Finding the self through losing the self: A complex systems perspective

Let’s take this blog as an opportunity to do a thought experiment together. Let’s try our best to lose our perspective and perceive the world as it really, objectively is. Imagine we have some kind of (alien) camera perspective where we could look at ourselves purely physically. I think this might be a good way to figure out who we, ourselves, are. This might sound paradoxical and impossible, but let’s try it. 


By looking through our camera, the first thing that would happen is that associations, constructs, concepts and categories would just disappear. The meaning of things will dissolve. Through this camera, constructs like: countries, organizations, race, gender, age —and so on, will all cease to exist. We would also lose all the names we developed over the years for emotions, colors, objects, behavioral disorders, and personality traits. If we would then find ourselves on this earth with our camera, we would just see our bodies moving embedded in our environment. The meaningful words we ought to have, dissolve into seemingly meaningless patterns of sounds, similar to the way we observe the sounds of birds. The sentences and words of this blog turn into meaningless scribbles, similar to the way we’re ignorant about the scented messages of ants. What would remain in our camera are waves of frequencies and amplitudes of animal bodies moving along with their environment. 


But the second consequence is that animals and their environments will merge for our objective camera. Without any assumptions or categorizations, we would not be able to separate humans from their clothes, from their tools, or identify the (supposedly) possessions they have. A mobile phone from a teenager would seem like an extended hand, we would not understand what doors are, and we would not be able to distinguish our food from our bodies. We would just see how the physical bodies transfer motion across our bodies through the objects we use, the air around us, and the earth we stand on, and back into our bodies. Our idea of cause and effect will change into borderless waves of (complex) motion. For example, at this moment, the movement of my fingers is transferred across the keyboard of my computer and alters the waves of the electrical currents which find their path to symbols on your screen, which then move on, branch and disperse. 


But with our camera, we can study the behavior of humans by observing similarities: patterns. We can observe certain stabilities in the movement of our bodies. People—moving bodies, tend to respond to stimuli (other moving bodies) similarly across time; our brains respond in similar ways to stimuli, displaying stable patterns. And on a larger time scale, we would see similar movements of the human body: habits (watch my video). But we would also learn that variations in the patterns in behavior are the interesting ones (like that one time you broke the law, or that one time you did something completely different than expected). Within the stability of these behavioral dynamics, we would be able to learn that certain types of dynamics are healthier than others (Wijnants, 2014). We could deduct that strongly irregular heart dynamics relate to death (Goldberger, 1997), and strongly irregular walking patterns relate to falling (Hausdorff, 2007). 


(…) we are able to study the behavior of humans by observing similarities: patterns. We would start to observe certain stabilities in the movement of our bodies. People (moving bodies) tend to respond to stimuli (other moving bodies) similarly across time; our brains respond in similar ways to stimuli, displaying stable patterns.


But until now, we haven’t completely perceived the world objectively. Because we still had a perspective, we took our camera as a viewpoint and focused on several movements of humans across the sentences. Our actual goal was to lose our perspective and “look” to the world as it objectively is. Let’s try this next step. In the real world, there isn’t a single path of causal movement. Billions (if not an infinite) of things happen at the same, movement comes from all directions. Nevertheless, humans tend to think in chains of events and describe it as a causal string: a story. For example, by reading this story you are tracing the path of these words towards the bottom of your screen. And if you like my story, you are completely focused on this path, and you’ve let go of everything else that is going on in this universe. But in the meantime, billions of different things happened. A bacterium in your body is repairing a cell, there’s a breeze on Jupiter, a leaf falls in the Himalayas, and someone is licking ice cream. All those events are happening at this very moment. 


There are waves everywhere and many of them crash into each other (eventually) making peculiar patterns. As humans, we are constrained to our cognitive perspective that limits our holistic understanding of the world. For example, one could not fully comprehend and explain how walking works, since we can only focus on one path at a time. One might try to explain it by saying “first, put your right foot forward”. But in reality, both legs move at the same time, and multiple muscles and joints are moving. One could also argue that the action of walking emerges as a result of decentralized processes (Schilling & Cruse, 2020), which have complex interactions across multiple scales (milliseconds, seconds, minutes, hours, etc), making this complex spatiotemporal pattern known as “walking”. No matter how you describe it, we do live in this decentralized complex world and deal with many interconnected multi-scaled processes every day, coined as multi-scaled complexity (Richardson, et al., 2014; read more about this perspective on cognition in this blogpost by dr. Ralf Cox).


There are waves everywhere and many of them crash into each other (eventually) making peculiar patterns. As humans, we are constrained to our own cognitive perspective that limits our holistic understanding of the world.


Luckily for us, many of these waves tend to organize themselves through their interactions (known as self-organization), making reliable patterns in relatively balanced systems. Because of this, we can give names to these patterns —for instance, the act of walking— and roughly categorize the world and give sense and meaning to it. We can make words for complex objects or processes (such as walking, breathing, or talking), and build upon what already exists. We don’t need to understand everything, like the fact that I don’t know how my toilet works, but as long as the patterns are regular on a higher scale, we can make it through the day. The interesting part is in the chaos, the unpredictability of all the events and natural phenomena.


And to go back to my perspective, a journey of self-experimentation, self-quantification, writing, making videos, drawing, microscopy, and other hobbies brought me into this world of playing with thoughts and thinking in complex dynamics. Adopting this complexity mindset brought me to doing an external-PhD where we look at agency (and sense of self) through this complex dynamic systems lens. I also write about “living in a complex world” on my website and make videos using this perspective. Adopting this view also gives me clues about how to approach the (systems) challenges that we currently face, such as climate change. Therefore, I became an initiator of the Amsterdam Systems Innovation hub and provide workshops about systems thinking using nature as inspiration for change. Altogether, it was fun to write this blog completely written from my unique perspective, and hope you enjoyed it too. Hope to talk with you soon.



Bak, P. (1996). How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organised Criticality. Copernicus Press.

Goldberger, A.L. (1997). Fractal variability versus pathologic periodicity: complexity loss and stereotypy in disease. Perspect Biol Med, 40(4), 543-61.

Hausdorff, J. M. (2007). Gait dynamics, fractals and falls: finding meaning in the stride-to-stride fluctuations of human walking. Human movement science, 26(4), 555–589.

Richardson, M., Dale, R., & Marsh, K. (2014). Complex Dynamical Systems in Social and Personality Psychology. In H.T. Reis & C.M. Judd (Eds), Handbook of Research Methods in Social and Personality Psychology, (pp. 253-282). Cambridge University Press.

Schilling, M. & Cruse, H. (2020). Decentralized control of insect walking: A simple neural network explains a wide range of behavioral and neurophysiological results. PLOS Computational Biology, 17(9).

Wijnants, M. (2014). A Review of Theoretical Perspectives in Cognitive Science on the Presence of 1/ Scaling in Coordinated Physiological and Cognitive Processes. Journal of Nonlinear Dynamics.


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Featured image:  Jonathan Zander, CC BY-SA 3.0

Justin Timmer thinks he is a curious and open person with an intrinsic motivation to discover the world and make it better. He approaches his world view from complex dynamic systems and an ecological psychology lens. He is doing a part-time Ph.D. and works part-time at a company, performing research and developing tools to understand and support people in their well-being.

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