Understanding College Students’ Mental Health — Dr. Gregg Henriques

Howler Monkey Family Meeting, Pantanal, Brazil

I’m on a list serve, founded by friend and author, Daniel Goertz, of The Listening Society and Nordic Ideology. For the most part, the posts are esoterica from philosophers mostly outside the academy — which makes it somewhat interesting, in that Integral domains are covered. But every now and then, some material gets posted that I think really gives deep insight into the problems the world is facing. This guest blog post is one of those posts. Written by Dr. Gregg Henriques, who also writes on ‘Theory of Everything’ kinds of subject matter (he’s the author of the Tree of Knowledge framework for attempting to unify psychology) drilling down into how our young people’s minds are changing is vital as we course-correct through this deeply turbulent societal time. Gregg’s work is somewhere between more surface-level psychology and my own deep, system-y stuff.

So… without further ado — here’s Gregg’s piece.


Understanding College Student Mental Health

Given my writings on the college student mental health crisis (see here, here, and here), I am often asked, “What is really going on with the increases in demands for services and reports of serious mental health challenges?” and “If it is a real problem, what can we do about it?”

Here is the short story, at least for the USA:

We are seeing a dramatic increase in demand for services on college campuses. A big portion of this increase is almost certainly a function of a change in attitude about the meaning of therapy and being in distress. That is, it used to be that folks were much more reticent about acknowledging distress and seeking therapy, and now they are much more open about both. Indeed, I think this is a major change that is driving the increases in demand. In other words, in the past many people did have lots of emotional trauma that was basically denied, crushed, avoided, etc. Over the past 20 years, the mental health industry and culture have opened their hearts so to speak to this pain.

That is the good news. Unfortunately, there is more to the story. I think the data are clear that definitely are seeing real increases in mental health problems, most significantly in the area of anxiety, depression, and self-harm/suicidality. My view is that our society went from being unhealthily repressed 50 years ago to opening up sensitivity to injury and negative feelings. However, we opened up those doors without also cultivating anti-fragile, stoic, character building virtues. In other words, we fostered much greater access of vulnerable feelings, but did not help foster adaptive regulation. Instead, we have tended to simply validate the experience of threat and victimization and assert that everyone had a “right” to be protected without being clear about how to be a responsible adult who was adaptively regulated in a mature way. Not only that, but as Jonathan Haidt and others note, we have become obsessed with safety (what they call “safetyism”) in a way that cultivates a sensitivity to injury that leaves folks who have neurotic temperaments to be essentially “raw nerves”. I have heard a number of people claim that millennials are “spoiled.” I think it is more that they are overprotected by helicopter and snowplow parents and an unspoken philosophy of safetyism. In such parenting contexts, the victimized response of the child is reinforced, which can breed a toxic sensitivity. 

Finally, it must be acknowledged that parenting philosophy is only a piece of the puzzle. A strong case can be made that our fractured society, broken educational system, information overload, screen addictions, and disconnect from nature is breeding a massive feeling of alienation, perhaps especially in this generation. I view the “mental health crisis” as one of the great meta-crises facing us in the 21st Century.

Given that, let’s move to the second question: “What can be done to address this issue?” First, I believe that society needs some significant evolution in terms of both what we value and how we relate to each other. As this blog notes, I think we are facing a “meaning crisis” and are deeply confused about shared notions of what is good and true. In terms of college students, this means that education should be more focused on developing depth and character virtues and philosophies of the good life. Consistent with this blog’s mission, I believe that we should also be fostering empathy and values clarification across multiple levels of analysis.

More specifically for college students, I believe we need to raise awareness about mental health challenges in general and foster accessible narratives for dealing with them. For example, see this blog that provides an overview and this follow-up blog on addressing the issues and maintaining mental health. I also think colleges should cultivate the development of well-being centers, like this one found at George Mason University. And, I think psychologists should be working on assessment protocols that provide students a coherent map of their well-being and offer them guided interventions that foster healthy emotional and character development. For example, I developed an integrated approach to psychological mindfulness called CALM MO, that teaches individuals to become more reflective and responsive rather than reactive, and how to cultivate a “Metacognitive Observer (the MO; also stands for “modus operandi) that is Curious, Accepting, Loving-Compassionate, and Motivated toward Valued States of Being. A recent dissertation showed this was an effective 90 minute workshop. In addition, I have been involved in courses on well-being and adjustment that empirically demonstrated improvement in key domains.

The bottom line is that the world is changing. Fast. We need to be aware of the impact changes are having on our mental health and perhaps especially the mental health of our youth and we need integrative and empathetic models that foster emotional and relational health, optimal identity development, and a growth toward virtue attitude.

Dr. Gregg Henriques is Professor of Graduate Psychology at James Madison University in the APA-Accredited Combined-Integrated Doctoral Program in Clinical and School Psychology, where he formerly served as program director. Dr. Henriques received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Vermont and did his post-doctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, working with Dr. Aaron T. Beck. He teaches courses in psychotherapy integration, personality theory, personality assessment, social psychology, cognitive psychology, and engages in clinical supervision. Dr. Henriques’ primary area of scholarly interest is in theory development, having authored many professional publications on theory and practice and the book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology. He regularly shares his ideas about philosophy, psychological theory, psychotherapy, and politics in a popular Psychology Today blog called Theory of Knowledge, and he has started a Theory of Knowledge Society. He also studies depression, personality disorders, character functioning and well-being, and is working to develop a more unified approach to psychotherapy. He is an APA Fellow (Division 24; Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology) and a licensed clinical psychologist in Virginia.

Understanding The Deep Value of Values

Four years ago…in the Tuscan Countryside

Lately, I’ve been trying to explain the core concepts of this blog in more easily understood terms.

One of the most important concepts I talk about are the v-Memes from Spiral Dynamics, which I’ve started referring to as Value Sets. I think I’ve seen the master himself, Don Beck, refer to them as value sets as well, so I’m happy to attribute the term to him.

People see the ‘meme’ word, and basically can’t get a picture of Kermit staring out a window in the rain out of their head. Memes are a whole lot more than this, but just so everyone’s clear on all this, this is what MOST people think about when I say ‘meme’.

I’ve started using the term Value Set to characterize a list of values associated with a given social structure. Values are drivers of behaviors, and that’s super-important to understand. They are not the behaviors themselves. Individual behaviors, because they arise from a combination of both values and context — cannot always be attributed to a specific Value Set. Different contexts and different values can lead to identical behavior — which means that behavior is not a very good indicator of deep motivation. Think about it this way — there’s a hundred different reasons why you’d give someone a gift, from the deeply charitable to the positively Machiavellian. And every different reason might be driven by a different set of values.

A simple way to understand this — a given value or values are a person’s internal/emergent driver to a given behavior. Context is the external set of conditions that drive a person/agent to do something.

OK — so here we go. A Value Set is a coherent group of values that work together to create a social structure. Since we’ve been bathed in Authoritarian sadness lately, it’s always easy to come up with examples in that space. Two values that create the social structure —

  • The person above you is “righter” than you
  • If there is a conflict, you must defer to the information above you

Consider the situation of a military unit in battle. Your commanding officer orders you to charge up a hill. You say “hey, that’s gonna get me killed!” He says “No, it won’t. You’ll save the day!” Because you’re in a Authority-driven hierarchy, you charge up the hill, regardless of the data stream your own eyes and ears are taking in. The social structure counts on the value of him having a greater spatial and temporal range than you, and therefore more accurate information. It also counts on your deference to authority. You have to suppress your obvious fear and, well, run up the hill. Even if potentially it could kill you.

Coherence is what makes values powerful. When values are interlocking, the result is emergent social behavior, which manifests itself in some sort of social structure. If you believe, for example, that you can score people’s performance through some algorithm, it should be no surprise that you end up with some version of a hierarchy that emerges from the application of a scoring metric and a set of accompanying rules. My son’s tennis team embodied this perfectly. There were a set of rules regarding activities that added or subtracted points that determined order of play, or seeding — definite status activity.

These value sets generate greater complexity of potential outcomes as individuals in a given social structure evolve. Evolution, and its primary vectors — training and experience — mean more independence and awareness. The combination of these creates agency in the people in the social structure — the ability to act thoughtfully and consider more factors over an increasing span of time and space.

And now — agency, and its amount, feeds back into social structure, in how it must function in order to create both information coherence and coordinated action.

And finally, empathy itself is directly related to the value set in the operative social structure. Should information move up and down the chain-of-command? Is the only thing you need to be interested in is someone else’s pain? How about following along with the exercises? Value sets are going to cue you in on the work you need to do on developing empathy with, and within your team.

The theory I use for categorization of Value Sets is called Spiral Dynamics, invented by Clare Graves and his student Don Beck, and augmented by others — notably Chris Cowan, who was Beck’s partner for many years. Spiral Dynamics recognizes eight canonical Value Sets, each nested evolutionarily, increasing in complexity, as one moves up the Spiral.

OK — let’s back up and review.

  1. Value sets are groups of values that generate social structures. Canonical value sets are given by theories like Spiral Dynamics, that recognize eight different types.
  2. Social structures are stable human network configurations that create relationships so humans can find coherent meaning and coordinate action.
  3. The type of supportable social structure is dependent on a.) the agency of the individual (whether they act independently at the scale demanded) and the level of empathy between those individuals. This varies — ever heard the expression ‘that person doesn’t have the ability to be friends’?

Value sets also work outside our group, instead of just internally. Just as shared value sets coordinate actions and provide information coherence inside a closed group of individuals, those powerful signals DO NOT STOP at the group boundary. Similar abilities for understanding and coordination are created between groups if they share the same value set. Or between individuals from different groups. When you meet someone that shares your value set, it is far easier to develop a friendship. Misunderstandings fall away. Gauging intent becomes automatic.

Value sets also serve as containers for generating shared, specific knowledge. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also come to realize the incredible power of shared, coherent value sets. Why? Because I forget specific things. I used to have a near-photographic memory (I could replay scenes from my life in my head, and never forgot appointments and such) and actually developed quite a few bad habits around that capability. Why write things down when I could just push the button in my brain that would deliver recall?

What value sets do, and the social structures that evolve from them, as covered extensively on this blog in other places, is create similarly configured KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURES in the brain. And here’s the thing — those knowledge structures act like multi-faceted, often fractal containers/spreadsheets. All a person has to do to regenerate forgotten knowledge is take a couple of pieces, drop it into the container/spreadsheet, and then the value set supplies the connecting information to regenerate the surface-level knowledge that we need to navigate our world.

On a more immediate action level, we do this all the time on a superficial level with our good friends. If it’s a Friday night after work, all you have to do is say “Weekend beers — 5:30?” and everyone ends up at the same watering hole with a beer in their hand. Value sets are more meta- and do functionally the same thing with larger mental models and worldviews. A couple of points (“Brexit, anyone?”) and you know you have intellectual coherence, safety, and a path forward — which in the case of Brexit, may well lead you to the pub!

What’s interesting is that such value set matching works even between adversaries. I’ve written previously about Trump and Kim Jung-Oon (or any other dictator out there.) Trump and Kim, even if they have conflicting superficial positions, deeply understand what is important to both. Trump’s quotes on the status of North Korea, a country that diverts so much money to its military that its people undergo regular famines. “He’s the head of a country, and I mean, he’s the strong head, don’t let anyone think anything different,” Trump said during an interview on Fox & Friends. “He speaks and his people sit up at attention. I want my people to do the same.” (Trump later walked back his comment, attributing them to sarcasm. You decide.)

This matters more and more as complexity increases. Complexity means that there are more colors, details, actions and such to remember. Matching value sets trigger shared meaning of limited signals, increasing the likelihood that two people communicating with each other will capture the essence of each other’s circumstance. That limits misunderstanding, and once again, enables coherent and coordinated activity.

Consider you’re attempting to hit a set of production goals across a larger organization. The goals have been well-defined by leadership, and you’ve developed good relationships, where you deeply understand the perspectives of other co-leaders who may be upstream or downstream from your operation. Because you all share a performance value set, you’re confident that those players are also working to hit shared targets. Those shared targets, likely enshrined as metrics, mean all you really need to know you can communicate in a couple of numbers across the system boundary of your unit.

But it’s more than that. If you know them, you’ll also be familiar with their lower-level scaffolding value sets. You have some level of trust that besides wanting to hit the same goals, you also are following the same ethical and safety rules (Legalistic/Absolutistic value set one level below,) there’s appropriate authority distributed through the organization to get things done (Authority value set,) and you all have a larger scale identity (Tribal/Magical) on what it means to be part of your organization. Like a complex watch meshing gears, it will all work together. And maybe, all that is required is a couple of cues passed across your unit’s boundary upstream and downstream.

Value Set Conflict is a big deal — when we attempt to work with others with whom we don’t share the same Value Set. I’ve written a whole sequence of posts starting here on what happens when value sets/v-Memes collide. So I won’t repeat that information — just remember that v-Meme and value set mean the same thing!

In conclusion — here are the basics for you, moving forward.

Understand the different Value Sets and what they entail.

Think about how those values generate social structure, and through that, knowledge structure.

Think about how limited data will activate coordinated activity for people with the same Value Set.

Realize the work that must be done to elevate the empathy in your people inside that social structure so they can play to more evolved Value Sets.

Quickie Post — Republicans and Trump’s Impeachment

Outside Huangshan, Anhui Province, China

I’ve avoided writing about Donald Trump’s antics for a while, mostly because they’re predictable IF you accept the fact that Trump is a relational disruptor extraordinaire, and a narcissistic psychopath.

What people seem to be stumbling on is the behavior of Republican senators, and why they haven’t united to throw Donald into the wood chipper yet. If you ask me, it’s coming, and soon. At the same time, their behavior is a classic example of how the Authoritarian v-Meme works.

Let’s review. Social structures, created by shared values aggregated into a Value Set/v-Meme, using a brain-wired set of common Knowledge Structures, create coherence of information, and the potential for coherent action in a group of people. That’s how you get people to work together. There’s a shared, emergent behavior that comes when people’s brains line up not just in specific information, but also in time and space.

And all these things are governed by the level of empathy.

So.. if I had to arrange these things in a line…

Value Set=>Social Structure<=>Knowledge Structure=>Information Coherence=>Coherent Action

So… let’s review the Authoritarian v-Meme, which few would disagree is a.) running Trump’s Brain, and b.) most of the Republican party at the current moment.

  1. Authoritarians sit in a hierarchy/power structure.
  2. Truth in that power structure is decided by the person above you in that structure, and moves downward.
  3. In-group/out-group dynamics are dominant.
  4. If you’re in the In-group, you believe! (core value)
  5. If you’re in the Out-group, you don’t believe — but become depressed. (core dynamic)
  6. If you’re depressed, you’re easy to control. (core dynamic)
  7. The group moves together in the same direction pretty much from external forcing. Your beliefs are installed from the outside, causing you to move. Or you’re depressed, and you shuffle along with everyone else.
  8. Agency is low. You don’t suddenly get to decide you DON’T get to go with the crowd.
  9. Culture (which can come from any of the value sets, but with origin unknown) creates modest sidebars for constraint of behavior.

With this in mind, let’s consider former Senator Jeff Flake’s comments yesterday. Flake said that “at least 35 Republican senators would vote for impeachment if it were a secret ballot.” This is totally consistent with the value structure of the Republican party. Inside the social structure, those senators’ actions are constrained, as Trump is the apex of the Authoritarian pyramid. BUT — these senators also exist in the broader culture. If they could mask the effect of social structure, 35 would vote against Donald Trump. That’s what Flake is really saying.

The aggregated total system of their shared brain wiring is creating some serious cognitive dissonance about now. What WILL happen is, as the momentum builds for impeachment (modes and ways) this group will move en masse, over a very short time toward impeachment, as other leaders in the Republican party abandon Trump’s authority. There are signs that this is already happening far up the Authoritarian pyramid, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell siding with Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on release of various parts of the intelligence portfolio.

What’s the takeaway? The actual social system is working according to its driving physics. Once one understands and analyzes the information flow, everything is going, well, according to plan. The emergent plan. And how else would 35 Republican senators be expected to act? All this isn’t a bug. It’s a feature.

When will they flip is anyone’s guess. Why? It’s a collective limbic/basal ganglia decision point. That means it’s an impulsive switch — either on or off. And when it turns to ‘Off’, it will be because the threat of inherent trauma (massive losses in the next elections) will create the Survival v-Meme neuroplasticity to remove Trump from office.

My guess is most of them, in the trauma space, are in fright, freeze and fight. But before long, we’re going to see this turn to flight.

Stay tuned.

Why Humans Aren’t Getting Climate Change — Part 2

In the townships — Cape Town, SA

In this previous piece on climate change here, I discussed how humans have a difficult time, considering average value set/v-Meme evolution, scaling climate change and Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) to understandable mental dimensions. Climate change happens around the world, and the natural ways that average folks understand things is going to be anchored down in the lower v-Memes — meaning long-term narratives and episodic anecdotes are going to have to line up with the message regarding doing something about AGW now.

This is not easy — climate isn’t weather, and there’s a ton of noise around any given hurricane whether it’s a function of climate change or not. I introduced the idea that the way climate change WOULD work up front would be episodic — biasing extreme events and creating thicker probability distribution tails on the right side of the probability density function. This interpretation is actually turning out to be correct. Hurricane Dorian essentially erased Grand Bahama only a month ago, just as Mexican Beach, FL was erased by Hurricane Michael in 2018. My best guess is that this pattern will continue, until various ecosystem boundaries (ecotones) move to the point to create different actual weather patterns. Naturally, we have no idea when that is — which is why it is imperative to act quickly.

But empathetic evolution DOES take time. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t start the process, as the larger issues of global coordination are going to require those more evolved people.

And at the same time, I DO realize that this all sounds very elitist. If “those people” were just “more like me” then the world would be a better place. Uggh.

Just so you know, I’m not backing off the deeper empathetic evolution/education/bildung message. But at the same time, it’s also important to understand the role of Authority in providing external forcing and mirroring models to large sectors of the population. Who the Authority is, and where they speak from — be it a moral authority, a practical authority, a problem-solving authority, a deeply-held belief/tribal authority — matters.

Fascinatingly, no one has demonstrated this more than Donald Trump. Having a narcissistic psychopath in the White House has brought out profound v-Meme devolutionary changes on both Left and Right. As I write this today, evangelicals are exultant that Trump is talking about religious persecution at the UN — the same day the UN has reserved for discussing the Climate Crisis, where my personal hero, Greta Thunberg, is excoriating the nation-states with inaction. And while, at the beginning of Trump’s term, I would have argued against inherent racism in American society, today, I’m not so sure. It could be that I am influenced by external messaging (no man is an island! – and my politics of course bend to the Left ) but I actually think that Trump’s chronic divisive messaging pumps energy into those darker Tribal/Magical impulses on both Right and Left.

As I’ve said earlier, though — the Bad Guys are supposed to be bad. There’s not much to be done with that. Empathy-disordered relational disruptors gonna disrupt. It’s what they do. No one’s figured out how to fix ’em yet. What’s more pernicious about the Climate Crisis is that the Good Guys really aren’t very good. They just don’t get it, and are ensconced in enough privilege of whatever stripe you need to call it that they just go on their merry way.

I attended the students’ Climate Strike on Friday, in Moscow, ID. For those familiar with my bio, I’ve honestly been fighting for the environment for the last 30 years. Mostly forest, river and salmon protection, and mostly with a regional focus. I always felt that my backyard was my problem. And there’s no question it is an incredible backyard, and worthy of protection — the Clearwater Country of N. Idaho is part of the last great expanse of forested wilderness in the Lower 48. I only reluctantly would allow myself to be pulled into larger rainforest and biodiversity issues, mostly because I maintain a philosophy of ‘boots on the ground’ and keeping it real. Which is a whole lot easier to do when reality is only 2 hours drive away.

Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness — Grave Peak
North Idaho

Short version — I drove to Moscow, looked at the rapidly aging hippie population, talked to a woman-hippie-gun nut-supporter (we get all kinds out here!) and bided my time. Then the Moscow High School kids showed up, and I started crying. It’s been pretty lonely out here fighting for the big picture, and to say that it’s not been alienating would be a lie. Persisting for so many years on an issue, to many, instead of being viewed as a positive attribute, in a post-modern society — especially a Northern European one, is viewed as a character disorder. Pile on the only interpretation available to most people — narcissism and a desire to prove oneself better than others – and a background culture based on sklavenmoral — a Swedish word I just picked up from friends’ Daniel Goertz and Emil Ejner Friis’ book Nordic Ideology (highly recommended) about the Scandinavian predilection to never act like you’re superior than your peers (think of every Garrison Keillor Tales of Lake Wobegon story you’ve ever heard) and I’ve pretty much ended up alone in my proximate community.

So when the students came walking up, with their signs, I hugged an old friend, and cried. And, through the tears, the old activist wiring started kicking in, and I started snapping pictures. First, with my micro-camera. And then, in full activist brain, with my iPhone.

Moscow, ID Fridays for the Future Climate March

And then I Tweeted out about four pictures, with short bursts of emotive argument. And one went viral. They were my first live Tweets, and I literally had no expectation.

410K impressions, and 15K engagements with the Tweet, and my picture of the Moscow students, with the tagline — ‘Moscow, ID — the whole school’.

The photo that went round the world

Virality is an interesting phenomenon. I didn’t really understand it until I watched the numbers in my Twitter profile start ratcheting up. And, naturally (well, for me) I started discussing the structural and complex systems aspects with Mel Conway, the inventor of Conway’s Law and one of my primary Twitter buddies.

Uh, naturally. Just a quick insight — yes, some of the ‘Influencer/Authority’ insights that have come out of folks like the MIT group on Collective Intelligence by Sandy Pentland appeared to map to some of the observed behavior. But as interesting was the anecdotally observed effects of non-major influencers — people with 500-1000 followers. These kept things going.

Look — I’m not going to call that a scientific analysis. It was me watching the Twitter feed. But it appeared far more egalitarian than one might think. Which, of course, would map with the social structure of the current Climate Strike movement. And politicians, just so you know — LOTS of young women. At least 2:1 over men and boys. At least. Mel suggested getting the JSON tags and examining them. Good idea.

For those that know me, I don’t cry easily. In fact, I don’t cry at all. Well, once a decade. It doesn’t take me long to shove those feelings down in my gut and get back to work. I went home. Out of the 4 or 5 photos (can’t remember) I tweeted out, only one went viral. I was left attempting to unpack why that was the case. Short version — appropriate synergistic differentiation, with a message that fed into what people need to believe — that everyone, even in small-town America, cares about AGW.

The next day (Saturday) I got up, and decided to see what the half-life of 4M+ young people marching all over the globe was. The answer? Maybe about Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame. By Saturday, CNN had cleared ALL mention of the Climate Strike off their front page, with one small entry down below a page scroll. By afternoon, even that was gone, subsumed by drone videos of sharks shadowing sea kayaks, and a death of a N. Korean defector woman in South Korea from starvation. In July. Along with 24/7 ‘Trump’.

That was CNN, though. So I dialed it over to MSNBC. There, Chris Hayes was interviewing a Native American teen activist, Tokata Iron Eyes, asking her why she was protesting AGW, when oil country workers could lose their jobs. She set him straight about the size of the crisis. But I was left shaking my head. This is the leading “liberal” media?

I didn’t even bother to go over to Fox News. But I thought I’d check in that ostensibly liberal bastion, NPR. Below is the web content from NPR around 1:30 PM on Saturday.

Top of the page
One swipe down
Keep going…
Keep going…
Keep going…
Finally — 10 or so clicks down!

What to think of this? The old activist in my head ALWAYS immediately starts the conversion equation. X level of interest transfers into Y amount of media. 400K Twitter Impressions means 15K ‘Likes’, means ’20 follows.’ But think about the implication of this. In the one ‘objective’ news source, 4 million people in the streets deserve essentially no recognition or analysis of movement dynamics less than 24 hours later?

And the MOST IMPORTANT stories is the obituary of a classic Washington insider who died on Tuesday? Including multiple hours of lionization and eulogy? Look — I’ve listened to Cokie, who took off for the greener salaried fields of ABC from NPR for the last 30 years of her career, making bank. Yes, Cokie was smart. But she was no war zone journalist, engaging in acts of transcendent heroism in desperate circumstances.

She was the consummate player — and maybe that was needed to get more women into journalist positions. But top-of-the-fold after 4 million (mostly) children scream about the potential lack of a future and cataclysmic destruction that awaits their adult life? The mind, and the v-Memes — all low empathy, Insider/Outsider dynamics — the NPR staff desperate to ‘be like Cokie’ did what their value set had programmed them to do.

OK — and we might want to give NPR a pass — a momentary lapse of reason. But are AGW and 4M kids in the streets less important than obesity problems with your cat? NPR’s story placement makes the mind reel. It’s not that the ordinary folk always get it right — I do believe in the wisdom of crowds, FWIW. But when the Good Guys create noisy spaces for focus, and in this case, supercilious hero worship, it’s no wonder that those temporal and spatial scales of the less privileged stagger along. And we wonder how Trump can be so successful appealing to populist trigger themes and dog whistles.

By today, NPR had recovered, at least a bit. Greta was top of the fold, after the best Global Holistic/Childhood Egocentric pieces of messaging I have ever heard.

“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you! You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!

For more than 30 years the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away, and come here saying that you are doing enough, when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight.”

Stunning. Of course, the rest of the media (well, except for Fox News) were leading with Greta. Independent leadership can win out. You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. (Egocentric) Coupled with Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! (Global Holistic — large scale grounding.) Wow. Just wow.

What’s the point of all this? As Lene’ Andersen and Tomas Bjorkman explain in their book, The Nordic Secret, bildung and the path to a larger, responsible authority has to start with those that have it. The Nordic Secret started because, in the days of their shrinking empires, the leaders decreed that it would. The Bernadottes, who were there at the beginning of the transformation of Sweden into a constitutional monarchy, are still there as the royal family. Yes, we have to focus on development at the bottom. That need never goes away. But the elites have to realize that sublimation of their own need for status and narcissistic supply is what is required to create the world that must be born. Because, especially in the U.S., they’re the ones giving the marching orders.

Short version? Our Good Guys need to be better Good Guys (and Gals). And they’re not. My message to them? Level up. Authority matters. External definition and mirroring empathy is still a real thing, and you’ve been granted this moment in the sun. The planetary clock is ticking.

Insights on Knowledge Structures, Malcolm Gladwell, and 10K hours

From the Sept. 20 Climate Strike, Moscow, ID

For those that totally get the idea of Knowledge Structures that I’ve written about here, this post might seem a bit redundant. But I find that this deep nugget of meta-systematic understanding is one of the most elusive things I write about. Which is saying something. So — let’s go at this from a couple of different angles, and hopefully we’ll all be wise after the event.

To start: we, as ALL species, have a brain and nervous system that controls our activities. Not one creature on this planet that moves does it without some combination of neurons, arranged in myriad ways, that lets it do what it does. This true for jellyfish, squid, octopi, ground squirrels, crows and humans.

We all have a brain.

Depending on the species, and the requirements that really split into two camps — evolutionary success as an individual, and evolutionary success as a collective (there is NO species that survives solely by parthenogenesis!) our brains wire themselves through EVOLUTIONARY ADAPTATION. This evolutionary adaptation, especially in group organization, functions on principles of convergent evolution. No matter what brain you start with, when it comes to group organizational dynamics, the requirements are the same.

AND dependent on the species, that brain is split up into two meta-parts — hardware and firmware (which is easily studied) and software (not so easily studied.) Animals like fish are pretty much all hardware and firmware — they swim in schools, and if you’re something like an angelfish, you have a couple of tricks to avoid getting eaten by bigger fish.

The more complex behaviors you have access to, the more software matters. Dogs have far more software than yellow jackets. Or mice. My dog can recognize when we’re going over to a particular friend’s house by the fact I’m carrying a bottle of wine, and he likes that friend. He immediately goes to the door. When he sees me dress in my bike clothes, he gets up on the couch. He knows he’s not going anywhere.

That’s SOFTWARE. He did not inherit that ability from his parents. Or his genes. He inherited the SUBSTRATE, of course. But his complexity of thought evolved through his relationship with me. And the other friend — who he honestly likes.

We have preconceptualized ideas of hardware in the brain. Lots of brains have been taken out of lots of skulls, and weighed, and dissected and whatnot. fMRI techniques also tell us quite a bit about how those parts are wired together. Scientists can run experiments over and over, creating reliability of information on the hardware. We still don’t know everything about the hardware. But we’ve made a ton of progress. Empirical research can tell us much that we need to know.

But when it comes to software, we’ve started with some extremely bad paradigms. Those paradigms made sense, before we evolved our own software for understanding our own software!

The worst paradigm we have for meta-understanding is CULTURE. CULTURE is, by definition, characterizable to everyone in a large, connected-somehow group. There is no ‘independent specificity’ in the cultural paradigm. If you are in a culture, you do certain things — even if you don’t! You alternately eat pork/don’t eat pork, wrap things around your head/don’t wrap things around your head, and on and on. Many of things that we do in the context of culture come from ‘somewhere’. But the problem with ‘somewhere’ is that no one’s quite sure where it is. I’ve said previously on this blog that culture is the result of arbitrary mores mixed with Survival v-Meme information, specific to past trauma a group has experienced. Culture can work for or against long-term survival of a group. There is no way of telling a priori.

But one thing is for sure — most culture (with the exception of epigenetic bias) is in the software. We didn’t inherit a predilection to worship cats, for example (toxoplasmosis notwithstanding! 🙂 yet, we, as humans, have had subgroups that for a time, worshiped cats.

We also have other ways of characterizing brain software. One of our favorites (which is just impossible to bust!) is professional discipline. As an engineer, sometimes when people read my stuff, the first thing out of their mouth is “Oh — you’re an engineer. That’s why you thought of all this stuff.” If they only could see my colleague’s faces when I start talking about this stuff…

OK — here’s the moment of realization.

If you look out at the vast array of computer software out there, you might see a piece of accounting software. You might see a computer drafting package. You might see a video game like Civilization. You might see a piece of software that enables you to lay out a quilt. There are literally a BAZILLION different types of software out there.

But you’d have to be a fool to assume that how the software is structured in each of these applications is fundamentally, irrevocably different. You’d assume (correctly) that there were some set of reproducible, underlying patterns that the surface-level application would sit on. And if you were a software coder, you would learn these core patterns, and implement them REGARDLESS of what the surface-level application was. You’d work with a domain expert to assemble the code. You’d use things like linked lists, matrices, etc. to get the result you wanted.

OK. Here’s the punchline. HUMANS DO EXACTLY THE SAME THING IN THEIR BRAINS. With reproducible patterns — what we call a basis set. This basis set is given by our Knowledge Structures. Depending on how evolved the person is, they use that basis set of knowledge structures to lay their SPECIFIC knowledge on top of.

And where do these very SPECIFIC structures come from? Because we are a collective animal, they come from the different relational modes we use with each other. We reserve the deep patterns of our relationships, which serve as a master template, as templates for other knowledge.

Canonical Knowledge Structures

Why do we do this? Now we get Malcolm Gladwell to enter, stage left. This is what we practice. For what it’s worth, I’m not a believer in the 10K hours rule he has that says dictates mastery. But if you understand 10K hours as about five-ten years, it IS interesting how we move up developmentally to the higher stages (after that, all bets are off!) in about 10 year increments. SUPER-rough. But still interesting. We practice relating all the time. We use our full stack of neural function to do it. We even have a background processor that sorts everything for coherence (read up on the Default Mode Network here) focusing on social working memory or autobiographical tasks (same cite).

OK, pause. Take a deep breath. We spend TONS of time relating to other people, and reviewing how we relate to other people. We BURN these meta-patterns into our brains. So, it should come as no surprise that those things we practice far more than 10K hours, serve as the template for how we pick up other knowledge. Those are the fundamental knowledge structures that we plug the specifics into. We may become a computer aided drafting expert, but it should come as no surprise that if we’re organized as a rule-based hierarchy that dictates treatment of the different levels, we look for rules that govern HOW we execute our craft. The specific knowledge fragments (like CTRL-F moving the model out) end up as ritualized routines that our brains are used to practicing.

It also should come as no surprise that if we don’t practice changing our minds, we would lose that ability. And how do we do that? By being receptive to others’ moods, and thoughts. EMPATHY.

And how, you might ask, can we make that practice meaningful? Through self- separation — realizing that if your partner is having a bad day, it’s not YOUR bad day. That critical objectification and attention to the data stream from your partner is EXACTLY the same practice as being aware of confirmation bias in other areas of thought.


OK, now get ready to take a BIG LEAP!

While individual species may have unique problems (a snake might have to figure out how to swallow an egg, for example) when it comes to species that function as a collective, the problems of inter-agent coordination are THE SAME. The problems frame out as the species gets higher density and greater numbers, in more varied environments and so on. But they are the same meta-problems. Ensuring individual survival, fairness in large groups, who leads the way — all these value sets are shared in coordinated groups. So — by function of convergent evolution, sentience MUST be the same. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems — bandwidth, processor speed, efficiency, all the things we see when wiring up different computers together — all matter. But the larger patterns remain the same.

And IF those larger patterns of social coordination remain the same, then the same KNOWLEDGE STRUCTURE TOOLKIT also remains the same! Of course, the individual answers will vary, dependent on, and limited by the individual characteristics of the animal (or human!) A snake may swallow an egg differently than an MBA account might swallow an egg. Individual characteristics will matter. But the same problems of inter-agent exchange will remain the same, depending on what the collective is attempting to do.


Now get ready to take another BIG LEAP. We can now see that, while an individual may have a bazillion arbitrary ways to peel an egg themselves (or swallow it!) when it comes to coordinating sharing the egg, there is a profound subset of classifiable actions. And these all map to the canonical knowledge structure set. Survival? Swallow the whole thing instantly! Performance/Goal? What’s the right way to get the most done?

One can also see that without more complex, empathy-driven social structures, the level of complex knowledge is also PROFOUNDLY limited. In academia, if you’re stuck in a status-based social structure, if someone tells you that you’re wrong, you SIMPLY CAN’T HEAR IT. At least immediately. Or — you have to follow an externally imposed rule set that says how you’re supposed to buffer that kind of input. (We call that ‘collegiality’, which kind of works.)

What you CAN’T do (or hopefully, reluctantly do) is forfeit status, admit you’re wrong, and incorporate a new understanding into your own. UNLESS — it’s a Survival level crisis. The world isn’t flat, and the Earth isn’t in the center of the solar system, and if you persist, you’ll be driven out of the academy at a tribal level.

So empathy rewards complexity, and couples it both inside a social structure, as well as the concomitant knowledge structure. You might discover complex thoughts ginned up by others, but it’s going to be very difficult for you to generate your own if you don’t have a little empathy inside your own head.

These things are intrinsically coupled.

So — the quick takeaway? Knowledge structures are the deep meta-patterns that all our surface-level knowledge comes from. The structure arises from how we relate socially, which is what we practice for thousands of hours, and then transfer those burned-in brain patterns. And the complexity of those knowledge structures comes from empathy in the social structure, which, when evolved, grants us agency to think our own thoughts, as well as fluxes our brains with a data stream of input from others.

AND because the problems of inter-agent coordination in a group, are the same for birds, as well as humans, yet dependent on the core processing capacity of our different, respective brains, our ability to execute coordinated behavior is directly dependent on that hardware/software combo every animal has.

AND since most of what humans do is in the software, it becomes VITALLY important to develop that software. And if we want that software to handle complexity — we have to develop empathy and agency (self-empathy). It is inescapable.

As we relate, so we think (think/thank Malcolm Gladwell for that, if you must!)

We will not be smart enough without the wisdom of an aware crowd. Tip of the hat to Ryan M. for that encapsulation!

Postscript — while Gladwell and others’ 10K hrs. estimation actually rocks it for the knowledge structures for all the lower v-Memes up to Legalistic/absolutistic (think of a mastered tennis stroke as an algorithm executed endlessly by someone working on mastery of a movement) a new book out, David Epstein’s Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World explains mastery of scaffolded heuristics — the next KS up the ladder above algorithmic thought, just above the Trust Boundary.

I did write Epstein, hoping to help him see the larger pattern. He did not write back. I did have a great exchange with one of the people in his book, though — so I’m going to always bet on empathy as the long-term path, regardless of the frustration associated with connection.

The Nordic Secret — Book Review

Beautiful, genius-level insight — from The Nordic Secret

From the Eskaret powerhouse, Lene Rachel Andersen and Tomas Björkman come an awesome new contribution to the meta modern literature — The Nordic Secret A European Story of Truth and Beauty. Similar to Nordic Ideology, it is a comprehensive tome on its subject matter — how the feudal monarchies of the Nordic countries managed to evolve out of the state everyone else was wallowing around in the 16th and 17th century, and make progress toward a modern state.

The answer to all this is bildung – a philosophy of elevated education that included character building as part of personal development. The book combines both a deep historical perspective with the personal development philosophy of Robert Kegan’s stage theories to explain where we’re at, and where we need to go. Kegan’s stage theories, like many others, like Piaget, Kohlberg, and others are deeply insightful and useful, as I’ve said in the past — even if many people don’t follow the exact path of these theories. (The Deep OS reason, for those into the deeper concepts in this blog, is meta-linear progression emerges from academic social structures, which typically don’t handle meta-nonlinear development, or punctuated anything… but I digress.) This stuff is useful, and Andersen and Björkman have done a great job of not just showing HOW it is useful, but compiling an extraordinary set of diagrams that folks can use to spread the word. Here’s hoping they make these figures available for Creative Commons usage on a website somewhere!

For those that love philosophy and the personal development literature, Parts I and II are great primers on everyone from Kant to Kegan, laid out in a historical perspective. Also, importantly, Lene and Tomas show the overlap between the German philosophy of bildung — the prevailing philosophy at the time — and our current understanding from developmental philosophy. Here is a list from the book to ground yourself in bildung:

  • Sense of belonging
  • Enculturation
  • Education
  • Allgemeinbildung (general knowledge about the world)
  • Search for purpose
  • Lore & heritage
  • Poetry & aesthetics
  • Religion & spirituality
  • Connection with nature
  • Says something about who you are.

Parts III and IV are a deep dive into the history, not just of Scandinavian bildung, but German bildung as well. And at the end, both Lene and Tomas do an excellent job of analyzing what exactly went wrong with German bildung that gave the world Hitler. The short version? German bildung was focused only on the elites. And similar to my criticism of Nordic Ideology, they leave out the larger ideas of empathy as major drivers in their work. You educate the elites so that they are better, it’s never too far from the sophisticated intellectual mind that everyone else doesn’t deserve to live. That’s what profound In-group/Out-group separation will do for you. You have to consider the connected (or not!) system as a society builds transferable values.

One other point — bildung didn’t take off until the elites in the Scandinavian societies got behind it. If anything, this is a beacon of reckoning for our own elites. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, has said he can’t think of anything to spend all Amazon’s money on other than Moonbase Alpha. Here’s a message to Bezos — the folks you need to create any sustainable version of Moonbase Alpha have to be created first with bildung. The crazy debates in Silicon Valley show this better than anything.

One thing the authors point out is how a healthy nationalism (as opposed to the toxic version we’re seeing in far too many places in the world) is part of the elevated process of getting people to look beyond nationalism. This is a concept that deserves a better discussion on the Left of our current political spectrum. My opinion is that this is where a confluence of falling living standards and toxic rhetoric once again drives anti-empathetic dynamics, and gives psychopaths the upper hand. Fix the first, the second becomes far less attractive. The pie is big enough to share with those that appear different.

Lene and Tomas do not let themselves off the hook with the ‘how to’ section, and I thoroughly enjoyed the last part of the book. But once again, similar to Hanzi and Nordic Ideology, they somewhat magically assume the availability of high development people to be placed where they are needed. An example of this might be their recommendation for recruiting teachers from Kegan Level 5 individuals (self-transforming) to teach at lower levels. This might be possible in the Scandinavian milieu. But I have a hard time even understanding how to get started with the U.S. education system. That’s not to say we shouldn’t listen to Lene and Tomas. They’re right. But every time there’s a desired status, we need to also have a concomitant discussion on path dynamics, as well as how to shorten the time for the various stages along the path.

It also might have been nice to see an example of an implemented bildung curriculum, maybe in an appendix. But I think it’s also fair to say no book can be everything. And this book does enough, by far.

In conclusion, I unreservedly recommend reading this book. It is readable, accessible and (at least for me) extremely enjoyable. The authors write with a wry sense of humor, and little sturm und drang. Having read some of Kegan’s work, I’d argue it’s a better place to learn about Kegan than from the original source!

The real challenge, though, is going to be getting this book shared with friends, so we finally have some base of discussion on how to change our school systems and the world.

The Nordic Ideology — Book Review

The Buddha, dressed in rash guard, contemplating Nordic Ideology
Kelly Creek, Clearwater Country, Idaho

I’ve been meaning to review Nordic Ideology for some time now. Written by Hanzi Freinacht, a made-up character, in a villa in Switzerland, it’s an awesome compilation of theoretical and actionable (well, sort of) metamodernism. The actual authors are two young men, both of whom I consider spiritual traveling partners, Daniel Görtz, and Emil Ejner Friis, and one whom I’ve met and hung out with — Daniel.

And what exactly is it? It’s an awesome compilation of theoretical and actionable (well, sort of) metamodernism.

What is metamodernism? It’s an intended evolution of post-modernism, where instead of breaking down everyone into smaller and smaller intersectional boxes, each with their own truth, it allows for those different diverse perspectives, while attempting to get people to synthesize and integrate those views to create a society that shares a common vision.

And though Daniel and I may disagree exactly on what I’ll say next — that metamodernism is actually a societal level evolution of empathetic development — I’d also argue that we agree on much. And that is written in this awesome book.

First off, the book itself is a comprehensive attempt to create cross-societal coherence on how to create a world where not only can we all get along, but we all can flourish. Hanzi does this by providing a platform for taking apart all the negative arguments against the notion a better world is possible. He starts off with a definitional chapter, which he gets very close to the true mathematical spirit of attractors. This is not a small feat — philosophers and pundits are fond of pulling terms from a variety of literatures — especially math and science — and using them incorrectly. Hanzi gets a ‘A’ for his execution. He then leads into a comprehensive discussion of societal Games — how different advocates for different worldviews argue that they alone are the keepers to pure human nature (which is usually negative.) He disrupts those arguments by discussing Game Change evolution — how to make things more fair, and inclusive. He does a great job in wrapping up Part One by explicitly discussing norms as the primary mode of moving a society forward. This section on cultural evolution is a must-read for any social architect.

Part Two is Hanzi’s attempt at actually defining what that better society might look like. He proposes a six-point interactive view of politics — the Politics of Democratization, Theory, Empiricity, Emancipation, Existence and Gemeinschaft. One can see the joint minds of Friis and Goetz at work here, in the way they have labored under the shared aegis of Hanzi to really beat the incoherence out of their system. If the shared Hanzi misses one thing, though, it’s my own work on how knowledge is created on actually making their utopian improvement project work. It’s my biggest criticism of the work, but their views are not unexpected, considering where Hanzi is at in his combined life. They argue for Ministries dedicated to each of the Politics, with a mission to move things forward. But how exactly to create these benevolent bureaucracies is something that even in the best circumstances in the world, we’ve not done such a great job at. Hanzi is a fan of personal development, but at times misses that creation paths for the institutions he desires may not lead them to the place he wants them to go – precisely because the people involved won’t be evolved enough. Understanding how empathetic development drives emergent behavior would go a long way here.

The book itself builds on Hanzi’s earlier book — The Listening Society — and having read both through twice, I highly recommend both. If you’re immersed in this hopey-changey-systemy stuff like I am, you can jump to Nordic Ideology. If not, you’re going to have to go back to The Listening Society and bone up on what a ‘dividual’ is (hint — very close to how I talk about external definition and independent agency development) as well as some of the other verbiage.

For a book like this, I found The Nordic Ideology from a readability perspective as positively delightful. For as complex as this book is, while I did need quiet to read it (I read it literally in the middle of the wilderness, and earned my ‘read’ by carrying the damn thing 28 miles on my back!) it is really something else. I’m too old to achieve this level of true proficiency in both of their non-native language. But I can admire it.

So, great job, lads/Hanzi! I’m looking forward to the discussion around the next book. Once more into the breach!