Lois Holzman: The Overweight Brain (2018)

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This is the fourth book in a row by a female author that I’m adding to my Systems Library. Undeniably these feminine perspectives are adding something vital and distinctive to the systems discourse and practice.

Jocelyn Chapman digs into the personal lives of systems thinkers and practitioners and dares to put the ‘love’ word in the title of her book on cybernetics.

Judi Marshall lets a very sensitive and experimental approach to ‘living life as inquiry’ unfold against a background of elusive systemic patterns.

Cognitive scientist Hanne De Jaegher puts forward an enactive perspective on the way we develop knowledge. Our mind does not function as a biological computer. Knowledge emerges from a fluid process of participatory sense-making that not only involves our brains but all of our body-mind in contact with fellow human beings and all the other entities and artifacts that make up our world.

These three positions reflect a humble stance in the face of complexity. They shirk the privileging of rational intellect. Instead they foreground the inevitably bewildering experience of living in a complex world, and an ethos of kindness and empathetic risk-taking that helps us to grow.

The work of Lois Holzman fits seamlessly with this stance. She was trained as a psychologist, and, in collaboration with her mentor and friend Fred Newman, developed an innovative form of social therapy. Holzman continues to operate from her professional base at the East Side Institute in New York, which she co-founded. She has published prolifically, most often in a rather academic mould. In her latest book she offers a potentially wider readership access to her ideas. The language is non-technical and the tone of voice is very personal, inviting the reader into the warp and weft of Holzman’s own lived life.

The key point is captured by the book’s title: our brain is, metaphorically speaking, overweight. All along we have been betting our future on the human capacity to know things, to intellectually make sense of the world. It sounds like the most innocent of truisms. Holzman argues that this is leading us into a developmental dead end. Our unquestioned assumption that we need to know before we can engage with complexity is doing us no good. It stifles creativity, risk-taking and discovery and closes off other ways of understanding. We need to break out of the ideology of knowing in order to move forward with the societal problems we are currently facing. Hence, the book’s subtitle: “How our obsession with knowing keeps us from getting smart enough to make a better world.”

The problems associated with knowing become clear enough when we recognise how it keeps us tied to unhelpful thinking patterns: dualism, causality, linearity. In one word: reductionism. It’s not only unhelpful, it’s also morally reprehensible. Knowing fixes our identities, hardens power imbalances, and reinforces polarisation. Epistemology and politics are inseparable. They constitute one another. The social, economic and political failures of our societies are an inevitable pendant to our over-epistemologised culture, to the reductionism and the identity-based conception of liberty characteristic for our times. The center fails to hold. Centrifugal forces are tearing our societies apart, are tearing humanity and its planetary habitat asunder.

Is it even possible to let go of knowing? On the one hand, it’s by no means a trivial challenge as we need to get rid of an awful lot of cultural baggage. On the other hand, at some point in our lives we have all been experts in ‘non-knowing growing’. Children do it all the time, and in that process they are naturally supported by ‘growth-creators’. Relationships between kids and parents are not dominated by expectations qua knowing. We rather relate to them as developing, as growing, as becoming. That’s when human beings learn best. But very early on in our development we lose that insouciance and we are socialised into a knowing mode that henceforward risks to keeps us hostage.

The big insight here is: changing, growing does not hinge on knowing, but on a direct, activity-based interaction with the world. Non-epistemic understanding is indistinguishable from participation in the life process.

There have also been people who have articulated these ideas and enacted them in an influential practice. In this book Holzman zooms in on the work of developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934) and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951). Elsewhere she has also written extensively on the importance Karl Marx’s work.

I’ll limit myself here to the contribution of Vygotsky, the ‘loving psychologist’. His work goes against the grain of orthodox psychological theory that tells us that development is an individual accomplishment that happens to us from the inside. Vygotsky rejects the idea that we are self-contained individuals. Development does not unfold from inside, but emerges from how we relate to each other. “Vygotsky tried to study human beings as the complex beings and doings that we are, not as something simpler. His is a psychology of possibility (not prediction), of development (not diagnosis), of transformation (not treatment), of hope (not hype) — and of the very human becoming activity of human ‘be’ings.”

Also the ideas of Wittgenstein and Marx reflect this belief in the potential for development that is latent in individuals and in communities.

This is a stance that is at once deeply systemic and deeply political, because it accepts and recognises what is there in each and every human being and creates a space for that potential to unfold.

Fundamental was Vygotsky’s discovery of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). ZPDs are spaces ‘where human beings become by being who they are not’. It is where children perform ‘a head taller than they are’. What happens in the zone is more theatrical and therapeutic than rational and epistemic. This is perhaps the most important of all human activities — that we can relate to ourselves and others as other than and in advance of our development. “We can see ZPDs as performance stages created by people who develop along with their stage making. We can see development as socially-created performed activity. And if little children and their families and professional actors can do that, why can’t all of us, at any age and circumstance?”

The task, therefore, is to design learning environments and life situations as Zones of Proximal Development. There’s a whole chapter in the book about what a sea change this would mean for educational institutions. Schools wouldn’t be managed as factories but run as a theatrical performance (and Holzman knows what she is talking about as she supported such an approach at Barbara Taylor School in the 1990s). However, the import of this kind of performance activism is not limited to education but encompasses a wide field of community development and social change initiatives.

It is, however, particularly illuminating to learn how this works in the setting of a social therapeutics group. Here the revolutionary character of the approach becomes quite clear: the unit of non-epistemic interaction is not the deeper significance of anyone’s inner self. There is no ‘inner problem’ that cries out for an epistemic ‘solution’. Instead there is process, performance, conversation, there is performed conversation. The conversation is transformed into a language-game, by changing the truth and referential assumption of what is being said. In doing so, new ‘life forms’ are allowed to emerge. Something qualitatively new is created, something that wasn’t there before and cannot be understood in terms of things that were there before.

This social therapeutic setting captures Holzman’s XYZ of growing: the creation of safe spaces to perform ourselves into a more fluid identity, the ‘yes, and’ of improvisational practice, and the embrace of the unknown and unknowable. Nothing keeps us from infusing our families, communities and work places with a similar spirit.

What will happen when move beyond knowing? We won’t be catapulted back into the stone age. Religion didn’t disappear when we grew into our scientific mindset. Similarly, engineering manuals won’t dissolve into thin air when we move into a new developmental space. Bridges will continue to be built. Only we won’t continue to equate knowing with progress. Instead we will relearn to relish the experience of “creativity that surprises itself”.

More on Lois Holzman’s work on her website. And here is my review of the book The End of Knowing that Lois co-authored with Fred Newman in 1997. Finally, here is a talk by Lois Holzman, set up and recorded by us in January 2020.




Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?

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