Saturday, May 17, 2008


Cultural Expansion: Building a Bigger Picture

“Wisdom is directly proportional to the size of the group whose well being it takes into account.”
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self
I remember sitting in a waiting room while my husband Michael was getting physical therapy after an operation to his hand. As a guitar player this recovery was intensely important so we were both concerned at how raw the wound still looked two weeks later. I was sitting next to a somewhat intimidating looking man in a sleeveless T-shirt. He took up more space than his waiting room chair but I crossed the silence barrier when my attention fixated on the enormous wound that snaked up his forearm, the center of which was as raw looking as Michael’s palm. My curiosity overtook my timidity,
“How long ago did that happen?” I asked.
He was an articulate and self-reflective storyteller. After my surge of relief when he said it had been a month since his stabbing, I heard a life experience so unlike any I’d ever heard before, it was like traveling to a foreign country. What I was most taken with was his attitude. Right up to collapsing from blood loss on his father’s front yard he had this intense awareness of being. During his recovery he was all gratitude. He hadn’t been able to work at his job as a welder since it happened, but he was determined and optimistic knowing he would do what was necessary to gain full use of his arm again. I left there feeling improved by the conversation.
One of the purposes of emotion is to underscore the importance of an experience in memory, so the fact that I remember this so vividly after all these years shows that it made a deep impression on my worldview.
Gregory Bateson defined information as “the difference that makes a difference”.
When a new bit of knowledge or experience actually changes the way we view the world, it enlarges the scope of our understanding. The world is full of untapped sources of knowledge from which to build a bigger picture of reality. Every human being is a library of unique experiences that form a particular window on the world. No one view can see it all. Each individual story has something to teach us. When someone else’s background is radically different from our own, we can learn more than we might from someone similar to ourselves. When we see or hear something we are already familiar with there’s no real change in our worldview though it may feel good to have our view supported. When we come across something different from what we’re used to we need to adjust our model, which is more difficult and often provokes resistance. Rejecting what doesn’t fit an existing view, using up intellectual resources in the effort to discredit what doesn’t match the existing outlook, is protecting a limited picture. The right/wrong way of seeing interferes with acquiring new information. To not get bogged down in defense of one way of seeing frees valuable mental resources for accommodating more, sometimes contradictory, ideas in the mind at once. This and a tolerance for uncertainty are characteristics of high intelligence that we would do well to cultivate.
An appreciation of difference leads to the intellectual enrichment of us all as we come to understand how personal experience forms every individual viewpoint. To really see a circumstance requires as many views as available. John Dewey wrote that when the personal is taken into account it would revolutionize philosophy. This revolution liberates us from the need to match a standardized way of seeing that denies us access to the full range of ideas that combines to create a bigger picture.
Understanding that every point of view produces valid assessments of some aspect of reality welcomes the many ways of seeing that have been ignored in a world where power has decided what is true.
To create an atmosphere that includes all points of view rather than setting them in opposition, invites knowledge. Put aside the competition to have the right idea and we can have a whole landscape of ideas to choose from to match a particular problem or situation. Insight into a range of ways to consider an issue offers more opportunities to think creatively. With a larger intellectual range established everyone is set free to speculate more widely and more interesting constructions and hybrids can occur. The greater the range of ideas from which to draw the better the final synthesis will be.
Diversity is important for a robust ecology of ideas. Just like a larger gene pool creates hybrid vigor strengthening survivability, so can a larger meme pool invigorate the world of mind.
In his book, In the Mind's Eye, Thomas G. West suggests that the skill of the future won’t be having the right ideas but ability to revise our thinking as new information flows in. He writes, “We spend almost no time on developing the intuitive core of understanding, on building up the ability to model reality in our mind.” Hanging on to one model of reality impairs the ability to grow. Letting go of the idea of one worldview that holds for everyone makes it easier to ride the flow of proliferating information and adjust our image as necessary.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Mental Organism

My imagination was fired up by the discovery that Thomas Edison saw humans as swarms of life energy units that persist for awhile then disperse and eventually join other energy units to form something else. As an image for death it’s more comforting than the image of a body decaying. It also puts emphasis on consciousness as opposed to the material form. A similar dynamic occurs with a class. For a time we are a swarm of minds that each influence the other and bring out different qualities and ideas that none of us might have arrived at alone. It’s a mental organism that grows and matures over time. When it’s time frame ends, I feel the loss as the energy units that were accustomed to being part of the organism made of the patterns of the class were left with no place to go. Until they get caught up in new currents they bounce around an empty place where something valuable used to be.
The disintegration of any strange attractor (pattern of energy that holds its form) is a kind of death, but the word shifts meaning with the understanding it was always part of a sea of energy flow that is constantly reorganizing. At every level from cells and systems, to societal groups and the larger fields of consciousness that organize the physical realm like a semester organizes a class, the patterns of collaborating elements of consciousness repeat at every scale.