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Countering Natural Isolation

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Mark Lundegren

If you are following work on my second book, I have finished the editing phase and am taking a short break before beginning final proofreading and polishing. Drafting the book took 16 months and editing it about 8 months, so I am hoping this final phase will last about 4 months.

As touched on in a previous post, the new book is very much the philosophical companion to my first book, The Seven Keys of Natural Life. This earlier work introduced my natural or evolution-based philosophy, but overall is focused on the application of its core ideas, and primarily is a book of practice – one that began as a series of seven personal and group development workshops.

Even Surrounded By Wild Nature, We Can Have A Degree Of Natural Isolation

By contrast, the new book is almost entirely a work of philosophy, though I do include calls to action in the chapters, as is my frequent practice and general recommendation amid all new learning and understanding. In particular, the new work explores twenty-four human ideals or perennial attributes – from happiness and beauty to inspiration and growth – approaching each definitionally, historically, scientifically, and then essentially. Using this material, I show how these and indeed all other attributes or aims, except one, are inherently instrumental, subordinate, or aids to natural life – and as such, are not nature’s central, overarching, and controlling ideal or imperative. The book has been a journey of discovery and insight for me, and I hope it will be for you as well.

For today’s discussion, I want to begin by pointing out that the new book contains and expands upon two crucial themes from my Seven Keys. These are the modern opportunity of renaturalized life and the natural limits of knowing amid all life. I would like to briefly explore each of these ideas here, but indirectly and in keeping with my title, by taking up a third, intersecting, and perhaps more pressing or evocative topic, that of countering natural isolation.

The concept of natural isolation is of course familiar and recurring in modern life. But it is also an idea that is variably defined and interpreted, and thus perhaps superficially or narrowly so at times. For many, it seems plain that at least part of modern life, notably in its intensely consumerist or wealth-preoccupied forms, is now proceeding without significant regard for its longer impact on our species and the broader natural world around us. Owing to this, and particularly to the extent people are conscious of this fact, we might conclude that much of modern life is substantially denaturalized or unhealthy, and estranged or isolated from nature in important regards.

Expanding on this idea, I would add that perceptions of modern isolation or natural estrangement appear credible across multiple definitions of  what it means either to live naturally or be isolated from nature, suggesting that modern natural isolation may be pervasive and sweeping. Notably, these varying potential senses of naturalness or natural human life include: 1) regularly being present in or routinely interacting with wild nature, 2) appreciating and seeking lessons from living and non-living nature, 3) living in ways that seek to be sustainable, or unharmful to or in harmony with the earth’s natural ecosystems, 4) pursuing or possessing elevated natural health and vitality as people and groups, and 5) alignment with essential or recurring aspects of pre-industrial or pre-agricultural human life (whether conservatively and strictly or more progressively and synthetically).

I should point out that the term natural also can be taken to mean everything occurring in nature, which of course makes the idea of natural isolation less tenable. While this definition, interpretation, or framing of the idea of naturalness is doubtlessly valid or logically consistent, I would suggest this may be trivially so, and often have found it an unaiding sense of naturalness, natural life, and natural progress. In particular, this way of thinking may miss essential opportunities for learning and growth waiting in more active or keener senses of what it means to be natural, connected to nature, or optimally integrated with nature overall.

Building on these themes, let me add that just as the above senses or definitions of naturalness are fairly common – and suggestively, fairly intuitive as well – various prescriptions or remedies for shortfalls in essential naturalness are recurring and widespread today as well. For example, we might be encouraged to visit or recreate in wild nature, live in more natural settings, or move to more sustainable and thus arguably natural living patterns (see here and here). Alternatively, we may be advised to bring elements of wild or living nature into our urban surroundings. Somewhat less commonly, but perhaps more cleverly, and returning to the idea that nature is indeed everywhere, we might be counseled to find and better appreciate living nature at work in and around urban life – from the marvel of plants sprouting out of city cracks to other species living alongside us, and from the natural features of modern social groups to the workings of our psyches.

While these renaturalizing steps or formulations may be familiar – and thereby also perhaps naturally and ironically downplayed – it is essential and instructive to highlight that they often can be quite beneficial. Whether we review science summarized in the self-help press or examine the empirical study of nature connectedness and similar lines of investigation, we see strong indications of regular advantage from many of these measures. To begin a list, new time in or exposure to wild nature, increased appreciation of nature, or greater feelings of affiliation with nature are correlated with: 1) reduced stress, 2) positive emotional affect, 3) improved social harmony, 4) greater health-mindedness, 5) more sustainable living patterns, and 6) new perspective and learning (including the often especially advantageous perspective and learning that is metacognition or metalearning).

Notably, many of these effects, or at least associations, can occur amid novel experiences more generally and not only during naturalistic ones. But the last point above seems especially important to our discussion, and an opportunity to highlight that we, our groups, and indeed all of life naturally function or exist in three crucial ways. First is with the potential for new insight and action at each point in time, second as natural processes of insight and action at our core, and third as the ongoing products of insight and action – whether by us or others, and past or present. For me, these attributes are all fundamental aspects or properties of our human and larger natural condition. But they are also basic features of natural life that are often unfamiliar, unintuitive, and unexamined, and I would encourage you to consider these natural or inherent qualities of all life, especially if they strike you as novel or uncertain.

Together, this set of observations suggests at least two important things for a discussion of natural isolation. One is that we, and all of life, invariably are caught up in natural processes of action and learning, can be defined quite elementally as natural successions of action and learning, and therefore may be seen essentially as ongoing instances or cases of information processing. This is inevitably and inescapably true across living nature – to see that this is so, try to conceive of an instance of life, or perhaps even a case non-living nature, that does not involve some form of processing. Further, it is also clear that all evolved organisms are similarly and inescapably suspended, contained, immersed, or enmeshed in the biological and experiential programming that enables their natural information processing. Indeed, in our essence, we are our natural processing and programming, and are inseparable from and untenable apart from these natural dimensions of life.

Owing to this functional specialization and autonomy, another crucial point for the topic of natural isolation is that each of us, and every organism, are at once part of and yet apart from the rest of nature, or are subject to degrees of natural isolation or individuality. Though we all may be derived or evolved from the totality of nature and plainly are aspects or expressions of nature in a broad sense, we also are clearly individualized as organisms and groups, subjective and specific, functioning on our own unique terms or processes. In other words, we are not all things and everywhere, are always at least somewhat separate or differentiated and isolated or demarcated from other things, and of course we are never the collosal thing-in-itself that is nature in total.

This fact or degree of natural isolation or separation of all specific things is inevitable, unavoidable, and ongoing. Crucially, it is most complete or least trifling in the case of functioning organisms, subjective entities, or autonomous subjects, and amid the often intricate and highly idiosyncratic processes and programming we use for learning, insight, and action – properties that we perpetually rely on and again even are in our essence. And let me add that this is true regardless of how natural or isolated we may or may not feel, the skill or excellence with which we act and learn, and whether or not we directly and actively live in wild nature.

While all this is naturally and unavoidably the case, and perhaps uncomfortably or humblingly so, I want to end our discussion by pointing out that there is at least one essential aspect of our natural functioning that can be significantly freed of natural isolation or separation, individuality or errantness, and idiosyncrasy or particularity. Critically, though this is just one area, it also may involve the most fundamental dimension or quintessential quality of nature, and take us to the core or heart of all of natural functioning.

As you may know from my earlier writing, this core and arguably most crucial aspect of nature is the quality or process of adaptive learning and action, or the pursuit of surviving and then thriving life and existence. Looking across nature, and again in both its living and more elemental forms, we have good reason to believe first, that the quest or opportunity for adaptive health and progressive ascent is the central ordering principle and imperative of all of nature, and second, that this is necessarily so, since any other mode of functioning would be selected against or disfavored in the eternity of time and opportunity that is complex nature in its broadest terms.

Owing to this, we as living organisms are always and never naturally isolated. Though we are indeed inherently different from and less than the whole of nature, we also can live in harmony with this whole in its essence – via a natural life of continual striving, probing, learning, health-mindedness, endurance, and transcendence. In this way, and perhaps only in this way, we can become, reflect, and remain rich  expressions of all of evolving nature, unisolated from and integrated with it, and manifestations of all-pervading nature at its core.

I welcome your comments and questions on these far-reaching ideas, ones which find a prominent place in my new book.

Health & best wishes,

Mark

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The Blindness In Clarity

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Mark Lundegren

I’m back at work, but editing mostly rather than writing. If you follow my posts, you may recall that I completed the draft of a new book, my second, in June. Since then, I have taken time off and worked on side projects – including a rewrite of the nutrition section of my HumanaNatura health program – clearing the way for several months of editing to prepare the new book for publishing.

For me, this second book was a more substantial journey than the first, and writing it has changed me, as a writer and person. In the book, I explore 24 human ideals, from happiness to growth, discuss a historical advocate of each ideal, and survey relevant science in each case. Some of the content I knew beforehand, but much was new, and the book involved a good deal of learning and insight for me, as I hope it will for you.

Lately, I notice clear differences in my approach to writing, and living. One is new desire for directness or economy in my work and life – to speak and explain more plainly, to write with fewer words, and to have more result with less action, or distraction, overall. Another change, related to the first, is that I more frequently question my actions, and those of others, notably asking, “Are you sure?” amid strong feelings or pronouncements. It is this change, which at once involves and exposes the natural limits of thinking, or a phenomenon I will call the blindness in clarity, that I want to explore with you today.

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We Can See Only The Light, Or The Darkness It Naturally Exposes Too

In practice, about half the time I ask this question, the answer is a halting no or maybe, which was and remains a surprisingly high percentage for me. That said, I am not yet sure how often this pause in thought leads to new perspective, or to new and broader thinking. However, I have found similar results asking this question of groups – which shouldn’t be surprising, since they are comprised of people after all. However, I suspect that the added social and peer influences of defined collectives might dampen progressive change relative to individuals thinking on their own (see groupthink and its related topics). In any case, and as we will discuss, I would encourage you to question clarity or certainty – in yourself or others, and especially amid strident views or actions – to see what you will see.

Importantly, when I use the words clarity and blindness, I mean them in typical, plain, intuitive, and indeed likely clear ways. Clarity here is perspective and thinking that is organized, specific, definite, coherent, and thus relatively certain. As such, clarity also can be understood as subjective and a state of mind, and therefore, while real and tangible, also as naturally limited, representative, selective, and imperfect (as is this definition – to explore this overall idea, see mental modelinference, and satisficing). With the word blindness, I of course mean instances of being cognitively, conceptually, or informationally unaware or impaired, rather than visually so. But since all states of clarity or certainty are of their nature limited, selective, or imperfect, all must come with a certain amount of informational blindness or constraint too.

As you almost certainly (and likely innately) sense, some degrees and forms of clarity, and thus some degrees and forms of blindness, are both natural and quite helpful or adaptive in life. You also probably know that the topic of natural and optimal certainty is a vast area of modern science – spanning psychology, sociology, cognitive science, organizational behavior, political science, and information theory, to begin a list. I won’t attempt to summarize this large and growing body of work, but will use the specific example of religious or ideological conviction as a tangible, well-researched, helpful, and seemingly generalizable study of the natural benefits and limitations of clarity.

Without considering the content or merits of religious and other ideological outlooks – and whether any adaptive effects are direct (causal) or indirect (correlational) – considerable research suggests that moderate religious conviction, and therefore at least one common form of moderate clarity or certainty, is often significantly adaptive or healthy, and across a wide range of settings and outcomes (for an overview of this research area, see religion and health). By contrast, strong or fanatical religious views appear to be much less healthy, frequently leading to irrational, fatalistic, or self-defeating behaviors, and at both a personal and social level (see fanaticism and the page’s subordinate links).

For perspective, we might consider the history of nationhood, and the degree and forms of religiosity (or civic-mindedness, cultural allegiance, ideological certitude, conviction, or clarity) that were and are most associated with the formation and endurance of nations (to survey this interesting and insight-rich topic, see study of religion, history of religion, and theories of religion). Today, fanatic clarity or certitude seems not to be the norm in stable nations, or in stable lives within them, but is present to some degree and in identifiable forms.

To broaden our discussion, we might also probe the somewhat related place and role of art and philosophy in societies. Both generally begin from a relatively strong cultural sense or clarity about the world and our needed actions in it, and then often proceed to deliberately or unavoidably (owing to the natural limits of any view) undermine these views as they and their society evolve. In this movement, each may expose unjustifiable or lulling romanticism, reveal limiting prejudice, introduce new skepticism and rationality, and challenge various social and personal ideals and certainties. Once again, when measured, or fortuitous, this process may enable progressive self-awareness, clarity, learning, and adaptivity. Or it may miss this mark, potentially resulting in excessive and harmful self-consciousness, uncertainty, ambivalence, passivity, divisiveness, or other forms of maladaptation.

While interesting and thought-provoking, all of these ideas may be fairly obvious, intuitive, or again clear – especially in deliberative settings, upon reflection, and in the abstract. But of course life does not always have these qualities. When engaged in life and work, we may quickly and even chronically overlook the opportunity and benefits of measured or open-minded clarity, and instead lapse into clarity’s more strident, self-subsuming, mind-narrowing, occluding, and limiting forms.

To help you pursue optimal clarity in your life and work, here are three techniques you can explore and use right away (there are of course more, and I would welcome your ideas and suggestions in the comments section). As you will see, the ideas are arranged from ones that may be more appropriate in deliberative settings, or for exploring clarity generally, to ones likely to aid active, engaging, and pressing life, or for exploring improved clarity specifically.

> Explore areas of high clarity – perhaps initially as a learning or limbering exercise, pick three aspects of your life or work where you have high (but not trivial or tautological) certainty, and for each find three counterexamples, qualifications, or exceptions. Later, notably as a pausing aid to active life, you can then periodically or opportunistically identify specific episodes or examples of high certainty, and go through a similar process of probing, qualification, moderation, or broadening of the view.

> Leverage episodes of conflict – consider the various forms and instances of conflict in your life and work as opportunities for learning, and as potential signals of excessive or maladaptive clarity – or as cases of significant, unhelpful, and perhaps needless blindness. In these situations, work to understand the root causes of the conflict, the differing views of the adversaries involved, other potential views, and the lessons that all may hold for improved or more optimal clarity.

> Gently question strident certainty – as highlighted earlier in our discussion, whether in yourself or others, we again always can question our degree of sureness or certainty, especially when we are clearly strident or dogged in our views. For maximum effect, such questioning normally will be in a curious and seeking, rather than critical or aggressive, manner. It also should avoid proceeding to the point of debilitating self-consciousness, passivity, or animosity. And it will remember that instances of strident certainty can be highly adaptive and even may be optimal at times (as when saying no to drugs, criminality, or other reliable modes of health reduction).

With these and other steps, we can progressively cultivate more optimal or adaptive degrees and forms of natural clarity, certainty, and assertiveness in our lives and groups. Or conversely, we can steadily probe and navigate the natural blindness that comes with all life, all thought, all goals, and all actions.

In this way, we can increasingly live and work with both healthy confidence and healthy openness, or in a balance of activating and reflective qualities or ideals. By this, I mean knowing that we often naturally must be relatively clear and certain to be at our best in momentary life, but also remembering that we are at least partially blind and imperfect at all times too – and thus naturally ever on the threshold of new adaptive perspective, learning, and growth.

Health & best wishes,

Mark

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Multi-Dimensional Thinking

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Mark LundegrenI haven’t posted in a while, as I have been busy drafting my second book. But I am pleased to report that the draft is now done and after a brief break, I will begin work to finish the book.

If all goes according to plan, the finalized book will be available in early 2019. Overall, I will describe it as the philosophical companion to my workshop-based and more practice-oriented Seven Keys. In particular, the new book explores the natural place, purpose, and power of ideals of all kinds in human life, and thus the nature of overarching goals, aims, and ideas of all kinds too. As such, while the book focuses on twenty-four specific ideals, its ultimate scope is broad and reaching.

Today, I would like to explore a powerful topic and tool for modern life and endeavor, by examining the natural processes we use to plan for, organize, and pursue action in our lives each day. As my title highlights, the specific topics I want to consider are primarily our natural capacity for and then the intentional practice of multi-dimensional thinking – or the informing use of multiple variables, factors, or considerations when we think and act.

However, this subject involves and therefore encourages us to initially touch on the natural phenomena of cognition and metacognition, or the processes of thinking and thinking about thinking. I explore both cognition and metacognition somewhat extensively in my new book, the latter notably as a tool for considering our dominant ideals, or ideas, and resulting modes of functioning. I also discuss cognition and metacognition, along with multi-dimensional thinking overall, at several points in the Seven Keys.

Thinking Naturally Can Be Task-Focused Or Single-Loop, Or More Reflective

Here, I would like to distill both of these extended discussions into a few fairly simple but important ideas and techniques you can quickly use and leverage. The first of these is the idea that multi-dimensional thinking, and enabling metacognition, each are natural, in humans at least, and also potentially quite powerful. You can immediately understand this power by considering that the alternative is a predominance and indeed prison of single-dimensional, monolithic, or even monomaniacal thinking – and thus naturally simple, crude, or limited thinking – examples of which are unfortunately common in human life and history.

At the same time, the power of multi-dimensional thinking also can be understood by seeing it not only as more sophisticated, insight-affording, and thus naturally informing or truing, but as exponentially so, as I will explain. In principle and practice, multi-dimensional thinking can both dramatically increase our information in use, our cognitive richness, and our likelihood of adaptive cognition and metacognition. Crucially, it also can reduce risks of basic error waiting in all single-mindedness and fixed sets of information – risks that are again naturally diminished by expanded information, metacognition, or both working in concert.

As my graphical model above summarizes, and as we all can experience, when we think and act, we naturally can be fairly immersed in this process or we can be more circumspect. In the first case, our functioning can be understood as dominated by cognition or mental operations aimed primarily at coordinating our actions and fulfilling our immediate tasks, goals, imperatives, ideas, ideals, or psychological investments. In the second case, we can be understood as increasing our degree of metacognition, reflection, or thinking about our thinking – and potentially, increasing our thinking about the quality, efficiency, effectiveness, or adaptive potential of our thoughts and resulting actions.

In personal and organizational psychology, and as the preceding graphic indicates, the processes of cognition and metacognition are often described, modeled, or thought of (reductionistically but often helpfully) as single-loop and double-loop functioning or learning. Here, the concept of single-loop functioning summarizes the idea that in cognition or simple thinking , we are often significantly dedicated to matters at hand and thus less reflective or cognitively observant overall. By contrast, the idea of double-loop functioning highlights our cognitive capacity not only to assess our results and adjust our goal-directed thinking and actions, but also to engage in a second metacognitive or reflective loop of thought where we evaluate the assumptions, briefs, thought processes, or cause-and-effect theories underlying our goals or behavior as well, or instead (see Wikipedia Double-Loop Learning).

All or most of us of course naturally engage in both single-loop and double-loop thinking, or cognition and metacognition, as a regular and important part of our lives and endeavors. In practice, some amount of single-loop functioning may be essential to completing important tasks and navigating situational life generally, since excessive or protracted reflection or metacognition, and its tendency to engender high and action-inhibiting self-consciousness, can interrupt practical life and make us less focused, efficient, effective, or adaptive overall (see Wikipedia Self-Consciousness). At the same time, some amount, degree, or frequency of double-loop functioning or reflection is both natural and can be enormously valuable – notably, especially during both challenges and failures – by helping us to consider our cognitive framing and processing, our personal or group assumptions and motivations, and thereby our potential for more informed or considered and objectively superior situational perspectives, ideas, goals, framing assumptions, and plans (see Wikipedia Self-KnowledgeSelf-Awareness, Situational Awareness, Psychological Mindedness, and Mindfulness).

Before leaving this comparison of cognition and metacognition, and in case you were (metacognitively) wondering, the additional states of triple-loop thinking and still higher order levels of functioning are of course possible too – thinking or learning where we consider not only our cognition and behavior, but also the quality of our metacognition or reflective evaluations as well. Generally, this further elevated, but also more situationally abstracted or isolated functioning, will involve considering our or a group’s foundational ideas, assessment standards, ideals, principles in use, or processes for making evaluations. In practice, this mode of functioning will often take the form of deep why-testing or probing the reasons we are both functioning and evaluating our functioning as we are. As you may intuitively suspect, some amount of triple-loop thinking may be very valuable, but as with double-loop or simple reflective thinking, this looped or recursive functioning also naturally and perhaps increasingly risks pronounced, occluding, inhibiting, or regressing self-consciousness – and thus a halting, stilted, and less adaptive approach to life overall. By analogy, we can think of increasingly looped or reflective thinking as functioning in a growing hall of mirrors – offering interesting perspective but also making simple tasks more difficult and even vexing.

As its name indicates and as outlined before, multi-dimensional thinking is the natural, but also waiting intentional and metacognitively seeking, practice of using multiple or increasing variables, factors, or considerations in our personal or collective thinking and functioning. And as I suggested, in both forms it is a process or practice that can greatly improve the quality, effectiveness, or accuracy of our thinking, resulting actions, and subsequent evaluations. In keeping with my introductory comments, recurring theoretical and empirical analysis suggests that multi-dimensional thinking is not only natural, but a highly valuable and even essential practice in modern life and endeavor as well, and again notably whenever we face complex and uncertain conditions or challenges (for a survey of relevant theory and research, and perhaps thinking of each useful added dimension of thought as increasing our sample set, see Wikipedia CognitionUncertainty, Statistics, Type I & II Errors, Type III Error, Decision Theory, and Decision-Making).

Simple And Perhaps Familiar Example Of Multi-Dimensional Thinking

To bridge our overall discussion, let me point out that multi-dimensional thinking is related to metacognition in at least four ways. One is that metacognition is of course multi-dimensional in itself. Second is that the selection of multiple factors for a thought process, loop, or mental model, will generally require metacognition or significant reflection and analysis in itself. Third is that multi-dimensional thinking and models normally or naturally draw attention to themselves, and thus tend to invoke metacognition or considerations of the thought process or model’s components, assumptions, and effects. And fourth is that multi-dimensional thinking, importantly like metacognition in both its double-loop and higher order varieties – and really, all natural functioning – is similarly subject to natural inadequacy, error, and excess. While all three of these less desirable states are important, the last is perhaps most relevant for our discussion, and crucially can result in the familiar outcomes or phenomena of analysis paralysis, diminishing and then negative returns on intellectual or empirical investments, and inadequate natural satisficing (see Wikipedia Analysis Paralysis, Diminishing Returns, Negative Return, and Satisficing).

Overall, perhaps the most common and even most valuable form of multi-dimensional thinking in everyday life and effort involves what I will call data tables of varying degrees of formality, where at least two and perhaps many different factors, attributes, or dimensions are compared and considered against one another. A simple example of this tabular comparison or modeling of information is shown in the graphic above, which is visually two-dimensional – or has two framing or organizing dimensions – but substantively has more content or processing or content dimensions than this, and could have many more of course. Importantly, however, given this fairly formal example of a data table, it is crucial for me to underscore that such tables or tabular thinking can be entirely cognitive, mental, or implicit (as when we mentally compare potential choices or options against various criteria or considerations). Overall, data tables, the tabular or database organization of information, and similar tools or approaches to thought can be understood as multi-dimensional contrast models. And importantly, they can be either quantitative or qualitative in nature.

There are at least two immediate, important, useful, and similarly common variations or extensions of this basic tabular approach to or method of multi-dimensional thinking. One is the conversion or translation of data tables into useful graphical charts and plots, which notably for our discussion are also often along two dimensions visually, spatially, or organizationally, but may contain many more dimensions of information substantively. In any case, organizing graphical plots and charts, as the graphics we are using themselves highlight, can be enormously useful and help us to see essential relationships, and notably in structurally simple but nevertheless unintuitive or ambiguous sets or tables of data – or in situations or amid challenges with these information or cognitive qualities.

A second extension of data tables, also involving two-dimensional plots or organization of various information elements, are today’s ubiquitous use of 2×2 or four-quadrant matrix models by analysts of all kinds (a prototypical example of which is shown below). In practice, matrix models or charts, like two-dimensional organizing data tables and plots, are a simple, effective, and intuitive aid to multi-dimensional thinking. And like these other tools, and perhaps especially when focusing on essential qualitative differences, matrix models often can sometimes offer comparatively deep insights into fundamental patterns or relationships, whether in a particular data set or the data set that is the world broadly, and especially compared with unaided thinking. For example, consider a matrix plot of a large number of potential endeavors, or potential escapes from thinking life if you want, against the essential (and metacognitively surfaced) qualities of safe and valuable – as opposed to perhaps more intuitive, visceral, or monolithic considerations of exciting and easy – and you perhaps can see how such multi-dimensional graphical aids might help us and our groups better visualize options and in turn function in vastly superior ways – amid and throughout life, and thus compoundingly or increasingly so.

Two-Dimensional Tables and Plots Lead To Often Powerful Matrix Models

Together, information tables, data plots, and matrix models are often revealing, insightful, and powerful techniques to understand, promote, and aid simple multi-dimensional thinking. Quite often, they will be fairly intuitive and persuasive, and frequently will strike a good balance between expediency and complexity – between too few and too many variables or dimensions, too little and too much reflection or metacognition, and overly rapid and unduly protracted satisficing. But sometimes, these forms of or tools for multi-dimensional thinking can be too simple, crude, imprecise, and even wholly wrong or misguided – reflecting a phenomenon known in mathematics as omitted-variable bias (see Wikipedia Omitted-Variable Bias). In these cases, and with the aid of metacognition, either replacement of variables or added ones are essential to ensure that our thinking, cognition, processing, or modeling is adequately effective or adaptive – relative to our tasks or goals, the situations we face, or the natural opportunities before us, seen and unseen.

In these cases, and of these two options, exploring replacement variables within a  tabular or two-dimensional organizing framework, rather than adding model or organizational complexity, is often superior, especially initially. This is because more procedurally or spatially intricate mental or graphical models, and therefore more intricate information framing, can prove unwieldy, unintuitive, error-prone as a result, just as with excessively looped or convoluted thinking more fundamentally, and thereby either unhelpful or unpersuasive in practice. Overall, and in contrast to excessive simplicity or overly simple thinking, these outcomes again highlight the natural risks waiting in excessive complexity of thought. As an example of this, and for an immediate sense of the phenomenon of compounding or galloping metacognitive, organizational, or framing complexity,  examine the seemingly simple move from two to three visual, spatial, or organizing dimensions in this chart, and then consider the prospect of adding still more organizing or framing dimensions.

Importantly, when additional rather than replacement variables are needed or unavoidable, but before moving to more intricate model frames or formats, another and often superior consider a switch to alternative organizing models or framing, especially ones that are still relatively simple, intuitive, and communicative. In general, this step will involve (again metacognitively) reframing or rethinking the way we approach a question, challenge, or issue. One option in this approach, and a fairly recent innovation historically, is to move from tabular or contrast models or framing to system or process maps, models, or framing, which my very first graphic above is a simple example. In many cases, this lateral change to alternative low-complexity framing will be more useful, incisive, or insight-rich than a degree change that more simply, perhaps less reflectively, or mono-dimensionally increases a contrast or other existing model’s complexity.

Sometimes, however, rigorous multivariable or multi-dimensional analysis is either unavoidable or highly desirable to achieve adequate richness in the way we or our groups think and understand issues or information before us and world more broadly, here including ongoing moves to use or leverage artificial intelligence and machine learning (see Wikipedia Multivariate Statistics, Artificial Intelligence, and Machine Learning).

Instructively, Complex Math Often Ends In Simple Organizing Tables Or Models

As you may know, multivariable analysis and machine learning involve a set of mathematical techniques that require training and care, but can provide essential and far-reaching insights that would not be available to us otherwise. And while the topic of multivariable mathematics and related data tools are beyond the scope of our current discussion, one central feature of this mathematics and its application is very much at the heart of it. This is the typical mathematical practice of summarizing or organizing complex results in a two-dimensional tabular format or frame, either as shown prototypically immediately above or in that of two-dimensional organizing equations (ones with length and depth, rather than length and height). Importantly, this common final step in multivariable or regression analysis offers basic insights into the workings and needs of our human minds. It is also a study in natural demands for simplicity or clarity and satisficing or expediency in human cognition, and likely in all cognition. And crucially, it suggests a means or alternative way to conduct complex multivariable analysis and manage multi-dimensional thinking within simple information models or framings, and perhaps with sufficient rigor and adequate results in a many cases.

Collapsing Variables Into ‘Meta-Variables’ Can Aid In Complex Analyses

This final technique of our discussion, summarized in the graphic above and again inspired by tabular and equational summation of multivariable mathematics, involves consciously or metacognitively collapsing, consolidating, or replacing multiple variables, factors, consideration, or lines of thinking with a single meta-variable, factor, or quality. As you likely can immediately sense, this will typically result in radical model simplification to a small number of variables, enable simple organization or framing of complex information, and potentially permit simple and intuitive, but still complex and probing, multidimensional thinking, understanding, and predictive analysis.

To give you an idea of how this process of variable or dimensional consolidation, or information organization or association, might be done successfully, consider these three examples, which are among many and perhaps endless possibilities to metacognitively consider and simply our thinking, theories, and functioning amid complex daily life and endeavor:

> Collapse various option qualities into an overall benefit variable

> Reduce all product features into a client perceived value variable

> Replace multiple measures of quality with a lifespan variable

This deliberate consolidation of variables of course contains the potential for oversimplification and substantial error or bias, but it nevertheless can be an enormously useful way to achieve relatively sophisticated multi-dimensional thinking, analysis, modeling, or information processing without complex, costly, unintuitive, and potentially error-prone information framing. Importantly, the approach also underscores two important and related features about all information and thought, cognition, and metacognition, ones with which I will end our discussion with – and encourage you to consider both these ideas in themselves and the insights into metacognition and multi-dimensional thinking they may inspire.

One information feature is that all or many of the proposals, factors, or ideas we may consider in life are normally part of one or more larger concepts, categories, or meta-qualities, and thus at times may be metacognitively and helpfully recast, re-framed, reorganized, or sublimated into these more categorical or sweeping terms (see Wikipedia Categorization). For example, and as with my three examples immediately above, our or a group’s concerns about a particular threat or opportunity may be reconceived as part, examples, or instances of larger concerns or thinking about security and growth, respectively.

The second feature is the reverse of this concept, or the idea that whatever information or thought we are considering, it almost inevitably contains sub-information, sub-factors, sub-ideas, or sub-qualities – ones that may be more or less helpful to our thinking and functioning at any point in time, and ones that, just as with identifying more categorical concepts, often can be accessed only with some amount of metacognition or reflection, and perhaps only with awareness of the potential and importance or multi-dimensional thinking. Together, and as suggested earlier in our discussion, these two feature of information suggest that optimizing all cognition, metacognition, framing, and functioning more generally involves finding degrees of information organization or specificity, as well as information connection or interrelationships, that are progressively useful, efficient, effective, or adaptive.

In this way, the (re-framing) movement from more generic or categorical to more specific or instantial factors, or the reverse, can be essential to multi-dimensional thinking and modeling in all its forms, and just as with seeing or probing more essential relationships between the factors we have at hand. In theory and practice, both steps can be crucial to high-quality or adaptive descriptions of and predictions about the world, whether in our lives and our groups. And each move circularly requires and encourages adaptive metacognition, a natural and advanced human trait I would encourage – and do in my new book – you and your groups to consider and employ, often and richly. Let me know what you think in the comments section below.

Health & best wishes,

Mark

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Our Point of Greatest Resistance

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Mark LundegrenI’m at the halfway point in drafting my new book, my second, and taking a break – to the extent that writing blog posts and attending to side projects is a break. In any case, they are easier than daily writing, and a welcome respite.

For this post, I want to offer a simple and quite flexible tool for diagnosing the general state of our efforts and pursuits, whether personal or organizational. Often, when we are immersed in work or other endeavors, we may not adequately see our essential context, or the main reason or reasons that things are as they are.

But this needn’t and generally shouldn’t be the case, since excessive immersion can greatly reduce our effectiveness, and because reframing or perspective-increasing tools are widely available and fairly easy to use. And I have found one tool in particular, probing for our point of greatest resistance or our main strategic bottleneck or barrier to success, to be especially powerful – helping us to quickly gauge our situation, and our potential opportunity to either redouble, adjust, or wholly change our efforts.

Simple Mapping Tool To Assess Personal & Organizational Barriers

There of course are many ways of assessing or diagnosing our efforts and increasing situational awareness, but focusing on resistance points or strategic weakness is often remarkably simple and intuitive, and frequently provides a higher initial result than other approaches. And to make the approach even easier, I would encourage you simply to consider or probe for resistance in just two areas, ones essential for success in any domain: 1) the state of production or your current supply potential, and 2) the state of consumption or your current demand conditions. In this approach, we look for basic barriers, or points of resistance, in both domains – and then seek to understand the reasons why.

In my experience, the approach is remarkably straightforward and reliably generates fresh insights – whether we use it in our lives or work, and alone or in groups. As a consulting strategist, it can help me to quickly understand the main barriers or issues an organization is facing, from startups to long-established enterprises. In your life and work, the technique of probing for resistance may help you to see various efforts in a new and often quite fundamental way, providing insights that you can consider, test, and then act on.

When using the approach, all personal and organizational efforts are understood as potentially subject to critical barriers or points of resistance in one or both of two areas:

> Production – the ability of a person or group to produce or create something of value – whether a raw material, product, service, experience, or change. In general, when the point of greatest resistance involves production, this points to immature, inadequate, inefficient, ineffective, or otherwise misdirected execution on an idea, value proposition, or mission.

> Consumption – the interest or willingness of people to buy or otherwise use a person’s or organization’s output. When the point of greatest resistance involves consumption, sometimes this is owing to lack of awareness or publicity, a state of affairs that is often easily or progressively overcome (if not, this suggests awareness is not the primary issue). But more generally, poor or weak consumption, demand, or uptake of an offering points to inadequate value in the offering – or the idea, proposition, or mission underlying the offering. Costs may be too high, benefits too low or too ambiguous, or both.

As my graphic above illustrates, the idea of potentially low or high states of both production and consumption also can be used to create a four-part model that describes productive efforts generally. Where there are no major points of resistance in production and consumption, this suggests thriving conditions for an effort. At the other extreme, significant resistance in both domains indicates an effort or enterprise is struggling and suggests a basic rethinking of actions, approach, and goals.

When a personal or organizational effort has high productive or supply capacity, but low or inadequate consumption or demand, this almost always suggests untapped, misallocated, or misdirected capacity – or a condition of less than fully successful striving – and therefore a need to examine and increase the value of the output (benefits minus costs). Importantly however, if such value-increasing changes are not obvious, then the condition instead indicates a need to revisit underlying assumptions and even the basic mission of the effort or endeavor.

On the other hand, where demand is high or increasing, but production capacity is the point of resistance, as is often the case in start-up and aspiring ventures, this suggests that an examination and rethinking of current production plans or operating models is in order. Often, this will involve new investments, new techniques, or new production partners.

I would encourage you to use this two-part approach for assessing resistance points, along with the above model of productive efforts, right away. This is both to deepen your understanding of the approach and because it can be so useful. As highlighted, you can apply the approach to current efforts in your life, to planned or nascent ones, to an organization you work for or are interested in, or to the efforts of people and groups around you.

As I often do, you are likely to find this simple approach or shorthand quite powerful and applicable in many settings. In practice, it can help us to understand and strategically reframe efforts in ways that are useful, immediately actionable, and enduring. And it frequently will provide fundamental insights into how endeavors of all types and sizes might be made more vibrant, growing, compelling, and valuable.

Health & best wishes,

Mark

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The World’s Healthiest Nation

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Mark LundegrenIn an earlier post, I posed the question, which is the world’s most advanced nation?

For that discussion, I considered several ways we might measure national advancement, and how each measure – or each alternative framing of the question – produced very different national rankings.

At the end of the discussion, and as I did in my first book The Seven Keys of Natural Life, I encouraged readers to consider a relatively new measure called the HPI, produced by the New Economics Foundation. In my reading, the HPI can serve as a rough or preliminary measure of national adaptivity, or adaptive health. HPI stands for Happy Planet Index, though for me it would be better named, and in any case thought of, as a Healthy People Index.

Importantly, however adaptive health is best measured, and thus predicted, for me adaptive health is the ultimate performance metric, whether for individuals, groups, species, or whole ecosystems. In nature, health – here defined as the ability to steadily survive over time and amid progressive challenges or uncertainty – is the final test of life, and therefore the ultimate measure of all measures.

Some Nations Are Wealthier or Happier, But Which Ones Are Healthier?

Since my earlier advocacy of the HPI, the metric has undergone an important and I believe positive change, increasing from three to four internal variables. In this post, I’d like to review the change, highlight why I believe the HPI is improved via the added variable, and explain reasons why the HPI remains an important preliminary or suggestive measure of what matters most at a national level today – adaptivity or each nation’s likely potential to survive, and therefore thrive, in time.

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The Doors of Perception

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Mark LundegrenDescribing perception as a door or gateway is a recurring and well-known theme in literature, philosophy, and science.

I want to add to this body of work and explore this crucial idea with you, since it can be so important to the mastery of life, and even the path to a whole new way of life.

As you will see, my treatment of the topic may be different from the perception-door analogies you know best, or that are most common in popular culture today.

Overall, our discussion will distill and build upon a central theme from my Seven Keys – the often overlooked but always waiting, reliable, natural, and naturally transformative power of conscious attentiveness.

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The World We Pass Through Each Day, Sublime And Waiting To Be Perceived

As a contemporary person, the perception-door analogy that may first come to mind for you is Huxley’s Doors of Perception, a counterculture classic and staple, and the inspiration for the name of the still more famous American rock band, The Doors. Huxley’s work recounts, and recommends, his extraordinary and evocative experiences under the influence of the psychoactive drug mescaline.

Huxley’s book, in turn, takes its title from a line by the 18th century British poet, William Blake, “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Though Blake’s work and the meaning of this particular line are each subject to different interpretations, I will take his original intent with the words cleansing perception as meaning looking past authority and convention, in favor of freer and more individualistic life, or more freely-perceived and freely-led life.

In contemporary terms, we might think of this idea as seeking new perspective or clearing our minds of preconceptions and assumptions. And with the word infinite I will take Blake to mean that the world can be far richer or more expansive in content than we generally realize or appreciate.

As you may know, Blake’s 18th century proposal to eschew conventional thinking and routinized perception in favor of broader or more vitalizing outlooks is of course a theme from antiquity – the shunning of Apollonian order for Dionysian sensation or indulgence – and an idea that would find new footing and be re-examined in the 19th century by the German philosopher Nietzsche and other writers of his time.

There are of course many other historical and contemporary writers and teachers who have directly or indirectly likened perception to a door or gateway, one waiting to be opened and generally affording new perspective, growth, or even liberation. In particular, they include Gautama Buddha and modern mindfulness advocates writing about or cognizant of eastern meditative practices. And they include various scientists and philosophers exploring the natural limits and opportunities of perception. As you will see, my own views about the doors of perception are a blend or synthesis of mindfulness and scientific viewpoints. Read the rest of this entry »

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Progress & Inclusion

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Mark Lundegren

I’ve been planning a U.S. election recap for some time – to make sense of and find lessons in what has been an unusually tumultuous political campaign and larger period of cultural division in my nation.

In many ways, these are undeniably the best of times, with startling technological and social advances in the U.S. and around the world. At the same time, our era also can be understood as the worst of times for some, with many still left behind or otherwise feeling alienated by the new opportunities of our rapidly emerging, but naturally disruptive, global society.

Based on many weeks of polling data, my original idea was to warn U.S. progressives that they were lucky to have won a third presidential term, given an obvious gap in their programs and priorities, and to thank Mr. Trump for making this abundantly clear. But as we all now know, luck and the polls did not hold.

trump-rally-texas-4

U.S. Populists: White, Pressured & Energized

And yet, my principal takeaway from the U.S. election and primary lesson for progressives, across the developed world and beyond, is unchanged. Indeed, Ms. Clinton’s unpredicted but not completely unforeseeable defeat is consistent with other recent populist or anti-establishment votes, in Europe and elsewhere.

Our rising populism, in turn, is a natural and recurring consequence of increasing economic inequality, social stratification, and cultural infringement, all of which are strong trends around the world today. And while populism may be a blunt or imprecise social force, it is an understandable, important, and addressable one too. In particular, current outbreaks of disquiet and opposition to established power and order have clear and instructive parallels with other populist periods in Western history (including the 1890s and 1930s).

Today, in substantial parts of both the U.S. and Europe, there is now a large minority of people who have been inattentively missed, comparatively disadvantaged, or directly harmed by the last four decades of information age expansion and prosperity, by rising globalization and multiculturalism, and by our generally impactful but sometimes narrowly-focused progressive reforms and policies. The presence and natural importance of this large but often systematically overlooked minority group – and the group that is primarily driving popular rebellion in the developed world – is the lesson I want to offer to U.S. progressives, their European counterparts, and others seeking progressive change in their nations and around the world.

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