The Nature of A Blossoming Rose
The Trouble with Identity, and What Nature can Teach Us About Growth and Utility.
This essay is part of a Circles in Time series called ‘Seeing Ourselves as Systems’. Subscribe here to get access to future posts.
I can’t help but feel a sense of awe when I watch a time-lapse video of a blossoming rose. Have you ever seen one?
The experience invites us to see plants as these vibrant and active organisms that are simply operating on a different timescale to us humans—no longer just flimsy statues that get blown around in the wind.
It’s thrilling to think that if artificial general intelligent (AGI) were to ever arrive, it will likely to be the case that due to the processing speed of the technology, humans may appear very much like the frozen flowers as we view them today.
THE NATURE OF A BLOSSOMING ROSE
The rose’s blossoming is not something we’re wired to see with the naked eye. We can use thought to imagine the unfolding process, but this is always conceptual and so always limited. We are in a very real sense, blind to its changing nature.
Here is a helpful demonstration to gain some intuition for change blindness and the dramatic limitations of our perception of change.
Simply stare that the image in the video below:
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the hummingbird, with wings moving too fast for us to see them while in motion. Our blindness evident once more.
Gradual Growth Blindness
So the sort of visual changes of the blossoming rose that we naturally have access to are too gradual to be seen with the naked eye. We need to either use technology to speed things up or use our imagination to conceptualise the changes.
On the spatial dimension, there are, of course, changes occurring to the rose that would be visible on our time scale if they weren’t so small.
If we were to use a microscope to zoom in on the rose, we would be exposed to a vibrant, bustling city of cellular activity.
At this magnification, we would see the rose blossoming in ‘real’ time.
At this spatial scale, what blossoming looks like is cell multiplication. The flower’s eukaryotic cells moving through a process of interphase and cell division.
During interphase, we might see cells take in nutrients, increase in size and start duplicating their chromosomes. We may also see the cells’ nuclei divide and the establishment of new cells during the cell division phase.
Growth at this level can be seen for what it is: Replication by division.
GROWTH AS AN EMERGENT FUNCTION
Importantly this growing isn’t something that happens with intention. The rose does not will itself to blossom.
Rather, the cell replication, plant growth and rose blossoming are emergent functions of inter-related subsystems operating cyclically and in synchrony.
That is to say, in order to blossom, the rose requires its systems to be working together in a very particular way. If the plant’s organs aren’t running properly, or the plant isn’t getting the right balance of water, air, sunlight and soil nutrients, the cells will fail to divide, the organs will fail to grow, and the plant will fail to blossom.
Importantly, the cyclical systems that generate the substrate for growth are not independent of the functions they produce. For example, photosynthesis enables a plant to grow, and through that growth, the stems increase in size, the leaves expand, and the plant is able to take in more sunlight, water and air—ensuring the cyclical system continues to work effectively. Nothing is independent. Everything is continuously interacting and influencing everything else.
ARE WE DIFFERENT?
The above story about the nature of a rose is so well known it almost feels trivial to write about. Of course, a plant needs the right balance of water, sunlight, air and soil to grow. That’s obvious, right?
What is interesting, though, is to juxtapose the rose’s nature with how we think about our own growth and development.
With a rose, is it easy to see that the blossoming happens as a result of a complex relationship between its parts, operating at different scales.
Disrupt one of its subsystems (e.g. limit sunlight) and growth halts. Try can increase the capacity of these systems beyond its point of homeostasis (e.g. add more water than the plant needs), and either nothing happens or the system becomes compromised.
Again, this is obvious. This is nature as it actually is.
Yet, when we think about our own growth, our own health, our own systems, we tend to throw all of this understanding out the window. Why?
Growth becomes something we think we need to decide on. To guide. To control. And we try to do so through top-down intervention. This is the equivalent of the rose using thought to will itself to blossom—which is utterly bizarre, right?
We also start adopting all sorts of confusing growth intentions that are not just unnecessary but actually do harm to the natural functioning of our systems. Imagine a plant hoarding sunlight in the same way we are conditioned to hoard money or the rose toning its stem in the same way we maniacally obsess over toning our bodies.
Through this lens, it appears like humans have completely lost the plot.
Our socio-psychological functions have taken control and become ends in themselves rather than supporting the healthy development of the organism.
THE ROOT OF THIS PROBLEM
At the root of many modern human struggles is a story about identity and attachment.
We have taken our utilities (security, diet, exercise, etc.) that are necessary for maintaining a healthy homeostatic system and turned them into representations of identity—the more visible, the better.
This sort of attachment to a utility turns the utility into a proclaimed marker of potential success, which can only be determined in comparison with others who are playing the same game. Unfortunately, technology tends to exacerbate this problem too.
Instead of moving because it is healthy to do so, we become trail runners, cross-fitters, yogis and weight lifters. We’re networkers when socialising. Educators when sharing knowledge. Meditators, communicators, knowledge workers, online writers, content creators, note takers and so on.
At this rate I’ll be surprised if we don’t see the rise of expert breathers, water drinkers, teeth brushers, shower washers and deep sleepers. Our obsession with turning utilities into identities may just be beginning…
SEEING THROUGH THE MADNESS
Can we leverage the power of an identity without becoming attached to it?
Identity is a powerful tool for behaviour change. The impact is well studied.
The problem is that the tool has real costs.
Psychologically, I hope you can see how identifying with a particular practice can have downsides, especially in terms of creativity, adaptability, wellbeing and security. The consequences are amplified if there is a social aspect to the identity, too.
Behaviourally, there is also the risk of a ‘run-away’ effect where we look to improve in line with the identity, past a point that it is useful to do so. An equivalent to the overexposed rose, gathering more sunlight or water than it needs, because… ‘that is what successful roses do’.
Of course, if the practice is something you deeply enjoy for it’s own sake, that is another story, and something I’ll explore in a future essay.
So can we have our cake and eat it?
My honest answer is no. I can’t see how you can get the benefits of identity without attachment.
For the identity to be a motivator, attachment needs to be there. They are two sides of the same coin. You can give yourself some label, but if you aren’t attached, you aren’t identified and so the mechanism that does the work won’t be active.
In a similar way to interventions that incorporate shaming, threats and penalties, my view is that identity should be avoided as a tool for any form of behaviour change. There are just so many other effective instruments that don’t bear the same sorts of psychological costs.
A BETTER APPROACH
Can we create and maintain support systems for their utility, without attaching an identity?
Of course we can. We do it everyday.
A large number of the decisions we make on a daily basis, we do so without any form of identification (at least not a conscious one). I do not identify with my teeth brushing or my water drinking, my morning writing or my walks in the forest above my house.
I’d bet that, given a minute to reflect, you will realise you have similar sorts of support systems in place too.
Many of these systems have incredibly important functions in terms our health, growth and longevity. Like the rose’s cyclical systems, we just do them, when we need to, without much deliberate thought.
Utility-focused Support Systems
So instead of turning our behavioural utilities into identities, a better approach is to design, setup, implement and maintain support systems that leverage the natural ways our bodies form, maintain and adapt their systems.
I offer the inklings of a way forward here, and will share more details in the coming weeks.