It seems a good idea to republish this sequence from almost four years ago to complement the current new sequence on collaborative conversation. This is the fourth of six.
Only Our Simulations to Go On
At best we never achieve more than a simulation of reality. Even something as apparently clear-cut and concrete as colour is no exception.
What we perceive as red is really nothing more than a wavelength of light and our experience of red is a coded response that has been allocated quite arbitrarily. We could just as well have experienced the “red “ wavelength as blue! More abstract things are of course even more liable to be the product of construction and elaboration in the brain-mind system which habitually fills in the gaps in experience as best it can to make sense of it all. For present purposes three aspects of this simulation concern us most: experiences, beliefs and flexibility.
Experiences are the raw material of the mind. They are what we access of the inner and outer worlds through our senses, albeit modified by the interpretive activity of the brain. Experiences range from mainstream to the extremely idiosyncratic. Dreams are about as idiosyncratic as experience gets for most of us unless we are placed in strange, extreme and possibly frightening circumstances. For some people however dreams seem to become part of their waking reality.
Beliefs are the ideas we form usually on the basis of experience. We often make heavy emotional investments in our important ideas. These then colour experience in turn and can even distort it at the time it happens or in memory. Again beliefs range from the conventional to the extremely unusual. Even the most middle of the road person can find their way of looking at the world morphing into strange and frightening shapes as a result of such things as prolonged isolation.
Experience suggests that most people manage to negotiate their way through the world without too much of a problem on the basis of the models of the world they have developed. Many people whose experiences and beliefs are well outside the usual run of the mill rub along quite well. There are relatively small numbers of people whose beliefs and experiences are not only unusual but also very troubling. These are often the people mind-workers have to deal with. The majority of them have only short-lived difficulties.
Much of my work, before I retired, was with those who are stuck in their difficulties. Their experiences are unusual, troublesome and intractable. It is in helping people deal with this intractability that the model of mind-work I am proposing here is most useful.
Steering between Rigidity and Chaos
Most of us live somewhere between rigidity and chaos. Our models of the worlds are sufficiently malleable to respond flexibly to the shifts and changes of the world around us. If systems of thinking are too unstable or unformed we will be unable to make sense of our world and make reasonable responses to it. If they are too fixed and too compelling we cannot adapt when circumstances require it. The antidote to such unhelpful fixity is the flexibility which comes from reflection, relatedness and relativity.
Complete fixity, which often though not always in psychosis results from the kind of high emotional investment and simplification of thinking that feelings such as terror can induce, makes therapeutic work of the kind I am describing difficult. Someone who believes that their survival is in doubt is unlikely to see too much point in a leisurely exploration of their inscape! If the terror, or whatever is driving the investment that is creating the fixity, can be somewhat reduced, then conversation becomes possible. I suspect that medication, where it works, achieves its effect by calming someone down.
Increasing our Leverage
Once conversation is possible two powerful tools, implied in all that has been said above, become available. First, some space can be created between consciousness and its contents, and secondly there is a chance for more than one mind to be brought to bear upon the experiences. The space can be used for people to compare notes as equals – as two human beings, both with imperfect simulations of reality at their disposal, exchanging ideas about what is going on, with no one’s version being arbitrarily privileged from the start. There is a wealth of information that suggests most strongly that this process of collaborative conversation (Andersen and Swim), of consultation in the Bahá’í sense (see John Kolstoe), of inquiry (see Senge), of interthinking, can achieve remarkable results: Neil Mercer talks of the crucial function of language and says:
it enables human brains to combine their intellects into a mega-brain, a problem-solving device whose power can be greater than that of its individual components. With language we are able not only to share or exchange information, but also to work together on it. We are able not only to influence the actions of other people, but also to alter their understandings. . . . . Language does not only enable us to interact, it enables us to interthink.
I’d like to slightly alter the wording of one sentence there to capture the essence of what I think I’m describing:
We are able not only to influence the actions of one another, but also to alter one another’s understandings.
I feel that the conditions that I have sought to describe in this sequence of posts go a long way towards making effective interthinking possible. Effective interthinking and mind-work are closely related activities. Neither can happen at their best and most constructive in the absence of good relationships, reflection, relativity and relatedness.