The Science of Interconnectedness: PART III — HOMEOSTASIS, CHAOS, ORDER, & THE WORLD
The body produces symptoms when it is out of balance, or homeostasis. Homeostasis is the state of equilibrium where “all is good.” It is where our body achieves its greatest health and vitality. It is the state we are in when feeling relaxed and at ease. It is the precursor to growth, adaptation, and success.
The body uses “negative feedback loops’’ to maintain homeostasis. This means that it monitors when something is out of balance, and makes proper adjustments to reestablish its baseline. Imagine you are driving a car on the freeway and want to go 60 miles/hour. To maintain this speed, you would need to apply some combination of the gas and brake. Since you cannot always control your environment — there will be patches of traffic, other people will cut you off, you’ll need to slow down to press play on the latest Taylor Swift album from your phone (I am definitely not saying I do this… ;-) ) — you will need to switch between the gas and brake to achieve your goal. The body is similar. It has a particular “set point,” or baseline, that it maintains by sensing when there is too much, or too little, of a certain physiological process and adjusts itself accordingly. For example, receptors in the heart and carotid artery continuously monitor the rise and fall of blood pressure. As you breathe in, your heart rate slightly elevates, causing your blood pressure to rise. Your blood pressure receptors sense this elevation and send a signal to the heart to slow down, which usually corresponds with an exhale. This causes your blood pressure to fall. The slight decrease in blood pressure then triggers an inhale and elevation of the heart, and so on. When this process is out of tune, one might develop symptoms such as high or low blood pressure. Another example of negative feedback loops on a broader level is the autonomic nervous system (ANS): the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest, digest, and heal” part of the body) is constantly providing a “check and balance” to the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” part of the body). These two branches of the ANS are like the brake and gas (respectively) in a car. If your foot is stuck on the gas, you will crash. If your foot is stuck on the brake, you will not go anywhere. A smooth ride requires the dynamic balance of these two opposing processes. This helps maintain homeostasis.
The body does not just contain negative feedback loops, however. It also contains “positive feedback loops.” Instead of countering an action and returning the body to baseline, positive feedback loops heighten a behavior — they reinforce a particular process. An example of this is oxytocin release during childbirth: oxytocin increases the speed of contractions, and the increase in contractions causes more oxytocin to be released. The two processes heighten one another. This is a healthy positive feedback loop in the service of a particular end goal. However, in most scenarios, the dominance of positive feedback loops over negative ones is not healthy. Positive feedback loops often lead to symptoms or illness.
The principles of homeostasis are not limited to individual organisms. Social, economic, political, and ecological systems must also maintain homeostasis, or run the risk of developing symptoms and illness. A prime example is the 2008 economic collapse. Negative feedback loops — checks, balances, and perhaps our moral consciences — were abandoned in favor of positive feedback loops — lack of oversight, disinhibition, and greed. The system was not able to self-regulate either intrinsically (i.e., through moral behavior) nor extrinsically (i.e., through policy). And it eventually crashed. The symptoms were presented over time, but continuously neglected. When we ignore symptoms they become more dramatic in order to draw our attention. How much greed and corruption could our economic system, and collective psyche, harbor before it was forced to be noticed through calamity? Here is something worth reading twice: chaos ensues when we do not pay attention.
The crash not only affected the United States and Western economies, but reverberated around the world (not a surprise given the interconnectedness of economies). Nor did it just affect global economies: economies are inherently tied to political, social, and ecological systems, thus the failure of one system affected the well-being of seemingly separate, innocent individuals everywhere. We must keep in mind that the causes and consequences of a financial, or any other, system collapse do not occur in isolation. Just like the body, what happens in one community or system is not confined to its borders. We can benefit greatly by viewing the world through this same lens. Complexity scientists Simon Levin from Princeton University, and Andrew Lo from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, remind us:
“Our failures to predict and control financial ecologies should remind us that, if anything, the interconnectedness of global financial systems is ever greater, and a holistic approach is essential if we are to succeed. As adaptive complex systems, natural and financial systems share deep likeness. We should take cues from billions of years of evolution. Nature, and biology, offer solutions to a number of challenges of financial regulation, not to mention the regulation and control of many other systems crucial to well-functioning societies” (Levin & Lo, 2019, pg. 309).
Chaos and Order
As a general rule of thumb, homeostasis is healthy. But we do not always want systems to stay in homeostasis. The same “set point” over time can be static or inflexible. Systems must also be able to adapt and grow. This means reorganizing into higher levels of organization. Systems that are flexible and open to change will do this automatically — they self-organize into more coherent states. However, systems that are rigid and averse to change will maintain their status quo or break down completely. In a constantly evolving world, inflexibility is not a formula for success.
Flexibility adapting to the environment involves a balance between chaos and order. Chaos and order might be considered the fundamental building blocks of the universe; they are the archetypes underlying all other archetypes. The ability of systems to successfully balance these two is crucial to their health, success, and survival. Too much chaos in a system leads to disorganization and (eventually) collapse. Too much order in a system leads to rigidity and static behavior. Both processes produce symptoms.
Chaos occurs when there is breakdown of the heart, lungs, or kidneys. Often, failure in one system causes the breakdown of others, leading to a “downward spiral” of health. Chaos occurs when we experience trauma, leaving our nervous systems “frozen” with concomitant disorganization of thought, emotion, and behavior. Chaos occurs when we spiral into addiction. Chaos occurs when we lose a job, get a divorce, or move homes. Chaos is often a sign that too much order is present, a backlash against a system trying too hard to control.Yet chaos is not always evil; in fact, it is never necessarily evil or “bad.” Chaos is the void in which something new, and often more beautiful, is born.
Neither is order always an ally. Too much order manifests in rigid physiological patterns, thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Too much order is present when we feel “stuck” or “bored” in the same job, routine, or relationship. It is the compulsion to control every aspect of our lives, despite negative consequences. Order is present in the rigid and unhelpful rules and laws imposed by parents, employers, institutions, governments, and social norms. It is unyielding ideologies that seek to justify the harm or killing of others.
Order and chaos balance each other out. They necessitate one another, as the Taoist yin/yang symbol demonstrates. We need a little bit of both, most of the time, but not all of the time. At some point chaos must reign such that a system can rebirth itself into something new. In this way, the financial collapse was necessary so that new morals, policies, and norms could be found (whether or not this actually happened is another discussion). But I do not believe that we must always collapse into chaos to discover something new; we do not have to completely fall apart to grow. If we remain open and flexible — if we listen to symptoms and change our behavior accordingly — our systems, whether personal or collective, can continue to adapt and evolve in a positive direction. If we can successfully walk the line between order and chaos, we can live a life with less unnecessary suffering.
The Earth as a Single Organism
If our bodies, cities, and economies are complex systems that abide by the rules of homeostasis, might the earth also fit this description? Is the earth a “scaled up” version of our bodies; or, rather, are our bodies formed in the image of the earth?
The idea that the earth is a unified, self-regulating organism was proposed by James Lovelock in the 1970’s (Lovelock, 2003). His theory, known as “Gaia,” has received its fair share of criticism. Even those who don’t consider themselves hippies or nature enthusiasts think his theory is pretty “far out.” It indeed breaks the mold of conventional thinking.
Yet, at a 2001 conference in Amsterdam, over a thousand members from four global-change research programs signed a declaration beginning with the statement: “The Earth System behaves as a single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components” (Lovelock, 2003). The earth displays the same homeostatic functions as our body. It contains positive and negative feedback mechanisms that maintain its health: living organisms (e.g., bacteria, plants, plankton, humans) interact with their abiotic environments (e.g., water, temperature, atmosphere, rocks, soil) to co-facilitate a steady regulation of surface temperature, ocean salinity, atmospheric oxygen, and CO2. This self-regulatory process has allowed the earth to remain habitable for so many years.
However, like our bodies and other systems, the earth can become dysregulated. Lovelock warns, “the occasional failure of the earth to regulate efficiently… resembles the physiological condition of a fever where positive feedback dominates” (Lovelock, 2003). Unfortunately, we are perpetuating this positive feedback loop through carbon emissions and other environmental harm. We are fatiguing the earth’s inherent negative feedback mechanisms, it’s capacity to self-heal. No wonder it speaks to us in symptoms: rising temperatures, more erratic weather patterns and natural disasters, and loss of biodiversity. CO2 emissions, overfishing, plastic waste, deforestation, and other environmental harms are “stressors” placed on the body of Mother Earth. We would not treat our own bodies this way and expect them to be silent. Mother Earth is pleading for our attention.
If we impact Mother Nature’s health, is the reverse also true — that the health of the earth affects its constituent organisms? An emerging scientific literature suggests that this may be the case. For example, geomagnetic storms such as solar flares have been correlated with the prevalence of cardiac events such as heart attacks, myocardial infarction, and changes in blood pressure, as well as psychiatric disturbances such as suicide prevalence, hospital admissions of depression, and neurological alterations. Perturbations in solar and geomagnetic activity have also been correlated with global events such as terrorist attacks, wars, and revolutions. Changes in heart rate variability (HRV), a marker of self-regulation, have been associated with alterations in solar wind speed, solar radio flux, cosmic ray counts, and other geomagnetic activity. On a more micro level, electromagnetic fields have been shown to influence early developmental processes such as DNA synthesis and embryonic development. Just as a baby responds to stress in her mother’s womb, living beings are afflicted by Gaia’s fits of illness. We are inseparable from the larger complex system we are embedded within.
READ ON TO PART IV!
*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
Levinson, S. & Lo, A. (2019). What can mother nature teach us about managing financial systems? In D. Krakauer (Ed.), World Hidden in Plain Sight: The Evolving Idea of Complexity at the Santa Fe Institute (originally published in Christian Science Monitor, 2016). Santa Fe, New Mexico: Santa Fe Institute Press.
Lovelock, J. (2003). Gaia: the living Earth. Nature, 426(6968), 769–770.