a little theory

There have been great scientific advances made in the last decade around how the mind works – many of which a person could have concluded intuitively. Two Ways of Knowing finds support in the results of neurobiology research, psychology, and the experiences of people who care about good communication.

Antonio Damasio, a professor of neuroscience and neurobiology at the University of Southern California, and author of Self Comes to Mind and Descarte’s Error, developed a theory of the relationship between emotions and decision-making. He describes “a knower, by whatever name one may want to call it – [that] needs to be generated in the brain if the mind is to become conscious,” (Damasio, pg 11, 2012). I suggest he is actually talking about two knowers. One is inward looking, searching to find connections, and an authentic way of being. The other is outward looking, driven by objectivity in order to process the information brought in by the fear instinct. This self has its head up looking for incoming dangers and ready for physical action.

Damasio’s research began with a record of Phineas Gage’s medical history. He was a railroad construction manager on a track to success when a spike three feet log and an inch and a half wide was accidentally driven through his head. Remarkably, he remained conscious and able to walk to the cart and talk as co-workers took him to the doctor in 1848.  He recovered physically, except for the loss of sight in one eye, fully able to move, hear, sense touch, but his ability to process feelings was damaged.  The interesting thing was, this also meant he was unable to make decisions that would benefit him. He had no ability to read social cues, lost his job and his ability to get along with people. Similar effects on people with damage to the same emotion processing areas of the brain led Damasio to propose that information needs to have an emotion attached to it in order for it to be called upon in decision-making. When a person’s connection to one or both of these two broad categories of emotions, the felt experience of pleasure or potential pain (love and fear), is damaged, that person is unable to make a decision.  Some call it survival and attachment modes, there is a correlation with right brain and left brain thinking.  Two Ways of Knowing calls it circular and linear thinking because it identifies the different operating styles that create the two modes.

These two drives create a kind of homeostasis in human thought processes (Damasio 2012, 51-60). We pull in or are pulled in by what we feel love for, love being a drive towards connection in its broadest interpretation. We push back against or seek to control what we feel will cause us pain or be detrimental to us in the future. “Optimal ranges express themselves in the conscious mind as pleasurable feelings; dangerous ranges, as … painful feelings,” (Damasio 1994, 54). Together they provide a balance of nourishment and protection.

Practicing two ways of knowing is fundamental to the human condition. We care about relationships and we care about productivity.  We want meaning and direction.  Every person is capable of both ways of knowing. A person may have a default preference, or an environment may foster one over the other, but we are wired as humans to be capable of both styles of thinking.

Daniel Siegel, who has made a career of integrating brain science with psychology also found that emotions fall into two broad categories, which he calls survival and attachment circuits (Siegel 2010, 185). He correlates what 2WK would describe as linear and circular thinking with left and right brain activity. He describes the left brain as linear, logical and literate – the list maker. It sees things in terms of an on/off switch described as an “OR” point of view. The right brain is holistic, image and metaphor processing – it sees life in terms of an “AND” point of view (Siegel 2010, 108).

Siegel describes two powerful but quite distinct neural processes in our heads that seem to inevitably be at war with each other. Indeed, he notes that when one mode dominates for long periods of time we become rigid or chaos results (Siegel 2010, 109). However, optimal functioning of these two drives is to move from one to the other.

International facilitator and negotiator Adam Kahane also came to the conclusion that there are two drives in the human condition. His work in bringing large groups of people together to solve social issues in areas such as the Middle East and India changed forever when he recognized there were two drivers at play. In his book Power and Love he describes power as the ability to achieve one’s objective and get the job done. 2WK describes this kind of power as linear – the ability to assert your will even against the will of others (Max Weber).   He describes love as “the drive towards unity of the separated,” (Kahane 2010, 3). 2WK sees love as another form of power, the ability to be all that you can be and want the same for others. Each way of knowing has its own source of power. Kahane uses different language but comes to the same conclusion through his experience in working with people. As humans we have access to two ways of knowing and each creates its own form of power.

Research has also given early indication that fear and love cannot operate simultaneously. Dr. Charles Limb, an Associate Professor of John Hopkins University, conducted experiments where he placed a jazz musician with a special piano into an fMRI and observed his brain as he did improv. A rapper was also placed in the fMRI and fed random words to rap with. In both cases fear centers of the brain were inactive while creative centers lit up. Dr. Limb noted that the self-inhibiting parts of the brain are inactive when masters are being creative. He suggested fear and creativity (love-driven) are incompatible (TED Charles Limb).

To put it another way, you can’t be in linear and circular mode at the same time and get a good result. Daniel Siegel proposes that when the attachment drive and the survival drive are triggered at the same time it creates an unresolvable conflict – two opposite drives in the person at the same time which causes a very painful sense of being fragmented (Siegel 2010, 185, 195).

These two drives, two ways of knowing, are opposite of each other. Ideally, one shuts down while the other is called into service. They each have a mechanism to keep them separated. This has a positive effect.  However, when over-activated, linear and circular thinkers lose sight of the benefit in the other. Using their EITHER/OR mentality, linear thinkers recognize circular methods are not like theirs and therefore bad. Is it like us or is it foreign (the other), is the lens they use.   They find circular methods irrational, a distraction to be eliminated or ignored.

Circular thinkers see the removal of caring about our humanness, also known as objectivity, as a loss of their core values which is not to be tolerated. They are driven to incorporate the AND principle and be inclusive rather than seek to focus discussion or limit ideas. They incorporate the human ability to see patterns and intuit into their decisions.  Participating in a linear process feels like a betrayal.

The problem is that each is only seeing part of the picture. Recognition that there are two ways of knowing, both of  which are valuable when understood in their totality, opens the door to crossing the distance between the two modes.

Dan Pink’s work on motivation highlights that there is great resistance to switching to circular modes even when there is much linear evidence to show the benefits. He uses variations of the candle experiment where he gives subjects a creative challenge and offers money incentives and competition, to demonstrate his point. Participants are given a candle, tacks and matches in a tray and asked to attach the candle to the wall. Increasing the potential reward does not improve productivity. Solving the problem requires creative thought. You have to think outside the box, as it were, and use the tray the candle and tack were in as part of the answer. Successful participants tacked the tray to the wall and put the candle in it (see TED Dan Pink). This requires freedom to move in any direction (autonomy) which is the opposite of moving towards a set goal. Offering bonuses moves people to linear mode where they focus on getting the bonus.  What is required is autonomy, resources and knowing they are safe even if they fail.

Circular and linear modes are functionally opposite of each other. They cannot operate at the same time without resulting in damage. They are also resistant to each other but if we persist in just one mode of thinking it will eventually lead to rigidity or chaos. The beauty is, when we become consciously aware of the benefits of each mode they function very well in an alternating pattern.

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Author: Kim Hudson

My previous work experience includes exploration geology experience, land negotiator for the Federal Government on the Yukon Comprehensive Claim, consultant to Yukon First Nations, researcher for a law firm specializing in aboriginal law, author and developer and workshop presenter of Balanced Leadership and Two Culture Talks.

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