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All together now

by Frank Forencich on October 14, 2014

Do you ever feel like you’re going to pieces? Disintegrated and fragmented, as if the various forces within your body are pulling your life in wildly different directions?

Of course you do. We all do.

This experience may feel troubling, but there’s actually a very sound reason for this internal diversity. That is, the human body and brain are not unitary by design; we are built up from component parts, bolted on to one another over the course of millions, even billions of years. We are, in other words, a kluge.

A kluge (rhymes with huge) is an assembly of parts, cobbled together to solve a problem or serve a purpose. It’s a work-around, a quick-and-dirty, makeshift solution. Instead of being designed from scratch with an ultimate purpose in mind, a kluge is simply a create-as-you-go collection of elements. The word is often used in technical settings, where engineers voice their disdain for a particular product or solution; the device in question is overly complicated and barely functional, a real kluge.

In the world of engineering, this bias against the kluge may well have merit; we all want our bridges, cars and phones to be designed intelligently, from scratch, to serve a purpose. But in the world of biological evolution, the kluge reigns supreme. All of evolution’s most astonishing and beautiful creations are in fact kluges. This is simply the way that nature works. Start with a simple form, add some variation to the mix, expose the result to the wild forces of nature and see who survives.

Next, add some new features: new organelles, new membranes, new tissues, receptors, organs. There’s no way to tell in advance what will work. Innovate, mutate, and when the dust settles, innovate again. There is no planning in this process, no forethought, no intelligent design. After all, there is no way that DNA can predict the future; it doesn’t know what kind of environment its offspring will inherit. So, it just keeps adding to established solutions, experimenting with new variations. This is how our brains and bodies came to be. We are nothing if not kluges, all the way down.

In our daily lives, this internal diversity works pretty well. Our various organs and tissues talk to one another constantly in an incredibly intricate dance of feedback and regulation. We get out of bed in the morning, gather our component parts into a single coherent whole, and head out to meet the world. But problems arise in both mind and body when our component parts pull in wildly different directions. We’re all familiar with the experience: the hot, deep survival parts of our brains drive us towards impulsive behavior, lust, greed and instant gratification while the cool circuits of the prefrontal cortex try to turn down the heat with reason, reserve and self-control.

It’s no wonder that we sometimes feel disjointed; diversity has been built into our bodies and our brains over the course of millions of years. As Gary Marcus points out in his book Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, “the human mind is no less a kluge than the body.” But it’s a mixed bag: the diversity gives us internal conflict, but it also gives us creativity, passion and all our greatest works of art, literature and science. Being a kluge is not always easy, but it can also be a wellspring for art and inspired living.
Of course, to maintain our health and excel in athletics, we need our component parts to be mostly on the same page. If the kluge becomes too disintegrated, the body begins to break down. Metabolic friction increases and function decreases. Injury and illness soon follow.

Fortunately, we know how to promote the synchronization and integration of the kluge. The process begins with natural light. By exposing ourselves to sunlight, especially early in the day, we entrain our entire physiological system into harmony with circadian rhythms.
Next, exercise synchronizes the kluge by calling on all its subsystems to act with a single purpose. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, muscle; the whole physiological orchestra playing together to produce powerful, graceful, vigorous movement.

Meditation also integrates. When we sit quietly, gradually relinquishing our attachment to thoughts, worries and images, the body and brain naturally fall into a more harmonious state. The cognitive flywheel slows down and the mind-body begins to synchronize.
This is just the beginning. Having a sense of purpose, meaning and vision also contribute to our integration. When we know what we’re trying to do in the world, we bring focus to our bodies and we become stronger. Likewise, a powerful sense of curiosity harmonizes our internal diversity. When we’re moved by wonder and the quest for discovery, we focus our energies in a single direction.

Adversity and stress can do it too, especially if the stress is moderate and comes in the right doses. Cortisol and other stress hormones can be powerful integrators, helping our organs and tissues to pull together in the same direction. Cognition and memory sharpen as the body prepares for action.

Finally, our sense of loyalty and love for others also integrates. When love fills our hearts, conflict and anxiety fade away and our minds and bodies become one.

So stop worrying; your sense of internal diversity and occasional conflict is completely normal. It may feel like a source of worry and confusion, but it’s also your ticket to creativity. You are large. You contain multitudes. Don’t fight it. Dance with it. Get some natural light, some good movement, a sense of purpose and curiosity and maybe a little love, and things will all come together very nicely indeed.


Embrace the mystery

by Frank Forencich on October 4, 2014

This week brings another wave of books, research reports and expert interviews about our crushing epidemic of lifestyle disease; another round of mind-numbing statistics of human bodies degenerating before our eyes, another call for action in the face of what is beginning to look like a global pandemic of misery. People are dropping like flies and it’s time to do something. It’s a familiar refrain.

But our reflexive, knee-jerk response is also familiar and frankly, wildly ineffective. What we choose to do, time and time again, is cast our public health challenges as a set of biochemical and physiological puzzles to be solved, preferably with lots of data collection, calculation and computation. If we can find the causal links in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other lifestyle afflictions, then we’ll have a solution. But in practice, this approach isn’t changing much of anything. What we really need is to stop solving puzzles and focus instead on exploring the mystery of modern human lifestyle.

This distinction between puzzles and mysteries is described in a powerful new book by Ian Leslie: Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It As Leslie tells it, puzzles and mysteries have radically different characteristics. Puzzles are orderly and have definite answers; once we’ve solved a puzzle, we’ve reached the end of our inquiry and our curiosity. Mysteries, on the other hand, offer many possibilities for exploration and experience. They offer something richer and far more relevant to the messy reality of actually living in the world. Mysteries can’t be answered definitively; they keep us poised in ambiguity and force us to create our way forward. Mysteries offer us multiple paths to success.

Unfortunately, puzzles can be a major distraction in our quest to change the world. As isolated fragments of inquiry, they offer an illusion of understanding, but fail to connect with the larger whole. As Leslie puts it, “Puzzles offer us the satisfaction of answering a question even while you’re missing the point completely. A society or organization that thinks only in terms of puzzles is one that is too focused on the goals it has set, rather than on the possibilities it can’t yet see.”

Obviously, our computer-obsessed society has an overwhelming preference for puzzles. When faced by a challenge of any sort–whether it be public policy, economics, education or public health– we invariably cast it as a puzzle and go to work on it with all the computational power we can muster. The puzzle may be intricate and difficult, but given enough processing power, we can eventually find a solution. The solution may not translate into any kind of practical action on the ground, but it puts our uncertainty to rest and gives us a sense of satisfaction.

This is precisely what we’re seeing in today’s approach to lifestyle disease. When we cast obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndromes as physiological puzzles, we invariably wind up with simplistic, dead-end explanations: The culprit is high-fructose corn syrup. It’s trans-fats. It’s sedentary living. It’s stress. End of puzzle, end of inquiry. The puzzles may be solved, but the larger problems remain.

A superior approach would be to view human life in its entirety as an ambiguous, uncertain mystery. When we adopt this perspective, we open our minds to a broader range of possibility and action. We honor the fact that our lives are far more subtle and complex than any puzzle. We recognize the complexity of overlapping influences, individual differences, daily judgment calls and mind-body complications. And most importantly, we honor the fact that there are many ways to live a healthy life.

And besides, we’ve already solved the primary puzzles of lifestyle disease and public health. We know what we need to know: more exercise, fewer refined carbs, more sleep, less stress, more authentic social experience, less screen time, more contact with nature and a greater sense of purpose will prevent and even heal most of what ails us. More research into the puzzles of physiology isn’t likely reveal any big surprises; it’s not as if we’re suddenly going to discover that exercise and real food are bad for health. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves in the mystery of what it means to create a healthy life.

This distinction suggests an entirely new direction. Puzzles call for experts and technicians, but mysteries call for artists, guides, teachers and leaders. Yes, scientific inquiry is powerful, fascinating and essential in its own way, but in the world of public health, our compulsive focus on research puzzles is starting to look like analyzing the deck chairs on the Titanic; we may well know everything there is to know about the atomic structure of the chairs themselves, but what about the rest of our voyage?

Likewise, it’s time to dust off the humanities and bring them back into play. Remember the humanities? Those messy, ambiguous, passionate explorations of human life? This is where the real transformative power lies. People aren’t moved by information or statistics. They’re moved by narrative, imagination, purpose and aesthetics.

So please, save your data and your methodology for the journals. Instead, give us your stories, your actions, your leadership and most of all, your life. Focusing on the mystery of human lifestyle may not give us single right answers, but it may well give us something we can live and thrive with.

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