Posts Tagged ‘an Ecology of Mind’

the unpunctuated flow of events

How well do you know your own mind as you apply it to the world around you? You might think that would be pretty easy to answer. Knowing what a mindset is, however, is one of those things that you know if no-one asks you, but will struggle to define if you are asked to explain it.

Last week I was lucky enough to be able to close a day-long meeting organised by the Henley Forum (… for Organisational Learning and Knowledge Strategies, to give it its full name). The audience of about 60 was diverse and practical, drawn from member organisations. The theme of the whole day was “Changing mindsets and behaviours” and my segment was the last hour. I had the title “So why would anyone want to change their mindset?”

Good question, but I realised that I wasn’t going to get far in answering it without knowing what a mindset is. Not just ‘my’ mindset, but ‘a’ mindset.

Let’s start with a dictionary definition:

“Mindset, (n)… the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation, especially when these are seen as being difficult to alter.”

– Collins English dictionary online

This says first that a mindset is personal, and knowingly or unknowingly it affects how you see, notice and react to the events in the world around you. But notice, too, the tantalising confusion in this definition. Is it your ideas and attitudes that are difficult to alter, or the situation you bring these to? Were it the situation that doesn’t easily budge, a change in your approach would indeed be called for. As such, a change in mindset would be no more than a change in tactics, amounting to pragmatism.

Yet I doubt this is what is meant. I suspect they are saying that it is our ideas and attitudes that are immobile. And that the main reason this is so is because we invest a huge amount of our own individual identity in our outlook. A shift in mindset ought to be a big deal, not tailoring.

In the Henley Forum session I wanted to explore this territory. I started by wondering, aloud, whether there aren’t actually three orientations to the whole question of mindset:

1. Your mindset is a question of perception, interpretation and intent.

I think this covers just about everything people write and read on this topic, and is the closest to the dictionary definition above. In fact, it’s a common sense description of how we characterise and categorise. A modern and very popular case in point is Carol Dweck’s ‘fixed’ versus ‘growth’ mindset (the idea being that these are the choices – either you believe your worldview is the result of fixed traits (perhaps ones you are born with, or ones that don’t change because you believe they don’t), or you think that things can and do change through hard work and belief (faith?). Compare this with the famous  saying attributed somewhat erroneously attributed to Henry Ford in 1947 –  “Whether you think you can, or whether you think you can’t… you’re probably right.” Actually, this sentiment or a variation of it has been in circulation since Virgil’s the Aenid (or even tucked away in Plato’s cave), and has been a resource for poets, scholars and politicians ever since.

So your mindset is part of you and how you meet the world, and you can choose to slice this in any way you please – that part of it is arbitrary. But does this help? Does getting only into detail of the gubbins in your mindset mean much unless you know what sort of a world enables you to have a mindset in the first place?

2. A mindset is possible through aspects of the world that are not dependent (only) on an individual’s perception. A mindset requires time, biology and a system that can form meaning (i.e. a coherent definition of mind). Without the combination of these three elements there would simply be no possibility for a mindset to mean anything. If there can be no differentiation between worldview at point A to worldview at point B, then there is no system of learning. This is a pre-requisite to the imposition of choices as to typology of mindset (the stuff of popular psychology).

As Gregory Bateson (1973) wrote, “The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think”. The wrong mindset could be toxic.

3. Therefore, mindset change must be a matter of a broader and more abstract awareness of the factors that give mindset stability. This third orientation is what draws the first two together. What might such an awareness be of? With awareness at both of the levels mentioned above, and with some input here from Siegel (2007), I think we might find the following useful:

a. Non-reaction to inner thoughts. Entering the world of your thoughts is one thing – standing back and observing one’s own internal language as if hearing them as another person might is another matter

b. Acuity of our observation of sensations available to us, plus the absence of pre-judgement of that experience

c. Aware action, preferably spontaneous action (by spontaneous I mean the paradox of managing to surprise even yourself, as the master archer who releases the arrow without saying ‘now’)

d. Our own eloquence and literacy in both 1 and 2 above.  This is one of the functions, I believe, of personal development and the reason I think it important that it is the job of education to be rigorous and precise rather than clear and simple.

My own starting point for this is a presupposition: that the world/universe/life etc. is going on all around (and consciousness that this is so) of its own accord and in and of itself it contains no punctuation. For humans, this presents a problem – we cannot make sense this way, so we punctuate this flow. More about this in a future post…


Bateson, G., (1972) Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Chicago University Press

Siegel, D., (2007), The Mindful Brain in Human Development: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-being (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, Norton

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One of the nice things about having your own blog is that you can choose to do anything you want to — within reason. Whether or not the thing you then choose to do has any merit is, of course, another matter. Today I choose to be an amateur film reviewer (it’s the reviewer that is amateur, not the film, I hasten to add)

Yesterday I attended a special screening in London of the film “an Ecology of Mind“, a documentary about the ideas and philosophy of Gregory Bateson. The filmmaker behind the project is his youngest daughter, Nora, who has been on a tour of various serendipitous locations in various countries, tirelessly presenting and discussing the film, her father, and the legacy of his ideas.

The relative obscurity of Gregory Bateson’s work means that many people will ask “so, what’s this film all about?” Appropriately to its thesis, this question can be answered on more than one level. Compiled by Nora from archive materials and interviews with disciples, friends, fans and family members, the film presents an overview the most important aspects of what must initially strike those who limit their reading of Bateson’s work as a very confusing career. The joy of his ideas, set down with precision and care, emerges only with repeated reading, plus (and this is crucial) an accumulation of the breadth of his output spanning decades and disciplines. You’ve got to follow him the whole way in order to “get it”, but once you do it’s really all very simple: our task is to understand the elegance and beauty of the underlying pattern that connects. There is a corollary to this which is also quite important – and that is that our various means of slicing up, analysing and explaining the wholes that make up our world are 1) completely arbitrary (though often helpful) and 2) never the thing that they are trying to explain.

The venue was an old cinema in the University of Westminster building in Regent Street in London, which, stripped of permanent seating and laid out with standard-issue university seating,  had the feel of a school assembly. Nora spoke to introduce the film and spoke of her reasons for making it. This is a film about unending processes of learning and enquiry, and about the patterns of relationship that link all living systems. As a documentary it has many themes. On one level, it’s about the connection between father and daughter, about memory and the passing on from one generation to another of a curiosity about and love for learning, the natural world and the ways we have for making sense (and nonsense) of it. Equally, it’s about the development of a way of seeing the world around us and about equipping oneself to think rigorously about all of this stuff.

But Nora’s film definitely begins and ends in the very personal world of the relationship between father and daughter. Theirs is the dialogue that we open and close with snippets of. In particular, the closing exchange feels very poignant, and anyone who has read much of Bateson’s work will find echoes of his metalogues. Bateson was an explorer of ideas and also, it turns out, a very warm and loving teacher. But as befits its subject matter, there are things going on in this narrative on at several levels. The family portrait (and likeness) is also a device chosen to present a series of chapters in the film. One by one, each theme is signalled by an animation of Gregory and Nora walking hand in hand. These are expanded on and supported by interviews with others who have learnt from his ideas or who have been influential in their development. But the best moments are the archive sections which show Gregory at work, at play and at ease.  I especially enjoyed these clips of Bateson speaking, mostly in later life, sometimes in informal home movies, sometimes in hardly less informal lectures or classrooms. One of the best is a quote, where Bateson, evidently giving his interlocutor a summary of his career, recounts this list  “biology, into anthropology, into systems of ideas, into pathologies of systems of ideas, into ideas of how we all live together, and ‘we all’ means the plants and animals as well as you and me.”

I often feel that there is a ladder of understanding that you have to work up to “get” Bateson, and you can’t just skip to the top – not if you really want to escape the error of applying a theory of ideas and relationships to a world of concrete ‘things’. 

In fact, throughout the film there are reminders that very frequently we are asking the wrong question, that our whole outlook is based on error, and such types of error that we display in our thinking can have catastrophic consequences. This may the unifying reason why so many have welcomed the film and the chance to discuss Bateson’s work and its meaning for them.

Read at the level of biography, ‘An Ecology of Mind’ works well enough. Reading between the lines, though, is what will lead the viewer to begin to ask themselves the same questions that puzzled Bateson himself, and from that you then have to start reading some serious works. Don’t be deterred either by what others think or by your initial confusion – the effort really is worth it. You will not only learn something, you will learn something about what it means to learn something.

An Ecology of Mind is not yet available to buy on DVD in the United Kingdom, but can be purchased on the German Amazon web site.

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Today’s photo is as close to a paparazzi shot as I’ll get in this series of 30 pictures – it is Nora Bateson preparing to introduce her film about her father’s ideas, “an Ecology of mind” at the screening organised in London. This event will be the subject of a post tomorrow. The film was excellent…


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I wanted use this blog posting to draw out some lessons from one of Gregory Bateson’s essays. This may not interest anyone reading this. On the other hand, if you’re curious why anyone would want to try to make sense of Bateson’s work  (I have my own PhD related reasons), you may find this helps foster your own thoughts.

The essay in question is in “A Sacred Unity: further steps to an Ecology of Mind“, a second anthology of his various (and incredible) range of writing over many years, which was published in 1991. In the section of the book titled ‘Form and Pattern in Anthropology’ is the essay “Naven: Epilogue 1958”.

Naven was a book Bateson originally published, as a cultural anthropologist, in 1936 and which was based on his  earlier field work in New Guinea. On one level, Naven (the title names a complex ceremony of tribal bonding) constituted the results of an observational study of aspects of the kinship system of the Iatmul tribe, symmetrical and complementary schismogenesis of roles and behaviours among particular family roles. The 1936 publication included an Epilogue, a sort of reflection on his findings. The 1958 edition contained a further Epilogue which critiques and re-evaluates the earlier work and places the two kinds of schismogenesis in one balancing system (and this thought was undoubtedly influnced by the interest at that time in cybernetics and systems theory), but more importantly it is an essay into the limitations of methods of inquiry and of explanation.

These are the things I take from the 1958 Epilogue (bearing in mind that these ideas continued to be developed for a further thirty years or so):

1. “All science is an attempt to cover with explanatory devices”, a game to see how rigorously the scientist can stretch explanation to cover “the vast darkness” of the subject at hand.

2. Aside from the subject under scrutiny, science is also about learning about the process of knowing. In other words, it is about explaining epistemology, or how we know.

3. Explanation is about the fitting together of data.

4. In Bateson’s epistemology, the fitting together of data is subject to logical levels of abstraction. Raw data are always one level removed from the “world as it is”, and the re-arrangement by the researcher of that data in order to make sense of it is on a level of abstraction higher  than the data itself. If the data is the picture of the world, then research is rather like trying to put together the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Further, the self-reflexive discussion of the procedures of knowing used by the researcher (that which justifies why the activity of putting together a jigsaw has any meaning at all) is itself on another level of abstraction again.

5. The labels that scientists give to explanations are just that, labels, and should not be confused with the things those labels describe. The terms used in the conclusions drawn by the researcher refer to the way that the ‘jigsaw puzzle’ has been arranged, not to what’s in the picture. 

6. In social science, explanation (theory) is recursive. Failure to discriminate between these various levels is thus cause for confusion and error.

7. Ideas are not things and words such as “learning” and “teaching” are not in themselves explanations for anything. (This may be why so many companies find it impossible to measure the effectiveness of HR training?)

8.  If we do not resist the temptation to reify them, then a lot of the theories, models, frameworks, classifications and typologies that are used in learning are simply “heuristic fallacies” when it comes to explanation.  This is a valid criticism of, for example, anyone using the Myers-Briggs Type-Indicator as an explanatory principle for behaviour or personality. This would be to confuse the device for description with the thing it describes, though the tendency to do this is very strong.

9. The study of learning and of change is actually the study of explanation not of things but of relationship between things. If learning and change are formally analogous in more areas than just social science, the value of studying what “knowing” means becomes much important for managers, since we may end up being able to explain much more.

10. We tend to think of learning as having a purpose. The idea whether change is directional and that the end of a process is its purpose (and also an explanation of the process that preceded it) is one that has occupied philosophical thought for millennia. But the explanation of the process in a system always lies outside that system (to paraphrase Einstein, we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them). 

11. In social research the reason why this is hard to demonstrate is the capacity that human individuals have to conceptualise the system that they are an intrinsic part of. This conceptualisation (or double hermeneutic?), while also making humans prone to error in logical typing, means humans agents can consciously make changes in the variables within a system in order to retain permanence and stability. At a higher logical level, however, there is learning going on about the (observed) parameters which are the boundaries of that system.

12. A categorisation of that set of behaviours and utterances (communication) that we class as “Reflection” is not an explanation of what reflection is.  “Reflection” is of a higher logical type than, say, “experience”, “ambiguity” or “dialogue” (or any one of a myriad of behaviours and utterances). As long as we know this, we will not become confused (or, not so easily) and we will not fall into the trap of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness” in our mapping of data.

13. What you describe, what you see, as a researcher is defined by the choices you make, and by rigour in coding at higher levels as well as lower ones. Alternative descriptions are possible where they are of the same logical type. Human learning, in this sense, might be just as interchangeably, defensibly and unsatisfactorily described by Kolb’s learning cycle as by Jung’s archetypes. The fact of context in human learning, however, is necessarily more than the individual, and cannot be explained by individualistic and atomistic theories.

14. Research into human learning often focuses on examining storied selves. This is fine, and constitutes a description of the self. But care is needed to avoid assuming, first, that these stories ‘exist’ outside their telling and, second, that simply  in their telling there will be a change of the order which we may label “Reflection” (i.e. learning, of the sort which changes the parameters of the self).



Bateson, G. (1958) Naven, a Survey of the Problems Suggested by a Composite Picture of the Culture of a New Guinea Tribe Drawn from Three Points of View. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

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