The Architecture of Life: Seeing Puzzles of Reality

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Seeing Puzzles of Reality

A host of studies have recently been published that in one way or another suggest new levels of complexity and cooperation in the functioning of the nervous system.

April 7th, researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reported that a recent study suggest that "the nervous system operates with higher precision than previously appreciated and that apparent irregularities in individual cells may actually be coordinated and finely tuned to make the most of the world around us.

"About 1.25 million neurons in the retina - each of which views the world only through a small jagged window called a receptive field - collectively form the seamless picture we rely on to navigate our environment. Receptive fields fit together like pieces of a puzzle, preventing "blind spots" and excessive overlap that could blur our perception of the world" state the researchers.

Cells in the body have long been understood to cooperate in incredible ways to support the functioning of the body. Chemical messengers actually tell aging cells when it's their time to die.

What is now becoming more clear is that the brain and nervous system also operate at a level of complexity that is much closer to optimal than previously thought.

Also becoming more likely is that complexity science, particularly studies of emergent social properties of social insects, is likely a good metaphor for understanding how cells in the brain might operate as agents in a living complex adaptive system.

Another recent study suggests that reactivated memories of spaces cued by your environment are strengthened and updated by neurons born less than a week earlier. Thus memory is inextricably tied to neurogenesis. Each new cell born is tagged to valuable information we need to navigate the world around us.

Again, our homes are in our heads. So are our relationships with others and the realities we experience in our everday lives. But let's face it - we don't live like that. We all walk around with a pretense that we are making rational decisions based on rational evidence - when only a small part of our decisions occur that way.

I will point out again - with some hubris - that I predicted this April rise in the U. S. stock market last October and stuck to it religiously through the deepest, darkest economic times agains all evidence. I did that simply by thinking of global economic behavior as the psychological behavior of a single person undergoing serious anxiety.

Perhaps that was just luck, but taking a systems psychology view of the mass behavior of human beings informed by the emergent behavior of macrotermes termites and harvester ants DID produce an accurate prediction that almost none of the smartest economists supported.

Step by step neuroscience is uncovering the mechanisms through which we construct our day to day experience - and those mechanisms are much more sophisticated and adaptive than most of us can imagine.

What we think about as we move through our lives has a limited impact on how we automatically react to the world around us. It is beginning to look like the vast majority of our actions are spurred by intuitive, automatic or emotional decisions that have little to do with the internal chatter of thoughts, emotions and physical sensations going on constantly in our heads.
But it "real life" - we all experience that babble as our day to day reality - when in truth it is mostly self-justification associated with how we fear others might see us and other types of social positioning common to baboons.

Happily our nervous systems are incredibly ingenious at juggling the "story" we tell to prop up our social identities with the facts as they actually occur in our environment. Otherwise, we would most likely have gone extinct.

Where the rubber meets the road - in working relationships - think what that means about the process of collecting criteria for design.

Think how effective questioning a client about their thoughts and desires would be when a complex design project is being envisioned.

Given what is going on in the brain, the "self-reporting error" would be pretty darn high - and that is exactly what we have seen for a decade in our architecture firm.

Think what that means about the way you explain your own choices to others and how that might impact the workability of our communication with others. No wonder designer/client relationships are such a mess.

We are all living in the past but operating as though we are making decisions based in the present. It's like that old metaphor. We are driving through life with both hands turning the rear view mirror as though we grasp the steering wheel.