Imposing structure to find structure

The topics of chaos and order have become of interest to me lately. Or perhaps they’ve always interested me in some form or other and I’m only now finding two interesting concepts that match well with the things I like to think about. The idea that there is order and chaos is used in many places to explain the universe as well as life itself and our human behavior. The idea goes that everything that lives imposes or embodies some sort of order. Living organisms have low entropy. They are ordered, structured beings moving with intent and that try to avoid decay, they try to stay ‘ordered’ (alive) for as long as possible. Also, reproduction is a way to preserve order, by instantiating a new vessel for the accumulated information, consisting of such things as DNA and transferred knowledge.

Order and chaos are equated to ‘low entropy’ and ‘high entropy’ states. There are a few theories out there on the topic of entropy and the brain. One theory poses that our consciousness is a result of the ever-increasing entropy in the universe. Reading that evoked for me the image of a magnet moving over a coil and generating electricity. Would the changing entropy in the universe around us generate consciousness in ourselves that way?

Then there is the idea of chaos and order in how we look at things. When human beings talk about order and chaos, we associate chaos not with a state, a situation of high entropy, but with a force. Something, we tell each other, tugs our neatly ordered universe apart. And it is up to us to ‘put things back in order’. This alludes to our pattern recognition abilities. We look at a situation or think about it and try to find a pattern, some order in the chaos. Our brain assumes that there must be a pattern. Because often there is. But not always. Our brains can get it wrong, which is why you can sometimes have a hard time interpreting a sound you’ve never heard or mishear someone speaking when you’re tired. Some people have a brain that has difficulty finding patterns and we have special names for those brains, often including the word ‘disorder’.

The human brain functions on the sharp divide between order and chaos. The human brain has found a sweet spot between order and chaos, just below a ‘critical’ point of chaos. Some disorders like depression and OCD might actually stem from a brain that is too ordered (which makes it funny that we call them dis-orders), while psychosis might stem from a brain that is in disarray. It’s never straightforward of course, since the paper titled Altered Brain Entropy as a predictor of antidepressant response in major depressive disorder concludes that major depressive disorder is associated with higher entropy in some parts of the brain and lower entropy in other parts of the brain. Basically, our brain has some internal measure of order and chaos. Get the balance right, and you respond in a way that we consider mostly appropriately in most situations.

The sweet spot seems to be on the edge between order and chaos. Where things are exciting but not overwhelming. There is enough safety and structure to be secure in exploring. This can also be linked to attachment theory, where a child that experiences a secure attachment to mom, seeks out external stimuli to explore but returns when it becomes too overwhelming.

How do we establish order?

We try to find security in an uncertain world. Our current method of choice to find certainty, for example in the form of protection and cures for illnesses, is by eliminating as much uncertainty as possible. That might sound like a straightforward and obvious conclusion, but that won’t always work. We will have to find ways to deal with chaos when it appears, rather than set ourselves the Sisyphean task of eliminating all of it. We know this, and yet we do everything in our power to achieve certainty and hang on to it. Perhaps this follows from the illusion that a bit more order serves as a buffer to chaos. This might sometimes be true in the short run, but that type of thinking will soon lead you so far into order that it might become suffocating in the long run. Inevitably, the chaos we wanted to hold at bay will come back to restore the balance.

We sometimes try to eliminate uncertainty by outright rejecting anything that cannot be proven without a doubt to be both true and relevant. The universe shows us a complex problem consisting of many facets and from the get-go we try to eliminate as many elements as we can. “This probably doesn’t matter and that seems highly unlikely and this probably doesn’t matter either…” We try to remove variables from the equation, to make the problem seem simpler, even when it is not.

You can over-rely on an elimination of variables. You could do this too early in a process. You can make problem seem more ordered than it really is. This mostly relates to applying general research to an individual. It’s apparently taught to medical students explicitly: don’t go for the exotic diagnosis, its almost always something common. Until it’s not… This type of first layer thinking can hold back an individual in their pursuit of health, even if it serves the majority of people well.

In one example, research showed that the type 2 diabetic’s condition will deteriorate, period. It now turns out that the claim has some elements of a self fulfilling prophecy and that this blanket statement of guaranteed deterioration is not entirely true: dietary changes can help some people. There is an additional variable somewhere that makes it so that some people can (somehow, sometimes) halt the progression of their diabetes and even reverse it.

I’ve heard many stories of patients’ reported symptoms and stories about patients reporting new symptoms that were not taken into serious consideration because they didn’t fit the already established working hypothesis. Someone recently told me about being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. He also had a rash on his legs. The doctor at the time responded “The rash doesn’t belong with the Crohn’s, it’s a separate issue”. Later it turned out to be an autoimmune disease that rarely affects adults; the bowel troubles, inflammation and rash definitely belonged together! It takes some patients a second or third opinion to find a doctor who will truly look with fresh eyes. Conversely, people can have two problems at the same time, where symptoms overlap and confuse the full picture.

To impose order too early by discarding variables and applying a solution for a subset of the problem, will at the very least delay the resolution of the issue at hand. I think that it’s a logical downside of an otherwise very beneficial choice. Eliminating elements is in many cases a workable choice. For example in a courtroom we must provide irrefutable evidence of a crime in order to convict someone and only evidence that relates to the case at hand can be brought to the table. You don’t talk about the lovely wedding cake at Aunt Margery’s wedding when that has nothing to do with the case at hand. In fact, eliminating elements is at the basis of research: You isolate a system or a problem and try to reproduce the issue at hand in laboratory conditions. The same elimination-game happens within our medical system: Doctors have specialized and so early on a decision is made whether you’ll need to see a specialist or not and if so, which one. This ensures that most patients, most of the time, are directed in a fairly straight path to the right doctor.

When that doesn’t work very well

In many cases people will try to impose some form of order, in order to get a foothold in the chaos. When that works, great. But when that doesn’t work, the structure that is imposed serves as a confounding factor. The difference between a foothold that serves you and a foothold that leads you astray will not be immediately visible. It goes badly when, if we impose a structure on a problem, we are looking at the problem from the wrong angle and we don’t notice that this is the case. This especially happens when the problem at hand concerns subjective experience (i.e. Every time someone tells someone else what they’re thinking and feeling in the broadest sense of the word). It goes badly when someone is asked about some aspect of their life and they answer in the best way they know how, and the conclusion is drawn (by themselves or others) that there is nothing more to ask. Often, at the first attempt to give words to what you’re experiencing, the core has not been reached at all yet.

There is a duality at play here that needs some addressing. We assume that ‘we’re all the same’, but we’re quick to point out when someone is different. If we can, we hang on to the former as long as we can, until the difference is so glaringly obvious that we say that a person is very special. Both statements are true. We all laugh, cry, we’re all born and we all die. We assume that there is a commonality underlying people that makes it possible to quantify subjective experience. Have you felt anxious today, on a scale of one to ten? Everyone knows anxious, don’t they? Well, as it turns out, no. Anxiety might be related to pain sensitivity, as shown by a case of a woman who feels no pain and also has felt little to no anxiety in her life. So basically, her interpretation of pain and anxiety might be very different from yours and mine. Which leads to the question: Does anyone really know what other people mean by pain, anxiety or anything else for that matter? When you ask someone how anxious they are in daily life when they have undiagnosed ADHD, they may report anxiety, without consciously relating it to the sense of overwhelm and perhaps a feeling of inadequacy because they are having trouble getting their work finished in time, you may end up diagnosing an anxiety disorder or depression. The patient certainly may have symptoms of anxiety or depression, may very well have developed a full blown anxiety disorder or depression over decades, but you haven’t found the cause!

I think miscommunication and misdiagnosis in this realm results in part from two people having a different vocabulary and/or not realizing that their own vocabulary is limited or biased (as every vocabulary is). Miscommunication is not considered a possible variable: it’s implicitly eliminated before it has even been considered. I once had a therapy session where I said “I’ll see where the ship beaches” (a Dutch saying). The therapist looked shocked and said “Well that’s very negative of you!”. I tried to explain that to me it wasn’t negative at all. She insisted it was. I Googled it recently. The proverb to see where the ship beaches means to be open to wherever you end up and up accept that uncertainty. I checked with Joep, who also interpreted it as neutral. The therapist didn’t realize that her interpretation of that proverb was negative. I didn’t realize it either at that time. That exchange, like many others, brought us nowhere. Neither of us managed to take a step outside our own heads.

This is an example of people not being able to step into chaos when a step into chaos is called for. I can think of countless examples where we will rather hold on to our point of view with our back scorched and blistered and insist that there is no fire anywhere in sight, rather than turn the required 180 degrees to see we’re very nearly standing in one. This is where we go astray. We take up a vantage point and look at our own or someone else’s life and think that this is the right way to look at it. We expect a simple picture and so that is what we get, a simple picture. Until the problem is complex. Then, simple, ordered methods don’t cut it. Until someone ticks some boxes on all your questionnaires but not enough on any single one. Until someone shares something and neither of you realize that one or both of you has a different association with the choice of words.

Although much of human experience is considered common between people, there are an infinite number of bits and pieces that make up a person, their life story, their inner world and their self-narrative. You really cannot say anything about a person until you have figured out some of the major themes that apply to them and their life. Life is complex. You would have to investigate every possible possibility, look at them from every possible angle, before you can come to the conclusion of who they are, what they’ve been through and what they are like. There are confounding variables everywhere and when it comes to situations where a live being is the subject of study, it’s often impossible to isolate only the handful of variables we’d like.

The types of questions that relate to subjective experience are least suitable to be reduced to simpler form. It’s not that no general statements can be made, but I think we’ve got mathematical proofs on one end of the spectrum, where besides the equations very little natural language is employed to explain how to look at the problem and psychology, philosophy, sociology on the other end, where extremely thick books must be written because words can never capture the problems in full. They can only circle around them and excise their approximate shape from a subject matter that is arguably no more or less abstract than that which mathematics grapple with. The problems are of a different kind.

I think some problems are more chaotic in nature than others. Once a mathematical hypothesis is posed, the problem itself is highly ordered. That is not to say that no creativity is required to come to a hypothesis or that the search for a proof doesn’t require a step into chaos. But the specification of the problem is an anchor. The conjecture must be pinned down in the form of a boolean predicate, before we make any attempt to prove it. Once we have done this, the variables are known.

The field of psychology attempts the same feat but the nature of their questions is more philosophical than mathematical. At their core, these fields deal with ideas of happiness, suffering and successful or unsuccessful relationships and social interactions. In other words, their problem statements are of a chaotic nature. To get any traction in a scientific sense, the questions of what it means to be human and how to live your life must be cut up into smaller pieces. But then the earlier mentioned risk of removing too many variables applies. The whole picture disintegrates, we study every single tree, but not the forest.

Interestingly, this affects the question more than the answer. We may start to think of the subject at hand as an ordered, neat question that will yield objective answers. And we may blind ourselves to how we end up researching not how humans function, but how humans function in laboratory settings. We may turn the research into something other than was intended.

Insisting that there must be order in there somewhere

I’ve used a lot of words to describe what I think happens when we look at a problem and assume that the problem lies firmly in the realm of order when it does not. Everything must be objectively measurable, our modern era insists. This has made us blind to the fact that we, as human beings, are not rational beings. We are emotional beings that happen to (sometimes) have the capacity to think about our own thinking. But we’re not very good at it. We are hardly able to separate the difference between subjective observation and objective truth. Our empirical science is the best we have, but in the end most research is nothing more than a witness statement.

Most of what happens to us and between us is subjective. Even if we program an AI to detect happiness on people’s faces, the fact that a person was tagged does not constitute proof that the person is or was at that moment in time happy. People can pretend being happy and in fact, friends and family might not even catch on that someone is profoundly miserable. We can spend a lot of words describing what happens to facial muscles, but we aren’t able to detect a happiness particle or weigh joy in ounces.

The error in our thinking comes to the fore mostly when it comes to mental health. But other areas of our life are also affected. We think we must (and are able to) identify and isolate the basic elements that constitute a human being. The scientific method consist of empirical observations coupled with the explicit basic rule that any claim that cannot be explicitly verified by methodically approaching the method that was used to come to that claim, is nothing more than an assumption. Our human brain translates that into: if you can’t prove that it’s true, it must be false. This illustrates how we try to pin down the universe, where a “we don’t know yet” was in order. We should have stayed in chaos a little longer.

In practice, we perform scientific research by imposing some structure, and then doing an intervention or measurement to see if our hypothesis about this state plus the intervention holds up. We have a highly ordered method of doing science. We decompose information or knowledge to the most atomic pieces of data we can manage and then we methodically reduce our preconditions as well as our hypothesis until the system breaks down. We repeat this until we find a set of conditions that consistently yields the same observation. This observation is then added to our list of derived facts.

Measuring mental health

A state of poor mental health is a state of chaos and confusion. No matter how hard you try, something, somewhere in the dark recesses of your mind doesn’t make sense. If it made sense, you wouldn’t be stuck. And so you bring this confusion to someone who studied to help you get your life back on track. Since you turn to mental healthcare providers in a state of chaos, the question you must have seems obvious: restore order! And so everything is done to ascertain that order is restored. Imposed if need be. Questionnaires are an ordered approach to a chaotic situation. Except that they aren’t. They are an ordered approach based on the false belief that it is enough to look at a limited set of data. In other words, the chaos that the person reports is assumed to fit in a neat mold. Except if that were the case, they would have figured that out a long time ago and wouldn’t be so confused now.

Perhaps it’s my background in computer science and mathematics that makes me a bit upset about this. In maths, to complete the proof every single variable had to be accounted for in your solution. That might mean you transform the problem five times in the course of the proof. You don’t stop until everything is accounted for. But instead of digging deeper, we have a tendency to limit the datasets.

Why would the patient even seek out a doctor’s help in the first place, if it was simply a matter of filling in a questionnaire and then following some protocol? We’d Google our way out of the chaos. (And many patients nowadays do, by the way, which interestingly angers a certain type of doctor.)

In mental health (and increasingly, physical health), we impose order on our information first, and then we search for a pattern… We should start doing it the other way around. If you start searching the chaos, you can get longer-lasting effects than when you imposed order just to balance things out.

IQ tests: How good are you at finding the pattern that you know is there?

The easiest example of how we try to establish some known fact about a person is the IQ test. What IQ tests represent, is the idea that there is a set of questions we can ask everyone in a population to determine who is better at… whatever intelligence is. We call what IQ purports to measure ‘intelligence’, even though there is no agreement on what intelligence is. Today, we commonly equate high IQ with intelligence, but intelligence, however we define it, is to IQ tests as speed is to speedometers. For now, for this blog post, I’ll go with the (totally wrong) definition that intelligence is a high IQ score.

An IQ test consists of various types questions or problem statements. Each question is supposed to have a single answer and, in the case of the one I did once, you get a large set of questions of each type (sums, word associations, general knowledge) and a time limit in which to answer as many of the questions correctly as possible. This test is a constructed one, consisting of many highly ordered patterns of information in which the test subject is asked to ‘solve’ the question.

On the other hand, there is something we call emotional intelligence. The term appears first in 1987, apparently. (See Emotional Intelligence on Wikipedia. Interest in intelligence dates back to the 1800s, apparently.) So EQ and empathy or emotional intelligence are even younger concepts than intelligence and I’m sure that, as with any research topic, the definition and conclusions that research bring us will change a lot over the next 200 years. At this moment in time, we’re approaching EQ tests identically to IQ tests: You get a set of questions and you need to choose the correct answer. How do the two test approaches differ? They don’t. They approach the problems in an identical manner, and so I hold that what you’re measuring is one and the same thing, regardless of the questions you pose or how you score the answers. If you measure intelligence by an IQ score and if an IQ test is a set of questions to be answered, then if you design an EQ test that consists of a set of questions to be answered, you’re obviously measuring intelligence again. What happens is this: a test like that is created by imposing strict and rigid order. Test subjects are then asked to find the pattern that you (and they!) know is there.

It’s easier to find patterns in order. It’s far more difficult to find patterns in chaos. Which is why kids with both high intelligence and high empathy often get simple questions wrong. The one who posed the question unwittingly created a question that not only had an ordered answer but also contained some form of chaos with potential patterns in it that allow for many creative interpretations.

Rorschach inkblot test

If you assume that empathy and intelligence are distinct abilities, then the method to measure them must be distinctly different. Now, if we take the above reasoning further, if intelligence is a high IQ score, and if an IQ tests consists of a set of questions that must be answered by the test subject and if empathy must be distinctly different from intelligence, then the EQ test must be distinctly, extremely different from an IQ test. I see two roads ahead. Firstly, you could argue that if you measure intelligence by asking the test subject questions, then empathy cannot be measured by asking the test subject questions. There is a second way to look at it: if you measure intelligence by asking the test subject to find that one pattern that you put into the order that you created, then measuring empathy must be done by asking the test subject to find any patterns (zero or more..) they can see in chaos.

“But how will you know that the person answered correctly?!” There’s your real problem. This goes back to my earlier post about empathy. What is empathy? In today’s post, I hold that intelligence is the ability to find patterns in order and that empathy is the ability to find patterns in chaos. It is the ability to navigate an unknown terrain, not a known one. How do you know if someone is any good at it? You get on their boat and see where it leads you. It takes many hours to get to know a person, because there are few things so complex as the behaviors, abilities and motivations of a living being.

It is very useful to impose order and then try to find a pattern. It has brought us very far. However, over the past three or four generations, we’ve created education systems that only asked students to find or memorize patterns in a pre-ordered system. Students were fed information that was filtered for them and never had to deal with figuring out whether some information was worth memorizing. Much of today’s unrest comes from an inability to handle uncertainty and an inability to decide which information is important and which is not.

It’s time to find patterns in chaos again.

P.S. You should surround yourself with highly empathetic people. They’re not only successful at social interactions, they are also the ones who pick up on chaotic elements that fit a pattern, even before they can articulate what it is they picked up.

2 Replies to “Imposing structure to find structure”

  1. 1

    Wonderful and thoughtful post! Some of my thoughts:

    Regarding “entropy” and “force”, here’s the 2nd principle of thermodynamics: reducing entropy requires energy. Just think about how tiring it is to keep your apartment tidy. We need law enforcement to maintain order. That’s why an ultimate orderly society, a utopia, will never be realized because the cost to keep things in place is exceeding the benefit. But human intellectual capability is limited, and navigating though a chaotic environment consumes energy and attention, too. So seeking out order among chaos is one of our basic instincts and intellectual endeavors. Whoever figures out universal patterns is praised as genius. Think of Newton and Einstein.

    Within our reach, we try to *impose* order, especially in societies (hard to change natural laws). From ancient legends such as Plato in the West and Confucious in the East, to nowsday politicians and activists, many have tried to argue for an orderly world, an ideal government or at least “vote for me and I’ll fix this chaos.” Many authors argue that human societies move towards “order”. Sounds like socialism and utopia are on the horizon.

    I’m afraid that this is a delusion, if looking from a different angle. Modern societies are more “chaotic” than ancient ones. In the old time, it was hard for most people to move up the ladder which was filled with kings and queens and dukes. Democracy is messier than dictatorship. “Order” limits opportunities, the flow/exchange of information and knowledge. Hence, while we seek for daily “order” (security and routine), we want to keep many doors open for us.

    At personal level, we struggle between keeping things around us in “order” while allowing us as much “freedom” as possible. Yes, self-control, putting yourself in “order”, is the hardest skill. We can easily be “depressed” when things are too “chaotic” and out of our control. Many treatments, using medicine or consultation, help us to “letting go” of those external rebellious factors and focus more on ordering/realigning ourselves. I think the most effective way is getting out of the circumstance that caused depression in the first place, if that’s possible. Statistics has shown that addicts, after being treated, go back to their addiction after they return to the same family or neighborhood. It’s nearly impossible to change the chaotic environment, but we can try to detach from it for a while until we are completely healed. Don’t watch political debates when you’re depressed, ha ha.

    • 2
      Diana Koenraadt

      Thank you for adding that! I hadn’t thought of it this way. Very insightful addition on democracy. And also people’s desire for both order and freedom. The yin yang at work 😉

      Something to add there is that it’s easier to maintain something than to build it anew. Unfortunately, it’s cheapest to let chaos creep in and undo your work.. In other words, in the long run it’s the least effort to clean something in your house for five minutes a day instead of having to spend a whole day every two weeks to clean the accumulated mess 😉

      Basically, with this post, I’m arguing the merit of finding patterns in chaos, especially when finding patterns in order doesn’t cut it. Your additions seem to me to point toward the difference between tackling a chaotic problem while your life/environment is ordered versus your life/environment being the thing *itself* that is in chaos. In the latter case, the phrase that might be applicable is, I think: “loving detachment”. It’s okay, necessary even, to step back and get your own life in order again before doing anything new.

      Fixing one inner eye while the rest of the yin yang is okay is easier than when the symbol is entirely out of balance.

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