The evolving, self-organizing, complex, open mind

First draft, ready for comments

Throughout this book, we define the mind as the cognitive processes that are generated by our brain, nervous system, neurotransmitters, and body chemistry. That is, our conscious and un-conscious cognition; what we are aware of plus the many things going on in our mind that do not reach our awareness but which influence our awareness, mood, emotions, and behavior nevertheless. Among the latter are subconscious fears or preferences, and skills that we know by heart and do not have to pay separate attention to, such as bicycling or driving a car while thinking of something else. Many of those things going on “under the surface” in our mind can be brought to our attention immediately if needed, like when a child on the sidewalk suddenly runs towards the street, and we become fully aware of our driving. Other things may need years of therapy to be revealed to us, such as fears of rejection or ridicule if we behave in certain ways. We will never know the majority of our unconscious cognitive activities, which is a good thing.

Our individual mind works in a way similar to evolution in nature and culture. Our knowledge, thoughts, beliefs, fantasies, and dreams, our understanding and interpretations of the world, our language(s), our skills, our emotions and moods, etc. make up an integrated, co-evolutionary system. This system evolves as we encounter the world and engages with it, and it works through loops of repetition, variation and choice as we go about using the skills and knowledge that we already have. It gradually becomes more complex through our exposure to new experiences, through how we react to these, and through how we interact with other people and ourselves. Our mind takes up and organizes what is new to us according to what we already are, already know and already have encountered, and it does this so that the new becomes as meaningful to us as possible and integrates with the old.

As we mature, we increasingly become aware of ourselves in this process, of our own behavior, our habits, assumptions, thoughts and emotions, and of how we handle new and/or contradictory, for a lack of better word, stuff. As we mature, our mind increasingly supplies itself with a new kind of feedback loops that we are actually aware of, allowing us to understand ourselves better and to interact with the world in richer, deeper and overall more complex and meaningful ways. Our mind becomes self-aware in increasingly complex ways.

By drawing the comparison to evolution in nature and culture, the expression “an open mind” becomes very literal: our inner world evolves with our willingness to approach, acquire, challenge, appropriate, and appreciate new stuff, be it new ideas, new knowledge, new art, new people, or new insights about ourselves.

As we mature and know more, as the depth, breadth and complexity of our understanding increase, and as we gain insight into ourselves, we increase our potential of combining things in ways that we have not done before and which nobody else may have done before. In other words, the chances of creativity and innovation may increase with the complexity of our mind. But it may also have the opposite effect: as our mind becomes increasingly engrained in its own patterns, i.e. as the loops of our habits, skills and unchallenged beliefs become older, it may also become increasingly hard with age to tolerate or create something new. Whether it is a set of skills, a belief or an opinion we keep repeating and maybe even refining, the repetition turns it into a physical structure in our brain, and changing such a structure can be painful.

We grow as individuals with our willingness to open our mind in spite of this pain. Our personal development is a double-bound process of repeating and refining patterns and of being open to new ones. If we did not run loops, and repeat and refine skills, convictions, hopes, and beliefs, etc. we would be confused individuals without a personal core and unable to define our boundaries. On the other hand, if at some point we refused to learn or change anything, we would be emotionally and mentally stuck and unable to mature with our peers or change with circumstances and societal development.

Being open means that we risk encountering things that do not fit in with what we already know, feel, hope, or believe. It is often through these painful encounters, however, that we truly grow. When we are forced to change an understanding or a perspective it is painful, and the deeper the conviction, the more aspects of our lives that are affected by the change, the more painful the transition, but we also come out from it on the other side as more mature persons. This is what developmental psychology is about.

Creative genius can develop things thier contemporaries cannot fully grasp; here Ludwig van Beethoven’s Grosse Fuge from 1825:



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