Some time ago, I was part of a fascinating discussion at Dawud Miracle's blog about whether we have “parts” of ourselves or whether we are a “whole” misled by our language and habits of thought into thinking of ourselves in parts. (This guy is not just another web designer, eh?)
I had to join such a conversation, but of course I approached the question from the perspective of the brain. (I couldn't help myself — you'll understand ).
To follow the whole conversation (or is that to follow all its parts??), you'll need to go catch up on Dawud's blog, but I thought I would share my thinking on this for my brain aficionados. (That's you.)
Why do we seem to have “parts”?
We have parts because our brains work in networks with nodes that exchange information between and among them.
That means that when we learn or experience something, the activity our brain creates gets “inter-connected” to other related bits. Enough experiences of a similar ilk and we have a new node in the network or an expanded and enriched portion of the network.
Fortunately, we are all complex enough creatures that we have more nodes than we can count. They are somehow or t'other all interconnected (think 6 degrees ;-), but there will be some nodes that grab more attention than others — and that attention depends on our internal and external context/environments.
One other piece is that our brains are parallel-processors. We never think of just one thing. Sometimes we're aware of (some of) the competition, sometimes we're not.
When we are aware, I suggest we're noticing our “parts” — i.e., the concurrent nodes that got activated by whatever context we're in.
So if Dawud expresses an urge to be backpacking (and he did), “backpacking” might be a node activated by something he read or saw (that pack in the closet perhaps??) or an inner urging to increase his activity level (connected of course to the ways he likes to be active) or something else entirely (an email from a backpacking friend about anything at all).
But are we really parts or is that an illusion?
We have just one brain, after all.
Let’s start with a metaphor. Is a forest the whole thing or the
trees? Of course, it’s both — it can’t be a forest without having
trees, but a tree alone doesn’t make a forest. Yet the forest does has “parts” —
different kinds of trees and other growth with different needs. It may
not even be a forest to you if it doesn’t have wildlife, water, bugs,
etc. All of these are “parts” of a forest, but not a forest by
themselves. And they are only “parts” of a forest if we are referring
back to the idea of the “whole” forest.
Even more interestingly, by themselves they aren't
“parts” at all, they’re wholes on a different scale. And each of them
has its own “parts” (leaves, branches, roots) and each of these is a
“whole” on a smaller scale.
So, yes, I do think we have “parts” — but we can only talk about our
“parts” by recognizing at some level that we are really a greater
Whole. If I talk about “part” of me, I’m acknowledging that I have a
greater Whole me that includes all these “parts”. And I can’t have a
Whole without my Parts and we can’t help but have our Parts emerge into
creating a fuller Whole.
When I’m experiencing “flow”, I’m not Whole, but I am changing my scale of
attention to make the “part” a temporary “whole”.
When I have a
spiritual experience, I’m zooming out my scale to a larger “part” of a
larger Whole — the Divine perhaps if I’m getting really close.
When I'm absorbed by a pain or a problem, again I'm limiting my view to part of my Whole. I can “get beyond” the problem often by zooming back out to a larger, more wholistic perspective (pun intended).
Neurofeedback (you knew I had to get there, didn't you?) helps by making it easier to “zoom out”. Sometimes this is by preventing the brain from “zooming in”, from getting too absorbed in the “looping” of the problem (getting stuck in a very little part), Sometimes this is by opening new windows and doors for us to have a widened or new perspective.
Yet just because you spend time on a mountain looking down at a forest
doesn’t take away that it’s composed of trees+ and that somehow from that
collection of trees+ emerges a fuller, more complex entity that you can
be aware of from outside it.
And just because someone may be feeling lost in the woods and
acutely aware of each and every tree and branch and sound doesn’t take
away the more complex entity they are now part of.
And that's the magic of it. Take a collection of little separate parts (brain cells, ants, water droplets), give them simple rules of interaction with each other, and a larger, more complex entity emerges with more possibilities than any one of elements (a Self, an anthill, an ocean).
I absolutely agree with Dawud's idea that it’s about perspective, but I think that our
ability to “hold” onto a perspective shifts and changes. Sometimes you
may be aware that you and I are part of the same Whole, but sometimes
we are going to feel like pretty separate parts. And that can be a good thing or a hindrance, depending on what you need to be doing.
If you're fascinated by this idea of the brain as made of interacting networks and can't wait to get further into it, here's a nifty little blog article by Deric Bownds on his blog Mindblog: The Structure of Consciousness
Much of my ideas about parts and wholes — and especially the idea of wholes emerging organically from parts to become somethingmore than the sum of its parts — comes from the field ofchaos and complexity theory.
For easy and enjoyable reads in these areas, try:
Emergence : The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains,
Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
Let me know what you think about all this. Or join the conversation over on Dawud's blog.