Maturana and Varela: Autopoeisis and Coupling

I have been reading an amazing book: The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding about how consciousness arises and expresses itself through lifeforms. Has anyone else come across this team of writers from Chile – Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela? The ywrote in the ’70’s and ’80’s. I am finding their work inspiring. I first found them referenced by Fritjof Capra in his book from 2004, The Hidden Connections. I have always enjoyed Capra, and enjoy going into his source material.

The Chileans explore feedback mechanisms as the basic component of all consciousness. The term is “structural coupling” and refers to the way all activity is dependent on interaction, two parties, relating. When the capacity to respond, selectively, to an external stimulus exists, the beginning of cognition occurs. I believe this is because complexity provides differentiated terms and lengths time for feedback. A reactive or even conscious entity can attempt to make optimal decisions for its continuation based on the information it can process from outside itself, but there are always lags. In the lags, and complexity, the determination of the best course can be unknowable. However, the ongoing structural coupling with the environment ensures the cognitive entity continuous opportunities to re-assess and respond.

The responses and the continuous activity of an entity, let’s just say a life-form, constitutes its “autopoeisis” – its ongoing self-regulating reproduction, or maintenance. An autopoietic system is one that can re-create itself and continue indefinitely. A eukaryotic cell is one example. Some thinkers have applied these notions to businesses and societies, the self-organizing concept. The original authors of the autopoiesis theory dispute this, once a self-organizing system changes in response to external factors, it is a different organization and has undergone a transformation. Autopoietic structures engage in transformations but maintains its structure (cell walls and internal elements, for instance). I enjoy thinking about how simple processes add up to the complexity of a human experience. It also helps me consider day-to-day life, and how repeated experiences can be approached in an organized way, to find optimal responses. Like, how to handle distractions while attempting to get work done, or how to contiunously express compassion for those around you even while some of their efforts are designed to dissuade you.

I recently tweeted ” the tool or the snowboard is just a means to participate in feedback and appropriately respond to the surrounding perceptions” – which was another way of thinking about how we use things to extend our sensory perceptions and modulate our responses to reality and beyond. I’m just trying to stay balanced, right!



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