What do we mean by “communication”?
You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
—Inigo Montoya, a character from The Princess Bride
From Gary Larson, the following is of course in comic bubbles:
What we say to dogs” Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand Ginger? You stay out of the garbage or else!”
What they hear “Blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah…”
We don’t expect much success in interspecies communication, but it’s not much different when I attempt to explain something to my wife about her computing devices. All she hears is “blah blah blah JOAN, blah blah blah.” It’s the same the other way around when she’s explaining the variety of (to me, exotic) ingredients she needs to bake something. She just wants to use her devices, and I just want to eat her baked goods.
But there is (to state the obvious) a difference between conversing with your dog and conversing with your spouse, and I don’t just mean that dogs don’t finish your sentences or interrupt with their own agenda.
Your dog won’t learn to stay out of the garbage no matter how careful an explanation. But if my wife cared to learn about computers, she could. If I wished to learn to bake, I could. But even our son with his computer science degree couldn’t teach a dog about computers. Dogs have their evolutionary path; we humans have ours. Humans and dogs have different potentials from different genetics.
Recall neurobiologist Humberto Maturana’s experiments with the frog: vision does not stem from (the frog’s) processed signals from the environment. Rather, when the frog’s retina is disturbed (perturbated) by outside elements, the nervous system, as structured by genetics and organized by experience, responds to the perturbation with an update to its internal organization that yields the experience of seeing.
Further research by Maturana and his student-turned-research associate Francisco Varela found that all sensory experience comes from within: not just vision, but all five senses are perturbated, and the nervous system responds according to its internal organization. As I’ve stated, there is no communication as we conventionally think. We cannot perceive anything outside our experience of what is possible. That’s obviously true when attempting to communicate with your dog. It’s less obvious but still true when attempting to communicate with another person. As I’ll contend later, this is why conflicts, from international politics to intimate coupling, are inevitable and why it has ramifications for politics, education, marriage (or equivalent), and psychotherapy or any pursuit of behavioral change. And it’s why I’ve named this newsletter, All Realities Are Local.
We hosted a series of Japanese exchange students three decades ago in our home. They were in their late teens and wished to learn to drive. In Japan (at least at the time), it cost the equivalent of several thousand dollars to take driving lessons, compared to a few hundred during their U.S. homestay. Although they drive English style (on the left side of the road) in their home country, a U.S. driver’s license qualifies them for a Japanese license. So while living with us, most homestay students took driving lessons and earned their Washington State licenses.
I recall how envious these fledgling drivers were when I turned a corner without mid-turn steering corrections. Yay, subconscious, because I could also simultaneously steer the car, accelerate and brake, tap a CD player button (no iPhones or iPods in the 90s), sip coffee, operate a manual transmission, and carry on a conversation. So could hundreds of millions of other experienced drivers.
While seemingly miraculous to our Japanese students, I learned this incrementally through repetition and adjustments from corrective feedback.
The illusion of control
Cars are cars
I could believe the common conceit that I control the car. Or I might use the anthropomorphic language that I communicate with the car. If I could control the car, would that not mean I could make it fly? Even the greatest race car driver, Mario Andretti, could not make a car fly. Even the best marriage counselor could not help me communicate with my car. All I can do is access the car’s repertoire. I can only perturbate the car’s organization via its controls. I can’t control the car. I can’t make it fly.
An automobile can only operate as an automobile. That’s, as Maturana would say, its structure. I can’t change how the car turns; I can change only how I steer. I can’t change the car; I can change only myself.
Despite these limitations of the car’s repertoire, if I develop my repertoire sufficiently to access the car’s abilities, I can drive it increasingly well. Those who develop their repertoire in concert with their car’s repertoire well enough might even become a not-quite Mario Andretti. But even a race car driver can’t control a car more than I can.
Repetitive perturbations of my car and its responses to those perturbations reciprocally perturbate my nervous system, which results in what Maturana called “structural coupling.” The coupling results from the addition to my repertoire, which is possible because my nervous system can be modified; it can (what we call) learn.
Structural coupling differs from the conventional concept of communication. The car and I interact within only our respective repertoires. A car can’t take me out to lunch at its favorite gas station, and I can’t fill its tank at my favorite deli.
Structural coupling, but now, with people!
Not only can I not change the repertoire of the car, I can not change the repertoire of another human being. Structural coupling, as you probably guessed, is more interesting between people than between drivers and their cars. Structural coupling with a machine is quickly learnable and, soon, predictable.1 All I can perturbate with a car is steer, go, and stop. Structural coupling with another human being is a whole other thing.
My years as a marriage counselor did not include a single instance where one member of the couple stated at the outset, “It’s my fault; it’s on me to change.” Whether privately believed or expressed aloud, participants were sure the counseling experience would include vindication that relationship fault would not land in their court and that the trajectory of the marital counseling would be to correct the behavior of their spouse. Luckily, success in marital counseling is not dependent on accurate self-assessments.2
How do people learn to be with each other? Not by changing their spouse but by changing themselves. This isn’t the best way; it’s the only way.
Humans (and all organisms) also have a behavioral repertoire. As with cars, humans have a structure of components and an organization of how the components work together. Unlike cars (and other machines), humans have a sensory apparatus, which, when perturbated, is not limited to factory settings when reacting. If I remark to my wife, her response may or may not be predictable. The present state of her nervous system that will determine her response is a confluence of her genetic makeup, her upbringing, her premarital history, her history in her social and professional life, her history in our relationship, including what might have been said (or done) moments previously, or as just happened, her memory of a smile from her two-month-old granddaughter.
How does changing your own behavior change that of another? It doesn’t change it; it accesses a behavior within another’s repertoire. That is, it accesses a behavior from the current state of their nervous system from the many influences I described above.
Sometimes I don’t sleep well. If my wife says you’ve been grumpy all morning, whether I have or have not been grumpy, I often get grumpy in response to her spoken observation. If, on the other hand, she says, sorry you didn’t sleep well, I’m likely to say, “I’m okay,” and feel okay. She didn’t make me behave one way or the other. She accessed something within my repertoire. If I were a more even-tempered person, perhaps I wouldn’t have responded with grumpiness no matter what she said. If she were conscious and desirous of accessing my more pleasant response, she’d have gone with the “sorry you didn’t sleep well.” All behavior stems from one entity accessing a behavior of another entity within that entity’s repertoire.
As a couple who’ve been together for nearly four decades, my wife and I have countless interactions–we perturbate the other, and the other reacts within their repertoire. While experiencing this millions of times with each other (and millions of times with others), we believe the fiction that we’re being responded to directly rather than we’ve accessed something within another’s repertoire. This naïve belief is the source of problems between people. It’s the source of problems between people in coupling, instruction, politics, and so on. We say, “people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts,” but we all have our own facts. All realities are local.
That’s only theory. I’m baffled by our new washing machine.
I use marriage and marriage counseling as shorthand for any committed coupling.