The monk within

CAS II.jpg

In yesterday’s post, I raised a question: “What are the chances that we should be afflicted en masse with OCD, autistic tendencies, narcissism, schizophrenia, ADD, and latent inhibition diminishment?” I suggested that the time had come to burn our copies of the DSM, and to start again. We need a new paradigm for new problems.

Which paradigm? There might be something useful in Complexity theory. The complexity theorists posit something called a CAS, a complex adaptive system. The CAS has 4 properties: aggregation, diversity, flows and non-linearity. The complexity theorists intend the CAS as a way of thinking about a species. Clippinger and company have suggested that it is a good way to characterize a business organization. It occurred to be that it might be a useful way to characterize the self.

Clark defines the CAS aggregation as something that occurs when “heterogeneous elements are temporarily recruited to form a coherent whole.” The aggregation is, in Clark terms, a “soft assembly,” the pieces neither internally fixed nor externally bounded.

A second CAS property is diversity. Clippinger defines diversity as a “measure of variety; in general, the more diverse an organization, the more fit and adaptable it is.” Innovations find their way into and out of the aggregation with some frequency.

The third property of the CAS are flows. Clippinger defines these as “webs or networks of interactions,” a meta-message system by which diverse parts of the aggregation communicate with one another.

The fourth property of the CAS is non-linearity. Manville defines this as the ability of the organization to move beyond “linear projections[s] of the past” and under take “sudden and unexpected ‘threshhold changes’.”

Let’s say we are, some more than others, turning into Complex Adaptive Systems. We exhibit the symptoms of OCD because we are, as a CAS, newly attentive to a changing environment, always looking for the way to best read and react. This is the Monk in all of us. We are sometimes autistic in tendency, because there are moments when we retreat from the world for periods of disengaged reflection. We might think of these as “soft assembly” moments. We are narcissistic in moments because we are incapable of self regulation in highly dynamic unless constantly monitoring the things we want. We are schizophrenic in moments because we are running many selves in order to maximize our adaptive advantage. We are ADD sometimes because the world comes at us suddenly and from many origins and we must attend to it often and quickly. And finally we cultivate “latent inhibition” diminishment because this is one of the sources of the creativity that is now demanded of us.

Or something. Just a thought. But it feels like this is a better approach than heaping up the psychiatric acronyms.

May I say, as a closing note, that I devoutly hope that Portugal never wins another soccer game. Today’s victory, and every victory, makes my neighbors here in Montreal drive endlessly in circles, honking their horns, blowing whistles, and sounding air horns, for hours. Normally, the Dionysian in me responds well to expressions of pagan joy. But I am beginning to think these people need to get some seriously counselling. Please feel free to blame all logical inconsistencies and typographical errors in this post on the people of Portugal or the game of soccer, as you wish.


Clark, Andy. 1999. Leadership and Influence: The manager as coach, nanny, and artificial DNA. The biology of business decoding the natural laws of enterprise. editor John Henry Clippinger, 47-66. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, p. 49.

Clippinger, John Henry. 1999. The biology of business: Decoding the natural laws of enterprise. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, pp. 10-22.

Holland, John H. 1995. Hidden order: How adaptation builds complexity. Helix Book. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Manville, Brook. 1999. Complex Adaptive Knowledge Management. The biology of business decoding the natural laws of enterprise. editor John Henry Clippinger, 89-111 San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, p. 99.

5 thoughts on “The monk within

  1. steve

    If we are CASs, that means we are each composed of a swarm of agents, each of which follows an evolving decision rule in response to what the other agents do. Our behavior as holistic individuals would just be the emergent aggregate result of these micro-level interactions. I’m not sure I’d buy this model completely, at least without some notion of just what these “agents” inside us consist of. Engrams? Multiple personalities?

  2. patrick

    I want to concentrate on the “adaptive” part of CAS. I think there is something, at least vaguely, evolutionary about the line between mental illness and mental health. How long ago was homosexuality a “mental illness” according the psychiatric community (and their bible, the DSM). Going back a bit, the same would probably apply to a lot of other circumstances of living that we now find perfectly healthy, if a little unusual. Likewise, some conditions which were previously considered healthy, if a little unusual, (excessive aggression, alcoholism) are now most certainly considered illnesses.

    I think this has to do with what makes a mental state considered an illness. I think the most important criterion is if the condition interferes with your ability to function in society. Some conditions, such as vivid and continual hallucinations, perhaps, would inferfere with your ability to function in just about any society, so will be continually viewed as a mental illness (even if the cause of that defect is attributed to non-physical factors, such as “touched by God”). Other conditions, such as mild autism, may be adaptive for some cultures and maladaptive for others. In modern western culture of gross specialication and independence, it is possible for someone with such a condition to channel that in a way that benefits society. In fact, there are many such avenues available. In the early 1900s, however, the market for someone who could perform tasks similar to those of writing very complicated computer code without ever interacting with other people was vanishingly small. So these people were stuck doing pointless repetive tasks, making no contribution to culture or the economics Even in the 1970s and 1980s, that was the case, if to a lesser extent. But today, is such a person truly mentally ill, as defined above? The answer is not so clear.

  3. Grant

    Patrick, thanks for your comment, it forced me to clarify my thinking. See today’s post for a response. Thanks again, Grant

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