My personal aim for 2016, and I hope you’ll join me, is to get better at sharing an absolutely amazing story, the “big history” and future of a very little known but critically important concept:
A simple definition of psychological flexibility that I prefer is the ability of a person or group to adapt their behaviors, thoughts, and culture towards valued outcomes1. Whether I’ve known it or not, this concept has played a pivotal function in my life. As a farmer and food systems educator in Maine (more than a decade ago), I was constantly adapting almost every aspect of my life around the needs of my crops, livestock, and students. I was doing everything I possibly could to make my vision of a healthy, local food system become reality. In my current role, developing graduate programs in agricultural and education sciences in Madagascar’s Higher Education system, I find that I have to cultivate psychological flexibility much more deliberately. Everyday I am faced with the overwhelming challenges of working across continents and cultures. My commitment to my work forces me to deal with some characters I’d much rather have nothing to do with. Persistence in the face these obstacles requires a keen sense of my own values and a flexible repertoire of approaches and responses to the novel social ecosystem I now find myself within.
Having psychological flexibility means that we, as individuals and communities, are actually moving in the directions we truly want to go, in all the areas of life we care about. For some of us this sounds great! While for others this may sound so general, so philosophical as to be outside to realm of science, perhaps even out of the realm of practicality.
The devil, of course, is in the details, and it is my argument that the details only start to make sense in the light of Big History – an integrated narrative history of our cosmos, earth, life, and humanity2. This grand narrative of how our uniquely human minds became so brimming with potentiality is as fascinating as it is, well, BIG. So I present here just a brief sketch of the this story, a little big history of this concept of psychological flexibility. The full story takes some time to learn, and some dedication to understand. Highlighting some key events in the development of psychological flexibility provides a starting context for the insights and future potential of this powerful idea.
A Little Big History of Psychological Flexibility
Here is an often pointed out conundrum: the second law of thermodynamics predicts the universe should be diffusing into an evermore entropic simplicity, yet here is our species, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang, locked into a seeming arms race of increasing complexity. A world brimming with purpose and meaning, choices and challenges.
The very essence of our humanity, our unique capacities for adapting to new environments, engaging symbolic thought, and organizing large-scale cooperation, appear, at least intuitively, to be at odds with this fundamental law of the universe. The laws of physics are said to be immutable, but within life lies the potential for flexibility.
DNA is an essential ratchet of cosmic complexity on our planet. Importantly, the origins of molecular life must have followed only a very simple and rigid rule: replicate or die. With rapid replication and differential survival, any mechanism for adapting to the current environment would elevate the organism within the relative fitness pool. The capacity to adapt is, by definition, adaptive – yet obviously no organism has, as yet, become infinitely adaptable to any known environment. And so, flexibility frequently evolved within given constraints, from the painstaking minutia of molecular pathways in bacterium, into the flailing flagellum of the first motile organisms. The origins of behavior at this scale of the single cell had just one function, to move the organism towards that which is good for its genes, and away from that which is bad for it. This dialectic of towards and away behaviors forms the foundational architecture of even our most complex human engagements, yet it was just the beginning for behavioral evolution.
With the advent of cellular mobility, came cellular cooperation. Life bloomed a dizzying diversity of multi-cellular creatures, and by around 600 million years ago, our jellyfish-like ancestors had evolved disorganized neural networks allowing information about the environment to better shape these towards and away behaviors. This new found adaptive flexibility fueled the selection of a strategic neural organization – the emergence of early brains and bilateral nervous systems. With the evolution of the 5 senses, our ancestor’s capacity for increasingly complex behaviors enhanced their fitness by collecting information from a slowly expanding array of modalities and distances.
Nurturing Psychological Flexibility Into Existence
Fish learned to walk, amphibians learned to feel, and reptiles learned to care. Mammalian mothers evolved the first nurturing social environments we know of in the cosmos. Within these nurturing environments the play of the young fostered innovation and change, adding flexibility to the more rigid traditions of their local group.
The social environments of our ancient ancestors reshaped the neural networks of diverse tribes of hominids over millions of years, only some of whom would fully capitalize on their expanding capacity for cultural change. The harsh and dynamic environments of the pleistocene forced and rewarded behavioral flexibility, especially the kinds of social cognition required for effective group cooperation. The hunting of megafauna reshaped both our minds, and our bodies – early humans became elite projectile throwers of stones. This new capacity for hunting led to a new capacity for the weak to stand up to the strong, a social and behavioral plasticity unseen among other primates. The throwing of stones provided a unique addition to the growing human behavioral repertoire, as it allowed our ancestors to suppress free-riding and corrupt authoritarianism, thus expanding their capacity for larger scale group cooperation3. In the wake of this paradoxically peacekeeping violence, a new type of nurturing environment was created, a human community capable, at times, of providing its youth with greatly enhanced opportunities for the exploration of innovation.
Amidst the glow of campfires, the mystery of the night’s sky, and the coordinated thrill of the hunt, symbolic thought flourished. A seemingly limitless landscape of imagination emerged, a landscape that can be shared by language, and built upon over time. Onto this emerging landscape, a cambrian-style explosion of cultural capacities radiated in all directions. Our slowly re-organizing neural networks now supported rapidly re-organizable symbolic networks. With this new found capacity came visions of heaven and hell, the ability to contemplate the big history of our universe, and the vision to see a vastly more humane world. A question slowly began to emerge: can our species collectively cultivate the socio-cultural changes required to make our shared visions of humanistic values become real on a global scale?
Cultivating Psychological Flexibility in the Gardens of Democracy
Philosophers of the human condition have long recognized the pull between raw human emotion and our reasoned intellect. The mind is indeed like an elephant and a rider4, emotion and reasoning utterly codependent on each other, yet each with different strengths and weaknesses. Psychological Flexibility looks at how the rider can become a humane and effective partner to her elephant on their shared journey. As philosophers morphed into scientists, and sometimes back again, humans have started to amass quite a collection of wisdom regarding the linkage of emotion and reason and how we might better get to where we want to go.
Philosophers such as Comenius, Fröbel, and Rousseau all championed a particular kind of developmental environment, school gardens, as providing the right ingredients for cultivating citizens with the compassion, competency, and discipline required of any growing democracy. School gardens were seen as the kind of nurturing environments in which individuals and societies could grow the futures they dreamed of.
Education in the early 1900’s saw the rise of a strong optimism regarding the promise of formal schooling to deliver a new generation of youth with the flexibility and competencies to truly design a better world. John Dewey was a key driver of much positive innovation through his own school garden programs, but also through evolutionary theorizing on the nurturing of human nature5. Dewey argued for the reorganization of experience, both in terms of personal meaning and social associations, as the central aim of education, a prescient early description of modern conceptions of psychological flexibility.
During the second half of the 20th century, the sciences of the human condition evolved into an explosive diversity of specializations in all directions. This flood of foundational research has given us immense vision into human nature. Often, however, differing disciplines have advanced disconnected or even incongruent models of what it means to be human. These disciplinary divides have perhaps contributed to a popular conception that “the science is still out” on many aspects of healthy human development for which we do indeed know quite a bit.
While so much remains to be learned, an exciting synthesis of research and practice across disciplines is yielding very specific insights based on a very general conclusion. That is, a growing consensus is emerging around the value of nurturing environments to foster psychological flexibility as an essential trait in both mental health and group efficacy across widely diverse contexts6,7,8. While many nuanced disagreements and serious questions persist, a primary challenge, it now appears, is largely about translating global insights into local practice.
Concurrent with this rising synthesis among the human sciences, exponential technology trends have continued to reshape our entire world at rates never before imaginable in history. We now live in a world in which we can land a robot on a comet travelling through space at 18km/s over 6 billion km from earth. We can design real biological organisms from mere computer code. We can communicate almost telepathically with people all over the world through readily accessible information technologies. Despite these amazing feats, tragic social and psychological challenges persist with a stubborn intractability. War, terrorism, corruption, human trafficking, child abuse, torture, even depression, anxiety, and addiction, all are crippling phenomena of our modern world that seem just out of reach for modern societies to reliably and durably solve. Do humans possess the capacity for change of this scope and scale? Will a science of the human condition ever yield as as precise design insights as astronautic engineering?
Big History never ends, it merely looks at the present and into the future. I’ll end this little big history by highlighting three emerging innovations in psychological flexibility that reflect some exciting future directions for the evolution of this vital concept.
- The Matrix Goes to School. Phil Tenaglia is a school psychologist and family therapist who has advanced a technique called The Matrix within a secondary education context9,10. The Matrix is a simple diagram that groups can engage to discuss various elements of psychological flexibility in different contexts. Phil works with a network of educators to advance the teaching and experiential engagement of youth in this technique to cultivate psychological flexibility in the classroom on a daily basis. I think schools will increasingly continue to move towards engaging students with a range of tools, including but not limited to The Matrix, to promote psychological flexibility in diverse school and community contexts.
- BrainSmart. Donna Wilson has developed the Brain-Based Teaching Ed.D program at the Abraham S. Fischler School of Education at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, in addition to authoring a wide range of books and articles connecting positive education with neuroscience and developmental psychology11,12. Her approach involves utilizing the brain as both scientific content to be learned, as well as a context for educational design, with an explicit integration between these two strategies. I think schools will increasingly recognize the value of utilizing interdisciplinary studies of the human brain in just this way – as both content and context for learning13.
- The Nurture Network. Anthony Biglan is the author of The Nurture Effect14, an incredibly concise and invaluable summation of insights on human and societal development from his tradition within the behavioral sciences. His core message is that nurturing social environments, at all scales of social interaction, are a vital and catalyzing factor for healthy human development. This simple essential truth has wide ranging policy implications for parents, principles, and policy makers of all stripes. Psychological flexibility most easily emerges and thrives within Biglan’s conception of nurturing environments, and his Nurture Network aims to grow a global coalition of practitioners committed to expanding access to such nurturance. I think the future of psychological flexibility will see the emergence of strong global coalitions of both researchers and practitioners working in close collaboration across organizational, cultural, disciplinary boundaries.
Psychological flexibility is about noticing the difference between what is in our heads and what is in the world. It is a about evolving strategies to move towards what is most important to you, your family, and your communities. What better way to start the new year than to learn and reflect more about this?
To explore even a sliver of the deep-time history and exciting potential future of our uniquely human capacity for psychological flexibility reveals a fascinating tale that teaches not only science, but the nature of science and social-emotional learning all at the same time. To understand the emerging toolkit for cultivating psychological flexibility at the personal, social, and even societal scale offers fertile ground for nurturing educational and community-based development projects around the world.
I hope you will join the Evolution Institute and its network of partners in sharing the story, the big history, of psychological flexibility and how this important concept can be put to put to work for you and your communities.
1 Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
2 Spier, F. (2015). Big history and the future of humanity. John Wiley & Sons.
3 Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Charleston, SC: BookSurge/Amazon.
4 Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Basic Books.
5 Popp, J. A. (2012). Evolution’s first philosopher: John Dewey and the continuity of nature. SUNY Press.
6 Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
7 Wilson, D. S., Hayes, S. C., Biglan, A., & Embry, D. D. (2014). Evolving the future: Toward a science of intentional change. Behavioral and Brain Sciences,37(04), 395-416.
8 Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. New Harbinger Publications.
9 Tenaglia, P. (2015) Learn About The Matrix for Education. Website: http://www.philtenaglia.com/matrix-education/
10 Polk, K. (2014). The Matrix, Evolution, and Improving Work-Group Functioning with Ostrom’s Eight Design Principles. The ACT Matrix: A New Approach to Building Psychological Flexibility Across Settings and Populations, 235.
11 Wilson, D. L., & Conyers, M. (2012). Five big ideas for effective teaching: Connecting mind, brain, and education research to classroom practice. Teachers College Press.
12 Wilson, D., & Conyers, M. (2013). Flourishing in the first five years: Connecting implications from mind, brain, and education research to the development of young children. R&L Education.
13 Eirdosh, D. (2014). The moral brain as content and context for educational innovation in southwestern Madagascar. EvoS Journal: The Journal of the Evolutionary Studies Consortium, 6(1), 39-50.
14 Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. New Harbinger Publications.