Self-organization is a fascinating concept within the field of psychology. It refers to the innate ability of complex systems, such as the human mind, to spontaneously arrange and reorganize themselves without conscious central control. The self organization phenomenon is not simply confined to reorganizing internal psychological processes but also draws upon larger social systems in order to find a new homeostatic balance under the new circumstances.
Self organization refers to systems. Complex systems are made of numerous living and non-living entities. Each system, typically, operates within a larger system, known as a meta-system. The meta-system operates within an even larger systems known as a meta-meta system. We can continue this pattern indefinitely. A system reacts to contaminates or interference through feedback loops that signal an interruption and motivate changes within the system to adapt and integrate.
Self-organizations role in complex systems is the innate property that creates a sense of order, cohesion, and stability across time.
Self organization refers to an automatic process within complex systems to reorganize without conscious control to integrate new and disrupting elements.
Systems expert Donnella Meadows, Ph.D., explains, “systems can change, adapt, respond to events, seek goals, mend injuries, and attend to their own survival in lifelike ways, although they may contain or consist of nonliving things” (Meadows 2008). A well-functioning systems is resilient to interference.
Marvin L. Kaplan and Netta R. Kaplan explain that self organizing systems “develop and evolve in terms of how they are able to continue their viability in the context in which they exist” (1991).
Integration and Emergence
At its core, self-organization involves the emergence of order and pattern from distributed interactions and feedback loops. Self-organization is a fundamental aspect of various psychological processes, including cognition, perception, and behavior. When confronted with new information or experiences, our minds engage in a process of self-organization to successfully integrate adapt changing givens.
Michael S. Gazzaniga, Ph.D., defines emergence as the process of “micro-level complex systems that are far from equilibrium (thus allowing for the amplification of random events) self-organize (creative, self-generated, adaptability-seeking behavior) into new structures, with new properties that previously did not exist, to form a new level of organization on the macro level” (Gazzaniga, 2011).
An opposite response to changing circumstances is to dig in, refuse to re-organize on a larger scale. Instead of healthy adaptation , we fight the inevitable flow of a much larger system that quickly absorbs our miniscule impediment and continues to roll forward without notable change.
Resilience and Self Organization
The brain absorbs surrounding stimuli and responds. Meadows wrote that “resilience arises from a rich structure of many feedback loops that can work in different ways to restore a system even after a large perturbation” (2008). Resilience is a process of continual reorganization around unpredicted and disrupting events (basically, a description of life).
Meadows explains “resilience is not the same thing as being static or constant over time. Resilient systems can be very dynamic.” While all over all response may appear as stable, the interior processes are not stable at all. “Static stability is something you can see; it’s measured by variation in the condition of a system week by week or year by year.” However, she adds, “resilience is something that may be very hard to see, unless you exceed its limits, overwhelm and damage the balancing loops, and the system structure breaks down” (2008).
The development of a resilient system, then, requires some random interference. Perhaps, Eric Erickson’s developmental tasks provided the random events within a certain stage of development necessary for continued ego development. In this case, stages of development could be compared to new emergent states. Jefferey Goldstein wrote, “research into the process of self-organization is demonstrating that random events play a crucial, even necessary role in the development and evolution of systems and in the formation of new structures in these systems” (2004).
Emotions and Self Organization
Daniel Siegel explains that “a single brain functions as an elaborate system that can be understood by examining the ‘theory of nonlinear dynamics of complex systems’ or, more briefly, ‘complexity theory’ (Siegel, 2020). Each function is a system within a system. Functions conflict and reorganize around the conflict in a resilient and balancing process. Siegel adds “the self-organizational properties of the system create a sense of ordered complexity out of the trillions of synaptic connections that can be potentially fired” (2020).
Emotions serve as part of a feedback loop. Our bodies, composed of multiple living parts (and smaller systems) reacts to environmental stimuli, self organizes and emerges slightly different. Leslie Greenberg explains how the emotional feedback loop process works. He wrote, “once a need is raised to a self-organizing, emotion-producing system and the appraisal is made that the need has not been met, the emotion system is highly likely to automatically generate anger at the need/goal frustration, or sadness at the loss of what was needed, or compassion for the suffering of need deprivation.” Basically, “instead of cognitive control of emotion, we have massive feedback loops in which different parts of the brain interact with each other, leading to synchronization, which results in the self-organization of the entire brain” (Greenberg, 2015).
Behaviors Role in Self Organization
One area where self-organization plays a crucial role is in the formation and maintenance of habits and routines. These automatic patterns of behavior emerge from self-organizing processes in the brain. Emotion motivates behavior and repeated behaviors establish new neural pathways to facilitate efficient and effortless actions. Our behaviors then interact with a larger system outside of our own bodies, working with and influencing family systems, and societies.
Complex systems play a significant role in relationships. Accordingly, a healthy relationship reorganizes around the different individual behaviors and emerges with new properties to integrate the differences. Unhealthy relationships, instead of reorganizing around the different properties individuals bring to the relationship, try to extinguish differences, trying to force the other to seamlessly fit into a preconceived notion of how they should act.
Maladaptive Self Organization
Self organization is not always adaptive. Complex systems have their own goals separate from our consciously set desires. Furthermore, an emergent behavior may be appropriate at one point in our life as necessary for emotional survival but may lose its effectiveness as we transition into new environments, becoming maladaptive. Lawrence Heller’s survival styles is a prime example of this. At time of adopting the survival style, it was helpful in working through the trauma. However, as a child moves into adulthood, these styles interfere with normal functioning relationships.
Often the goal of human biological complex systems, with feeling effects serving as the feedback loops, is to emerge with properties that squash the discomforting emotions. We can do this in healthy and unhealthy ways. Often the emergent properties represent themselves as defense mechanisms and coping skills. Siegel wrote that “self-regulation is fundamentally related to the modulation of emotion and self-organization” (2020).
Assisting Self Organization
At first glance, conscious interference of the system seems to be paradoxical to the self-correcting definition. However, consciousness is an element within the larger system. Accordingly, it plays a role and Conscious intentional action is the element we have the most control over.
A few things we can do to assist with healthy self organizations are:
- wellness basics (proper sleep, exercise, healthy consumption)
- avoid or limit pollutants (illegal drugs, excessive alcohol consumption, toxic relationships)
- integrate healthy people, hobbies, and things into your life
- limit stress
- create healthy narratives that organize pasts in helpful and friendly ways
- seek professional help
A Few Words From Psychology Fanatic
In conclusion, self-organization is a captivating concept in psychology that encompasses a wide range of phenomena, from individual cognitive processes to societal dynamics. By understanding and harnessing the inherent capacity for self-organization in our minds, we can gain insights into various aspects of human behavior, cognition, and creativity. This knowledge can help us navigate the complexities of our internal and external worlds, ultimately leading to personal growth and a deeper understanding and respect for the human mind.
Gazzaniga, Michael S. (2011). Who’s in Charge?: Free Will and the Science of the Brain. Ecco; Reprint edition.
Greenberg, Leslie S. (2015). Emotion-Focused Therapy: Coaching Clients to Work Through Their Feelings. American Psychological Association; 2nd edition.
Meadows, Donnella H. (2008). Thinking in Systems. Chelsea Green Publishing; Illustrated edition.
Siegel, Daniel J. (2020). The Developing Mind: How Relationships and the Brain Interact to Shape Who We Are. The Guilford Press; 3rd edition.