Lynne McTaggart | July/August 2011 issue
We sense that we have reached the end of something. Since the millennium, commentators of every variety have been trying to get a handle on the collective significance of the continuous crises besetting us in modern times: banking crises, terrorist crises, sovereign debt crises, climate change crises, energy crises, food crises, ecological crises, manmade and otherwise.
But the crises we face on many fronts are symptomatic of a deeper problem, with more potential repercussions than those of any single cataclysmic event. They are simply a measure of the vast disparity between our definition of ourselves and our truest essence. For hundreds of years, we have acted against nature by ignoring our essential connectedness and defining ourselves as separate from our world. We’ve reached the point that we can no longer live according to this false view of who we really are. What’s ending is the story we’ve been told up until now about who we are and how we’re supposed to live—and in this ending lies the only path to a better future.
The leitmotif of our present story is the hero up against it all. We take it for granted that our life’s journey is meant to be a struggle. We remain vigilant, poised to wrestle with every behemoth—at home, at work, among our acquaintances and friends. No matter how pleasant our lives, the vast majority of us maintain a stance of operating contra mundi, with every encounter some sort of battle to be fought: against the co-workers who seek to usurp our jobs or promotions or the students who raise the bell curve against which we are judged; against the people who take our subway seats, the shops that overcharge us, the neighbors who have a Mercedes when we drive a Volvo and even the husband or wife who has the temerity to insist on maintaining an opinion different than ours.
This idea that we operate against the world originates in our understanding that this self of ours, the thing we call “I,” is a separate entity, a unique creation of genetic code that lives apart from everything else. The most enduring statement we make about the human condition, the central fact of our existence, is our solitude, our sense of separation from the world. We regard as self-evident the fact that we exist as self-contained, isolated beings, living out individual dramas, while everything else—other atoms and other cells, other living things, the land masses, the planets, even the air we breathe—exists as distinct and wholly separate.
Although we begin life from the uniting of two entities, from there on, science tells us, we are on our own. The world is the irrefutable other, carrying on impassively with or without us. Our hearts, we believe, beat finally and painfully alone. This paradigm of competitive individualism offers a view of life as a heroic struggle for dominion over hostile elements and a share of limited resources. There’s not enough out there, and others may be fitter, so we have to get hold of everything first.
The collapse of our global economic model in 2008, the ecological crises, the threatened shortages of water and food and the exhaustion of petroleum sources expose the limits of the mindset, which threatens our planet with extinction. On a personal level it has left us feeling hollow, as if something profound—our very humanity—has been trampled in our daily tussle with the world.
We urgently need to find a new story by which to live.
Much of scientific theory, and consequently our model of the way things work, is going up in smoke. With every scientific finding, yet another cherished notion is overturned. A new scientific story is emerging that challenges our assumptions, including our most basic premise: the sense of things as separate entities in competition for survival.
The latest evidence from quantum physics offers the extraordinary possibility that all of life exists in a dynamic relationship of cooperation. Quantum physicists now recognize that the universe is not a collection of separate things jostling around in empty space. All matter exists in a vast quantum web of connection, and a living thing at its most elemental is an energy system involved in a constant transfer of information with its environment. Rather than a cluster of individual, self-contained atoms and molecules, objects and living beings are now more properly understood as dynamic and protean processes, in which parts of one thing and parts of another continuously trade places.
This revolution is not confined to physics. Extraordinary new discoveries in biology and the social sciences have profoundly altered our view of the relationship between living things and their environment. Frontier biologists, psy-chologists and sociologists have all found evidence that individuals are far less individual than we thought. Between the smallest particles of our being, between our body and our environment, between ourselves and all the people with whom we are in contact, between every member of every societal cluster, there is a Bond—a connection so integral and profound that there is no longer a clear demarcation between the end of one thing and the beginning of another. The world essentially operates, not through the activity of individual things, but in the connection between them—in a sense, in the space between things.
The most essential aspect of life is not the isolated thing, whether a subatomic particle or full-fledged living being. It is the relationship itself: the inseparable, irreducible Bond. This connection—the space in between—holds the key to the life of every organism, from subatomic particles to large-scale societies, and also the key to our viable future.
These discoveries suggest that the idea of the individual as an discrete thing distinct from other things is a fallacy. There is nothing— from our subatomic molecules to our entire being—that we can define with any certainty as a wholly separate body that can be isolated and ring-fenced. The “individual” is only the sum of an infinite number of inexactly defined parts, and the parts as we currently understand them are shifting and transforming at every moment. In every way, individual things live life inextricably attached and bonded to an “other.” Nature’s most basic impulse is not a struggle for dominion but a constant and irrepressible drive for wholeness. The new story being written around the globe adds up to the beginning of a recovery of our holistic view of ourselves as bound to everything we see around us.
These discoveries hold not only vast implications about how we choose to define ourselves, but also vast implications about how we ought to live our lives. They suggest that all our societal creations, invested as they are in competition and individuality, run counter to our most fundamental being—that a drive for cooperation and partnership, not dominance, is fundamental to the physics of life and the biological makeup of all living things. They imply that most of us in the developed world are not living in harmony with our true natures. That we are constantly affecting and being affected by all matter in a constant and ever-evolving Bond demands a drastic change in the way we relate to ourselves and all other living things.
We need some new rules to live by. We need another way to be.
In spite of our brain’s great capacity in every other regard, our method of taking in all we see around us, particularly the activity of other living things, is highly unimaginative. When we observe the action of another person, to make sense of it, we have to re-create the experience in our head as though we were carrying it out ourselves. We translate the actions, sensations and even the emotions of others into the neural language of our own body, as though they were our own experiences. The same neurons fire in our heads whether we feel the touch of something against our legs, observe something touch someone else’s legs, or even watch an object being touched. Any type of touch we see evokes the neural networks involved in our subjective experience of touch.
The brain cells that enable these interactions are called mirror neurons. For a human mirror neuron to activate, the observed activity has to be within the observer’s motor repertoire and derive from his experience. For instance, we can immediately connect with a dog through our mirror neurons when we see it eating a succulent piece of meat, but not when it is barking at another dog. Without the ability to “feel into” the experience through mirror neurons, the brain of a human can create only an approximate experience by cobbling together a rough simulation, much as a computer would, of what it is to bark.
In fact, we always filter our observations of someone’s activities through our first-hand experience, even if it differs from that of the person we’re observing. Researchers once studied the brain activity of a person born without hands who was observing another person reaching for a glass. In this instance, the regions of the brain and spine associated with the toes and feet were activated, not the areas associated with hands. The handless observer understood the action through the same process that he used to grasp a glass: with his feet. This would suggest that the act of seeing establishes a Bond—a complex mix of your actions and emotions and mine.
If you were able to get inside your own head and observe your brain and nervous system in the act of relating to someone else, you’d be hard-pressed to figure out which instructions relate to you and which to the other person. You may think you are an objective observer, but you are always looking through someone else’s eyes. The boundaries between you and everyone else are blurred, because they are governed by a complex mix of neural firings originating from inside and outside your head. With no conscious effort, you internally re-create the actions and emotions of others through the complex filter of your experience. If you are speaking to me, your emotions flicker in first, but then I add my history to the brew.
We not only copy the motor program of the particular action; we also replicate all the physical and emotional feelings associated with it, according to our past experiences, such as whether an activity was hard on the muscles or tingled against the skin. If we’re watching an athlete during sports training and we hated running at school, our old emotions will get poured into the mix of our observation. We can only understand the experience through the link with our history.
In fact, the more familiar we are with the actions we observe, the more of our mirror neurons fire. In a professional dancer observing another dancer, for instance, more of her mirror circuitry involving dance moves are activated than in someone who is less familiar with dance. Every time we look outward we pick up the living world’s experience and add to it like someone adding her own favorite ingredients to a new recipe. This makes for a global interpretation of what we’ve just seen, because, for an instant, we observe the world from a higher perspective—from multiple vantage points and through all the time we’ve been alive.
When we say to someone, “I feel your pain,” it is true. Mirror neurons associated with pain also fire when we see someone getting hurt. In one study, participants whose brain patterns were being monitored were asked to imagine receiving a pinprick and then to watch someone else receive a pinprick. The scientists conducting the study discovered that the same neurons fired whether the participants imagined themselves getting pricked or witnessed someone else getting the same injury. However, our ability to feel someone else’s pain appears to be dependent on the emotional context of the pain. The neurons that fire create our reaction to pain, not the physical aspects of it. We simulate the emotional experience, rather than actual physical hurt.
Even when you see an enemy in pain, although you may get some perverse satisfaction from the situation, your first response is a pure connection: You put yourself into the same emotional state. The act of perception is a moment of perfect union—no matter with whom.
Many psychologists and neuroscientists now believe that mirror neurons represent the first glimmers of empathy—our ability to place ourselves in someone else’s shoes—and this appears to be a finely tuned feedback system. Those who rate themselves as highly empathetic typically display more mirror neuron activity. Conversely, as we develop empathy our mirror neuron circuitry develops in complexity, suggesting that the heart of empathy is embodied simulation.
But the reverse is also true: The more finely attuned a person’s mirror neurons are, the more likely he is to show empathy. The neuroscientist Antonio Damasio used brain imaging to determine which areas of the brain lit up in a group of participants when they were asked to think about one of three scenarios: an emotional experience from their past; the equivalent experience for another person, but imagined by the participants as if it were happening to themselves; or an unemotional experience from their own past. When a participant related strongly to another, he produced brain activation equivalent to what would happen if he himself were undergoing the experience. However, when he couldn’t empathize with the other person’s story, unrelated portions of his brain lit up.
Besides internalizing experience outside ourselves, we also perceive the world through an invisible and constant conversation with our surroundings. In 1970, while investigating a cure for cancer, German physicist Fritz-Albert Popp stumbled on the fact that all living things, from single-cell plants to human beings, emit a tiny current of photons, or light, which he labeled “biophoton emissions.” Popp immediately understood that a living organism makes use of this faint light as a means of communicating within itself and also with the outside world.
Popp and some 40 other scientists around the globe have carried out more than 30 years of research on biophoton emissions. They maintain that this faint radiation, rather than DNA or biochemistry, is the true conductor of all cellular processes in the body. They have discovered that biophoton emissions reside within DNA, setting off frequencies within the molecules of individual cells. When he was first taking these measurements, Popp and his colleagues used exacting equipment capable of counting light emissions, photon by photon, which enabled the researchers to discover something remarkable. When skin ointment was applied to one part of the body, a large change occurred in the number of light emissions in parts of the body that were far distant. Furthermore, the size of the change correlated in every location. Popp recognized he had uncovered the primary communication channel within a living organism, which uses light as a means of instantaneous, or “non-local,” global signaling.
Popp also discovered that these light emissions act as a communications system among living things. In experiments with a number of organisms, including human beings, he discovered that individual living things absorb the light emitted from each other and send back wave interference patterns, as though they are having conversations. Once the light waves of one organism are absorbed by another organism, the first organism’s light begins trading information in synchrony. Living things also appeared to communicate information with their surroundings— bacteria with their nutritional medium, the inside of an egg with its shell. These “conversations” also occur among different species, although the loudest and best dialogues are reserved for members of the same species.
Popp’s work demonstrates that with this tiny current of biophoton emissions, we create a quantum Bond with our world. With every waking moment, we are taking in something else’s light.
Opening yourself up to a pure connection with someone else, as occurs with a mother and child, creates a neural resonance effect between you. This deep resonance can occur with anyone, not simply our children.
We are so attuned to the emotional states of others that the brain is constantly in readiness to resonate with them.
Practicing compassionate meditation regularly can sensitize us to others permanently. This ability can develop fairly quickly. The Buddhist practice of compassionate meditation is very much like our natural impulse to give of ourselves unconditionally. Most fascinating is the area of the brain where effects occur: the temporal-parietal junction, in the right hemisphere. The neuroscientist Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has discovered that during certain forms of meditation the activity of the parietal lobes is decreased. This part of the brain helps us to generate a three-dimensional image of our bodies and to orient ourselves, and so enables us to work out self from not-self. Newberg also discovered that a practitioner of compassionate meditation loses the sense of self and other and enters a perception of oneness. This unconditional readiness to give—part of our natural impulse to connect—helps to dissolve individual boundaries, enabling us to step out of our individuality and into the space between ourselves and other.
That is also where we find the sense of community, the space of interdependence where all of us join together in our common humanity and common purpose. One of the fastest ways to achieve this Bond is to form a community superorganism, a common, overarching goal. Psychologists call this a superordinate goal, a goal achieved only by strong cooperative teamwork. Engaging in sharing and teamwork tends to transcend differences because it emphasizes the very heart of humanity: We are all in this together. And if we are all in this together, we are no longer competing for scarce resources.
American management Consultant Don Beck, co-author of the book Spiral Dynamics, uses superordinate goals as a means of ending political conflict. It was Beck who came up with the idea of using South Africa’s entry into the World Cup rugby playoffs in 1995, depicted in the film Invictus, as a means of creating nation-building euphoria to unify a country emerging from apartheid. Beck had a special fascination with the psychology of premier-league games, and through his experiences working with the Dallas Cowboys and the New Orleans Saints, he had developed a belief in the power of sports as a peacemaker. This was a bold idea, given that the Springboks, the South African rugby team, were the very symbol of apartheid. Rugby was considered a white man’s sport. Virtually all players were Afrikaners, the white pro-apartheid minority; rugby coaches even shouted out plays in Afrikaans. English-speaking and black players seldom made the team; consequently, the black population in South Africa boycotted the sport.
In 1995, Beck presented Kitch Christie, the Springboks’ coach, with a paper titled “Six Games to Glory,” which detailed a series of psychological strategies that would help transform the team from underdog to world-class contender in the games leading to the World Cup.
Besides the strategies for winning the game, Beck’s paper included ways that the Springboks could become a focal point of pride for the fledgling country and connect the township blacks with the Afrikaners.
The paper offers many strategies that can be used to create superordinate goals in other areas. He suggested that the Springboks adopt a collaborative or common identity: the green and gold colors of the team shirts and a team song with a Zulu drum to lead the team and arouse the crowd. He advised Christie to have the team sit together and watch films such as Hoosiers and Chariots of Fire to help establish a “mystical brotherhood,” the sense that the team stands together as one family, with a bond greater than their loyalty to themselves, and a cause to fight for.
Beck arranged for the team to visit Mandela’s tiny prison cell at Robben Island to emphasize their larger role in their country’s destiny. Above all, his exercises were meant to develop a sense that each member of the team faced a life-defining moment requiring that they pull together as one.
As the games progressed, Beck’s superordinate goal began to infect the country; young blacks from the township tore down anti-rugby signs and hung photos of their Springbok heroes. During the World Cup, which the Springboks went on to win, Mandela was persuaded to appear in a Springbok green and gold shirt, which had always symbolized his oppressors, as a tangible sign of unity and forgiveness.
To Beck, creating a superordinate goal is one of the best ways to achieve peace in areas of political conflict. He often meets with both sides in an area of discord and shows them a positive vision of the future, but one that requires that both sides work together and use their common geography and resources to create a solution for all.
Beck likes to talk in sports metaphors. “You focus on relentless pragmatism,” he says in a heavy Texas drawl, “the progress that can be made to move the game forward.” Recently he presented the Arabs and Israelis with a plan to make occupied Palestine “the Hong Kong of the Middle East,” an affluent society with both sides sharing resources for services such as education and health care. Presently he is consulting with both sides to work out the details and timeline of how to achieve this kind of society within 30 years. Creating a common identity and working together for a superordinate goal was also crucial to the survival of the Chilean miners during the 70 days they were trapped below the Atacama Desert after the Copiapó mine collapsed in August of 2010. The shift supervisor and de facto leader, Luis Urzúa, used a variety of tactics to create a collective identity: strict sharing of resources; a one-man, one-vote democratic decision-making process; a unifying name for the group (Los Trenta y Tres, “The Thirty-Three”)—all of which helped create a sense of one for all, pulling together against impossible odds. At the same time, Urzúa constantly reinforced the fact that survival wasn’t just personal or for the good of the group. He hung up the Chilean flag and frequently led the men in the Chilean national anthem. He created in his men the sense of their place in history: their survival was necessary for the good of their country.
From a scientific point of view, the true power of leaving our small space of individuality and coming together as a group to achieve a superordinate goal stems from a collective resonance effect. Just as brain-wave entrainment can occur between two individuals, it also gets established between group members working together. The electrical activity of each individual in the group begins to resonate on a common wavelength—a choir perfectly in tune. Like a group of electrons that begins to vibrate as one giant electron, the group creates a resonance that magnifies the individual effect.
We experience a powerful physical boost by being part of a superorganism. One of the most compelling studies of this phenomenon involved a great British university tradition: the rowing team at Oxford University, known to be fiercely competitive, particularly against its chief rivals at Cambridge University. Anthropologists from Oxford’s Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology asked a group of Oxford rowers to work out in a “virtual boat” housed in a gym and used for normal training. Members were to row continuously for 45-minute sessions, first as members of a team and then as individuals.
After each session, the scientists assessed rowers’ pain thresholds by measuring how long they tolerated inflated blood pressure cuffs on their arms. Exercise is known to increase a person’s ability to tolerate pain.
Although rowers evidenced increased pain tolerance after each session, they had significantly greater tolerance after the group training compared to exercising individually.
The scientists concluded that although all physical activity results in a release of endorphins, one of the body’s feel-good chemicals, the synchrony of the shared physical activity appeared to create a ramped-up endorphin release, which may have affected communal bonding. Emma Cohen, lead author of the study, noted that “synchronized, coordinated physical activity may be responsible.” The rowers created a “field” that magnified individual efforts and overrode individual limitations. Within the field, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts.
When we do things in groups, the rush of we’re-all-in-this-together elation we feel allows us to resist difficulties, including pain. This offers proof of the old adage that there is power in numbers and explains why we feel something extraordinarily akin to magic in groups working for a common purpose. We move outside our individuality and into the space of the Bond.
Scientists now understand that neurons become more efficient and operate as a unit when they are repeatedly and persistently stimulated together: Neurons that fire together wire together. It may also be true that people who fire together wire together. When we work with others for a common purpose, we very quickly and literally get onto their wavelengths. All of this suggests that coming together in small groups with a superordinate goal provides a social cohesion beyond money, job or size of property. We may be at our happiest when neighbors are helping neighbors.
Perhaps the most important way to re-establish the Bond within our neighborhoods and, by extrapolation, our societies is to broaden the definition of who we are. Once you remove the competitive nature of human groupings, people begin to flourish. Like overlapping molecules, we can learn to reconnect and reclaim our natural way of being by creating a larger, all-embracing identity, a bigger definition of who “we” are. The more groups you label as part of yourself, the more people you embrace. The dance of life is not a solo, it seems, but a duet—every part of you connects to an essential and irreducible Bond. The Bond ultimately posits an alternative future in which a new paradigm for living in intimate partnership and connection replaces the metaphor of battle. That new vision starts with the understanding—shocking in the breadth of its implications—that nothing in the world is separate. In fact, in the most basic sense, there is no such thing as a thing.
This is an edited excerpt from The Bond: Connecting Through the Space Between Us (Free Press) by Lynne McTaggart. Find out more: thebond.net