Spend enough time with big thinkers these days and you’re bound to hear the word crop up. Emergence. This is basically when some interesting pattern arises from lots of interconnected components. An ant colony exhibits intelligent behavior that emerges from millions of stupid ants. Consciousness emerges from billions of relatively simple neurons. A stable economy emerges from lots of autonomous, self-interested actors (this last one isn’t really true).  Some people will use the word with wide-eyed enthusiasm. Really cool stuff comes out of really simple building blocks when they are arranged just so, with feedback and stuff. It’s neat! Others will scoff, and tell you that the term ‘emergence’ is just a cop out for describing something that’s complicated, that everything really reduces down to simple components. If complex processes don’t reduce down to their component parts, then there must be some kind of magic at work, and since there’s no magic, there’s no emergence.

Deep down, I think we all know that both sides have a point. Everything is quantum particles, or superstrings, or whatever, all interacting at the level of the fundamental forces of the universe. There really isn’t anything else. Except that there is. Because you and I, the “I” that I call I and the “I” that you call I, are not fundamental particles, but the unfolding of dynamic patterns in our brains with inputs and outputs to our bodies and environments. The whole is the sum of its parts, except that the whole and the parts are fundamentally different things. A mind is not neurons, but patterns.

Snakes in the Garden (2011). Photographic weaving by Christy Kovacs.

Snakes in the Garden (2011) Christy Kovacs

Emergence happens when the phenomenon in question is of a fundamentally different nature from its parts. And it feels likely that the fundamental shift in type can’t come from a sort of mathematical, sciencey description. Instead, it refers to something in our minds, the differentness that prevents categorical consolidation. I don’t want to get too technical. Instead, I want to tell you a story.

I was walking down Mission Street in San Francisco on a crisp, sunny afternoon in late April. I was with a few friends, and we were on our way to get burritos. Shortly before we got to the taqueria, I witnessed the most amazing man I have ever seen.

Imagine a white man about forty-five years old. He is fit and well-muscled, but has the slumping shoulders and sunken head of a member of the working class down on his luck. His hard jaw is slightly clenched, and he is looking resolutely forward as he walks. I try to make eye contact with him, but he will not have it. He is plodding determinedly forward, his steely eyes fixed on his task.

The man is wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and baggy work pants. His hair… is incredible. It is black, with wisps of gray. His sideburns have been shaved up past the top of his ears, but the front of his curly mane is poofed up and then hangs back in a braided ponytail that falls to his middle back. He is reminiscent of a second-rate pro wrestler from the mid-eighties. And consistent with eighties-inspired fashion sense, he totes with him a full size ghetto blaster, its boxy speakers shouting some generic metal band at high volume.

I could stop right here, and I would have described a man who would certainly catch your attention, someone to notice and laugh about with your friends once he’d passed. I’m not done. The man isn’t carrying his portable stereo in his hands. Instead, it rests atop the awning of a large baby stroller. Inside the stroller is a worn teddy bear and an overweight orange and black tabby cat.

I wish I could take you back through time and space to show you this guy. He was truly incredible.

What makes this guy so bewildering?

The brain works by executing action plans, and comparing the perceptions coming in through the senses with the expectations in line with the current plan. If all is well, a sense of well-being ensues, with a burst of positive emotion at the completion of a task. If you hit a snag, the emotion system kicks in and interprets the arousal in the context of your internal states and the situational context. Subtle or anticipated violations may be perceived as interesting, but are easily dealt with. Major violations, the ones that cause surprise, come when your perceptions violate your ongoing action plan and there is no readily available contingency plan. And utter bewilderment comes when your brain doesn’t even know where to start looking for a contingency plan.

The most amazing man I have ever seen caused bewilderment because the sum total of his appearance and behavior crossed a threshold that took me from interest, through surprise, to bewilderment. A man with a tie-dyed shirt who looks like Mickey Rourke from The Wrestler might cause me to take notice, but is easily dealt with by my brain. “Heh, that guy looks weird.” Now give him an eighties boom box blasting metal. It’s surprising, though I’ll admit that it’s only barely so for the Mission. If I had been on Venice Beach, I’d almost expect it. Even so, it’s still daylight out, and I’ve had a couple of beers. I think, “Whoa, get a load of this piece of work.”

But now, in addition to all that, he’s pushing a fat cat in a baby stroller. My brain has no way of reconciling this image. What could possibly be going on? I have a million questions at once, all in different directions. I wonder what kind of person he is. I try to imagine him at home. God, what does his home look like? What possible life trajectory could get a man from childhood to the enigma I just viewed? I realize: this man breaks all of my archetypes for the kind of person a person can be. There is no way to reconcile it. Fizzle. Pop.

None of this man’s traits, in and of themselves, make him so amazing. Rather, out of a constellation of characteristics, individually innocuous, emerges something truly special. And from the vast ocean of neural activity in my brain, although you couldn’t find it in any particular nerve cell, emerges that way I feel about it.

The man passed by. I took a deep breath, and put my hand on a building to steady my balance. Damn. I turned back and looked at my friends. They all saw it too. We have shared something, and that, too, is emergent. Then we all shrugged it off and got ourselves a burrito. It was absolutely delicious.



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