Written Sunday, August 16, 2020

I've been around descriptions of cardiac failure for a long time; I have family members and have had a few friends in various medical and emergency-response careers, so hearing about heart attacks was not unusual for certain segments of my life.

What really made the concept real to me, though, was a book about chaos theory that described "fibrillation" in terms of a mathematical situation. The electrical signals of nerves and neurons that typically regulate proper muscle contractions - a heartbeat - become uncoordinated, uncooperative, and can even lead to permanent failure.

A heart-muscle in fibrillation does not move the way a heart usually should. Fibrillation can affect muscle fibers anywhere in the body. When a fiber is in this state, its movement is not as pronounced, not as recognizable - often requiring specialized, highly sensitive equipment to even observe that motion exists. And yet a fibrillating heart, just like a single fiber of muscle acting this way, contains phenomenal amounts of energy - it simply goes nowhere productive.

The mental image of this has stuck with me for many years, and I've actually started to see analogous concepts in other areas of life besides just muscles. Of course, the words used to describe those things are typically different, but that's the nature of analogy.

Cognitive Fibrillation

I work in a very mentally-intensive field that involves the need to make many kinds of complex and often very difficult decisions based on criteria that are far more intricate and detailed than any one person can hope to hold in their heads at once. Part of my job is helping other software engineers overcome analysis paralysis - an affliction that is likely familiar to anyone who has faced a tricky choice.


Given all these options, how do you know what the "right" choice is? What is best? Or what do we do first? There are tools and mental habits that can help make these decisions simpler, but they are not universal, nor are they guaranteed to lead to a particularly desirable outcome. In other words, they are necessary but not sufficient for making decisions.


Knowing the "right" choice always requires first stepping back and understanding the criteria and the situation. The exact same set of actions can be helpful in one case and harmful in another. If we're startled by something unexpected, sometimes taking a deep breath to steady our nerves is exactly what our bodies need - but if we happen to be underwater, that's not a good response!


Often there simply is no one right answer to a choice, and so we instead get fixated on the "best" options. Again, though, we need a lot of contextual awareness to understand this. What makes one thing "better" than another? What costs are we willing to incur? What effort are we willing to expend?


When this involves time pressure or a limited set of resources, we enter a mode of triage - what needs attention right now, and what can we get into a reasonably stable state, and get back to later?


A person caught in analysis paralysis is not literally motionless. On the contrary, they may expend tremendous amounts of energy, and generate massive amounts of anxiety, without actually making a choice - because the selection process is so overwhelmingly complex and difficult.


The mind, in this state, is using energy but the movement is uncoordinated, unproductive, and unhealthy. Much like with the process for recovering from an in-progress heart attack, the brain needs a jolt - some strong, powerful signal that says "this is where to go next" - and, almost always, both a fibrillating mind and a fibrillating heart can respond to that signal and return to coordinated, productive, healthy operation.


Social Fibrillation

Groups of people do the same thing. Groups of people, regardless of - families, friends, teams, business organizations, countries, even the entire planet - exhibit patterns. Much like a fractal shape, the patterns are strikingly similar at different scales and levels of detail. They differ and evolve and shift, especially as the numbers grow and shrink, but they all have similarities.


The patterns of fractal nature within a single person's body, mind, and life also manifest in the collective.


On occasion, social groups - of all sizes - find themselves facing a situation that is difficult, complex, problematic, maybe even overwhelming.


Somehow, humans as a species tend to solve these situations. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here to write this, and you wouldn't be here to read it. And yet in the moment, those challenges are almost always daunting and may feel utterly hopeless.


The sad truth is that sometimes we don't solve them. Sometimes friend groups dissolve, business ventures fail, and life has to readjust. But this, in itself, is a smaller pattern within the larger context of human existence.


When amazing changes happen, they are almost never easy. They cost time, energy, commitment, and a willingness to endure change - which often brings sensations of discomfort, for all of us. This happens both in the context of a specific person, and all the way up to the entirety of our planet.


A great many words are invested in exploring the experiences of "leaders" in this kind of context - the people who seem to provide that "signal" or "jolt" that grabs our collective hearts and gets us moving again. These people are important, to be sure, but there are so many others who do not get much attention and yet deserve a far greater percentage of the credit and appreciation.


A defibrillator doesn't work alone. It simply allows the existing body to return to its natural way of functioning. The electrical action is very short, and often does not need to be used repeatedly; the body is able to recover and resume regular heartbeats. The hero of the story may be the "A.E.D." device as the tale is usually told, but the real quiet, unsung hero is the miraculous set of nerves and electro-chemical coordination mechanisms that allow the heart to go back to operating safely.


Of course, there is usually lasting damage from both fibrillation and the recovery from it; again, this is the way of analogies. Unlike heart muscles, minds and social groups can recover from these situations and go on to be far healthier than they began.


In a social context, anyone can provide that nudge. For a healthy heart, the signals that regulate pulse are very subtle and quiet compared to the jolt of a defibrillator. That extreme measure is only needed in dire circumstances.


In a heart, it isn't just one nerve, neuron, or muscle-fiber's job to maintain the pulse. It's all cooperative. Fibrillation occurs when something gets in the way of cooperation.


In a brain, for someone thinking and acting and choosing their way through life, cooperative effort is vital. "Cognitive dissonance" is well-known to produce actual physical symptoms when left unaddressed for too long. A mind in fibrillation will cause immense discomfort and damage - not out of some kind of malice or spite, but as a desperate plea to return to peaceful, harmonious operation.

And the fractal scales upwards even still.


In a group of people, moving in the same direction is immensely powerful. It's why we (rightfully) fear a panic-driven stampede. It's why we find hope and strength in marching together. It's why having people provide signals that keep us all cooperating and working in alignment is so essential to functional and healthy societies.


The story isn't - and shouldn't be - focused on the brief, temporary actions of extreme measures used to try and restore that cooperative alignment. The story has always been about the rest of the tapestry of existence. Knowing the rest of the context is what gives us the ability to know when to take a deep breath and when to remember that we're still underwater.


In a healthy heart, mind, or social group, the tiny corrections and gentle encouragement of cooperating members can sustain success and guarantee thriving for amazing amounts of time and through incredible challenges and struggles. Being disconnected from the collective, or being given a sufficiently disruptive jolt, can spell disaster - not just for a small part, but for the larger group, and even for the larger context beyond that: a heart attack can end a life; a poor decision can affect many people; and a species unable to find ways to work together can bring an entire planet into a precarious state.


We should be concerned about these risks; and we should also remember the hope: that with enough of an insistent supply of direction and effort, returning to healthy life is also possible.