Coping with Chaos by Categorizing

Excerpt from “Chaos Promotes Stereotyping,” by Philip Ball,, April 7, 2011:

A study shows that messy surroundings also make people more likely to stereotype others.

Diederik Stapel and Siegwart Lindenberg, social scientists at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, asked subjects in messy or orderly everyday environments (a street and a railway station) to complete questionnaires that probed their judgements about certain social groups. They found small but significant and systematic differences in the responses: there was more stereotyping in the disorderly areas than the clean ones…

Study subjects sat further away from someone of another race when the train station was a mess.

In one experiment, passers-by in the busy Utrecht railway station were asked to sit in a row of chairs and answer a questionnaire for the reward of a chocolate bar or an apple. The researchers took advantage of a cleaners' strike that had left the station dirty and litter-strewn to create their messy environment; they returned to do the same testing once the strike was over and the station was clean.

In the questionnaires, participants were asked to rate how much certain social groups — Muslims, homosexuals and Dutch people — conformed to qualities that formed part of positive and negative stereotypes, as well as qualities unrelated to stereotypes. For example, the 'positive' stereotypes for homosexuals were (creative, sweet), the 'negative' were (strange, feminine) and the neutral terms were (impatient, intelligent).

As well as probing these responses, the experiment examined unconscious negative responses to race. All the subjects were white, but when they were asked to sit down, one chair at the end of the row was already occupied by a black or white Dutch person. In the messy station, people sat on average further from the black person than the white one, whereas in the clean station there was no statistical difference…

Stapel and Lindenberg say that stereotyping may be an attempt to mentally compensate for mess: "a way to cope with chaos, a mental cleaning device" that partitions other people neatly into predefined categories.

Read the rest of the article…

See also: Broken Windows Theory

An Integrated System

Author and UCLA psychology professor Dan Siegel in conversation with Tami Simon on the topic “What Makes the Mind Healthy,” Sounds True: Insights at the Edge (October 6, 2009):

It turns out that when a complex system moves across time, it has something called a self-organizing process that tends to move it toward what is called maximizing complexity...If you imagine a choir where you have everybody sing the note the exact same way, it has this kind of dullness and rigidity to it. There is no differentiation. They are totally linked, the singers, but not differentiated. Then you have them close their ears, where they belt out a song as loudly as they can but they’d hear each other sing. The song is random. They pick whatever they feel like. There is total differentiation and zero linkage. It is cacophony. It is chaos. Then you have them open their ears, get together, and say to them, sing whatever you want. And amazingly, they will pick a song that they sing in harmony, where there will be intervals that each of the individual singers is expressing his or her identity, yet they are linking together in this familiar common song. And everyone has their inner singer and listener alike. And there is a feeling of incredible vitality, of fluidity and flexibility...

So in terms of integration, this differentiation of parts that then become linked, the linkage of specialized parts of a system, that is what allows you to move in a harmonious path. In complexity terms, you maximize complexity, but we can drop that term because it doesn’t make intuitive sense and just use the word harmony. So when a complex system is linking differentiated parts, it becomes harmonious and adaptive. So the interpersonal neurobiology view of health is basically integration. It is that simple. And it is that profound.

Because when you have learned to monitor energy and information flow, you can then take the pulse of where your life has rigidity in it, like when you have repeated habits that you feel imprisoned by or thoughts that keep on going over and over in your head, that is an example of rigidity. Or you keep on getting romantic partners that are bad for you because they hate you. But you want to be with someone who hates you, that is an example of a rigid pattern.

Or on the other extreme chaos, where you interact with people and suddenly you burst into this emotional chaotic storm that floods you and you don’t have any kind of balance in your life. And you are saying things to loved ones that you don’t want to say. Or you are beating up in yourself in these, what I call “low-road outbursts.” You know, all those chaotic ways our life creates suffering for us. Those are all examples of impaired integration. And we could go through in detail what that looks like, and in my book Mindsight I do. But it is basically any opportunity you can see to feel rigidity in your life. It is an opportunity to look deeply at what is not differentiated in your relationships, what is not differentiated in your nervous system.


[Thanks Kit !]

Self-Ordering Systems

From Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life With Autism by Temple Grandin:

Thinking in Pictures “In high school I came to the conclusion that God was an ordering force that was in everything after Mr. Carlock explained the second law of thermodynamics, the law of physics that states the universe will gradually lose order and have increasing entropy. Entropy is the increase of disorder in a closed thermodynamic system. I found the idea of the universe becoming more and more disordered profoundly disturbing. To visualize how the second law worked, I imagined a model universe consisting of two rooms. This represented a closed thermodynamic system. One room was warm and the other was cold. This represented the state of maximum order. If a small window were opened between the rooms, the air would gradually mix until both rooms were lukewarm. The model was now in a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. The scientist James Clerk Maxwell proposed that order could be restored if a little man at the window opened and closed it to allow warm atoms to go to the one side and cold atoms to go to the other side. The only problem is that an outside energy source is required to operate the window. When I was a college sophomore, I called this ordering force God.

…I hated the second law of thermodynamics because I believed that the universe should be orderly. Over the years I have collected many articles about spontaneous order and pattern formation in nature. Susumu Ohno, a geneticist, has found classical music in slime and mouse genes. He converted the genetic code of four nucleotide bases in our DNA is not random, and when the order is played, it sounds like something by Bach or a Chopin nocturne. Patterns in flowers and leaf growth in plants develop in mathematical sequence of the Fibonacci numbers and the golden mean of the Greeks.

Patterns spontaneously arise in many purely physical systems. Convection patterns in heated fluids sometimes resemble a pattern of cells. Scientists at the University of California have discovered that silver atoms deposited on a platinum surface spontaneously form ordered patterns. The temperature of the platinum determines the type of pattern, and order can be created from random motion. A small change in temperature totally changes the pattern. At one temperature triangles are formed, and at another temperature hexagons form, and further heating of the surface makes the silver atoms revert to triangles in a different orientation. Another interesting finding is that everything in the universe, ranging from amino acids and bacteria to plants and shells, has handedness. The universe is full of self-ordering systems.”

*     *     *     *     *

Genome Music Demo
from Todd Baron


More audio clips at GarageBand

Between Stability and Chaos

Sherwin Nuland on Speaking of Faith (Jan. 18, 2007):

"Wonder is something I share with people of deep faith. They wonder at the universe that God has created and I wonder at the universe that nature has created. But this is a sense of awe that motivates the faithful, motivates me. It provides an energy for seeking. Just as the faithful will always say, 'We are seeking,' I am seeking.

"We're seeking different things. I'm seeking an understanding of this integrity of everything, this unity of everything, of the equilibrium of not just the homeostasis as the physiologists say—the staying the sameness—but of the closeness that we are constantly coming to chaos."

[Listen] "Responding to sensory input from the body and its surroundings, delivered over incoming fibers and via chemical messengers, the human brain has, I believe, engaged itself in the instinctual battle between stability and chaos, echoing up from its deepest cellular self. That battle is expressed in the psychological conflict between Eros and Thanatos—the forces of love (and therefore life) against the forces of death instinct. Because the two are irreconcilable, the central nervous system of man has had, since the time it originally came into existence with the birth of the first Homo sapiens, to conjure with itself—to try various combinations of circuitry and chemistry, and to turn to its excess reserve capacity in exploratory ways—until it became what it is today, a vast machine works of intellect, spirituality, and even neurosis.

"It might be pointed out, and properly so, that all of the foregoing presupposes a state of constant improvement, and therefore presents Pollyanna's view of the mind and its potentialities. But my definition of the human spirit is not restricted to the sublime qualities developed within our species. It includes, as well, those other characteristics of which we are far less proud, the baser qualities in all that is subsumed under the rubric of humanness. If there is an antonym for everything we customarily associate with spiritual, it must surely be mean-spirited. The same adaptive use of circuitry and molecular interactions that allows humankind to perform the mental gymnastics leading to our finest accomplishments is also in thrall to our baser instincts. Like all adaptations, some are maladaptive. The maladaptations, the conflict between order and chaos, as well as the imperatives of living in societies in which individualistic drives must be restrained in the interest of community—these are the stuff of antisocial behavior and neurosis. This, too, is part of humanity.

"The very instability of the multitudinous mechanisms that maintain our homeostasis is reflected in the instability and ambivalence with which we view our fellows and the universe, but especially ourselves. Echoing his inner physiology, man is engaged in a constant struggle to maintain the equilibrium that permits daily living. The conflict between constancy and consistency on the one hand and chaos and destruction on the other is mirrored in the mind's equally persistent struggle between the goodness that is in us and the dark drives of anarchic catastrophe. That luminous quality of reason that we value so highly is precariously perched on the unsettled knife edge between good and evil. The human mind being some 200 million years younger than the mammalian body to which it can trace its origin, the quality we might call mental homeostasis is not yet as effective as its physical counterpart. We function not only physically but mentally too, in a crucible of conflicting forces; we continue in stable emotional life only because a degree of balance is achieved by the internalized morality that is sustained by our individual and societal equivalents of enzymes and other regulatory mechanisms. Sometimes we lose the uneasy equilibrium we have attained with so much effort. The result is mental illness, injustice, and the maleficence to which we give daily witness.

"My rabbinic teachers first made me aware of the Talmudic teaching that man lives in eternal conflict between the yetzer hatov and the yetzer hara, his good and evil inclination. Civilization began and persists because the maintenance of what might be called social homeostasis, and therefore a civilized society, demands that the forces of equilibrium—the forces of the good—win out. But the history of the twentieth century and the events of which we read in our daily newspapers tell us that this is an ideal too often unattained. Society's struggle, like ours, never ends."