There are two current paperback versions of Psycho-Cybernetics. Both are rather ugly reminding you of high school science textbooks. The Wilshire edition has an image of a man's torso inside a triangle, with a laser beam running through his head. What tips you off that it is in fact a self-help book is a yellow badge saying 'Over 5,000,000 copies sold'.
This figure, though, is only part of the story. The non-profit Psycho-Cybernetics Foundation estimates that worldwide sales of the book, including the editions of five US publishers and the many foreign translations, from 1960-1997, exceeds 25 million copies.
What is cybernetics?
The word cybernetic comes from the Greek for 'steersman', and in the modern sense usually refers to systems of control and communication in machines and animals: how, for instance, a computer or a mouse organises itself to achieve a task. Maltz applied the science to man to form psycho-cybernetics. However, while inspired by the development of sophisticated machines, his book denounced the idea that man can be reduced to a machine. Psycho-cybernetics bridges the gap between our mechanistic models of the brain's functioning (cliches like 'Your brain is a wonderful computer'), and the knowledge of ourselves as being a lot more than machine.
Maltz said that human beings have an 'essence' or life force that cannot be reduced to a mere brain and physical body. Jung called it the libido, Bergson the elan vital. A person cannot be defined by their physical body or brain, just as electricity cannot be defined by the wire through which it travels. We are, rather, systems in constant flux.
Some readers will be uncomfortable with this distinction between the brain and the mind, but it does make sense in relation to Maltz's key statement: 'Man is not a machine, but has and uses a machine.' This distinction is crucial to understanding the larger subject of the book: setting and achieving goals.
Guided missile technology applied to humans
The founder of cybernetics was American mathematician Norbert Wiener, who spent World War Two refining guided missile technology. Maltz thought: why could the technology behind guided missiles of a constant feedback loop in order to maintain direction not be applied to human achievement? He realised the key point about the loop is that it gains an automaticity when the target or goal is very clearly fixed. When you first learn to drive, you have to worry about every car and process every sign ahead of you on the road - the result is that you move slowly and are vulnerable to getting lost. In time, however, driving becomes easy because you know your destination when you sit behind the wheel, and body and mind automatically do what is necessary to reach it.
Cybernetics appeared such a breakthrough to Maltz because its implication was that achievement was a matter of choice. Most important to the dynamic of achieving was the 'what' (the target), rather than the 'how' (the path). The frontal lobes or conscious thinking part of the brain could devise the goal, or create the image of the person you wanted to be, and the subconscious mind would deliver its attainment. The 'set and forget' mechanism of guided missiles would also work for our deepest desires.
The importance of the self-image
Maltz was a plastic surgeon. His life centred around giving people a good image of themselves in the mirror. Distinguished as he was in the field, he was at a loss to explain why a minority of patients were no happier after operation than before, even if disfiguring scars or other malformations had been removed. He found himself drawn into the new self-image psychology, which held that we generally conform in action and thought to a deep image of ourselves. Without a change to this inner image, patients would still feel themselves to be ugly, however excellent the cosmetic work.
Maltz came to believe that self-image was the 'golden key' to a better life. Without an understanding of it, we might forever be fiddling around the 'circumference of the self' - instead of its centre. Positive thinking, for instance, could be of no use if it simply related to particular external circumstances. Saying 'I will get this job' will not do anything if the idea of being in the job is not consistent with how you see yourself deep down.
As a plastic surgeon who gave people new faces, Maltz also became interested in self-image psychology. This suggested that we acquire our self-image through our beliefs about ourselves, which grow out of past experience of success and failure and how others see us. Maltz argued that both are unworthy of the privilege of determining our basic psychological template. The crucial and fascinating point about the self-image is that it is value neutral, that is, it doesn't care if is empowering or destructive, but will form itself simply according to what psychological food it is fed. Maltz realised that winning images of the self could replace negative ones, denying any authority to past events. The beauty of self-image was that while it was the supreme factor in determining success or failure, it was also extremely malleable.
Living out the image
The brain thinks in terms of images, therefore if you can consciously create the desired image of yourself the brain and nervous system will automatically provide itself with constant feedback to ensure that it 'lives up to' the preordained image. In a well-known clinical experiment, one group of basketballers was physically trained to throw more balls through the hoop, while another was taught to merely visualise throwing goals. Despite the absence of any physical practice, the second group far outscored the first.
The brain, nervous system and muscles are obeying servants of pictures placed in the head. But the ability of your body and brain to manifest the desired self-image depends upon its indelibility. It must be tattooed on the brain. With such a strong image of ourselves, it would be difficult not to live out and manifest all that is associated with the self-image. Instead of just 'having goals', we become them.
A lot of self-help writing is about goals, but how does goal-setting work? Why does it work? Maltz was the first to explore the actual machinery of it, and in doing this he has been a key influence to a generation of success writers. The emphasis on positive self-image paved the way for hundreds of books on the power of affirmation and visualisation techniques. Psycho-Cybernetics has sold in its millions because it provides a scientific rationale for dream fulfilment.
Notwithstanding its 'Reader's Digest' style of writing, Psycho-Cybernetics is, in fact, a textbook. The science and computing references are now outdated, but the principles of cybernetics have only grown in influence. Complexity theory, artificial intelligence and cognitive science all grew out of the cybernetic understanding of how the non-physical, the 'ghost in the machine', guides matter. This makes Psycho-Cybernetics the perfect self-help book for a technological culture.
It is admirable because it was written at a time when behaviourism and time-and-motion studies, which tended to reduce people to the mechanical, were at their zenith. Maltz's genius was in saying that while we were 'machines', and while the dynamics of goal-setting and self-image might best be described in mechanistic terms, the fantastic variety of our desires and our ability to create new worlds were uniquely human. What could never be reduced to machine analogies were the fires of imagination, ambition and will.
"Man is by nature a goal-striving being. And because man is 'built that way' he is not happy unless he is functioning as he was made to function - as a goal-striver. Thus true success and true happiness not only go together but each enhances the other."
Born in 1899 and educated in Europe, Maltz graduated from Columbia College in 1919 and received his MD from the College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1923. He studied plastic surgery techniques in Germany before returning to the United States to take up a job at Beth Israel Hospital.He spent most of his adult life in New York where he established a reconstructive cosmetic surgery practice. His book New Faces, New Futures(1936) was a collection of case histories of patients whose lives had been transformed by facial surgery. Maltz's subsequent research into the few patients whose lives did not radically improve led him to the psychologist Prescott Lecky's work on 'self-consistency'. He was in his sixties by the time Psycho-Cybernetics was published.
With its success, Maltz became a popular motivational speaker throughout the 1960s and the early 1970s. The wide audience for the book included Salvador Dali, who painted a 'psycho-cybernetics' work as a gift to the author. Maltz died in 1975 and was survived by his wife Anne.
Though rather overshadowed, other Maltz titles include Evolution of Plastic Surgery, (1946)The Magic Powers of the Self-Image ,Live and Be Free Through Psycho-Cybernetics, three novels and an autobiography, Dr Pygmalion (1953). Psycho-Cybernetics 2000 , edited by Bobbe Summer and Anna Maltz, is an updated version of the book. The Psycho-Cybernetics Foundation (www.psycho-cybernetics.com) now promotes his work.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.
. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.