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3 Basic Principles to Getting Started with Indigentology, the Study of Experiencing Need

| #003 | THEORY > indigentology | 1,093 words |

"There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Shakespeare (Hamlet)

Indigentology is a neologism I created to capture the focus of my work, which involves parsing how we experience our needs. Hence, indigentology is the study of need experience, albeit here it’s focused on human need experience.

In the process of this "indigentological" focus for the last twenty plus years of my life, three guiding principles have come to the fore. One, there is no good or bad without need experience. Two, there is no need experience without homeostasis. And three, there is little homeostasis without referent-resources.

1. There is no good or bad without need experience.

When I hear something labeled as “good,” I hear one of two things. It either relieves a need or it avoids a need one rather not experience. A good drink of cold water relieves thirst. A good set of brakes avoids a crash.

When I hear something labeled as “bad,” I also hear one of two things. It either triggers or potentially triggers an undesirable need, or it impedes the relief of a need. A bad road risks the undesirable experience of disrupted trip. A bad loaf of bread impedes relieving hunger.

The categories of “good” and “bad” are only used when some need is present. To illustrate, let’s think of a solar flare that erupts from the surface of the sun. Let’s say it results in a CME (i.e., coronal mass ejection) that hurtles out into space. Is this good or bad?


If it hurdles out into empty space, how can it be considered good or bad if it does not affect our experience in any way? If it does affect us, is this an undesirable or desirable experience?

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Let’s say NASA warns us it is about to hit the Earth’s atmosphere and likely take out our communication grid. You are expecting an important call from a client, otherwise you may not get paid. If that CME prevents that call, is this good or bad?

Now let’s say the client has already paid, but you tell them you will accept their call in case they have any questions. You really don’t want to be interrupted and know their questions can wait, as you spend quality time with your loved ones. Just then the CME knocks out your cell service. Is this good or bad?

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Of course, we also use these categories for rating aesthetic qualities. “Good” food may simply be pleasant to the palate and even to the nose and eyes, but not necessarily for its nutritional content. A “bad” day may force me to make improvements when I was already excited about doing something else. Pleasure and displeasure result from our needs.

Unless something impacts our realization of need, the categories of good or bad simply do not apply. We use these labels in response to a preferred rise or drop in some homeostatic level.

2. There is no need experience without homeostasis.

Long before Walter Bradford Cannon coined the term homeostasis, and long before Claude Bernard described it, the concept of life regulating its internal levels around an optimal zone by how it regularly interacts with external levels was well understood in ancient times. Native Americans illustrated it using the wellness wheel, or medicine wheel. The yin-yang of Asian wisdom also helps to bring this to light.

Summer Sip

Think of the body’s need for water. Literally speaking, I do not need water. What my body requires is optimal balance of its fluid and temperature levels. Water is merely the reliable substance providing for my bodily functioning.

If another abundant resource could deliver this result then I would never need water again. At the root of what we mean by need is this optimal functioning level, and not the things we utilize for restoring this homeostatic level.

When some homeostatic area in my life drops below its optimal level I experience it as some form of desire. In response to dehydration, I thirst. In response to losing connection with my mother while she’s on a business trip, I yearn for her return. In response to feeling incompetent to provide for myself, I crave new proficiencies.

Hotel bathroom

I am prompted by the need-communication of emotions to draw in something to bring that level back up to its preferred functioning level. I drink enough water to satiate my thirst. I write messages to my mother till her affectionate reply draws us closer together. I learn some new skills to boost my self-efficacy. Rules for action indeed.

When some homeostatic area in my life rises too high for its optimal functioning level I experience it as some form of discomfort, or pain. I urinate, I seek solitude from others, I take a break from learning. Until the level once again drops too low, and the cycle continues.

3. There is little homeostasis without referents.

Water is a resource. My mother’s reliability is a resource. A new skill is a resource. These are items utilized for restoring homeostatic equilibrium. Resources are some concrete or abstract external thing we rely upon for homeostatic equilibrium restoration.

To say “I need some water” is a rhetorical shortcut: I require the resource of water to restore my homeostatic fluid and perhaps temperature levels in order to stop feeling thirsty or too hot. I require my mother’s affection to restore my psychosocial homeostasis in the direction of relatedness. I require new skills to restore my psychosocial homeostasis in the direction of individuation.

First Aid

Note how this time I state “little” instead of “no.” Resources are only necessary for open systems, for those aspects of life interacting with the external environment. The cardiovascular system is normally a closed system, only requiring interaction with something external when it’s damaged.

Internal systems do not require any evolutionary mechanism for us to actively regulate, since these systems are typically self-regulating and on autopilot. Hence, we do not sense a drop in blood pressure, or a brief drop in the amount of oxygen reaching the brain, until the body warns of damage. Those systems interacting with the external environment, by contrast, organize our attention to seek requisite resources. We are in the habit of calling them needs.

There are internal resources and external resources. We apply internal resources toward an independence of self-preservation, but also toward interdependence with our trusted environment.

We likewise plug into available external resources first for self-preservation, but also for environmental interdependence. These are the complementary life purposes in tension with each other. A tension that expresses itself cyclically, which is another discussion.