The Rhythm is Gonna Get You
"The more charmed we have become with our individual psyches,
the less adept we have become at understanding the psychology
of nations, peoples, religions, and political movements."
- Mark Lilla, The Shipwrecked Mind
Our linear, cause effect way of thinking about the world has been very successful. But we've
now got other tools that can lead to an even richer and more accurate picture. Using the wrong
metaphor leads to the wrong mental model of how the system works, and shifting mental models
is the most difficult part of teaching and learning. Consider these examples.
Take a frog or turtle heart out of the animal, and it continues to beat on its own for up to an hour.
The same is true of the individual muscle cells that make up the heart. Dissociate them and plate
them in a Petri dish, and they will still contract, individually. Keep them fed and they'll beat for
days, each a tiny dancer in that little plastic mosh pit. Note, however, that they don't beat
together. That requires a pulse of electricity from outside.
This state of each against each can also happen in an intact heart muscle. It's called fibrillation.
Instead of smooth waves of electricity spreading from the sino-atrial node, organizing the
heart into orderly contractions that pump blood efficiently, the heart writhes, in the words
of James Gleick, "like a bag of worms." The point of a defibrillator is not to jump-start the
heart muscle like a spark plug igniting fuel in an engine (the linear way of thinking about it), but to
resynchronize the rhythms of the still-beating heart cells. This synchronizing to an external signal
is called entrainment.
The electrical activity of neurons is also rhythmic. Each cell type has a rhythm, determined by the
specific combination of ion channels in its membrane, which flicker open and closed to let
charged ions across in waves. Hook those spiking cells together with synapses, and you get
circuits that also spike rhythmically. One cell in the circuit might dominate the rhythm, or they
might take turns, or they might influence one another to create some emergent rhythm that is not
obvious from looking at the cells individually.
We know that the fetal nervous system is full of spontaneous activity. Calcium waves sweep
across the developing retina, very much like the waves that synchronize heart activity. These
waves map the retina, letting the individual cells know where they are in the map, and thus
which of their neighbors they should hook up with synaptically. More accurately, the cells have
already hooked up more or less randomly, based on rough chemical gradients, and the calcium
waves let the cells know which of the current synapses they should remove and which they should
keep. It's a mechanism consistent with our knowledge of natural selection, operating on a
Where it gets controversial is in applying these dynamics to conscious human behavior. In Jeff
Warren's The Head Trip, lucid dreaming researcher Stephen LaBerge believes that the
fundamental rhythm of human consciousness is the oscillation between the cerebral cortex and the
thalamus. This loop runs continuously during both waking and dreaming. The difference is that
during dreams, the thalamus shuts off the information coming in from the outside. Under those
conditions, the components of the sensemaking loop run a little wilder, hopping from memory to
memory and fantasy to fantasy, whichever is most active. One might even say that the mind is
fibrillating, writhing like a bag of worms. In other words, while we are awake, the external world
entrains the ongoing activity of our brains. Reality intrudes on our internally generated fantasies.
Rather rude of it to do that, really. Of course, some of us are more gifted at ignoring reality and
maintaining our fantasies than others . . .
I've written in earlier columns about the Gottman lab's work on couples dynamics, and
mentioned family dynamics in an evolutionary context, how interpersonal loops can reinforce
specific behaviors. But what about bigger groups, including people who never interact directly?
Strauss & Howe's book The Fourth Turning details a model of American history that is
fundamentally constrained by the time it takes individual humans to mature, a unit of
approximately 20-25 years. They arrange four of these units into a generational cycle, for which
they use the Roman term saeculum. Mythically, these four units are analogues of the yearly
High Awakening Unraveling Crisis
Spring Summer Fall Winter
and of the four "seasons" of the human lifespan.
Child Adult Middle-Aged Elder
According to Strauss & Howe, being born during one of the seasons tends one towards a
particular personality type, statistically. The driver is not astrological influence or direct mind-to-mind coupling (to use the physics term) but the "wobble" in human parenting behavior that
comes from synchronous difficulty. During a Crisis, humans on average sacrifice our own
development in order to over-protect our children. That's the bump on the attractor. During an
Awakening, those same over-protected kids tend to under-protect their own children, making
them less attached and more vulnerable to self-medicating through risky behaviors like drugs,
alcohol, sex, crime, and violence.
With the Crises far enough apart, as they were in ancient times when humans lived in smaller and
more isolated groups, these oscillations in parenting behavior would damp over time, making the
cycles less disruptive than they are now. They say we've been at maximum human change rate,
with shocks coming faster than the saeculum can damp them out, for about 500 years now. Most
of the shocks are now more or less ignored by the saeculum. Only during a specific critical period
(a Crisis), when the generations align in the pattern below, can large-scale social change happen in
a productive way.
Child Artists Young Heroes Middle-Aged Nomads Elder Prophets
Unfortunately, these large-scale changes tend to be pretty wrenching, because at other stages of
the cycle changes tend to be resisted. Similar events happening during other seasons don't spark
big changes, something that has thrown off the linear-thinking futurists again and again.
Sparks of history--sudden and startling events--can arise in any
turning. Some sparks ignite nothing. Others ignite epic
conflagrations. Which ones ignite? Studying the sparks of history
themselves won't help answer this question, because what they are is
far less important than how a society reacts to them. That reaction is
substantially determined by the season of the saeculum--in other
words, by the turning in which they are located. Sparks in a High
tend to reinforce feelings of security; in an Awakening, argument; in
an Unraveling, anxiety. Come the Fourth Turning, sparks of history
trigger a fierce new dynamic of public synergy. p. 257
S&H chronicle seven of these roughly 80-year cycles since the late Medieval period, and claim
that American history shows them more clearly than anywhere else in the world.
They further claim the last of these great cycles of the saeculum culminated in the Crisis period
containing the Great Depression and World War 2. The postwar period (1945-65) was a High, a
time of conformity and great deeds like the moon landing, followed by an Awakening (1965-85),
a time when young people refused to go to war or take proper care of their kids, because they
were busy "finding themselves" spiritually. The latest Unraveling was scheduled to end in 2005,
meaning that yes, we're in a Crisis now, and if we survive, we should be out of it by 2025.
However, they point out that the Civil War, the Crisis of the 5th saeculum, was so bad, and came
so close to destroying the nation, that a generation was essentially skipped, and the cycle
shortened. So there's some flexibility in their model.
Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov have somewhat similar ideas and wrote a book called Secular
Cycles, trying to define them more quantitatively than S&H, using a variety of different metrics.
Difficult work, and ongoing. Were Bush and Obama presiding over an extra-long Unraveling, or
was 9/11 the early beginning of a Crisis? I'm not qualified to say (on their website, S&H mark
the turning point as the financial meltdown of 2008). I'm pretty sure we're in a Crisis now,
though, with the election of a wrecking-ball president and the possibility of a Constitutional
Convention growing (with overheated rhetoric on both sides). Is Bob Mueller the Smedley
Darlington Butler of the 7th saeculum? Only time will tell.
Randall Hayes, temporally an under-parented, get-er-done Nomad of Generation X, is
supposedly due to take over societal decision-making any day now.
What can I say? I'm a child of the 80s, musically.
Lilla, M. The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction. The New York Review of Books. New
York, NY (2016).
"The best way to understand nonlinear patterns is to see them." I totally agree. The
financial examples here might not be the most interesting ones, but they are extremely
"Nonlinear dynamics is the branch of physics that studies systems governed by equations
more complex than the linear, aX+b form. Nonlinear systems, such as the weather or
neurons, often appear chaotic, unpredictable or counterintuitive, and yet their behaviour
is not random."
Or on a spinach leaf?
Beating at 2:14, if you're in a hurry.
Scroll down to "Animations" and look at the middle one on ventricular fibrillation.
Try to ignore the terrible puns.
Gleick, J. Chaos: The Making of a New Science. Viking. New York, NY (1987).
Anton's gloopy cells-with-eyes are one of my favorite bits of this animation. Check out
December 2018's IGMS interview with him.
This is a slide show, not a paper, so not much explanation. Just take a look at the pictures
for a general idea.
Warren, J. The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. Random House (2007).
Out of print, but highly recommended if you can find a copy. Jeff's website summaries
are good and interesting teasers, but they in no way replace the book.
It may be more complicated than that, since the ongoing activity is . . . well, active.
March 2017, "JFH: a Scientific Obituary"
July 2017, "World's Finest"
Strauss, W. and Howe, N. The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy--What the Cycles of
History Tell Us About America's Next Rendezvous with Destiny. Broadway Books, New York
This is way clearer than most of the vocab-heavy descriptions out there.
With, again, four types.
"The republic has undergone a wild stress test but despite new lows, Donald Trump's
presidency has also seen a democratic renaissance."
"Some commentators have referred to an unlimited convention as a 'general
convention.' This usage is incorrect. A general convention is a conclave to which
states from all regions of the country are invited--as opposed to a partial or
regional gathering. A convention for proposing amendments is necessarily
general, but may be limited or unlimited as to topic. If unlimited as to topic, it
should be referred to as unlimited, open, or plenary."
Part of the "Pulp History" series, which I clearly need to check out more thoroughly.
Read more by Randall Hayes