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A Cycle of Dynamic Coherence



There's an interesting relationship between the dynamics of intelligence and the dynamics underlying activities that "make something whole" -- whether naturally or intentionally.

Among other things, intelligence is about creating coherence. At a cognitive level, we experience coherence as things "making sense." Intelligence can be viewed as our capacity to create mental models and narratives that make sense. However, life has a habit of periodically throwing a wrench in our nice coherent worldviews -- perhaps some new information that doesn't fit our pet model or story about what's going on. At that point we experience cognitive dissonance.* Our universe gets shaken up and our intelligence goes to work trying to establish a comfortable coherence again.

Sometimes our intelligence acts like a law enforcement officer and pushes things back into the order they were in before -- the order "they're supposed to be in." For example, if we hear new information that doesn't make sense to us, we have a tendency to discount it. Given the amount of false and misleading information floating around, this is probably a useful tendency. If we gave all new information the benefit of the doubt, we'd soon be overwhelmed and totally confused (con-fused = un-coherent) because we'd never know what to make of all the new, contradictory information flooding in from all sides.

However useful this tendency may be, though, it sometimes prevents us from taking in information that could help us correct inaccurate models and stories about our world. In this case, we need our intelligence to act more like a therapist or mediator -- helping us sort things out and find new insights that will allow us to build a new coherence that embraces the new information. We call this process learning or growth.

Now, coherence is a form of wholeness: If things are coherent they fit together harmoniously. Learning is a continual form of recreating cognitive harmony, or "sense." Learning has a corollary in nature, called "evolution." Variations in environments or species or populations generate dissonances or disturbances that are processed through natural selection and other means to establish a new balance among the organisms, which constitutes a new coherence in the ecosystem. Organisms, species and ecosystems change just like our mental models and stories do, evolving through discovery of what works to sustain coherence. As ecologist Paul Krapfel notes, what survives in evolution is The Fit.

This "cycle of dynamic coherence" -- through which coherence is disturbed and then either contracts to reassert its habitual coherence (homeostasis) or expands to establish a new coherence (transformation or learning) -- exists everywhere in and around us. Learning or evolution makes it into a spiral of dynamic coherence, with each new coherence being at a "higher" (more comprehensive) level.

If we want to support "wholeness", it behooves us to study what supports and inhibits the healthy unfolding of this cycle and spiral.


* Cognitive dissonance" is a psychological term meaning the anxiety resulting from inconsistency between one's beliefs and one's actions. I am using the term here in a more generic sense: the experience of a disturbance in the orderliness of one's mental models and narratives. I see the traditional psychological concept as a special case of the more general family of cognitive disturbances I'm referring to.