Some of the best ways to influence systemic integration and harmonization involve communication (based on perception), information, and learning. One might say that, with communication, we are looking at how signals get sent (speaking) while, with perception, we are looking at how they are received (listening).
Think of the way our sense perceptions help us function. As we move, we continually receive feedback from our visual system, informing us of our position relative to where we are going. Are we getting close, or further? We do the same thing with things coming toward us. Will they hit us, or miss us? Bats and dolphins use sound in the same way. But we also perceive with more than our five senses. We have organs of balance, and our proprioception brings us awareness of our bodily movements—not relative to outer things but from within. We also have drives or impulses, such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, fear, anger, and love. Such things seem very deeply rooted and instinctive.
Other perceptions, on the emotional level, are not quite so deeply rooted but are nonetheless highly influential. Emotional responses are generally either sympathetic or antipathetic. We either like something or dislike it. We are attracted or put off. Therefore emotions are critical to how we respond and behave. Such responses can be triggered by sense perceptions, such as smells, and are also associated with our deeper impulses. Finally, when we conceptualize, we may be said to be perceiving our own thoughts. The way in which thoughts arise is mysterious; perhaps the closest we get to directly experiencing this process is in meditation.
Many of our experiences of perception can be generalized to other complex systems. All such systems “perceive” in some manner(s). Since perception is so basic to the way complex systems function (the processes they engage in and the feedback involved in those processes), developing increased sensitivity can powerfully influence the way these systems work, and therefore their wellbeing.
Communication is the indispensable means of spreading information within the system. In human societies, we are continually giving one another negative feedback in accord with accepted social mores. If you walk down the street naked, you’ll get some stares and some shocked expressions. Much of the feedback we give is not even conscious, either to the giver or receiver. We communicate this feedback through pheromones, body language, facial expression, gesture, and tone of voice as well as the meaning of our words. Communication is also essential to positive or amplifying feedback. Teachers know that the class clown thrives off the laughter of his peers. The more they laugh, the more he’ll clown, and the more he clowns the more they’ll laugh.
We communicate on every level on which individuals perceive their wider environment. For people, this means at least through sense perception, impulse, emotion, and idea. Since communication is so key to all manner of processes and feedback, it’s extremely helpful to identify the types of communication your system uses, both internally and with the wider environment. Strengthening and improving the quality of communication can greatly assist the integration and harmonization of a complex system.
Flows of Information, Idea, Impulse, and Emotion in Human Systems
Flows in human systems are not limited to physical matter and energy. Flows of seeming intangibles such as information, impulse, emotion, and idea are no less real, and perhaps even more critical. Like the flows of energy and matter, these flows can be both helpful and destructive, so understanding (and sometimes regulating) them is essential for cultivating systemic wellbeing.
Information as facts or data is extremely important. Without enough (and accurate enough) information, we can’t choose those courses of action that will be most effective and beneficial. Within certain social contexts (and perhaps particularly in crowds), people make different―and sometimes morally inferior―choices than they otherwise would. The influence of peer pressure is widely appreciated.
For many, the hallmark of humanity is our capacity for abstract reasoning. In human systems, the slow change of biological evolution has been superseded by the rapid spread of discoveries and ideas. New ideas can lead to revolutionary changes in any area of human endeavor. However, the consequences of such change are usually not anticipated. Less than three centuries ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, few would have imagined that our use of fossil fuels would have altered the climate of the planet and imperiled our collective future. Attempting to dam the flow of ideas seems both hopeless and counterproductive. Therefore some means of optimizing the flow of ideas within human systems―with a view towards potential impacts―would appear to be essential.
While we tend to equate information with thinking, impulse and emotion are also conveyors of information. The word impulse can characterize a broad range of aspects of will, such as desire, urge, duty, or aspiration. In human social systems, these are regularly communicated and can spread infectiously, with either positive or negative effects. Flows of human impulses may be sluggish, chaotic, or toxic, so means of regulating them are essential for systemic health.
Emotions are also highly communicable, and can be helpful or destructive; sluggish (repressed) or chaotic and turbulent. Emotions are also important in decision-making. It is widely assumed that emotions cloud judgment and interfere with good decision-making. However, where the emotional center in the brain is damaged, decision-making becomes extremely arduous. With no good reason to prefer a blue pen to a black one, a person can remain paralyzed while trying to decide which one to use. The ramifications of any particular path of action may carry so many unknowns―even in apparently simple situations―that no best choice emerges from reason alone. Intuitions or hunches step in to guide our actions. Emotions are also extremely communicable, with either positive or negative effects. Thus, the healthy regulation of emotional flows in human systems is important.
What do we mean by learning? Complex systems “learn” (and adapt and evolve) in many ways. A micro-organism that is exposed to a toxic substance “learns” to avoid it. The explanation may be purely (or mostly) chemical, but clearly some type of learning has taken place. Our immune system “learns” to recognize and respond to invaders. This is a trial and error process—no understanding is involved.
Such learning is an aid to adaptation and evolution. A system in distress may grow more turbulent and start to explore diverse possibilities. Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock exposed corn plants to environmental stressors, such as drought. The plants started to “shuffle” their genetic material, as we would a deck of cards. Gene segments (which McClintock called “jumping genes”) literally moved from one place to another on the chromosome. This produced all sorts of new combinations, a few of which might help the plants to weather a drought. One or more of these beneficial adaptations could then spread through natural selection.
As people (and in the human social systems we inhabit) we do our own share of trial and error learning—“throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall to see what sticks.” Thomas Edison’s methodical experimentation with hundreds of types of light bulb filaments is perhaps a case in point. But, even in this example, Edison had no doubt ruled out thousands of highly unlikely substances beforehand. Just so, as human beings, we use our information and intelligence to make informed guesses that, in turn, help us learn and adapt more quickly and effectively.
But, for that matter, what do we mean by intelligence? Certainly we have become much more aware that people with high levels of social and emotional intelligence can be more effective leaders and decision-makers. Similarly, human organizations can be more or less “intelligent,” in a variety of ways. Access to quantifiable data is a good thing. The ability to evaluate it without bias is even better.
On the other hand, qualitative “data” (or information) is extremely useful. New office furniture may be affordable and durable. But, if it’s aesthetically unpleasing to employees and customers, is it really a good investment? As people—and as organizations—we must become adept at utilizing all the types of learning at our disposal, in order to adapt to changing conditions and continually grow and evolve. Complexity theory helps us to do so by understanding the importance of sensitive perception, effective communication amongst various parts of the system, the gathering of all types of information, and the employment of all modes of learning.
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