Emergence

swarm of starling birds (2)

One fine afternoon autumn day I watched transfixed as a gigantic flock of migratory birds swarmed over the woods across the street. I was watching a “complex, self-organizing system” in action — specifically, a “murmuration” of birds. (Click the image above to watch one.) The phenomenon is created by “swarm behavior,” which in turn falls in the category of emergence.

Emergence explains how the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. The term is widely used — in systems theory, philosophy. psychology, chemistry, biology, neurobiology, machine learning — and for purposes of this blog, it also applies to cultural belief systems and the social institutions they generate.

Consider any culture you like — a team, club, company, profession, investor group, religious gathering, political party…. As we’ve seen previously in this series, the group’s cultural sense of reality is patterned in each individual member’s neural wiring and cellular makeup. But no one member can hold it all, and different members have varying affinity for different aspects of the culture. As a result, each member takes what the others bring “on faith”:  the group believes in its communal beliefs. This faith facilitates the emergence of a cohesive, dynamic cultural body that takes on a life of its own, expressed through its institutions. .

That’s emergence.

To get a further sense of how this works, see this TED Talk that uses complex systems theory to look at how the structure of the financial industry (a transnational cultural body) helped to bring about the Great Recession of 2007-2008. Systems theorist James B. Glattfelder[1] lays out a couple key features of self-organizing systems:

“It turns out that what looks like complex behavior from the outside is actually the result of a few simple rules of interaction. This means you can forget about the equations and just start to understand the system by looking at the interactions.

“And it gets even better, because most complex systems have this amazing property called emergence. This means that the system as a whole suddenly starts to show a behavior which cannot be understood or predicted by looking at the components. The whole is literally more than the sum of its parts.”

In the end, he says, there’s an innate simplicity to it all — “an emergent property which depends on the rules of interaction in the system. We could easily reproduce [it] with a few simple rules.”[2] He compares this outcome to the inevitable polarized logjams we get from clashing cultural ideologies:

 “I really hope that this complexity perspective allows for some common ground to be found. It would be really great if it has the power to help end the gridlock created by conflicting ideas, which appears to be paralyzing our globalized world.  Ideas relating to finance, economics, politics, society, are very often tainted by people’s personal ideologies.  Reality is so complex, we need to move away from dogma.”

Trouble is, we seem to be predisposed toward ideological gridlock and dogma. Even if we’ve never heard of emergence, we have a kind of backdoor awareness of it — that there are meta-influences affecting our lives — but we’re inclined to locate their source “out there,” instead of in our bodily selves. “Out there” is where the Big Ideas live, formulated by transcendent realities and personalities — God, gods, Fate, Destiny, Natural Law, etc. — that sometimes enter our lesser existence to reveal their take on how things work. Trouble is, they have super-intelligence while we have only a lesser version, so once we receive their revelations, we codify them into vast bodies of collected wisdom and knowledge, which we then turn over to our sacred and secular  cultural institutions to administer. We and our cultures aren’t perfect like they are, but we do our best to live up to their high standards.

We do all this because, as biocentrism champion Robert Lanza has said, most of us have trouble wrapping our heads around the notion that

“Everything we see and experience is a whirl of information occurring in our head. We are not just objects embedded in some external matrix ticking away ‘out there.’”[3]

In our defense, the kind of systems analysis that James Glattfelder uses in his TED talk requires a lot of machine super-intelligence and brute data-crunching power that the human brain lacks. We’re analog and organic, not digital, and we use our limited outlook to perpetuate more polarization, ideological gridlock. and dogma. Culture may be emergent, but when it emerges, it walks right into a never-ending committee meeting  debating whether it has a place on the agenda..

Next time, we’ll look at what happens when emergent cultures clash.

[1] James B. Glattfelder holds a Ph.D. in complex systems from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. He began as a physicist, became a researcher at a Swiss hedge fund. and now does quantitative research at Olsen Ltd in Zurich, a foreign exchange investment manager.

[2] Here’s a YouTube explanation of the three simple rules that explain the murmuration I watched that day.

[3] From this article in Aeon Magazine.

It’s An Inside Job

In Brain and Culture:  Neurobiology, Ideology, and Social Change, Yale Medical School professor of psychiatry Bruce E. Wexler declared that “concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” “Concordance” is peace of mind, which we all know is an inside job.

peace of mind

But the concordance Wexler is talking about is not the kind reserved for the enlightened few, it’s the kind that’s a brain health necessity. Our brains work unceasingly to maintain harmony between us and our surroundings, including our cultural setting. When internal and external are out of sync, the result is cognitive dissonance which, when left unresolved, leads to physical, mental, and social disease, distress and disorder. Neurological concordance is therefore a surviving and thriving skill, and can be traced to the corresponding part of the brain:

“Thanks to advances in imaging methods, especially functional MRI, researchers have recently identified key brain regions linked to cognitive dissonance. The area implicated most consistently is the posterior part of the medial frontal cortex (pMFC), known to play an important role in avoiding aversive outcomes, a powerful built-in survival instinct. In fMRI studies, when subjects lie to a peer despite knowing that lying is wrong—a task that puts their actions and beliefs in conflict—the pMFC lights up.”[1]

cognitive dissonance

The straightest  path to concordance is conformity. Nonconformity, on the other hand, generates both intracultural and intercultural neurological conflict. [2] This potential for conflict was the context for Wexler’s peace of mind declaration — let’s hear it again, the full quote this time:

“This book argues that differences in belief systems can themselves occasion intercultural violence, since concordance between internal structure and external reality is a fundamental human neurobiological imperative.” (Emphasis added.)

Peace of mind therefore requires the alignment of inner and outer belief systems. This article[3] defines the term:

“Belief systems are the stories we tell ourselves to define our personal sense of Reality. Every human being has a belief system that they utilize, and it is through this mechanism that we individually ‘make sense’ of the world around us.

 “The species Homo sapiens developed so-called belief systems. These are sets of beliefs reinforced by culture, theology, and experience and training as to how the world works cultural values, stereotypes, political viewpoints, etc.”

In order for personal (internal) and shared (external) belief systems to align, the culture’s members must share comparable neural pathways, consciousness, perceptions, sensory tastes, physiology, and the like.[4] When they do, the culture becomes recognizable in its members. Think of the Olympics’ opening ceremony parade of athletes:  the Yanks are obviously the Yanks — nobody else has quite their swashbuckling sense of derring-do. Or think of professional cultures — lawyers, accountants, engineers, physicians — meet one, and you can just tell. Or remember what it’s like to visit a foreign culture — it’s not just the signage but it’s… well, everything —  how people look, sound, act, their customs and values….

All of that is the result of biological, chemical, environmental, and other influences, all stored in individual brains and bodies. But how is cultural patterning transmitted from one individual to another? John R. Searle, Professor of Philosophy, University of California, Berkeley, wanted to know, and finding out led to his seminal book The Construction of Social Reality:

“This book is about a problem that has puzzled me for a long time:  there are portions of the real world, objective facts in the world that are only facts by human agreement. In a sense there are things that exist only because we believe them to exist. I am thinking about things like money, property, governments, and marriage.

“If everybody thinks that this sort of thing is money, and they use it as money and treat it as money, then it is money. If nobody ever thinks this sort of thing is money, then it is not money. And what goes for money goes for elections, private property, wars, voting, promises, marriages, buying and selling, political offices, and so on.”

“How can there be an objective world of money, property, marriage, governments, elections, football games, cocktail parties and law courts in a world that consists entirely of physical particles in fields of force, and in which some of these particles are organized into systems that are conscious biological beasts, such as ourselves?”

This article[5] provides this summary answer to Searle’s questions:

“Because mental states cannot be transferred physically, they must be transferred by being re-created in the mind of the receiving individual.

“[W]hat is transmitted is some state of mind that produces behavior.

“[The transmitted state of mind includes] a myriad of… beliefs, values, desires, definitions, attitudes, and emotional states such as fear, regret, or pride.”

Vastly simplified, the process of enculturation looks like this:

  • New members enter via an entry point such as birth, naturalization, initiation, etc.
  • They observe the culture’s members thinking and behaving in the culture’s characteristic ways.
  • Through observation and imitation, they take on the culture’s mindset and become habituated into its belief and behavioral norms.
  • In time, they become recognizable as members of the culture along with its other members.
  • Then, an organizing principle called “emergence” asserts itself, so that the whole culture takes on a life of its own that is bigger than the sum of its individual members.

We’ll talk about emergence next time.

[1] “What Happens to the Brain During Cognitive Dissonance?” Scientific American Mind (Nov. 2015).

[2] There’s been a lot of research on conformity and nonconformity in the past ten years. If you’re interested in digging deeper, searching “neuroscience of conformity” and “neuroscience of nonconformity” will turn up several scholarly studies.

[3] “What Are Belief Systems?” Usó-Doménech and J. Nescolarde-Selva, Department of Applied Mathematics. University of Alicante. Alicante. Spain.

[4] See the prior post, Microbes of Meaning.

[5]Evolution of Mind, Brain, and Culture”, Philip G. Chase, former Senior Research Scientist and Consulting Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania,