On having a bath

January 8, 2013

One of my favourite columnists in the New Statesman is Martha Gill with her Irrational Animals piece.  In the 4-10 Jan edition she touches on a subject dear to my heart, namely the value of having a bath.  It's not available on line at the moment, even to life time subscribers such as myself so I can't link but the title is Feeling guilty? Have a Bath.  So to summarise, she starts off Lady MacBeth's Out, damned spot! Out, I say! and links it to studies by Lee and Schwarz at the University of Michigan.  These purport to show that people felt less guilty of wrong doing after using an antiseptic hand wipe and the feeling of cleanliness meant they made harsher judgements on the acts of others.  Apparently copying out a story about someone else's wrong doing increased desire for cleaning products.  If we lie over the phone we want mouth wash, if on email then hand sanitiser is preferred.

She points out that the brain creates functions on top of other ones; so we use the same facial expressions when we encounter wrong doing that we do when we come across rotten food.  This very strongly with Mary Douglas's seminal book Purity and Danger which sees concepts of cleanliness and uncleanliness as a way in which we create boundary conditions.  It also supports some of my current work on the use of ritual to create boundary transitions in organisations.   To get people to think differently, they have to know when they have crossed a line, and boundary transitions are fundamental to Cynefin.   Teaching stories are also ways by which we create boundaries for our society, or loosen them.  Of course such stories have to be part of a lived tradition which is one of the major issues I have with the objectivisation of narrative by the organisational story tellers, proponents of computer based textual analysis and all too many qualitative researchers.  More on that tomorrow, but for the moment remember that in the oral tradition stories were told and retold in many different contexts.

Returning to baths.  One of my memories of the fertile period when I was working with Cynthia Kurtz is that both of us, faced with some difficult set of concepts, would resort to a long bath.  OK its not just about getting rid of guilt (although I am sure that was necessary) its probably the nearest thing we can achieve to the womb in adult life.  Showers just don't do it, they are purely functional in nature they have no secondary purpose.  Of course baptism has a similar sense, in particular full immersion which brings back several memories, in particular that wonderful Down to the River to Pray track from Oh Borther, Where Art Thou? sung by Alison Krauss whose collected works are in the shelves behind me – if you haven't heard her album Raising Sand with Robert Plant go out and get it now.  I keep books to read in the bath and some of them are slightly thicker as a result of falling into said bath when I doze off!  It means the kindle will never hold all of the fiction I read.  I want to install a whiteboard and pen by the bath but I can't persuade my wife of the value I'm afraid.  The result of this is that a lot of good ideas may well have been lost for all time!  At one point I tried a voice activated recorder but that fell victim to the steam

The other key point from this is that our mental lives are not separate from our physical acts.  The Cartesian dualism which dominates too much science and far too much popular thinking tries to ignore this.  We see it in the vain foolishness of people who believe in The Singularity who seem obsessed with their own survival over that of their species; even if it was possible it would be in a much diminished form.  you can't have a bath and even if you take the right pill it won't feel the same in a virtual world.   






Cartoon from This is Money web site

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.

Cognitive Edge Ltd. & Cognitive Edge Pte. trading as The Cynefin Company and The Cynefin Centre.


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