I’ve been thinking about emergence a lot recently. It’s the theme of the event that I’m curating, TEDxStroudWomen (which is now going to be virtual and livestreamed, so you can attend, no matter where in the world you are – tickets now on sale here!), and is also, I absolutely believe, going to be essential to the shift in consciousness that we need if we’re going to do anything more than dabble around the edges of our current existential crisis.
Emergence, in this sense, is a feature of a complex system, which in turn is defined as a system comprising many distinct elements that interact with each other, for example: financial markets, cities, and natural ecosystems such as forests and oceans. I am particularly interested in the subset of complex systems known as complex adaptive systems, which Wikipedia defines as:
“…a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a perfect understanding of the whole system’s behaviour. In complex adaptive systems, the whole is more complex than its parts, and more complicated and meaningful than the aggregate of its parts.”
Emergence refers to this particular aspect of complex adaptive systems (other features would be diverse agents and phase transitions, which I might write about in the future).
Fittingly, water is a good example. It is made up of oxygen and hydrogen, which are both gases at room temperature, but they come together to create H2O, a liquid. In a further step of emergence, six or more molecules of water create “wetness”, a property that a single water molecule does not possess (even apart from the fact that it would be really, really hard to pick up a single water molecule to decide whether it was wet or not).
As Daniel Schmachtenberger, of Civilization Emerging, says in his talk on emergence (which is absolutely brilliant, and I highly recommend it):
“How do you bring particles or planets or anything together and all of a sudden the whole has some properties that none of the parts have? Like, where do they come from? Which is why in the fields of science that study emergence, which evolutionary theory, and biology, and systems science, and complexity theory studies, it’s considered the closest thing to magic that’s actually a scientifically admissible term.”
We all have some personal connection to emergence. Some researchers believe that consciousness is an emergent property of complex brains (although Donald Hoffman disagrees), so if they are right, the sense that I have of my self-ness is an example of emergence that goes to the very core of my existence as a sentient (mostly) being.
As another example, many of us will have had the experience of mulling on a question over an extended period of time, eventually giving rise to a sudden “a-ha” moment. Neuroscientists have started to explore the neural correlates of insights (although again, Hoffman might dispute that correlation equals causation), which occur in the right hemisphere of the brain.
I have my own version of what goes on. I think that, as we acquire data to inform our response to a question, we build up a web of knowledge that gets encoded into our neural network. Eventually this network spontaneously gives rise to a sudden insight, often when we are thinking about something completely different (or not thinking about anything much at all). The sense of surprise that usually accompanies such an insight suggests that the whole (the insight) is greater than the sum of the parts (the data we have been acquiring).
This was certainly my experience when the idea came to me to row across oceans, and use my adventures to raise awareness of environmental issues. I had been pondering for about six months what I could do to support the environmental cause, during which time I had been reading, thinking, and conversing in relation to my quest, and also in areas that had seemed unrelated but which had helped create the ground from which this idea emerged. When the a-ha moment came, during a long drive with my brain in neutral, the idea was astonishing and yet also perfect, meeting all my criteria and more besides.
So now I deliberately cultivate such insights. I picture the gathering of information as if I am putting ingredients into the melting pot of my subconscious mind, where I leave them to bubble until they alchemize into something new, exciting, and unpredictable (albeit rarely on cue). I also allow generous mental down-time, to allow space for the idea to emerge. As I discovered on the ocean, when there is too much information pouring into the mind, there is no way for ideas to come out, so this disengagement from input is an essential part of the process. The hypnopompic period just as I am waking up is especially fruitful; there is a precious window of opportunity before my conscious mind has fully engaged, as it tends to drown out the more creative subconscious.
In Synchronicity, Joseph Jaworski describes how such moments can also arise in a group:
“C. G. Jung’s classic, ‘Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle’, defines synchronicity as ‘a meaningfulcoincidence of two or more events, where something other than the probability of chance is involved’. In the beautiful flow of these moments, it seems as if we are being helped by hidden hands… Over the years my curiosity has grown, particularly about how these experiences occur collectively within a group or team of people. I have come to see this as the most subtle territory of leadership, creating the conditions for ‘predictable miracles.’
Otto Scharmer and Katrin Kaufer also refer to this process of flow in the brilliant Leading From The Emerging Future, which describes presencing process:
“Presencing is a blended word combining sensing (feeling the future possibility) and presence (the state of being in the present moment). It means sensing and actualizing one’s highest future possibility—acting from the presence of what is wanting to emerge.”
You might have your own opinion about creativity and where it comes from – from the collective unconscious, intuition, the right hemisphere, the muse, the Universe, God? The main thing I want to say is that my own creativity works best when I know it’s not coming from me. The thinking brain definitely has its uses, and I’m glad I have one. Daily logistics would be really challenging without it. But when it comes to the big, important stuff, I really do my best to get out of the way, and let what wants to emerge, emerge.
The ideas that come from that rather mysterious realm are far better than mine.