Maxwell Maltz: What Is Psycho-Cybernetics?

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What is Psycho-Cybernetics? How did Maxwell Maltz develop his Psycho-Cybernetic theory of goal-oriented behavior?

Psycho-Cybernetics utilizes a mechanical perspective of your brain’s inner workings to explain goal-oriented behavior. Maltz’s research into the process the mind goes through to achieve goals led him to the work of Dr. John von Neumann, who explored the parallels between computers and the human mind. Neumann’s concepts led Maltz to develop an interest in cybernetic theory—a branch of science that studies the goal-oriented behavior of mechanical systems. 

In this article, we’ll explore the concept of Psycho-Cybernetics and illustrate how your mind works like a machine to set and achieve goals.

Psycho-Cybernetic Theory

To understand what Psycho-Cybernetics is, you must first understand the concept of cybernetics. Cybernetic theory explores how self-guided machines incorporate feedback to self-correct and stay on target. Machines have an objective and an in-built guidance system to ensure that they successfully achieve their goal.

To develop the Psycho-Cybernetics theory, Maxwell Maltz drew on the work of Dr. Norbert Wiener—the originator of cybernetic theory, and the first scientist to theorize that all intelligent behavior is the result of feedback mechanisms—and Dr. John von Neumann, who explored the analogies between technology and the human brain in his seminal work, Computer and the Brain.

The more Maltz analyzed the way humans achieve goals, the more he realized that the human brain and nervous system operate in accordance with cybernetic principles. We direct our minds (often unconsciously) to achieve results in the same way that we program machines to achieve specific objectives.

To clarify how you achieve results in the same way that a cybernetic machine does, we’ll illustrate the two distinct ways that machines operate and rely upon feedback to either reach their targets, or to find solutions, and compare it to how your mind functions to achieve similar goals:

1) When the Objective Is to Reach a Target

When the target is clearly defined, both machines and humans rely upon an inbuilt guidance system that allows them to interpret positive and negative feedback to help them reach the intended target.

For a machine, imagine a missile programmed to hit a clear target: In this case, the missile has sensors in place which provide feedback to guide it to its target. This feedback is positive (missile is on the correct path) and negative (missile isn’t on the correct path). The missile continues to move forward and uses this feedback to correct its course and eventually reach the target.

For the human mind, imagine how you learned to eat: The act of directing a spoon into your mouth took a lot of practice and there were many times that you ended up with food on your forehead or in your lap. Throughout all of this, your brain was trying to reach a target (get food into your mouth) and relied on positive and negative feedback to know if it was on the right track. Once you successfully managed to get the food into your mouth, your brain recorded the process as a success and began to duplicate the process every time you fed yourself.

(Shortform note: Maltz focused primarily on how the human brain successfully reaches a target or achieves a goal. However, his theory does bring up questions about how learning disabilities can impact this process. According to the latest research, learning disabilities are due to permanent neurological disorders that limit the brain’s ability to store and process information and impact 15% of the school-age population. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce these limitations: According to recent research, multisensory teaching techniques limit the effects of some learning disabilities by activating other areas of the brain to improve the way students store and process information.) 

2) When the Objective Is to Find a Solution 

When a problem needs to be solved, both machines and humans rely upon stored memory to process data, to record feedback, and to arrive at an appropriate solution.

For a machine, imagine how a calculator works to solve mathematical equations: You input a problem (the equation you want solved) and the calculator uses the data you input, as well as its own stored memory of processes, to figure out and discover the solution to the problem.

For the human mind, imagine how you learned to figure out simple equations: Before you could achieve this, you had to learn how to count and your brain had to record this data. Your brain then used this data (the numbers you memorized) to figure out how different combinations of these numbers produced different results. Every time you made a mistake, your brain would remember this error and try to avoid making it again. Every time you managed to correctly solve an equation, your brain would record the success. Eventually, your brain discovered the correct process to quickly solve similar equations.

In both of the above examples, your brain worked according to cybernetic principles to reach your target or find a solution. It used positive and negative feedback to check if it was on track and, once it figured out the correct method, your brain recorded the successful feedback and discarded the negative feedback (which no longer served any purpose once your brain memorized the correct process) so that you could continue to repeat the action without further conscious thought. So now, you can eat and solve simple equations without having to think about it.

How Cybernetic Theory Has Evolved Since Psycho-Cybernetics’ Publication

Recent developments in artificial intelligence have subverted the original theory that machines need humans to create and operate them in order to function and fulfill their objectives.

For example, some scientists have explored the possibility of merging animal or human brain cells (neurons) with technology to create machines with biological brains. This takes the concept of humans controlling machines to a whole new level—humans creating machines with the ability to govern themselves—and throws up a number of social and ethical issues that need to be considered.

In addition, it’s already possible for a human brain to interface with a computerbrains and computers can communicate with each other through the use of electromagnetic signals. Apparently, this process can help to overcome mental disorders and improve brain cognition. This has massive implications, especially in the area of healthcare—for example, if someone suffers from a brain injury and has to relearn how to eat, they could interface with a computer to help speed up the process.

Maxwell Maltz: What Is Psycho-Cybernetics?

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  • How to program your mind in the same way you’d program a machine
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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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