Craving Certainty – Biology

20151104_145251Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist and spends a lot of his time trying to figure out just what is happening inside our heads from a biological point of view. I tend to get rid of a lot of books once I’ve read them but the four I have of his won’t be leaving my book shelves.

But why a neuroscientist and certainty you might legitimately ask?

One of the things Damasio (and others) have discovered is that the brain spends a lot of time and energy mapping the body’s physical state, monitoring what is going on in the body and working very hard to keep the body in a state of biological homeostasis. I am equating biological homeostasis to a version of certainty. Our bodies operate with some very narrow parameters to sustain not just health, but life itself. While you might be able to tolerate your coffee 10 degrees cooler than you would like, your body is in deep trouble with a 10 degree difference. And while you may be able to consume a fairly significant range of ph foods and drinks, that same range could be deadly to the function of internal organs.

Biologically we need certainty to survive and the brain and body work very hard to create and maintain that certainty. And we rarely have to consciously think about this as our brain and body sustain biological certainty.

One of the drivers of certainty is completely out of our conscious thought and control. It is hard wired and genetic.

This of course is not all that new. A further step that Damasio takes however, is.

When you look at nature, including our own bodies and brains we find the phenomenon of fractals. Basically fractals represent a self similar pattern and/or design at various levels of size and scale. A common example is that of broccoli. You can look at one broccoli floret and it more or less looks like the whole thing, just smaller. Fractals are incredibly common in nature, including our natural selves and occur at many, many more levels of scale than the broccoli example.

Damasio applies the concept of fractals to the human body, from the cell to the organs, to body systems, to the brain and to the body/brain connections. And then that further step; that step outside the body/brain, to the plural, to people and societies.

Damasio is saying that the dynamics seen within the human body, that create homeostasis, life regulation and biological certainty, extend as fractals do, to societies, which of course include organizations. From the book Self Comes to Mind:

‘By the time minds and consciousness were added to the mix, the possibilities of regulation expanded even more and made way for the kind of management that occurs not just within one organism but across many organisms, in societies. Consciousness enabled humans to repeat the leitmotif of life regulation by means of a collection of cultural instruments – economic exchange, religious beliefs, social conventions and ethical rules, laws, arts, science, technology.’ (Self Comes to Mind – page 63)

Most of us tend to think that it was our brilliant, individual selves that imagined, planned and created those cultural instruments noted above. We do not consider that there may be a very natural, non conscious and biological impetus for such creation and that this impetus is firmly founded in a drive for certainty.

We may indeed have a very real, biological need for certainty that ramps up from our single cells to the ‘cells’ of our organizations.

Hmmmm, if the drive for certainty is genetic is OUCH! then biological, genetic and unavoidable? Well, let’s look at social evolution and social process first before we revisit where OUCH! is coming from.

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