28th May 2006 | Draft

Cognitive Fusion through Myth and Symbol Making

archetypal dimensions

- / -

Annex D of Enactivating a Cognitive Fusion Reactor: Imaginal Transformation of Energy Resourcing (ITER-8)
[See also website of ITER-8: Cognitive Fusion Reactor]

-- Experimental challenge of fusion for ITER
-- Experimental challenge of "cognitive fusion" for ITER-8
-- Complementarity between ITER-8 and the ITER fusion project
-- ITER-8 self-reflexive design
-- Torus dynamics common to ITER and ITER-8
-- Dematerialization | Virtualization | Correspondence between the virtual reality of ITER and ITER-8
-- Complementary fusion metaphors: "plasma dynamics" and "attention dynamics"
-- Towards a language appropriate to dynamic engagement
---- Form and dimensionality | Embodiment | Didjeridu playing
-- 3-fold Complementarity (nuclear fusion, didjeridu, cognitive fusion)
-- Helical threading of "incommensurables"
---- Snake metaphor | Incommensurable rings and the challenge of cognitive fusion
---- Cognitive "traffic" around a "hole" | Spiral dynamics
---- Supercoiling and field effects in cognitive organization (of knowledge)
---- Simulation possibilities
-- ITER-8: a necessarily underdefined entity
-- Resonant associations to other "ITER" projects
-- People | Institutions | Technologies
-- Myth and indigenous knowledge
-- Archetypal symbolism indicative of the fundamental dimensions of ITER-8

Cognitive fusion through myth and symbol making

It is readily assumed in the modern world that myth and symbol are only to be associated with outmoded modes of cognition. This is to forget the immense investments in "image making" through advertising, public relations and news management, or the importance attached to the symbols by which individuals, groups, teams, corporations, nations and international bodies are identified -- and through which they may well define their own identities. Great attention is given to the "stories" or "narratives" by which the identity of entities is crafted in relation to others. Their ability to "reinvent" themselves through developing new stories is appreciated. Symbols may then be embedded in a connective tissue of myth.

Confirming the extensively documented arguments with respect to myth of Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, 1988), Karen Armstrong (A Short History of Myth, 2005) makes the points that:

Human beings have always been mythmakers....the Neanderthal graves show that when these early people became conscious of their mortality, they created some sort of counter-narrative that enabled them to come to terms with it.... human beings fall easily into despair, and from the very beginning we invented stories that enabled us to place our lives in a larger setting, that revealed an underlying pattern, and gaver us a sense that, against all the depressing and chaotic evidence to the contrary, life had meaning and value.

Armstrong addresses the curious status of myth in industrialized societies, despite this long-demonstrated function:

Another peculiar characteristic of the human mind is its ability to have ideas and experiences that we cannot explain rationally.... imagination is the faculty that produces religion and mythology. Today mythical thinking has fallen into disrepute; we often dismiss it as irrational and self-indulgent. But the imagination is also the faculty that has enabled scientists to bring new knowledge to light and to invent technology that has made us immeasurably more effective.... Mythology and science both extend the scope of human beings. Like science and technology, mythology...is not about opting out of this world, but about enabling us to live more intensely within it..

In a time of considerable anxiety regarding the possibility that humanity may anihilate itself and all life on the planet, this argument is consistent with the recognized influence of "end times" scenarios on foreign policy, notably of the USA [more | more]. Noting that the word 'myth' is often used to describe something that is simply not true, Armstrong points to some of its vital functions in modern society:

Like poetry and music, mythology should awaken us to rapture, even in the face of death and the despair we may feel at the prospect of annihilation. If a myth ceases to do that, it has died and outlived its usefulness. It is therefore a mistake to regard myth as an inferior mode of thought, which can be cast aside when human beings have attained the age of reason. Mythology is not an early attempt at history, and does not claim that its tales are objective fact. Like a novel, an opera or a ballet, myth is make-believe; it is a game that transfigures our fragmented, tragic world, and helps us to glimpse new possibilities by asking 'what if'? -- a question which has also provoked some of our most important discoveries in philosophy, science and technology....If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth.

Armstrong argues:

...every time men and women took a major step forward, they reviewed their mythology and made it speak to the new condition.

As Armstrong notes, substitutes for myth are evident in the modern relationship to art, music, dance, drugs, sex and sport. However, most striking are the myths made, sustained and appreciated around celebrities and in major media phenomena: international competitive sport, particular novels and their "blockbuster" film versions (Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, etc). Jospeh Campbell's work on myth was, for example, acknowledged as a strong influence on the Star Wars series [more].

In this respect Armstrong concludes:

If it is written and read with serious attention, a novel, like a myth or any great work of art, can become an initiation that helps us to make a painful rite of passage from one phase of life, one state of mind, to another. A novel, like a myth, teaches us to see the world differently; it shows us how to look into our own hearts and to see our world from a perspective that goes beyond our own self-interest.

Such perspectives are consistent with those of the Standing Conference on Organizational Symbolism (SCOS). This is an international and interdisciplinary network of academics and practitioners interested in organizational symbolism, culture and change formed as an autonomous working group of the European Group for Organisational Studies. The research focus of SCOS crosses traditional disciplinary and functional boundaries, providing a reflective space for the development of new forms and new voices for this work. It aims to produce and develop theoretically and practically innovative views of organization and management and through encouraging and fostering new approaches in the study of culture and symbolism of everyday life in organizations. It deliberately evokes discussion of marginalised perspectives on the understanding of organized life providing an arena where the boundaries of conventional thinking about organized life can be challenged and blurred. Its philosophy is explicitly one of "serious fun".

From such understanding, ITER-8 responds to the question of the nature of the myths that a modern globalized knowledge society is evoking for itself. On the one hand these are epitomized, as demonstrated (above) by the production of "megametaphors" such as "globalization" and "sustainability" (Timothy W. Luke, MegaMetaphorics: Re-Reading Globalization, Sustainability, and Virtualization as Rhetorics of World Politics, 1999) ). On the other are the media and "blockbuster" attractors -- and their military analogues (Afghanistan, Iraq, etc). And then there are the many anticipated religious "messiahs". But then there are the megascience projects such as the International Space Station, and expeditions to the other end of the solar system -- following that to the Moon and the associated myth-making. Then there is ITER -- acclaimed in terms of the "energy of the Sun". These may all be considered as unconsciously engendered collective myths which "work" -- for some and for a time.

As with Darrell Posey (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, 1999), Armstrong stresses the contrast between the modern tendency to separate the religious from the secular as being incomprehensible to (early) indigenous peoples for whom nothing was profane:

Everything they saw or experienced was transparent to its countepart in the divine world...The most ordinary actions were ceremonies that enabled mortal beings to participate in the timeless world of "everywhen". For us moderns, a symbol is essentially separate from the unseen reality to which it directs our attention, but the Greek symballein means "to throw together": two hitherto disparate objects become inseparable -- like gin and tonic in a cocktail.... The earliest mythologies taught people to see through the tangible world to a reality that seemed to embody something else.

When so many fragmented initiatives of modern society are, to some degree, effectively engaged in myth-making under other guises, the question for ITER-8 is how to engage in this process most fruitfully and coherently. Hence the challenge of cognitive fusion and the intimate relationship to ITER's mundane preoccupations.

In the light of the insights from a highly mediatised global society, to what extent can ITER-8 reflect in a more integrated and focused manner the process of myth-making as a form of cognitive fusion? To what extent does the thinking underpinning ITER provide highly disciplined guidelines in this respect? It is useful here to make a distinction between:

  • the achivement of credibility through authority (irrespective of whether what is so authorized is comprehensible and credible in its own right to those whose resources are allocated to it)
  • the capacity to engender credibility in those exposed to a process

ITER, as framed above, might be considered as a useful model of the media myth-making process as embodied by ITER-8. This is perhaps usefully clarified by reference to the parallels between the physics of acoustics and plasma exemplified by the didgeridoo:

  • drone: as with the bagpipes, a carrier drone sound is a basic requirement -- as is a carrier wave for plasma. In organizations this is exemplified by the plenary meeting, occasionally referred to as droning on
  • tones: the formants give distinct meaning to the sound (as noted above). In organizational meetings, this may be exemplified by keynote speakers or thematic panels following a programmatic script, as with a musical score
  • overtones/undertones: appropriately generated by a skilled player, notes of much higher or much lower frequency emerge from the interplay of the preceding elements. In a meeting the "overtones" are typically described as "highlights", whether they were actually heard or whether it is convenient for public relations purposes to claim that they emerged. The "undertones" may however be matters of concern omitted from any widely distributed communication.
  • "fusion": under particular conditions, the above sounds fuse into a new level of meaning engaging player and audience in a form of cognitive fusion; played; occasionally meetings may have what tend to be described as "transformative" or "magical" moments, when everything "came together". Occasionally such a synthesis can be articulated by a person or a process in the meeting.

In a world of news management and spin, such processes may be usefully compared with the cognitive processes of an organization, as modelled acoustically or by plasma dynamics. As a person of Australian origin, how credible is it to frame Rupert Murdoch (Chairman of News Corporation) as effectively, and skillfully, playing the media world like a didgeridoo? Much has been made of the the need for his benediction by upcoming politicians -- from Tony Blair, through George Bush, to Hilary Clinton. Is it the case that he effectively ensures a media "drone", in support of interesting "sound bites" as "tones" -- whether or not the "overtones" and "undertones" are consciously recognized? What form of "cognitive fusion" is sustained by this process?

In such a context, are there organizations whose centre of gravity is effectively at the "drone" level -- as might be expected of many bodies performing maintenance functions in any system? Might others then be distinguished by a centre of gravity associated with the "tones" of their regularly changing programmes, as is the case with many intergovernmental bodies, and those whose existence is primarily legitimized and sustained by public relations claims. Of potentially greater interest are the initiatives of less conventional form whose processes and activities manage to engender "overtones", perhaps to be interpreted as "higher values" -- or "undertones", whether problematic or indicative of a higher degree of groundedness. An obvious danger, however, is the tendency of those preoccupied with higher values to themselves get locked into a "drone" mode -- as with many peace organizations -- obscuring the overtones which they seek to cultivate..

Given the dynamics through which "overtones" are engendered, and the dependence on the sustaining processes, organizations centered in such forms necessarily have a highly transient form -- effectively unfolding and folding in a manner reminiscent of the case made by David Bohm (Wholeness and the Implicate Order, 1980) for alternation between an implicate and an explicate order. In this sense ITER-8 might be understood as a form of meta-organization.

Myth and indigenous knowledge

Considerable effort has been made to clarify the validity of traditional and indigenous knowledge, notably in relation to biodiversity conservation as promoted by the United Nations Environment Programme (cf Darrell Posey (Ed), Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity: a complementary contribution to Global Biodiversity Assessment, 1999). Various authors have explored the possible significance of "other ways of knowing" through which such knowledge is obtained (cf David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human world, 1997). Of particular interest in terms of the relationship between ITER and ITER-8 is the work of anthropologist Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the origins of knowledge, 1999)

Narby describes the methodological challenge of reconciling indigenous knowledge with conventional anthropological and microbiological approaches and understanding. He draws attention to methodological weaknesses based on assumptions of what has been studied and explained by science -- to the exclusion of what has not, or has in consequence been framed as irrational and irrelevant. He notes the conventional tendency "to fragment reality and to exclude complementarity and the association of contraries from its field of vision...The rational approach tends to minimize what it does not understand." In the context of research on indigenous cultures in the Americas, there is a certain irony to this constraint given the patronizing emphasis placed, in current historical documentaries, on the inability of those peoples to "see" the ships of the arriving Europeans on the occasion of the first encounter -- because they had never been exposed to such a phenomeon before.

Narby's study focuses on the myth of the serpent in many indigenous cosmologies as intimately associated with living processes -- relating this to indigenous knowledge of microbiological structures and properties, seemingly obtained by means considered unacceptable to microbiologists, namely under hallucinogenic trances. The hypothesis he tests is that "shamans take their consciousness down to the molecular level and gain access to biomolecular information". He stresses the highly detailed understanding of indigenous knowledge of the structure and processes of DNA, represented visually in forms recognizable to microbiologists. He notes that

  • many resemblances in the depictions of such mythological serpents -- especially in a typically twinned form -- with the structure of DNA
  • studies by anthropologists worldwide have noted recognition of a "spiral ladder", "braided rope", or "spiral stairway" citing in particular Mircea Eliade (Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy, 1964): "the symbolism of the rope, like that of the ladder, necessarily implies communication between earth and sky. it is by means of a rope or a ladder .... that the gods descend to earth and men go up to the sky" [more] (cf Jacob's ladder)
  • "DNA is the informational molecule of life, and its very essence consists in being both single and double, like the mythical serpents." (emphasis in original)
  • "Inside the nucleus, DNA coils and uncoils, writhes and wriggles. Scientists often compare the form and movements of this long molecule to those of a snake."
  • "To sum up, DNA is a snake-shaped master of tansformation that lives in water and is both extremely long and small, single and double. Just like a cosmic serpent."
  • the "highly sophisticated sound-images that [shamans] saw and heard in their communications were interactive, and that it was possible to communicate with them" (emphasis in original)
  • with respect to biophotons: "DNA's highly coherent photon emission accounted for the luminescence of hallucinatory images, as well as their three-dimensional, or holographic, aspect.... There... is the source of knowledge: DNA, living in water and emitting photons, like an aquatic dragon spitting fire."
  • with respect to the link between photons and consciousness, the comment of a colleague to the effect that: "consciousness could be the electromagmentic field constituted by the sum of these emissions. But...our understanding of the neurological basis of consciousness is still very limited."
  • indigenous shamans use a particular kind of metaphorical song to engage with the forms they perceive through trance; the songs involve a language that is described by those who use it as "twisted" -- meaning "double and wrapped around itself". One correspondent reported "singing, I would carefully examine things -- twisted language brings me close but not too close -- with normal words I would crash into things -- with twisted ones I cricle around them -- I can see them clearly." All such communications are "deliberately constructed in an elliptical and multi-referential fashion so as to mirror the refractory nature of the beings who are their objects."

Narby stresses the perspective of shamans that the correct way of talking about such dynamic subtleties is through metaphor -- that images, metphors and stories are the best way to transmit knowledge. "In this sense, myths are 'scientific narratives', or stories about knowledge..." He then points to the fact that biologists:

...confirm this notion by using a precise array of anthropocentric and technological metaphors to describe DNA, proteins and enzymes. DNA is a text, or a program, or data, containing information, which is read and transcribed into messenger-RNAs. The latter feed into ribosomes, which are molecular computers that translate the instructions according to the genetic code. They build the rest of the cell's machinery, namely the proteins and enzymes, which are miniaturized robots that construct and maintain the cell. (emphasis in original)

Narby claims that the most important insight from his investigation was: "We see what we believe, and not just the contrary; and to change what we see, it is sometimes necessary to change what we believe".

Traditional image of ourobouros in a setting
indicative of formal similarity with cross-section of a toroidal fusion reactor (and associated magnetic elements)
Image presented by Jeremy Narby op.cit (from 'Ourobouros: bronze disk, Benin art', Chevalier and Gheerbrant, 1982)

In the light of such fundamental issues, the question here is how such considerations help to reframe the relationship between ITER and ITER-8. Attention has been drawn to the many similarities and complementarities of form. The preference for the snake metaphor in comprehending both the challenging dynamics of plasma contained in a torus and the challenging dynamics of concentrated attention. The relationship of this metaphor to the ritual music of the didjeridu -- and its evocation of one creation myth -- has also been indicated.

Indication of implicit relationship between
controlled nuclear fusion (ITER) and
controlled cognitive fusion (ITER-8)
combining metaphors of twin Rainbow Serpent and "ladder-to-heaven" (in DNA)

The offset helices in the diagram above suggest a potentially fruitful way of reframing the "two-culture" -- science vs humanities -- challenge of metaphor, myth and imagination in relation to creativity. The potential lies beyond the difficulties associated with the "science wars" provoked by the Sokal Affair and the challenge that the sciences and the non-sciences (from the arts to religion as highlighted by Paul Feyerabend) pose to each other (often with a high order of arrogance):

  • Much is made of the disciplined "objectivity" of the "disciplines" (physics, mathematics, etc) underlying ITER. This is despite their need to invoke uncertainity (principles), paradox, and the "imaginary" (numbers) in responding to conditions of complexity, chaos and the strange (attractors). It is also despite the need of such disciplines to make use of metaphor (proper to the non-sciences) to clarify their meaning. Many engaged in the sciences are inspired by the "beauty" of what they study -- even though the aesthetic appreciation of this quality is not integral to those disciplines, despite their efforts to reduce it to mathematical expressions of symmetry.
  • Much is made of the contrasting "human" sensitivity of the "subjectivity" of the value-sensitive skills required to deal with and exemplify the human condition. This is despite the confusion and lack of discipline with which they are associated. Much of the "subjective" response of the arts and religion is to conditions highlighted through the "objectivity" of the sciences -- endeavouring to frame such "sterility" in "human" terms

Reproductive processes, at the core of life, are based on deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) -- a double helix like that above. The question is whether the opposing, polarized patterns of "objectivity" and "subjectivity" ("sciences" and "non-sciences") can each be meaningfully represented by a distinct helix. Recognizing their mutual (if not intimate) dependency, can these two helices be understood as twisted together as a double helix fundamental to creative cognitive processes?

In biochemistry, a single strand of the DNA helix -- modified in a particular way -- is termed ribonucleic acid (RNA). In the form of "messenger ribonucleic acid" (mRNA), this delivers DNA's genetic message to the cytoplasm of a cell where proteins are made. RNA is thus a template for protein synthesis. The manner in which this is achieved is dependent on the "base pairs" linking the two helical strands. Each set of three such bases (called codons), specifies a certain protein in the sequence of amino acids that comprise the protein. The sequence of codons in a strand of mRNA is thus based on the sequence in a complementary strand of DNA. A DNA segment with excess or insufficient helical twisting is referred to, respectively, as positively or negatively "supercoiled". DNA in vivo is typically negatively supercoiled, which facilitates the unwinding of the double-helix required for RNA transcription.

To what extent can the "reproductive processes" of human creativity and imagination be understood in such terms? It could certainly be argued that the sciences and the non-sciences have specific cross-linking bonds -- primarily taking the form of metaphor (perhaps expressed in the form of myth). They might be said to be bound together through metaphors -- acting like the base pairs of DNA (effectively the "steps" in the mythical "ladder" above). Is it then fruitful to understand the sciences and the non-sciences as exerting a patterning effect on each other in any creative cognitive process? To the extent that this is the case, the many biochemical insights into reproductive processes (and metabolic pathways) within the cytoplams could considerably enrich -- as metaphorical templates -- the insights into the processes of creativity and imagination through which psychic energy is sustained. Can the processes of learning then be fruitfully understood in relation to an analogue of "RNA transcription"?

Especially relevant to further reflection on such possibilities, especially in relation to psychosocial change processes, is the ordered coding of the Chinese Book of Changes (I Ching) -- an inspiration to the polymath Liebniz -- whose interpretation is notable for its extensive use of metaphor. Various efforts have been made to highlight its mathematical relationship to the distinct base pairs giving rise to amino acids (cf. Martin Schonberger. I Ching and the Genetic Code, 1992; K Walter, The Tao of Chaos: DNA and the I Ching, 1994; J F Yan, DNA and the I Ching: The Tao of Life, 1991; C. J. Lofting, The Book of Structures: the unchanging in the Book of Changes, 2005). Of particular interest is the relation to the movement and transformations of qi (or ch'i) as a form of subtle energy -- perhaps as to be understood as complementary to plasma.

The basic point to be made is that new insight -- clarifying credible new patterns of higher ordering -- whether from the sciences or the non-sciences, effectively triggers a "transcription" process through which either "objective" or "subjective" understanding may be reordered. This process of "memetic mutation" evokes controlling processes analogous to those in the genetic situation. To the extent therefore that ITER's exploration of controlled nuclear fusion elicits new patterns of disciplined reflection, these may be mapped (transcribed) through metaphor onto the psychosocial processes of ITER-8. The reverse may also be true to the extent that ITER-8 can call upon more fruitful metaphors than are currently recognized by ITER.

Like biologists, physicists are obliged to discuss the dynamics of fusion through metaphor -- especially to those from whom they seek resources. There is indeed a mythical dimension to the work on fusion energy through ITER -- whether or not this is deliberately cultivated by public relations. ITER-8 directly addresses the analogous challenge of the excitement of the imagination, because of the psychosocial need of individuals and societies for such coherent significance at this time.

Archetypal symbolism indicative of the fundamental dimensions of ITER-8

  • Ourobouros: This highlights the fundamental role of cyclic psychocultural processes as recognized in many traditions [more]. It stresses the engagement of ITER-8 with cultural roots. The snake biting its tail is indicative of cyclic completion, the recycling essential to sustainability, and the eternal return (cf Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return, 1971) exemplified by the recognition of T S Eliot: We shall not cease from exploration / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time (Little Gidding). These also emphasize rebirth, notably in the sense of Renaissance.
  • Möbius strip: This is indicative of the counter-intuitive nature of the process and the continuity relating apparent opposites -- the necessary cognitive twist along "the way" to ensure sustainability. The Möbius strip also takes the form of both the infinity sign and the number eight. Eight is both an exponent signifying the number of degrees required for fusion to take place (as conventionally understood), the figure-of-eight twist required for plasma stability, and the eightfold pattern of precepts traditionally enabling any form of cognitive fusion
  • Circle of interrelated I Ching hexagrams [see larger version]: This highlights the set of 64 hexagrams indicative of the conditions of change as well as their interrelationships -- the possible directions of change (Transformation Metaphors derived experimentally from the Chinese Book of Changes, 1997). The whole provides further, and more detailed indication, of the dynamic constraints on cognitive fusion. To the extent that cognitive fusion depends on the degree of interactivity between distinct conditions, especially in terms of self-reflexivity and self-reference (the degree of curling in "cognitive space time"), the pathways in the image provide a sense of the "pattern that connects".With respect to ITER, the relationships are a visual reminder of the field effects induced by coil windings. Both this and the previous image point in quite different ways to the nature of the "alchemical" container in which cognitive fusion and transformation take place -- as suggested by the movement and transformations of qi (or ch'i) as a form of subtle energy.
  • Detached field-effect: This emphasizes the absence of tangible relationships between the cognitive modalities or precepts collectively enabling controlled cognitive fusion. The relationships of greatest significance may be better understood as field effects -- as in any dynamics sustaining the form of a torus (suggested by the image). The image as a whole is also a reminder of the role of humour and crazy wisdom in counter-intuitive understanding. (cf Humour and Play-Fullness: essential integrative processes in governance, religion and transdisciplinarity, 2005)
  • Three interlinked rings: These provides a reminder of the necessary step down required from the insights of cognitive fusion, through the relevant strategic thinking to the problematique that is both the challenge and a shadowy mirror of the limitations in understanding that remain to be addressed in practice. The symbol used is a traditional celtic pattern. Elsewhere (Present Moment Research: exploration of nowness, 2001) this has been juxtaposed with both Francisco Varela's 3-fold phenomenological epoche and the symbolism of the Borromean Rings. For Varela the cycle of organically linked phases is at the core of the act of becoming aware in the moment: "an initial phase of suspension of habitual thought and judgement, followed by a phase of conversion of attention from 'the exterior' to 'the interior', ending with a phase of letting-go or of receptivity towards the experience.

creative commons license
this work is licenced under a creative commons licence.