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The information is held in the relational system

Updated: Nov 4, 2022

The brightest, most vivid experience of being a part of a team is the way that Lorinda and I are partnered in raising our children. In the early days I remember we had a ‘tag-team’ approach to childcare – whilst one went out to work the other one stayed in with the children. One would prepare the meal at home whilst the other was out of the house. Over time our niches became more developed, as to who managed which parts of the week – from food, to clothing, to finances, to bedtime; from school runs, to after school classes, from homework, and hobbies, to dentist appointments, and all manners of silliness and seriousness. We rely on one another to keep the whole show on the road. In this way, as an individual, I feel part of something greater than myself.

I think back to the gigs I used to play with my band in the late 1990s/early 2000s – I sang and played rhythm guitar, the drums would thrash away behind me, holding the whole rhythm together in partnership with the bass – though I wouldn’t have a clue how to play either. The lead guitarist would use my chords as a springboard to launch his own guitar solo. And in this way each of us depended on one another to fill the space with music and animate the audience. Other experiences of team work might be recognisable from our part within a team at work – the different duties and specialisms we have within the team, how we come to rely on each other to achieve our common purpose.

I imagine we have all had experiences like this – where we have some sense of what it means to be a part of something greater than ourselves. In psychology we might speak about relational systems: we can locate ourselves within complex systems of relation with others, where if one person in the system changes their patterns, this has a knock on effect on all the others in the system. However I think there’s a more interesting possibility still when we think about decentring of selves, which is that we participate in shared intelligences.

For a while I’ve been musing on the biological concept of stigmergy: the idea that individuals of a group take their cues from and shape their behaviours in response to information left within the environment by other individuals of the same group. No one individual is fully in control of or in possession of all the information within the system. Some examples of this might bring the idea to life.

When an ant finds some food and returns to its nest it leaves a trail of pheromones along its return journey. This encourages other ants to follow the same trail towards the food. In this way ant behaviours are not random but take on a higher-order structure (beyond the information processing capacity of any one ant). Likewise termites begin clumping together mudballs and depositing them at random but then cover these mudballs with pheromones. The pheromones encourage other termites to deposit their mudballs closer to these, and eventually clumps becomes mounds and pillars, linked by tunnels and archways. Over time the castle-like, interconnected colonies of termites start to emerge. No one termite ‘oversees’ the emergence of the castle but each responds to information which is held in the system.

I think humans respond to stigmergy too. Consider for example the architectural plans for a new housing development. Now consider the thousands of people who will be engaged in the process of creating the housing development, playing specialised roles within that emerging development. Whilst the architects may enjoy a birds-eye view of the development, even they will not be in charge of all the information embedded within the scheme. Specialised roles include builders, machine operatives, engineers, landscape gardeners, electricians, plumbers, surveyors, lawyers, accountants, sales people, the firm raising the capital, and of course prospective inhabitants. No one person is in possession of all the information embedded within the system, and yet the complex structure gradually emerges.

So what? Well the way I’ve attempted to make sense of this is through the third of the existential principles I recently advanced, that we realise connection and continuity by decentring: which is the experience of being a part of something greater than ourselves.

When we feel the pang of existential aloneness – or emptiness, or senselessness, or meaninglessness – we are called to reconnect. And to go a bit further, how I think we reconnect is through decentring ourselves, as alluded to above. So feeling that existential pang – an appropriate and helpful response might be, how can I decentre further?

In addition to being a Dad I realise I decentre into other really important roles. As a psychotherapist I play a supportive role within the lives of the people I work with. I see them typically for just one (important) hour within their week. A whole myriad of factors feed into a person’s experience throughout the week – in all the complex relational worlds we all navigate through – so psychotherapy’s role within change in a person’s wellbeing, their worldview, how they think about themselves, and how they relate to others, can only ever be decentred, part of a much more complex pattern. I feel something similar as a university teacher – I am one complementary voice in a series of teaching voices and supportive people during our students’ higher education journeys. I also have roles within my wider family and within friendship groups from various junctures of my lives. I neglect these, and am aware of my negligence – but as accomplished a plate spinner as I think I am, I am aware that some are very wobbly indeed.

If I feel the pang of existential aloneness I may need to consider the systems into which I am already decentred. Have I come adrift in some way – like a comet spinning off into an eccentric orbit, or a dancer getting muddled in my steps? How might I consciously re-enter?

It's here that perhaps I need to come into consciousness again of the signature role I play or contribution I make within these different systems. If I was to characterise my signature within these different systems; give it a name, describe its nature, what would its quality be? Sartre might have called this being-in-the-world, though it might otherwise be described as self-in-relation – and there may be therapeutic creativity in consciously depicting that.

But just as with any complex system, perhaps we don’t need a water-tight and all encompassing definition. I have been thinking recently about my answer to the questions ‘how are you’ or ‘how are you doing’? The generic answer is to say ‘fine!’, ‘not too bad’, to comment upon the weather, or otherwise to have a moan about how busy we all are. And then the conversation runs out of steam, or otherwise carries on in a relatively uninspiring way. But what if the question could be answered in a signature way? For instance recently I’ve taken to answering the question by sharing that we were able to get out for a meal the other day, or about a scholarship we’re creating at the University, or otherwise celebrating our daughter’s latest dance performance, or our son getting the headteacher’s award, or Lorinda’s latest creativity in the garden. These little signatures carry so much more ‘information’ about what we’re decentred into. Consciously recognising these in my own mind not only helps me with my social ineptness – when I would otherwise be grasping for something to talk about!! – but moreover helps me to retrace my steps, and relocate my self within it all.

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