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Gregory Bateson

“When you have something to say, silence is a lie.”

Born in 1904, Gregory was named after Gregor Mendel, the monk and botanist who opened the way to an understanding of how hereditary traits are passed on from one generation to the next. Gregory’s father, William Bateson, had championed Mendel’s theories in England, involving himself in years of violent polemics as to the nature of the evolutionary process, and coining the word ‘genetics’ in the process.


Early in his career, Bateson wrote about the ways in which communication and behavior are circular and affect one another. There's not always a clear cause or effect of a behavior. For example, a person in a performance may alter her performance based upon audience feedback, and this may continue to alter the feedback. Influence is multidirectional, and Bateson referred to this phenomenon as the “vicious circle” (David Lipset 1972).


Bateson is well known for identifying and naming the paradox of the double bind, a dilemma that Bateson and his colleagues discovered while researching schizophrenia. A double bind occurs when an individual experiences conflicting emotional, verbal, or physical messages. They realized that these highly emotionally impaired individuals often suffered from an inability to process the internal and external communication they were receiving.


“The rules of the universe that we think we know are buried deep in our processes of perception.”

17-year-old Gregory Bateson, following his brother’s suicide in 1922, turns out to be extremely relevant to us today, for it eventually led him to revolutionize the study of anthropology, bring communication theory to psychoanalysis (thus undermining the Freudian model), invent the concept of the ‘double bind’, and make one of the first coherent, scientifically and philoso­phi­cally argued pleas for a holistic approach to the world’s environmental crisis. Seeking to condense Bateson’s work into one core concept, one can say that, above all, he proposed a paradigm shift in the way we think of ourselves as purposeful, decision making actors in the world (David Lipset 1972).


So this was a family of scientists. William’s wife Beatrice worked with him on his research, and his father had been an academic. Gregory’s eldest brother John was studying biology at the University of Cambridge when he was conscripted to fight in the First World War, and killed in 1918. His other brother Martin also went to Cambridge to study zoology. Gregory, some five years younger, was expected to do the same, like his namesake; high achievement, in the Bateson family, was the only justification for living (Palo Alto 1953).


Gregory, hitherto considered the dummy of the family, now found himself saddled with all his parents’ considerable expectations. The very day after Martin’s suicide, his father wrote to the boy in boarding school to remind him that only ‘great work’ makes life worthwhile, but, once again, that ‘art is scarcely in the reach of people like ourselves’. Martin’s death proved this. ‘Fix your mind on some impersonal definite interest,’ his mother told him in a separate letter (Palo Alto 1953)..


This might seem a recipe for defeatism and immobility. But Bateson was nothing if not subtle. Conflicting imperatives, paradoxes and no-win situations, he insisted, might well drive us mad, but they also spawn creativity, and even art. Faced with an impossible choice – a ‘koan’ as Zen Buddhists call it – you will be forced to revolutionise the way you think in order to move on. Rather than suggest technical solutions to the world’s problems, Bateson hoped that he might inspire us to start thinking about changing ourselves. For, ‘the major problems in the world,’ he wrote ‘are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.’


The deliberate use of double bind scenarios can be used as a form of thought control. With no clear verbal communication, implications can be made through intonation, eye contact, physical gestures, and by other methods. Victims of double bind intimidation often feel trapped in a situation that requires they complete a specific task that may result in a positive outcome in one regard, and a negative outcome in another. For instance, when a person who is abused is told that he or she is loved and valued while simultaneously receiving the message that he or she will no longer be loved if he or she tells anyone about the abuse, the victim is in a double bind (Bateson, 1991).


The double bind technique is used as a method of coercion and control in relationships of nearly every type. The authority figure, whether a parent, teacher, or intimate partner, uses the tactic to gain power over the victim in the relationship. The victim, unable to come to any resolution when confronted with the double bind, experiences anxiety and fear. As hard as the victim may try, he or she is not able to satisfy all requirements of the double bind, as it is an impossible puzzle. This can leave a person feeling powerless, intimidated, unfulfilled, and afraid of the consequences that will follow (Bateson, 1991)..


Full double bind requires several conditions to be met:

1. The victim of double bind receives contradictory injunctions or emotional messages on different levels of communication (for example, love is expressed by words, and hate or detachment by nonverbal behaviour; or a child is encouraged to speak freely, but criticised or silenced whenever he or she actually does so).

2. No metacommunication is possible – for example, asking which of the two messages is valid or describing the communication as making no sense.

3. The victim cannot leave the communication field.

4. Failing to fulfill the contradictory injunctions is punished (for example, by withdrawal of love).


The double bind was originally presented (probably mainly under the influence of Bateson's psychiatric co-workers) as an explanation of part of the etiology of schizophrenia. Currently, it is considered to be more important as an example of Bateson's approach to the complexities of communication which is what he understood it to be (Flemons 2002).


Bateson was intensely fascinated by the interplay of various symptoms, and he claimed that the world was a group of systems interacting with one another. The system of the individual, the culture, and the ecosystem each respond to one another, creating a feedback loop.


Bateson argued for a type of scientific inquiry called abduction, which is the process of comparing patterns of relationships. Philosopher Charles Sanders Pierce originally used the term to indicate the way in which scientific hypotheses are created (Flemons 2002).


Bateson is known for the "Double Bind" theory of schizophrenia and for being Margaret Mead's third husband. His most important work was in laying the foundations of a more inclusive vision for science--a meta-science, what he called epistemology. In academic circles he is considered by some to be a cult figure whose appeal includes his obscurity, eccentricity and diversity of accomplishment. Still, the rise of interest in holism, systems, and cybernetics have naturally led educators and students to Bateson's published work (Flemons 2002).


By his own admission Bateson was widely misunderstood, and the unconventionality of his style might be largely at fault. Bateson did not have much respect for contemporary academic scientific standards of writing, his works have often the form of an essay rather than a scientific paper, he used a lot of metaphors and his choice of sources tended to be unusual (for example citing old poets and ignoring recent scientific sources). At the same time, he wrote on a very abstract level. However, many scholars consider his works to contain a great deal of original thought and to reward careful reading. He has been a very important inspiration in the field of family therapy, and Neuro Linguistic Programming, having served as a mentor to both Richard Bandler and John Grinder and introducing them to medical hypnotist Milton Erickson (Bateson, 1972, Brown, 1991).


The thread that connects Bateson's work is systems theory/cybernetics, a science he helped to develop as one of the original members of the core group of the Macy Conferences. Bateson saw these paradigms in biology and math had an application in the social/behavioral sciences. He spent his last years seeking a unified definition as a metascience in epistemology, and this central interest provides the undercurrents of his thought. His association with the editor and author Stewart Brand was part of a process by which Bateson’s influence widened — for from the 1970s until Bateson’s last years, a broader audience of university students and educated people working in many fields came not only to know his name but also into contact (to varying degrees) with his thought (Bateson, 1972, Brown, 1991)..


Bateson’s own process of self-transformation began with a letter to his father in 1925. A year earlier, his parents had persuaded him to break off his engagement to a Swiss woman. She wasn’t English, she wasn’t a scientist, and hence she wasn’t right. Sent off, in compensation, to the Galápagos Islands to repeat the fieldwork that Charles Darwin had done a century before, Bateson found the inhabitants far more interesting than the fauna. Pleading with his father not to be ‘terribly disappointed’, he wrote to tell him he needed to ‘break with ordinary impersonal science’. He would study people, anthropology (Bateson, 1972, Brown, 1991)..


Ten years later, on the opening page of Naven, he observed that, while the artist might capture the whole emotional tone or ethos of a society in a few pages, anthropologists restricted themselves to the mechanics of its organisation. But he would seek to link organisation and ethos. As a scientist, he would invade the territory of art; or do science the way an artist might. Thus Bateson, responding to the conflicting attitudes of his parents, found himself at the beginning of the movement that questioned the limitations of a traditional scientific approach, in particular the notion that the scientific observer is entirely separate from the objects of his or her study. But such thinking was ingrained in Western civilisation. ‘There are times,’ he wryly remarked ‘when I catch myself believing there is something which is separate from something else’ (Bateson, 1972).


Naven takes its title from a series of bizarre rituals performed by the Iatmul people of New Guinea, which bewildered Bateson for some years. He had gone to the South Paci­fic in 1927 intent on exploring the relationship between individuality and culture, eager to undermine the dominant British anthropological model of the time, formu­lated by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, that saw human societies very much as biological organisms, with the behaviour of the individual parts entirely explicable in terms of the needs of the whole. Bateson found this rigid determinism oppressive and unconvincing, in part because it didn’t explain conflict between individuals, and again because it ignored the realm of aesthetics (Bateson, 1972).


Bateson’s beginning years as an anthropologist were spent floundering, lost without a specific objective in mind. He began first with a trip to New Guinea, spurred by mentor A. C. Haddon. His goal, as suggested by Haddon, was to explore the effects of contact between the Sepik natives and whites. Unfortunately for Bateson, his time spent with the Baining of New Guinea was halted and difficult. The Baining turned out to be secretive and excluded him from many aspects of their society. On more than one occasion Bateson was tricked into missing communal activities, and held out on their religion. Bateson left them, frustrated. He next studied the Sulka, another native population of New Guinea. Although the Sulka were dramatically different from the Baining, and their culture much more “visible” to the observer, Bateson felt their culture was dying, which left him feeling dispirited and discouraged (Bateson, 1972).


“We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future.”

What I learnt from Gregory Baetson:

Bateson was intensely fascinated by the interplay of various symptoms, and he claimed that the world was a group of systems interacting with one another. The system of the individual, the culture, and the ecosystem each respond to one another, creating a feedback loop. Bateson wrote about the ways in which communication and behavior are circular and affect one another. There's not always a clear cause or effect of a behavior. For example, a person in a performance may alter her performance based upon audience feedback, and this may continue to alter the feedback. Influence is multidirectional, and Bateson referred to this phenomenon as the “vicious circle.”

I have organized my learning’s under some important points which are as follows-


1. We create the world that we perceive, not because there is no reality outside our heads, but because we select and edit the reality we see to conform to our beliefs about what sort of world we live in. The man who believes that the resources of the world are infinite, for example, or that if something is good for you then the more of it the better, will not be able to see his errors, because he will not look for evidence of them. For a man to change the basic beliefs that determine his perception - his epistemological premises - he must first become aware that reality is not necessarily as he believes it to be. Sometimes the dissonance between reality and false beliefs reaches a point when it becomes impossible to avoid the awareness that the world no longer makes sense. Only then is it possible for the mind to consider radically different ideas and perceptions.


2. What is true is that the idea of power corrupts. Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most. Obviously, our democratic system tends to give power to those who have hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don't want power to avoid getting it. Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.”


3. Can a computer simulate all processes of logic?

The answer was yes, but the question was surely wrong. We should have asked: Can logic simulate all sequences of cause and effect? And the answer would have been no.


4. Dreams and percepts and stories

It is as if the stuff of which we are made were totally transparent and therefore imperceptible and as if the only appearances of which we can be aware are cracks and planes of fracture in that transparent matrix. Dreams and percepts and stories are perhaps cracks and irregularities in the uniform and timeless matrix. Was this what Plotinus meant by an 'invisible and unchanging beauty which pervades all things'?


5. What we mean by information — the elementary unit of information — is a difference which makes a difference, and it is able to make a difference because the neural pathways along which it travels and is continually transformed are themselves provided with energy. The pathways are ready to be triggered. We may even say that the question is already implicit in them.


6. We have been trained to think of patterns, with the exception of those of music, as fixed affairs. It is easier and lazier that way but, of course, all nonsense. In truth, the right way to begin to think about the pattern which connects is to think of it as primarily (whatever that means) a dance of interacting parts and only secondarily pegged down by various sorts of physical limits and by those limits which organisms characteristically impose.


7. We are beginning to play with ideas of ecology and although we immediately trivialize these into commerce or politics, there is at least an impulse still in the human breast to unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are.... There have been, and still are, in the world many different and even contrasting epistemologies which have been alike in stressing an ultimate unity, and, although this is less sure, which have also stressed the notion that ultimate unity is aesthetic. The uniformity of these views gives hope that perhaps the great authority of quantitative science may be insufficient to deny an ultimate unifying beauty


8. We do not know enough about how the present will lead into the future. We shall never be able to say, "Ha! My perception, my accounting for that series, will indeed cover its next and future components," or "Next time I meet with these phenomena, I shall be able to predict their total course.


9. We are discovering today that several of the premises which are deeply ingrained in our way of life are simply untrue and become pathogenic when implemented with modern technology.


10. Numbers are the product of counting. Quantities are the product of measurement. This means that numbers can conceivably be accurate because there is a discontinuity between each integer and the next. Between two and three there is a jump. In the case of quantity there is no such jump, and because jump is missing in the world of quantity it is impossible for any quantity to be exact. You can have exactly three tomatoes. You can never have exactly three gallons of water. Always quantity is approximate.


11. Pathology is a relatively easy thing to discuss, health is very difficult. This, of course, is one of the reasons why there is such a thing as the sacred, and why the sacred is difficult to talk about, because the sacred is peculiarly related to the healthy. One does not like to disturb the sacred, for in general, to talk about something changes it, and perhaps will turn it into pathology.

12. Our initial sensory data are always “first derivatives,” statements about differences which exist among external objects or statements about changes which occur either in them or in our relationship to them. Objects and circumstances which remain absolutely constant relative to the observer, unchanged either by his own movement or by external events, are in general difficult and perhaps always impossible to perceive. What we perceive easily is difference and change and difference is a relationship.


13. Schizophrenia – its nature, etiology, and the kind of therapy to use for it–remains one of the most puzzling of the mental illnesses. The theory of schizophrenia presented here is based on communications analysis, and specifically on the Theory of Logical Types. From this theory and from observations of schizophrenic patients is derived a description, and the necessary conditions for, a situation called the “double bind”–a situation in which no matter what a person does, he “can’t win.” It is hypothesized that a person caught in the double bind may develop schizophrenic symptoms


14. Whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of lose and strict thinking and this combination is the most precious tool of science.


15. There is a strong tendency in explanatory prose to invoke quantities of tension, energy, and whatnot to explain the genesis of pattern. I believe that all such explanations are inappropriate or wrong.

If we pursue this matter further, we shall be told that the stable object is unchanging under the impact or stress of some particular external or internal variable or, perhaps, that it resists the passage of time.


16. If it were possible adequately to present the whole of a culture, stressing every aspect exactly as appears in the culture itself, no single detail would appear bizarre or strange or arbitrary to the reader, but rather the details would all appear natural and reasonable as they do to the natives who have lived all their lives within the culture.

17. Perhaps the attempt to achieve grace by identification with the animals was the most sensitive thing which was tried in the whole bloody history of religion.


18. Evolution has long been badly taught. In particular, students - and even professional biologists - acquire theories of evolution without any deep understanding of what problem these theories attempt to solve. They learn but little of the evolution of evolutionary theory.


19. Science sometimes improves hypothesis and sometimes disproves them. But proof would be another matter and perhaps never occurs except in the realms of totally abstract tautology. We can sometimes say that if such and such abstract suppositions or postulates are given, then such and such must follow absolutely. But the truth about what can be perceived or arrived at by induction from perception is something else again.


20. In the transmission of human culture, people always attempt to replicate, to pass on to the next generation the skills and values of the parents, but the attempt always fails because cultural transmission is geared to learning, not DNA.

21. Whenever we pride ourselves upon finding a newer, stricter way of thought or exposition; whenever we start insisting too hard upon "operationalism" or symbolic logic or any other of these very essential systems of tramlines, we lose something of the ability to think new thoughts. And equally, of course, whenever we rebel against the sterile rigidity of formal thought and exposition and let our ideas run wild, we likewise lose. As I see it, the advances in scientific thought come from a combination of loose and strict thinking, and this combination is the most precious tool of science.

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