 28, 2023

In episode 48, Chris and Emma talked with Dr. Michael M. Piechowski, close collaborator of Dr. Kazimierz Dąbrowski and a scholar in the field of gifted education. Michael’s work has expanded our understanding of the theory of positive disintegration and the qualitative experience of giftedness.

We covered many topics in this episode, from Michael meeting Dąbrowski in Edmonton in 1967 to his retirement from Yunasa last summer. We learned about Michael’s early work with the theory and conducting research, the transition from science to counseling and pursuing a second doctorate, rethinking the levels of development, and understanding the importance of the unilevel and multilevel processes.

Michael talked with us about the research he did with Dąbrowski that provided a foundation for his work. We learned about the creation of his original Overexcitability Questionnaire, his second dissertation, Formless Forms, and his two papers from more recent years called Rethinking Dąbrowski’s Theory. We discussed why he felt it was necessary to rethink the levels and what case material was applied to this work.

This episode was recorded at Michael’s home during Chris’s visit to Madison, Wisconsin, and the format is conversational. We learned more about what Dr. Dąbrowski was like as a person and how to pronounce his name correctly. Michael also talked with us about what areas of research he’d like to see replicated or built on in the future.

Bio: Dr. Michael Piechowski is an eminent figure in the field of gifted education, and has dedicated his career to exploring the developmental possibilities of gifted individuals, with an emphasis on emotional and spiritual giftedness. His extensive writings and research contributions have significantly enriched our understanding in these areas. For a period of eight years, Dr. Piechowski collaborated closely with Dąbrowski, the author of the theory of positive disintegration, and in doing so, gained profound insights into this influential concept.

Michael is a senior fellow of the Institute for Educational Advancement and was a co-founder of Yunasa, a camp for gifted youth that was established in 2002. His literary contributions include the book “Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright, which delves into the complex emotional landscapes of gifted individuals. He also co-edited the books Living with Intensity and Off the Charts: Asynchrony in the Gifted Child. His work continues to inspire and guide educators, parents and the gifted community. 

Highlights from Episode 48:

00:02:59 Meeting Dąbrowski in Edmonton

00:06:18 Summer 1968 at Esalen

00:09:22 Science and counseling are different

00:10:46 Multilevelness research with Dąbrowski

00:17:14 Formless Forms

00:25:51 Rethinking levels of development

00:34:17 Bandura’s mechanisms of moral disengagement

00:42:09 Levels as universes

00:46:42 Future areas of research

00:49:00 What Dąbrowski was like

00:51:03 The need to replicate Lysy’s study

00:53:20 Yunasa

Extended show notes are available for paid subscribers.

Links from this episode

Visit the Piechowski Archive on the Dabrowski Center’s website

Michael’s book Mellow Out is available via Royal Fireworks Press

Michael is co-editor of Living with Intensity and Off the Charts.

He is a Senior Fellow of the Institute for Educational Advancement.

Michael mentioned co-creating Yunasa with two of his dear friends who have also been podcast guests: Episode 19 with Stephanie Tolan and Episode 35 with Dr. Patty Gatto-Walden.

Chris has written posts about Michael with links and photos to accompany this episode, including:

Who is Michael M. Piechowski?

Celebrating a Lifetime of Resilience, Scholarship, and Influence

My Experience of Being a Student

Major works that were mentioned:

Michael’s 1975 monograph

Formless Forms

Lysy & Piechowski (1983)

Rethinking Dabrowski’s Theory: I. The Case Against Primary Integration (2014)

Rethinking Dąbrowski’s Theory II: It’s Not All Flat Here (2017)

Michael’s ResearchGate Profile

Episode 18 with Rachel Fell

Episode 36: Fostering Gifted Growth at Yunasa

Quick Bite, Two Years of Positive Disintegration (Episode 46)

Emma’s video on Positive Disintegration using the Matrix analogy

Deborah Ruf’s new book The 5 Levels of Gifted Children Grown Up and her Substack account

Women’s Ways of Knowing by Belenky et al.

Michael’s 2008 chapter has more on conserving vs transforming growth, as well as Barry Grant’s work.

Table of forms and manifestations of overexcitability

Transcript:

Emma: Welcome to Positive Disintegration, a path to authenticity. Today we're going to share a conversation with Dr. Michael Piechowski, who collaborated with Dąbrowski and has been a friend and mentor to Chris. We're releasing this episode to celebrate Michael's 90th birthday.

In this conversation we talk about how he met Dąbrowski, some of his work, scientific approaches to the theory and his perspectives on levels.

Today we've got a little bit of a different format. We've been waiting a long time to record a conversation with Michael, and we finally had the opportunity to do so when Chris last went to visit him. So, this episode is basically a recording of that conversation, warts and all. But before we launch into our discussion, first a little bit about him, which will help you understand why it was so important for us to capture his voice and share it with you.

Dr. Michael M. Piechowski is a senior fellow of the Institute for Educational Advancement and was a co-founder of Yunasa, a camp for gifted youth that was established in 2002. His literary contributions include the book Mellow Out,” They Say. If I Only Could: Intensities and Sensitivities of the Young and Bright, which delves into the complex emotional landscapes of gifted individuals. He also co-edited the books Living with Intensity and Off the Charts: Asynchrony in the Gifted Child. His work continues to inspire and guide educators, parents and the gifted community. So, without further ado, here's our conversation with Dr. Michael Piechowski.

Chris: Tell us about meeting Dąbrowski in your early work together. How did you meet?

Michael: Well, I finished my doctorate at the University of Wisconsin. I was looking for a job, and I got a job in Canada, in Edmonton, Alberta. I moved there in January, which meant driving there through the plains and the snow and blizzards and getting there—daytime temperatures were 20 below zero. After I started working in the university, I was walking around town buying things to put in my apartment, chairs, tables, that kind of thing. I met someone who told me about Dr. Dąbrowski, that I should meet him because we were both Polish, which happened. I don't remember how exactly it happened, but it happened. And so we met. We were talking. I was at his house. I knew his name—an Italian friend of mine was reading a review of his book, the little book, Positive Disintegration. And he asked me if I knew him. I said I didn't.

But when I met him, I said, are you the guy who says that psychoneurosis is not an illness? And he said, yes. And then I said to him, what you have written that I could take and read? He said he had several books and manuscripts. He gave me some pages of a chapter he was working on in English. So I took it home, and I tried to read it, and it was all garbled. I went back to him, and I said, well, people who translated, they didn't know what you were talking about. Then he sees this opportunity and said, oh, do you want to work with me? I said, yes. So, that's how our meeting was set up for 2 o'clock at Sunday afternoon. He would come to my place. And we went over the text, asking line by line what he meant. I wrote it down. And that's how a good part of the book, Mental Growth, came about.

Chris: But first, you published the two papers in French, right? And they became chapters.

Michael: That's right. Well, the text of the chapter, he got them translated into French and submitted to Annales Médico-Psychologiques.

Chris: Oh, thank you for pronouncing that because I keep doing a terrible job when I say it.

Michael: They don't teach French in Connecticut.

Chris: Well, I did take French in high school, actually, but I did very badly. Well, my next question kind of builds on that, because I wanted to know what it was like the year after you worked together on those chapters. You ended up going with him to Esalen in California. And I wondered what it was like to give a workshop on the theory, I mean, only a year after you'd met him.

Michael: It was quite a trip because the whole family was traveling, plus the philosopher Andrzej Kawczak and his wife. We traveled by car from Alberta all the way down to Esalen. And we got to Esalen, well, that was, you know, the 60s. It was quite interesting. One of the interesting things about Esalen is that they have a swimming pool, which has curved shapes, so you cannot swim straight in it. kind of prepares your mind to be open to things.

Anyway, since Dąbrowski wasn't secure in his English, he asked me to give presentations of his theory, which I did by simply repeating what he wrote. I cannot say I had a very good understanding of the theory at the time, but that's how it went.

Emma: Michael, it sounds like you got involved with his work in a translative capacity. I don't know what you'd studied before that, but at what point did you go, you know what, I actually have an interest in this theory. Was it immediate or did it take some time for you to personally say, you know what, I'm on board with this and this is what I want to work with? I'm interested in when it dawned on you that this was what you wanted to do.

Michael: Well, the way it happened was that I was doing my research for the degree in molecular biology, and I was getting books from the Book of the Month Club. One of them is History of Psychiatry, and I found it a pretty interesting reading. And Dąbrowski's theory is all about the importance of emotions because he recognized that that really guides our lives, and our behavior. So, I was interested in the life of emotions and communicating with others more directly than by means of sharing research ideas and things like that. I guess that's how it went. In working with him, my effort was to clarify his ideas.

Chris: For our listeners, your first PhD is in molecular biology.

Michael: It is.

Chris: And then you went back in 1970 to the University of Wisconsin at Madison to get your degree in counseling psychology, or counseling and guidance, I think.

Michael: At the time, it was counseling and guidance, and became counseling psychology later.

Chris: What was it like to go into counseling after working in science?

Michael: It had its shocks. Because the thinking is very different. Scientific thinking is very different from the thinking of people in counseling and education. The main difference is that in science, people argue in order to find out the right answer to a question, the right solution to a problem. In education, in counseling, when you start arguing about someone's work, they take it personally, even though you only want to clarify their ideas. So, that was the first shock. The other shock was that people are not persuaded by logical arguments. That only works in science and maybe in philosophy.

Chris: Well, I think that we see that problem still, or beyond counseling. In society, people are not always moved by logic or evidence.

Michael: No, I think it probably it takes special typology to be drawn to critical thinking.

Chris: What are some of the highlights of your work? What are the things that you've enjoyed the most?

Michael: What did I enjoy the most? Well, the big piece of work with Dąbrowski was when he got a grant to put his theory to test and to demonstrate how it works. He had a team of people. I already left by then—I was in Edmonton three years. I worked with him for three years. And then I went back to Madison to study counseling, and we continued work long distance. So, the project that was going on was the multilevelness project, where they collected autobiographies from a great number of people—over 80 of them—collected responses to what Dąbrowski called Verbal Stimuli. He liked people who were his clients, his patients, to write their autobiography, to write responses to items like, what is great sadness? What is great joy? What is inner conflict? What is success? And a few others like that.

The team was looking for autobiographies that could show the inner life at different levels. And then they selected one to represent level I, they selected another one to represent level II, another one for level III, approximately, another one for level IV, and there was no case for level V. That took a while to find. So, then this material was given to me to analyze in terms of Dąbrowski's theory, which meant to look at what expressions represent a level of development, what expressions represent overexcitability, and that kind of thing.

In fact, the interesting thing was that when he wrote out the project, he didn't have overexcitability included in it. He only looked for the levels and the dynamisms that are characteristic of each level. For the higher level of development, he chose Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer and aviator. He was flying planes, flying mail in South America over the very dangerous mountains, and then he was flying mail in France. He took part in flying competitions around the world.

That material had to be analyzed in some way, and I got the idea that it should be divided into little units, and each unit could be looked at what it expresses. I described that process in the 1975 monograph. So, that was a process of content analysis, which I didn't know that such a thing existed at the time. And usually in content analysis, you use a unit of the same size, but mine were flexible. I was cutting up the text into the smallest unit that remained intelligible. And then I was looking at each of these units and said, oh, maybe here is a dynamism. Oh, maybe here is overexcitability.

The whole material was atomized, and then it was reconstituted to see if we get the profiles of the levels. And to a large extent, it worked. It was the first empirical demonstration of how the theory works. From that work came other empirical tests. One of them was developing the formula for developmental potential. It turned out that whatever definitions of developmental potential you read, in this work, the frequency of dynamisms and the frequency of overexcitabilities in a given text was all that's needed to get a quantitative grip on developmental potential. And it really worked. It really worked. Because it was possible to derive the figure for the autobiography, and then from the verbal stimuli, and they agreed.

And then Dąbrowski had, actually, I'm also talking about the level index. He had the level index from his neurological examination and then all three agreed. So this was the empirical demonstration that you can calculate the level and the developmental potential from this kind of data. This work has been totally overlooked. Forgotten. By the way, I can mention that even though I was the only rater of the material, the internal consistency was in the 90s.

Chris: That work turned into Volumes 1 and 2.

Michael: What I was talking about was Volume 2.

Chris: Well, right. And then your 1975 monograph. I wondered if you could say something also about your second dissertation, Formless Forms. Because I could link to that in the show notes, and I think that people would enjoy reading it. It's interesting.

Michael: Formless Forms was the peak of my intellectual life. I was in the counseling department, and I had a nice assistantship. Every year in spring, we got a bunch of kids from different schools in Wisconsin who came to look at the university. They were selected—high-achieving students, high ability—they were gifted students. But each school selected them differently, and there were some very, very interesting kids among them. I took advantage and asked some of them to, I mean, those that were nominated by my fellow colleagues’ assistance, I had a list of those that were nominated as being interesting, gifted kids.

I sent them the questions that represented overexcitability that came from the Volume 2 research. So, I had a table of manifestations of overexcitability that came from that work. And from that table, I derived the questions to ask them. There were over 40 questions, open-ended, and they wrote answers. Some of them wrote on both sides of the page. It's a wonderful material. Very interesting.

When I had the 1975 monograph written and submitted for publication, I came to my doctoral committee and I said, this is my doctoral work. It's pretty good to deserve a degree. The professors said, that's very nice, but we don't know this theory. You really have to make a bridge for us and compare Dąbrowski's theory with the theories that we know—theories in counseling, Rogerian, Maslow, Adler, and so on. Well, I didn't like that. I thought I had done pretty impressive work. And to ask me to do more work for my doctorate? I didn't do anything with it for a whole year. Then they said, well, it's time for you to really get out. So, you better finish.

By nice synchrony, a compiled volume came out of theories of counseling and therapy by Corsini, where every one of the then current theories that included psychoanalysis, Jungian analysis, Adlerian approach, Rogerian approach, and so on, eclectic and rational-emotive therapy. Anyway, a bunch of these theories that were then current. Each one had the write up according to the same outline to present the case example, to describe the main concept of the theory, to describe how counseling works, what are the methods. That was very convenient to use to analyze the concepts and compare them with Dąbrowski's theory. That led me to the study of philosophy of science where people do the work on recognizing what makes a good concept.

And the result was, I think I created definitions for these things and criteria, criteria for examining theory. I think that was the major accomplishment there to present criteria for evaluating these theories of counseling and therapy. One was whether the concepts of the theory have a good form. We know that good form of a concept means the concept can be operationalized. If it doesn't have good form, it's a hell of a problem to operationalize it. I mean, we use all the time very broad concepts that are very difficult to define, very difficult to operationalize, like culture, society, religion, and so forth, self even.

The result was that most of the theories had concepts that had very poor form. The only ones that came out to have good form, in addition to Dąbrowski's theory, were Jung's theory, behavioral theory, and the biggest struggle was with psychoanalytic theory because it's so dense and there are so many concepts. At one point, I finally realized that this is all smokescreen, that they have invented concepts for words and the concept we have in ordinary life. And they don't mean anything more than we do. And I had to read some very confusing and logically ridiculous psychoanalytic treatises, which I then took time to make fun of in my dissertation.

Chris: I loved reading your notebooks with your notes from the reading that you did. It was so much fun.

Emma: Michael, you were saying that you were doing a comparison between all that and Dąbrowski's theories, and obviously you had problems with some of the concepts. How did you feel or find his theory stacked up to the others? Is there anything particularly personally that you like about the theory from that perspective?

Michael: Well, because part of the theory is about the levels of development, but the other part is about the potential for development. The theory therefore has a good structure of a scientific theory because a theory not only describes, but offers the means of explaining what it describes. And that's why I could see very early that this is a very good theory. It was just not very clearly presented in his writing.

Emma: So, it gives you the what, and the observation of the thing, but also the why, the how and how it's happening.

Michael: Yes, that's right. That's why in Jung's theory, with all his archetypes and things like that, the best defined thing is the typology, the extroverted, introverted, intuitive, sensing and so on. This is holding up and has held up for a long time. So, in history, it was a good scientific kernel that many people did not want to recognize.

In fact, the thing that is worth mentioning is that there was a time when an edition of the most used textbook personality, there was one edition in which they omitted Jung's theory because they thought it was of no importance anymore. And were they ever wrong. The next edition had Jung back in the textbook. It was Hall and Lindsay.

Chris: You have two papers that came out, one is about rethinking level I, and the second one is about rethinking level II. Let's start with the first one. What helped you realize that it makes more sense to think of the levels as types of development rather than a progression of levels where you move from one to two to three?

Michael: Well, one thing is that Dąbrowski now and then spoke that the transition from level I to II is very difficult. He would also talk about the transition from level II to III being very difficult. And we have not studied these transitions and how they take place and what is involved.

At the time, the first effort was to define the levels, to put the dynamisms in the proper places. And then the empirical research that I described that came out—Volume 2 was the work, and with the results of getting the quantitative empirical data from this whole research. So, in response to this, talking about the theory, I could see that people were beginning to use the levels of as boxes into which you put people or themselves and not look at the process.

When I was rereading his Polish (1964) On Positive Disintegration book for the disastrous meeting in Colorado, when Linda Silverman wanted to bring together those who were doing research on Dąbrowski’s theory and all those orthodox people in Canada. I was reading and I said, everywhere here emphasizes the process, the difference between unilevel and multilevel process. It's all dynamic. The levels, because they had to be defined, sort of stiffened the structure and got us away from remembering it's always a process. It's always dynamic living and changing and undergoing transformation and metamorphosis.

That's why it was illuminating to find some autobiographies, some life stories have a certain amount of change, but they don't make the transition to multilevel development. There's kind of a unilevel growth that ends up at the border between the two and the transition zone and doesn't go further. And there are the others who have the developmental potential and move on and reach the higher level and keep going and growing. But it has been very difficult to get people back to always remember that the process comes first and the levels are convenient, theoretical convenience and research convenience.

Chris: We don't all start at level I?

Michael: No, we don't start at level I. Well, some of us start at level I. Lots of us start but don't go very much further. Level I has limited developmental potential. We don't know whether it's limited in an absolute term or is limited because it cannot be unlocked. But that's the limitation. It's ordinary living, which can be enjoyable or can be a struggle for survival and very vulnerable to certain pressures.

The best understanding of what level I is about—there has been the research on people delivering electroshocks to others. In that research it was found that some people refused to do that. Other people who went along with the researcher were experiencing growing inner conflict with the more the shocks were administered, the more the recorded screams were sent to them. They didn't know they were recorded.

Then came Bandura with eight mechanisms of going around one's conscience. That is very illuminating because all of us like to keep a good opinion of ourselves, that we are good people under all circumstances. And therefore, we're doing harm to others, but it's to defend our country, or because people in authority say that's the right thing to do. We follow the orders, then our conscience allows us to do it, if we're at level one, because we believe the authority. I would like to actually get hold of these papers because I don't remember them all always.

Chris: Okay, yeah, go for it.

Emma: The more I hear the whole, this is a process thing, and I think about how fluid I think of this stuff now and how it shifts and moves, I'm like, man, those early videos that I did, they represented the theory, but they don't represent my experience of it anymore, of the thing.

Chris: I know. Well, that's one of the dangers of doing this kind of work is that You know, after a certain amount of time, you come back to it and you're like, oh, I've grown so much since then. Rachel was just telling him that yesterday about her episode because she was like, now when I go back and listen, I feel a bit cringe about it. But she was like, I know that I’ve had growth since then in my understanding. So, yeah, that's how it goes. It's natural. I actually mentioned your video where you talked about the matrix yesterday because she was saying that she uses that with clients to help them understand the theory.

Emma: That was exactly the video I was thinking about.

Chris: I think it's so common to come to this, and you need something to help you wrap your head around it. But what he said, that's why I wanted to get him to talk about the process of unilevel and multilevel because it's so important for our listeners to understand there's so much more complexity to this.

Emma: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it's funny. A couple of people recently contacted me and said, I use that Matrix video a lot. I'm like, for all intents and purposes, it does sort of describe what's in the theory, but does it actually describe the processes I've experienced it? Maybe not. Maybe not so simple.

Chris: It sounds like you need to do an update or a follow up. You can make a video about what you've learned and build on it.

Emma: I think I do.

Chris: We should do a Quick Bite someday about this—the relics of the past. I mean, they're just like markers along the way, really.

Emma: We have covered this a couple of times to say I've learned a lot when we did our birthday episode. We thought about it.

Chris: Yeah, you're right. I guess we've already talked about that.

Emma: And I canceled a video. I've only ever deleted one video.

Chris: Oh, I remember, the resource one.

Emma: Resources, and then replaced it. I'm embracing growth mindset a bit stronger, and I'll put things on my website and change them when I need to because I want things.

Chris: That's right. All right, well, he's back with his papers.

Michael: Bandura was a social behaviorist. That's what he called his work. He identified the mechanism of disengaging one's conscience. The first one is moral justification, which takes place when, for example, one is persuaded that killing the enemy serves a higher moral purpose, such as protecting one's country. The other one that we're very familiar with is euphemistic labeling because this one serves to mask the true nature of unethical behavior. For example, in a competitive situation, cheating becomes strategic misrepresentation.

The eight mechanisms were in his textbook on social behaviors. I think that's what it was called. But then he wrote a whole book on the mechanism of moral disengagement. The third one is advantageous comparison because this serves to minimize reprehensible behavior by comparing it with someone else's actions, which are much worse. Therefore, I can say to myself, what I'm doing is not so bad as what they are doing, and justifying it in this way.

The fourth one is displacement of responsibility, and that's what happened in Milgram's experiment, the obedience experiment, because that's uncritically following orders, and that weakens personal restraints and lessens concern for the well-being of others. As Bandura said, obeying orders is not automatic. It requires a strong sense of responsibility to be a good functionary. The self-system operates most efficiently in the service of authority when followers assume personal responsibility for being dutiful executors while relinquishing personal responsibility for the consequences of their behavior. So, if you have an IRS agent dispossessing someone from their home, that would be a good functionary, or other people who go after people's debts and things like that.

The fifth one is diffusion of responsibility. And that takes place when a group as a whole decides on unethical action, though individually, the group members would not agree to it. Or when they have to do a complex but harmful task, there’s subdivision of labor so that each segment of the task does not have an obvious relationship to the harmful outcome. So you can ask yourself, you know, what is your conscience telling you if you're in a factory building bombs? 

The sixth one is this disregard or distortion of consequences, and that happens when harm is afflicted at a distance, which dropping bombs from a plane or shooting artillery is doing harm at a distance and not seeing the consequences of it. And killing people becomes very easy.

Seventh is dehumanization, which has been practiced by all colonizers. It shuts off one's conscience when those who are harmed are seen as less than human, which has happened in history so many times. Or when prejudice denigrates minorities and refuses them equal rights, that's dehumanization. But Bandura had interesting things to say about it in contemporary life. There are conditions conducive to treating things in an impersonal way and just ending up in  dehumanizing. So, he talks about bureaucratization, automation, urbanization, and high social mobility lead people to relate to each other in anonymous, impersonal ways.

Finally, the eighth one is attribution of blame, which is, we are very familiar with it—blaming the victim. The mistreated are seen as deserving the mistreatment or as having brought it upon themselves. And this is, to me, the most mind-blowing insight into how level I works. People live regular lives and have families, have children, they love children, they love their relatives, but under conditions that he describes, they can do harm to others and still believe that they are good people. Because it's so important to us to think of ourselves as being good persons.

I think that really illuminates when Dąbrowski was putting together in one big category of level I. He never spent time describing it, never spent time talking much about it. It's an undeveloped part of his theory, so that's what I tried to do in my paper.

Emma: Maybe this is more a mental note for us, that we could do a whole episode on that. Everything, every one of those attributes, we see this today. I know some of the examples that Michael just gave are maybe war-related and stuff. This shit still goes ahead on the internet today, particularly around discussions about women and stuff on Reddit, Twitter, you see them all out there. Every attribute you see is a tactic. People, they're doing things from a distance and they're still dehumanizing.

My mind is blowing up at the moment, because if we want to talk about the relevance of this theory, you could go on Twitter now and pull up a hundred examples of this stuff still going on, of people doing this stuff on the internet, and then just going back to their lives and going, I'm a good person, I'm fine. Yeah, okay, I said some hateful stuff on the internet, doesn't matter.

Michael: Yeah, that's why it is called the dog-eat-dog world.

Chris: Yes, it is. You talk about the levels as whole universes.

Michael: Well, because so much happens—people's lives go on and a lot happens, and you have a whole stratification of people in level I, the extreme one that some people are fond of talking about the psychopath, but they only consider like 1 or 2% [of the population], although they have enormous influence by the enormous harm they do. Well, the other thing to dissuade people from thinking that level I is the beginning, the primary integration. That's why I say primary integration is not primary, because it's not the starting point, because it cannot be the starting point, because developmental potential is too limiting.

Chris: Well, my question about the levels as universes is that there are just so many different ways that development can look within each of these levels. And so, with your second rethinking paper, you did a great job of showing, based on these three studies that you used, how unilevel development can look, and that it's not always in a disintegration. That it's worthy of respect.

Michael: I think the insight, the aha, came with the book by Belenky and others, this wonderful team.

Chris: Women's Ways of Knowing.

Michael: Women's Ways of Knowing. Where they interviewed over 100 women and used a different kind of typology of ways of thinking. All of a sudden what popped up was there was change, there was a growth, there was a reaching for a sense of self, and yet it all was not having the characteristics of higher and lower in oneself, but just coming to a sense of myself as a person. And so that showed me that each of these levels is really a very broad universe of developmental paths and there's a lot there to study.

Chris: One more thing that I want to ask you about these papers is—one criticism that I've seen about them, and your motivation is that you were criticizing Dąbrowski by writing these papers. But it seems to me that you were just trying to build on the theory and elaborate on it. And in my view, shouldn't be looked at as you criticizing him.

Michael: Well, the only criticism was that I said he didn't spend any time on these two levels. Really. I mean, we look at his definition and the amount of space he devoted to unilevel cases, I think, is minimal. So, the criticism, it's not really criticism, maybe stating the fact that he didn't devote much attention to it. That's one.

The other thing is that it’s filling in the blanks. Since he has not spent so much time on it, well, others of us who have to fill in the blanks, understand there is a universal process, people go through it, is developmental, but it doesn't have the characteristics of lower and higher in oneself. It's different, and it deserves consideration, but so much of what I've seen in this history of people coming in contact with Dąbrowski's theory was looking down their nose on level II, instead of looking at it with understanding. So, this is a wonderful, wonderful qualitative study. Women's Ways of Knowing was a breakthrough.

Chris: One was Perry.

Michael: One was Perry.

Chris: And the other one was Deborah Ruf.

Michael: And the other one was Deborah Ruf, that's right. Deborah Ruf. Oh, we don't need to go into details of Perry's scheme.

Chris: Right. Well, I'll link to the papers in the show notes so that people can check them out.

Michael: Deborah Ruf's study was a selection of highly gifted adults and finding them at all levels. So in other words, giftedness doesn't protect you from maybe being only at level I. But I don't think she found any genuine level Is. It was more those operating at level I were really harmed in their development.

Chris: So, trauma led them to be that way.

Michael: Yes. Trauma.

Chris: Well, this leads me into wondering what topics or areas of research you think are most important to follow up on from the work that's already been done. One thing that comes to mind is transforming versus conserving growth was an interesting thing that you've… It's a very interesting thing because it came out so clearly.

Michael: The difficulty is that you have to have this extensive material, you know, autobiographical material to see whether there is the movement forward or not and what kind of movement forward there is to distinguish the unilevel from the multilevel process. And so there is quite a bit of people that actually reached the transition zone between unilevel and multilevel and haven't gone further.

One example is from Barry Grant's work, his dissertation on cases of moral development, when someone dedicated to world without war, which is very high ideal. But in his personal growth, he has not gone into multilevel process. And yet, his whole life, the work was devoted to bring about higher ideals in the World Without War? It seems so distant today.

Chris: Sadly.

Emma: I know it's a bit of a tangent, but I just want to ask Michael what he thought of Dąbrowski as a person and what was he like? Obviously, you learned from his theory, but is there anything that you learned from him as just a man and the way he went about his life? Can you talk about just your experiences with him as a person for a bit?

Michael: Well, he was a very dynamic person. And it was exciting to be with him because everything with him had a great sense of urgency. And it was natural to respond to it and want to work with him on it. At the same time, his estimation of the amount of work for a given task or problem, he thought something could take a few days, but I saw clearly it would take weeks. It was good to be with him because it was always a lively discussion, always interesting questions were considered, and also he talked about his personal experiences of seeking his on guidance with personal development in Eastern traditions.

Chris: Can you pronounce his whole name for our listeners, please?

Michael: Kazimierz Dąbrowski.

Emma: Michael, you were saying your work fills in the blanks, and I'm very much on board with that perspective because one person can only do so much in one lifetime. I personally take the opinion that anyone who challenges this is maybe only thinking of positive disintegration as theory and not as a phenomenon to be observed and for other people to add to the body of knowledge. What would you say to people now who are looking at the theory, and looking at positive disintegration as an experience, and anyone who's making content or writing or researching in this area?

Michael: Well, there are some studies that have to be replicated and done better and on larger form of data because I think the study by Katherine Lysy on comparing Jung's theory with Dąbrowski’s theory yielded very important results. One, that the overexcitabilities and the Jungian functions are different things. They are very different things.

The other result, which is so very important, is that all overexcitabilities correlate with level of development. To a different degree, but they all are involved. Also—which some people think because Dąbrowski was sometimes inclined to speak in these terms—that sensual and psychomotor overexcitability prevent development to higher levels. They don't prevent it. If they're all alone, they cannot do it. It's just the weakness of emotional and intellectual overexcitability that is the criterion of not being able to advance. It's not that there is some kind of a damping thing from sensual, but this has to be replicated, this study has to be replicated.

Another thing is the missing element in Dąbrowski's theory that should be there—intuition. I cannot imagine anyone going through multilevel process to a higher level like IV and V and not being an intuitive person in Jungian sense. And Dąbrowski mentioned intuition often, but he never put it into his theory, and I think it's a missing component.

Chris: Yeah, I like that. I hope that people will listen and think about doing research. Well, not that everybody who listens is a researcher, but some are.

One more thing that I want to ask you about before we let you go—thank you so much for joining us—is Yunasa. This past summer, you retired after doing every camp since 2002. And we've done an episode—the two of us talked about Yunasa. The pressure from the kids is part of why you agreed to do this episode. Can you say something about Yunasa? I know it must be a highlight of your life and career to have had the opportunity to work with these amazing young people. Do you have any thoughts? Do you want to say hello to the kids?

Michael: Well, I can always say it—it would be wonderful to say hello to the kids if they ever do listen to this, of course. No question about it. It was an interesting growth. We started with some trepidation. When we met together, Patty Gatto-Walden and Stephanie Tolan and myself, we were there with Betsy Jones to start the first Yunasa in Michigan in 2002. We had only 15 kids. We divided into three groups. Since we hadn't met them, we didn't know how it was going to go. And we had to tell ourselves we know how to do it. Because we have put things into place, and we tested it out. Think about the problems that might still arise or that have arisen and things like that.

I remember telling them that psychosynthesis works—the techniques for personal growth. Psychosynthesis works. Don't fret. And then we got more the next year and more the next year, and it kept growing. Couldn't find better confirmation that it's meeting its goals of assisting personal growth than the kids are so eager to be there again the next summer and the summer after next and then they are eager to become counselors. And also how many of them and their parents say it was the best thing for the child.

Chris: Psychosynthesis does work.

Michael: Yes, it does work. So, yeah, it's an amazing history because it's 20 some years, 34 camps, lots of extraordinary kids from very sensitive to those who are oblivious to everything around them. And yet growing out of it eventually by finding themselves in that safe environment, non-judgmental, very essential. It's a non-judgmental environment. Not everyone feels they can be themselves the first time they come because everyone has to feel the water. Almost always feel they can be themselves sooner or later.

Chris: Well, good job. It's a really magical place, and it's been a real privilege working there with you.

Thank you. Thanks so much for joining us. I feel like we should probably let you off the hook now.

Michael: It's good to be off the hook.

Emma: Can I ask one more question? I have one more thing, and you don't have to answer this if you don't want to. You can run away. But we've tried to get you on the podcast for a while, and I know you listen every now and then. I want to know if there's anything that you wanted to say about Chris and I—what we're doing, and your thoughts—good, bad? I'm just curious as to what you think of this little…

Michael: The evidence is clear. You know you're doing good work. Because of your response to people who like them, there's a growing listenership, and it will keep on growing. So, definitely. You are to be commended for starting it and growing the material base of available topics.

Chris: Well, thank you.

Emma: That's it. You can go now. Thank you.

Chris: Thank you so much, Michael.

Emma: I don't want to ask anything more after he said something so nice.

Chris: Ha, that's funny.

Emma: Well, that's the end of our conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Special thanks to Chris for arranging this. And thanks to Michael for joining us. We wish you a very happy 90th birthday.

View Episode 48 on Substack with the show notes

Return to the list of podcast episodes