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Chaos and why our lives depend on it

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After taking a course in project management recently, learning to control and manage complex activities, I was feeling stifled. Don’t get me wrong, the course was great, but in the days that followed, I began to wonder, why are we so obsessed with imposing order? Through my Feed day roving, I stumbled into chaos. And it was invigorating.

If something big and scary rears up in your life and threatens your status-quo, what’s your first reaction? You’ll probably want to find some sense of order, right?  So, we go back to work soon after we’ve lost a loved one because we feel the structure is good for us. We rationalise bad things that happen to us, explain them or ignore them. According to Ashli Akins in her TedEx talk, The Creativity of Chaos, that’s not surprising.

“Human beings have a desire to control, to order the chaos that surrounds us,” she says. “We have to – because… those that assess us do so on our products and outputs. But what happens when our process goes awry?”

In our society we’ve built sky-scraping structures of order to act as safety nets. Since the dawn of mankind, we’ve sought to rationalise and order the unknown. We’ve written tales and conjured theories that explain out the existence of apparent impossibilities. We rationalise or ruthlessly ignore the impossible and the uncertainties of life, because we’ve learned to fear them.

“Human beings have a desire to control, to order the chaos that surrounds us.”

Chaos theory grew out of Newton’s fundamental laws of physics. Newton’s nice, neat, structured, understandable laws of physics. Newton laid out a picture that every system in the universe is governed by structure and orders that are replicated and reiterated over and over again. He suggested a level of predictability in everything. They led to mathematicians’ bold statements about the fundamental comprehensibility of all things. The19th century French mathematician Laplace, said, “If we were to know with precision the positions and speeds of all the particles in the universe then we could predict the future with certainty.”

However when in 1963 Edward Lorenz became frustrated with the inaccuracy of weather predictions, he noticed that tiny variations in data, became magnified as time continued, meaning the complex system of weather was unpredictable using Newton’s laws. This was the beginning of chaos theory (and that little thing called Quantum Physics). It goes a little something like this:

Newton’s laws don’t do so well explaining the complex systems of the natural world. Theorists pondered this problem, twiddling their moustaches and looking into the middle distance, wagering that in these systems where unpredictability occurs, something must disrupt the process. Through this disruption, a state of chaos would occur. And this would change everything. The structured path the system was ambling along would become altered and different routes would be taken, which would lead to a faster trajectory of development and evolution than is seemingly possible. This is chaos theory – in a very small nutshell.

“Theorists pondered this problem, twiddling their moustaches and looking into the middle distance.”

So, what does this mean for us and our day-to-day? Akins explains that from a point of chaos, a system has one of two options, to collapse or to transcend to a new level. I argue that there’s a third option in life, which is to fall back into the safety net of the status quo. In her TedEx talk, Akins describes the idea of chaos in creativity. If chaos is quelled, we’ll always fall back to our safety net; the way we’ve always done things.

“Without chaos we are too stable to reorganise. We are too inflexible to adapt and change”, she says. But if we were to harness chaos, follow the disruptions from our usual paths, then maybe we’d find something better. This is where innovation lies.

‘Without chaos we are too stable to reorganise. We are too inflexible to adapt and change’

Akins goes on to discuss process and success. Chaos, at its essence, is risky and unstable and chances are by following a new path, you may not succeed in your original aim. However, what you learn in the process can be far more valuable.

“Do we learn more in the processes that seemingly lead to failed outcomes? Can you learn more from these processes then from the projects that succeed?’ Akins asks.

In BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time podcast, I learned some science that answered these questions for me. When researchers studied the brains of London taxi drivers (who have to memorise every street in the capital), they found that they used a significantly larger section of their brain for memory than the average person. This perhaps goes to show that we are actually physically altered by our day-to-day surroundings. It’s evolution. By using that part of the brain more, it grew. So it stands to reason, I would think, that if you choose to take different routes, cut corners or cross streams along your creative path, your brain will become stronger in the midst of chaos.

‘In the heart, it’s actually the deviations from order that give it health.’

Later in the podcast, I found the substance I needed to fall head over heels into chaos. It’s all in the heart. New studies have apparently found that the most constant component of the human body, the heart, actually grows stronger through dealing with minor deviations in its rhythm.

So vital is our ability to cut new paths, to learn and grow that you could say our lives depend on it.

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