The Science of Interconnectedness: PART I — THE BODY AS A TEMPLATE FOR THE WORLD
On September 11th, 2001, the world’s attention was seized as two planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City. Shock, grief, and turmoil spread across the globe. Our hearts and minds were fragmented in the wake of the destruction; yet, a sense of cohesion and connection also filled the atmosphere.
Since 1998, scientists with the Global Consciousness Project (GCP) have been collecting data on major global events, such as 9/11. The international team has set up random number generators (RNGs) at 70 sites across the globe. RNGs, as the name implies, generate random number sequences that can be statistically analyzed for their “randomness.” The team hypothesizes that shifts in mass attention will produce meaningful changes in the randomness of these numbers; in other words, as consciousness is synchronized across large groups of people, the numbers will become more orderly, beyond what would be expected by chance.
On September 11th, 2001, RNGs across the world showed a significant departure from randomness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the emotional aftershocks of the event, these deviations persisted for several days following the attacks. Shockingly, however, the deviations began around 3–4 hours before the first plane hit the World Trade Center, as if the world “knew” what would imminently transpire.
Is this evidence of a “collective consciousness?” Are human beings, and the world we inhabit, interconnected in ways beyond our comprehension? The GCP’s lead scientist, Dr. Roger Nelson, offers his perspective: “My consciousness, inside my skull, and yours, extend out into the world, and they intermix. We’re a little like neurons, in a giant brain, that we know nothing about” (Nelson, 2011).
The idea of collective consciousness is not new. Both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions point to a sort of unity, or “oneness.” Science is now able to test these ideas empirically. That is what this series of blog posts is about. I will guide you through the scientific principles that govern interconnectedness, from the cells in your body to larger society. We will explore questions such as, “Is the world a giant organism?”, “What can our bodies teach us about the health of cities, companies, and economies?”, “What do organ failure, economic collapse, and climate change have in common?”, and “What is the evidence for a collective consciousness?” To study these questions, I would like to request that we use a special tool along the way. This tool will expand our creativity and help us reimagine the world’s symptoms. It will be of great use throughout this series. The tool is a microscope, on one end, and a macroscope, on the other. By inverting our lens from the micro to macro, and back again, all the while holding both images side by side, we will be able to glean the remarkable similarities between the individual — you and I — and the larger, interconnected world we inhabit.
Let’s begin with our microscope.
Interconnectedness in the Body
When I was 12 years old I began experiencing terrible stomachaches. Nausea, vomiting, lightheadedness, and sweating plagued my body almost daily. I was confused, scared, and oftentimes embarrassed: at meals with family and friends, I would abruptly jettison from my seat as if my dinner plate was about to explode. I found safety and comfort in the bathroom; bathrooms offered a space to contend with my mysterious symptoms, quickly becoming a safe and reliable ally during this period of my life. It’s a sad image to digest, yes, but if your reaction is tinged with a bit of humor, you are not alone: my friends found it quite hilarious, too, the time lunch exited both ends (simultaneously) in the Burger King bathroom, their pubescent voices crackling with some mixture of laughter and genuine concern. I eventually found this quite funny, as well.
My parents did not. They took me to see a gastroenterologist. The young doctor diagnosed me with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), or “acid reflux,” and placed me on a proton pump inhibitor (PPI). The medication seemed to help a little. But it also delivered a number of negative consequences for my body. I ended up taking this medication for 10 years, only later finding out that PPI’s, by altering normal levels of stomach acid, can disrupt the metabolism of key vitamins and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, B12, and vitamin C. Because of this (although it’s impossible to pinpoint the exact cause), I ended up developing osteoporosis by my mid-twenties. I later experienced a number of other downstream effects such as hormonal changes, dizziness, and hot flashes. My mother and I were basically going through menopause at the same time — a true mother-son bonding experience!
I tell this story not to be self-deprecating, but to illustrate the fundamental interconnectedness of the body. When one bodily system is disrupted (in this case, acid secretion), it has consequences for other bodily systems. Everything in the body is interconnected and interdependent. The body, like all living beings, is known as a complex system. To better understand what a complex system is, and how it works, let’s increase the resolution of our microscopic lens. Understanding complex systems will be crucial to contemplating interconnectedness in the world.
Complex Systems (Hop on the Magic School Bus)
A complex system is an integrated whole made up of interrelated, interdependent parts, where each part can only be understood in relation to every other part and the entire whole.
I know this definition is dry. So, rather than trying to emulate your high school biology teacher, let me guide you on an experiential journey through the body. I will be your guide on this passage (sort of like Ms. Frizzle when she takes “The Magic School Bus” inside one of her student’s, or that episode of “Rugrats” where Chuckie swallows a watermelon seed… anyone else have 90’s nostalgia?).
Go ahead and get a sense of your entire body. Close your eyes for a few moments and contemplate each part of your body, if you would like.
If you are an average adult, your body contains around 37 trillion cells. Each cell is working collaboratively with other cells inside a particular community. For example, in your heart, pacemaker cells (which initiate contractions) and cardiomyocytes (which form the musculature) join together to form the ventricles (which pump blood), atria (which receive blood), aorta (which distributes blood to the rest of the body), and other tight-knit communities. These communities work together to allow a larger community, your heart, to function properly. Everything in your heart, from the molecules making up cells, to cells, to communities of cells, to your heart, itself, is a complex system; at every level, each part is connected to other parts and the larger whole.
Of course, your heart, as a whole, does not exist in isolation. The heart is intricately tied to other parts of the cardiovascular system including the veins, arteries, and blood. The cardiovascular system, itself, is part of a larger system — the nervous system. The nervous system is interconnected and interdependent with other systems — skeletal, endocrine, and immune. Not only do interconnected communities make up systems, but interconnected systems are also tightly bound into even larger complex systems.
Because of the interconnected and interdependent nature of the body, disease is rarely confined to one area; what happens in one community is not confined to its own borders. Heart disease affects the kidneys; kidney disease affects the heart; diabetes affects the kidneys and heart; alterations in the nervous system affect the immune system; immune system issues affect the nervous and musculoskeletal systems; cognitive and emotional issues impact the body, just as physical illness can affect the mind and behavior.
Thus, within your entire body, you contain a hierarchy of complex systems which compose a superordinate complex system — you. While each part or subsystem could be viewed in isolation, we cannot fully appreciate them through such a narrow lens; we can only understand each part in the context of their connection to other parts and the whole. This, in a nutshell, is the definition of a complex system.
Now I would like us to invert our tool to macroscope mode. Take a few moments to contemplate the world.
What if the world mirrored the architecture and function of the body? What if we viewed every individual, community, city, country, ecosystem, social, political, and economic system as interconnected? What if, instead of viewing symptoms as isolated phenomena — belonging to one community or system — we understood them as belonging to the larger complex system in which they are inextricably a part of? Could this perspective sharpen our diagnosis and treatment of the world’s symptoms? How would this expanded view shape our consciousness?
READ ON TO PART II!
*This post was excerpted from my upcoming book, “Symptoms of the World: Interconnectedness and the Re-Imagination of Illness, From Cell to Society.”
Matthew S. Goodman, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY32423) and Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California. He hosts “The Middle Way” podcast. Learn more here: http://matthewgoodmanphd.com
Nelson R.D. Quoted in: Kiger PJ. 9/11 and Global Consciousness. Nationalgeographic.org. https://blog.nationalgeographic.org/2011/09/06/911-and-global-consciousness. 6 September 2011. Accessed 14 June 2021.