Season 2 Ep1 Systems[00:00:23] Imagine that there are 20 desks in a classroom and nothing else. Nobody else, no person. And you close the door to this classroom and nothing is going to enter or leave it. You leave this classroom, you walk down the hallway and you leave it alone for an hour. Do you feel decently certain? You know what the layout of the desks will be when you come back? Will it be pretty similar to the way you left it? [00:00:51] Now, imagine this, but with 20 students in a classroom, nothing else, nobody else. And you close the door to the classroom, nothing will enter and nothing will leave. You walk down the hallway and you leave this classroom alone for an hour. Do you feel as certain about what the students will be doing when you come back into the classroom? Do you feel decently certain about the formation that they will have made among themselves? Well, the difference here is that one of these examples has to do with a system and the emergence of behaviors that come from a system while the other one doesn't. And this type of emergent behavior and the idea of systems is what will be going into in this episode. [00:01:42] In today's episode, we'll look at the idea of something called systems thinking, and I'm going to pull from various resources. One in particular is the Santa Fe Institute. So they are one of the leaders in systems thinking and particularly for complex systems and complex adaptive systems. So I highly recommend you check them out. So systems thinking is in a way, a zoomed out perspective that gives us access to more information and possible explanations of things. Then when we look at things in a very narrow or isolated kind of way and systems, thinking is in some ways a contrast to a much more influential way of thinking and conducting scientific inquiry that has been dominant for the past hundred years or so, especially since the time of Isaac Newton. And that is reductionism as well as linear thinking. And they're interrelated. So reductionism is based on the idea that you can break things down into the most basic elements and understand those isolated elements. And by understanding just that isolated thing, that unit, you will be able to understand the bigger picture, the system that is a part of and be able to predict what will happen in that larger system. And this has been a useful way to look at the world. It helped us understand that the body is made of organs which are made of cells which are made of organelles, atoms, molecules and then elementary particles and all that. So it is a way of breaking those things down to understand that there's all these other micro systems and really other worlds to explore on those microscopic levels. [00:03:18] But reductionism is not enough to help us really predict more complex behavior and complex systems. And most of the stuff that really interests us in the world are complex systems like human beings, the brain, the nervous system, cells, all of these things are much more complex. And we're going to go into some of the features of why that is and why their systems. [00:03:41] So the other aspect of reductionism is interrelated to linear thinking, which has this very cause effect type of thinking to it, philosophy to it, which is that you can really predict what the effect of something is by just understanding whatever that component is that you're studying, applying a stimulus really or condition, and then it will result in this type of behavior. And what we're understanding is that there's so many things that are much more difficult to predict because they don't seem to follow this very linear way of looking at the world like economic systems and human behavior and social networks. [00:04:16] There's something bigger going on, and that's kind of what systems thinking allows us to explore. So an important thing to note about systems thinking is that it is what we would call a paradigm shift from reductionism. And I want to just go into this idea of paradigm and we'll go more into different paradigms later in the season. But just the concept of a paradigm is that it's a way of thinking or seeing the world almost like a lens or a prism that we can look through. And that prism or lens can be it can be distorted just from lack of understanding or fragmented kind of understanding that distorts the image. And it can also be very, very, very small or magnified. And then we can see a tiny little section of something or a tiny little component. But we can also zoom out this lens or this prism, if we want to call it, and see multiple parts interacting to see a much wider perspective. And so that's kind of an analogy of what reductionism and systems thinking are doing. [00:05:25] So reductionism is really going down to that pinpoint, looking at that one isolated thing. And systems thinking is bringing that perspective higher to look at the bigger systems and networks all interacting together. So both perspectives are useful, but particularly when we're talking about, in a way, behavior and complex behavior and things like that and predicting things. We really need to have that zoomed out perspective because there are just too many things interacting with each other that play a role in what behavior emerges and that word emerge. We'll talk about that in a second. It's important. And in systems thinking, it's not that we neglect the details that come from going into those very magnified type of view of things, it's just that it is integrated into looking at all the systems playing and interacting with each other. And the other important thing to think about in terms of a paradigm, which is what a lot of the season is going to be about, is that we use a paradigm which again, is that lens or filter or prism. We use that to observe and then predict the world. And this has a very big influence on how we interact with the world and behave. [00:06:44] So it's important for us to be aware of the different paradigms that we are looking through that exist in our mind, often on very unconscious levels, because they are influencing how we interact with the world. And I want to give you an example of that. This is particularly from one of my favorite attachment researchers named Gordon Neufeld. And he talks about how if we see a person being very upset, we could say throwing a tantrum and we see them through the lens of they are just a jerk or they are trying to piss us off or they're trying to make us upset, we will interact with them in a certain way. And through that lens, we are almost attributing a certain level of willfulness to what they're doing, that they're doing it intentionally, or that it's just something about them very inherent and innate, also like a fixed kind of trait about them. [00:07:36] But there's another lens that we could use to look through, and it probably would be one that zooms out a little wider to see all the different systems that have interacted with that person. And we may also see them through the lens of seeing them as not even knowing what to do with their emotions in that moment, that they may be completely overwhelmed by what is going on, even physiologically within them, because that is where the basis of all these emotions come from. And they don't have the behavioral or neural resources to know what else to do. So they're kind of fumbling and flailing their way through their different neurochemical states and they don't know what else to do in that moment. So through that lens, we are, first of all, not attributing as much willfulness to that, what we would call bad behavior. We are seeing them as unsure of or not able to access certain resources. So there's something less fixed about it as well when we look at them through that lens and that just looking at them through that lens can give us access to other ideas of what we can do in that moment because it is less about something fixed about them or willful and more about what resources they need to have more access to. And by resources, I mean neural and behavioral. So those are all things that as a society, as a community, as a caregiver, teacher, leader, parent, whoever we are, we can possibly help create the right conditions for them to be able to access those things. [00:09:10] Also, by seeing it through a systems perspective, a systems paradigm, for example, that person and their behavior, we will zoom out to see all the different components that interact with them, including their sleep, wake cycles, their nutrition, the parenting that they received, the school system. They are part of whatever is happening in the world at that moment. And all of those things may not necessarily give us more concrete ideas for that moment, but they can help us to see them in a different light and simply by seeing multiple possibilities of why a person might be behaving the way they do, opens up our mind and kind of literally opens up her neural circuitry to expand into new territory about what could be happening. I think that's a healthy place for our brain to be in that exploratory examining multiple possibilities kind of way. And that's really where innovation and creativity lie. We may not apply the idea of creativity to dealing with someone's behavior, but that is exactly what is needed in pretty much all of our human interactions, a level of flexibility and adaptability and creativity as we navigate every scenario with others. [00:10:20] So systems thinking offers us an approach where we can explore new possibilities of behavior because we're looking at lots and lots of different sources of interactions that have happened that lead to whatever the behavior is of the thing that we are dealing with in that moment. In this case, we're talking a lot about people, but we can be talking about other systems like economic systems or education systems, cities, organizations, those are all different systems. So this applies to anything that where we see lots of components interacting together. And that's kind of what a system. [00:11:00] And the example I just gave of seeing a person and seeing all the way different things interact with them and how that has maybe led to certain behaviors highlights another idea of systems thinking that's important, which is the idea of emergence. And the idea of emergence is that the interaction of multiple components leads to a behavior features that are more complex. And that could not happen just with those components by themselves. There needs to be a series of interactions that happen within this system that go together in a certain way for that system to have a certain behavior. [00:11:38] So an example would be a car. And if you have just the motor or just the wheels, just the motor itself cannot do what a car does and just the wheels by themselves can't do what a car does. Even if you take a couple of those components and add them together, they can't do what a car does. It is all of those components together working in a very specific order and how they do those things and how they interact together that the the feature or function of a car emerges from that. And you can't break that down into those into the pieces of the car. [00:12:12] Another example would be to look at, say, for example, a hand. And I'm taking this from someone who was a pioneer in the idea of systems thinking named Russell Ackoff. So if you take a hand and you were to look at the components of the hand, even just look at the hand itself, look at the muscles and fibers and cells and bone structures and all that in the hand, you would not necessarily be able to predict what a hand can do because the hand is part of a larger system. That's obviously the body and the body is also part of a larger system, which includes all the interactions of all the different things that have built up the brain architecture and the behaviors and things like that. So you can examine a hand all you want, but it is not the hand itself that writes a poem. And you wouldn't be able to predict that the hand would punch somebody in the face in anger or create an apple pie baking apple pie. There is a system that it is a part of, and through the interactions of all those components of all those interacting systems, you will see a behavior emerge such as a person writing. And so that's the other feature is it's not the hand that writes, it's you that writes the organism that writes. [00:13:26] I think that's a great way to illustrate the idea of systems thinking, which is that if you were to analyze the components of the universe and go into those isolated elements, it would be very difficult for you to predict that at some point through the interactions of the atoms and molecules and the protons and electrons, that at some point a being would bake an apple pie. So part of this idea of systems thinking and complex systems and this idea of emergence is that behaviors emerge from these systems. It would be very, very difficult, if not impossible to predict from these isolated units. So we really need to keep looking at all the ways that these interactions occur and keep zooming out all these multiple different systems. [00:14:19] So let's take another example and compare how we might look at something through the lens or paradigm of reductionism versus system thinking. [00:14:28] So let's take an individual's performance so this can be an employee or student. It can also be a patient. It can be just anybody where we're looking at their individual behavior performance. Let's just take a student for this example first. So a reductionist approach would zoom in to the student and look to evaluate their performance on that very individual level. And based on what we do in a lot of our systems is we're trying to look at improvement and we often use metrics that were established from before and we keep trying to improve the metrics that we already created, whether they're relevant or not. That's a whole that's another story. We'll get into that a little bit in this episode and also in a future episode. That's a very important aspect of this. But just for the sake of just looking at reductionism here, we're going to say that according to the metrics we're already using with, there needs to be some improvement, for example, with this student. So if improvements are needed, the reductionist approach would once again look at the individual student and maybe even break down a little bit the components of what that student's performance consists of. And so from that approach, we might see that, oh, test scores are low. And so we would once again focus on the individual, the individual's performance. And then that would lead us to think of things like, oh, we'll get a tutor for test taking or we'll teach to the test because the test score is what needs improvement. If it's an employee, it could be their productivity. So you would zoom in to the individual employee's productivity and their performance and then you might come up with something like doing a performance evaluation or some sort of incentive to improve that individual's performance. [00:16:11] In contrast, or really as a complement to this, a systems thinking approach would would still include the individual actors performance. And we'll call that person the the agent will still include the agent's behavior. But we would zoom out to explore the interactions between that agent and all the other systems that they're part of and relationships especially that they're part of. So this would include in the case of the student not just looking at the student's overall statistics or averages, but we would look at how, for example, the student interacts with one teacher versus another or how different systems are interacting with the students. So nutrition, sleep, wake cycles, the acoustics of a classroom, there would be all these other components that we could look at through assistance approach of seeing almost if you can picture a diagram of that student, but you would be drawing multiple different networks that this student is a part of and looking to see all the different types of environments that they go through in a day, from morning until the end of school. And then not only that, but as they get home, the what those networks and environments look like. And all of that gives you more information as to what kind of new approaches could be used for this kind of quality improvement. [00:17:34] But what I'm going to get to in a second is you may come up with a completely different question than you did before. So in the reductionist approach, you might just be saying, how do we improve their test scores? Once you zoom out using the systems thinking approach, you may not be asking that question because you see that it's completely irrelevant at this point. So we'll go into that because the other piece of what you're going to look at with the student is these other systems. So their family system, the community, the just the fact that the school is a system. So you'll be looking at the school within the community, the school within society. You would also look at the era that the student is a part of. So if they are part of an era, which is right now where information is accessible 24/7, that's a very different era than when much of the material was created for schools and the structure of school where there was not access to 24/7 information. So schools were an exclusive channel of information. Therefore, a student could go there and actually look to the school or the teacher to give them information. That is not the era we are in anymore. So there may be a very different function. We're going to go into that word function of schools now. So the era is also very important to be thinking about. I would even extend that to the domain of mental wellness and health care or even physical health, where people have access to all the symptoms and diagnoses that they attempt to use on themselves. We have to acknowledge that they often come into a doctor's office or psychiatrist office or whatever that is already with those ideas in mind, and that that is very much going to influence the interactions they have with the, quote, authority figure that's in front of them and telling them what they think. And it's the same with school. So there's a bigger questioning of authority. That's also going to happen in an era where people are already accessing information according to what they think is what they need to hear. So these are all different things that we can take into consideration as we approach different issues through this wider perspective from systems thinking. [00:19:49] And so once we start taking into account all of these interactions and relationships and systems and subsystems, the very important part that can happen from this approach is that completely new ideas might emerge. And that's a key feature or benefit of systems thinking is innovation that we may get insights that we were not able to have before because we start to ask me questions. And part of how this comes about is the very important question that we ask when we're coming from a systems thinking approach is what is the overall function of that system and that the function of that system within other systems as well. So, for example, we would think about the function of the student within the school, but we would also think about the function of the school within the community and within society. And so now we're exploring the idea that, for example, based on the needs of society and community, we may be more in need of something like innovation rather than a very different approach or function that school may have served a long time ago, which might have been which was compliance and obedience and standardization, the ability to follow instructions in order to create something on an assembly line to work in a factory. [00:21:04] So the function of school was different when the industrial era emerged. And we have to recognize that much of the structures and systems that the education system uses, because it emerged during a different era means also that it served a different function at that time. We are now in a new era of information and connection and hyper connectivity that the function of school may be very, very different. And we need to ask that question. We also are in the era of with artificial intelligence and automation, that we don't need to have the same features or behaviors of a system that we did before. We don't need as many humans to be doing stuff on the assembly line and working in factories, or ideally we don't need that. So if we are looking to solve a lot of the problems in our world today, what we need is innovation. And school can be something that serves that function. The education system can be something that serves that function. If we start to examine this and we examine school from this bigger perspective, we may now see that test scores might seem irrelevant, or at least much less important than when we were just trying to fit things in to the old way of doing things and just trying to tweak what already existed. So we're going to now look at a completely new territory of innovation and creativity, possibly. [00:22:29] Does this mean that there are easy answers to this? No, by easy answers can just mean like what I was saying, just a slight tweaking to what exists. And that's not necessarily where innovation is going to come from. It comes from giant leaps that are not necessarily little modifications to what already exists. Because even if we look at that from a neural perspective, slight modifications to what already exists is really just associations to the old networks. And we may need a completely different type of territory that gets activated in order for some new ideas to occur, which is what we can see in the brain, that when we have just a repetition of old networks, it's a repetition of behavior. And in order for there to be new behavior, there has to be something completely new that gets activated. So when we keep thinking about improving something, a lot of times we're looking at what already exists and using the evaluations and metrics that already exist and how do we improve people on those. And that is just a tweaking. That's really just a not really moving away from the old networks that are established. Systems thinking gives us a bigger perspective that we can look too much further out spheres and realms of where what is needed, what function these things serve. That can give us new ideas of questions to ask. And those questions are the important stepping stone, the important starting point for something new. So a quick review is that systems thinking is a way of looking at how multiple components interact with each other to serve a function and looking at how subsystems and just interacting systems all are related and intertwined and how these all affect a more complex behavior that emerges that is very hard to predict or even understand. [00:24:32] If we only look at very isolated elements and systems, thinking is a paradigm shift away from reductionism, which looks at things in that isolated way. And both perspectives are important for us. But when we're looking at something complex like human behavior and learning and innovation and planetary systems and ecosystems, economies, governments, things like that, we are talking about complex adaptive systems. So we very much need to integrate the ability to look at them from these bigger perspectives and see how they all work together in order for us to come up with innovations and creative ideas of how to move forward and create something new. [00:25:21] But let me leave you with a reflection and this will be more personal to you. A relationship is also a system. It's multiple components working together. And like we've been saying with these systems thinking approach, we always think about the function of whatever that is. So I want you to think about a relationship you're in right now. Just pick one. What could you explore as a function of this relationship? How does this relationship serve something bigger than just you, so it may be your both of your potential in life. It could also be as a model for your family or your community or society or even human relationships in general. So is there any function that your relationship serves? And when you zoom out to that level, what is something you create with that person that neither of you could do as isolated individuals? What is that thing that emerges from the interactions of you, from the relationship between you and that person? And is thinking about that make you look at your relationship differently? Does it make you see them differently than when you look at your partner just in terms of their individual features or behavior? [00:26:49] So that's an example of a paradigm. You can look at your relationship through one paradigm or another. And one of them is more zoomed in looking at just that person and looking at their behavior and evaluating it. But there's also a zoomed out perspective to look at, also the role you play in their behavior and your interactions with them, as well as all the interactions that happen with that person. For example, what happens with them before they walk through the door and you see them. So you may see a certain mood that they approach you with, but it may not actually have to do with you may have had had to do with a string of events that just happened before they walked through that door. So are we taking all of those things into consideration when we interact with a person? And I think that when we do, it just gives our brain the flexibility of exploring multiple possibilities for explaining their behavior, because our brains tend to go into a very linear cause effect approach. And it can mean that if a person is interacting with us in a certain way, it's simply because of me in that person in that moment. But what this doesn't acknowledge is how many other systems and interactions have already occurred within both of us that have led to that behavior that has emerged. And that kind of flexibility just opens up our brain to new circuitry that may be less repetitive. And that's actually a big part of what we're going to go into in the next episode, where we are going to talk about how the brain creates its own paradigms. So I hope you enjoyed this episode. And if you like this kind of thinking, I hope you'll join me for one of my master classes so you can go to Stefaniefayefrank.com/master-class. And there's some information there. So thanks for joining me.
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