All living systems, from the smallest forms of life to the planetary ecosystem are best understood as complex systems of feedback loops.
Metaphors we live by
Attempting to articulate “solutions” to the current human predicament within the simplistic religious frame of the invisible hand helps so-called leaders maintain the illusion of contributing towards a better world in a meaningful way. All the good words would make sense if the invisible hand actually worked according to the religious dogma of financial economics.
Unfortunately, the invisible hand does not have any of the magical powers attributed to it, and any reliance on financial economics is an illusionary attempt at self-soothing – wishful thinking.
We live in a toxic WEIRD world where exposing the truth about what goes on behind the veil of the invisible hand is still considered a criminal offence. Hint: lies, violence, and systemic injustices are not a sustainable foundation for healthy societies. The discipline of WEIRD psychology does not provide any further insights either, as it only describes the psychology of WEIRD cults, rather than a psychological foundation that applies to all forms of human societies.
Studying the evolution of primates over the last 6 million years gives us a better starting point for understanding humans, human societies, and the role of cultural evolution over the course of the history of the human species. Importantly, it highlights the roles of the human capacities for symbolic thought and language, and the relevance of shared mental models in the context of creative collaboration and cultural evolution.
Over the last 50 years we have learned a lot about the neuroscience of language and thought. Prof George Lakoff offers a good introduction to this topic. Please note that some of the linguistic examples of frames and metaphors provided apply to Western cultures and to the English language – they are part of WEIRD psychology and do not translate one to one to other cultures and languages. However, the abstract categories of frames and metaphors are foundational for understanding symbolic thought.
Some frames are foundational, but many metaphors and frames are culture specific, and are closely tied to specific languages or language families. For example there are cultures and languages where the past is conceptualised as what can be seen, i.e. in the direction we are facing, and where the future is conceptualised as what can’t be seen, i.e. in the opposite direction that lies behind us.
Humans evolved to make sense of the world at human scale, in terms of symbolic frames and metaphors, which our minds use to reason about the world and imagine new possibilities within the constraints afforded by the metaphors we live by. We can not expect to be able to expand our repertoire of metaphors by looking at culturally “well adjusted” people.
The so-called window of opportunity has long closed. The carefully curated Overton window of industrialised society is a neoliberal tool for social control, it is also a symptom of terminally diseased institutions. I wonder how many people know or remember the following:
Overton was an ardent libertarian, and while associated with the Mackinaw Center in Midland, he promoted and studied free-market principles for over ten years while travelling to more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America…
The term [Overton window] is named after American policy analyst Joseph Overton, who stated that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton, the window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time...
The effectiveness of neoliberal social engineering can be seen by the way in which the 3-dimensional metaphor sphere of discourse, which can shrink or expand, has increasingly been replaced with the metaphor of a small 2-dimensional window for “allowable discourse”, which can only be shifted or nudged a little. This profound shift in the way society thinks about political possibilities is best illustrated with data from Google Books Ngram Viewer, i.e. the use of these two competing abstract metaphors in published books.
Neuronormative people primarily learn by imitation, adopting the metaphors of the dominant culture, and only much less frequently do they invent entirely new metaphors based on patterns of first hand non-linguistic sensory input. In contrast, Autistic people learn more from conscious processing of raw sensory information, creating a space for imagining new possibilities.
To expand our horizons of symbolic thought, we are well advised to look at other cultures and at Autistic or otherwise socially “less well adjusted” people.
The concept of an Overton window gained relevance on the heels of the exponential rise of [digital] social media and algorithmic social control. This becomes obvious if you reflect on the timing of the rise of social media and related discussions, and overlay references to social media onto the graph that shows how the Overton window is cannibalising and squashing the sphere of discourse.
Note: The use of the term social media is orders of magnitude greater than the use of the other two more technical terms, so the social media graph has been rescaled to show how the Overton window has become a relevant metaphor in the era of social media.
Once we understand the foundational role of metaphors in human thought, we can understand how propaganda works, and beyond that, how hypernormative cultures / cults are able to generate a level of paradigmatic inertia from which it is very hard to break free, especially for “well adjusted” people.
Just as our sensory capabilities limit the fidelity of what we can perceive in the here and now, our culturally informed cognitive capabilities limit what we actually do perceive, can understand (make sense of), and are driven to act on in the world – all of which is mediated and constrained by the frames and metaphors we have internalised.
Human cognitive limits are adaptive if we live in a human scale society, and if the frames and metaphors of our mental models are in tune with the ecosystems that we are part of. At human scale our abilities are enhanced by shared metaphors that act as powerful thinking tools, allowing us to engage with the living world around us in intuitive ways – to act and make decisions in ways that are easily recognised and understood by others.
However, internalised frames and metaphors create massive problems in large, i.e. super human scale societies, misleading us to believe that we understand more about the world than we actually do. Complex industrialised societies overload us with social information from more people than we are capable of understanding, and incrementally alienate us from the non-human environment that we depend on for our basic needs and wellbeing.
By the end of the century, both the overall human population and the overall economy will be smaller, perhaps significantly smaller, and humanity will inhabit a world of damaged but rapidly adapting ecosystems and largely depleted resources. That’s not a future that many of us as individuals would willingly choose, but it is the one that we have collectively determined through decades of fossil-fueled overpopulation and over- consumption. The point to remember is that it is a future in which we will still have agency. We can optimize the Great Unraveling with cooperation and foresight, or we can ensure a worse outcome through denial and conflict…
…Our immediate goal should be to prevent harm to people and the more-than- human world while fostering resilient, diverse, ecological, nonviolent, compassionate, and more self-reliant communities. Our ultimate goal must be a way of life that offers security, fairness, and wellbeing while using energy and resources at sustainable rates and restoring natural systems rather than further degrading them.
As we work toward long-term goals, we must maximize certain short-term benefits and rewards along the way in order to maintain collective emotional health and social cohesion. By reducing inequality, by prioritizing the contributions of the creative arts, and by encouraging participatory cultural events, communities can increase their members’ quality of life even when average consumption levels decline.
Welcome to the Great Unraveling, 2023, Post Carbon Institute
Framing cultural organisms as sets of relationships, not even limited to species barriers, allows for evolution and nuance, creating a boundary layer of relationships that connect a cultural organism to the outside world, like the semi-permeable membrane of a biological cell. In this frame, just like a cell, a cultural organism has many critical interdependencies with the outside world; the state of environmental health is deeply entangled with the internal state of health of the cultural organism.
Autistic life is incompatible within a society that lives within an Overton window. To understand why, look no further than the way in which Helen Mirra is conceptualizing autistic experience as holotropic:
Neurology is often a trap that reifies a misleading narrative that our brains determine “who we are”, and this is reified by the compound word “neurodiversity”. It concerns the brain, and neglects the heart. It doesn’t recognize that the mind is not separable from the body. We prefer the term neurosomatic diversity. Our brains have evolved to support our lives, which can only be fulfilling in feeling.
We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.
To be holotropic is to have naturally wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes – less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.
Hyperfocus may occur within singular (monotropic) or connective (syntropic) attention paths (tunnels and rhizomes). Both types of paths create flow states wherein one is deeply engaged. Hyperfocus is a kind of flooding of certain pathways which therein quiets dissonance from conflicting inputs. To be monotropic is to be focused with fidelity. To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life.
If hyperfocus is flow, coherence is profound rest. It is effortless integration. While it has been given little consideration in autism studies, embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.
(the above is an edit specially made for the Autistic Collaboration Trust of a longer essay titled Holotropism.)