Archive for Humberto Maturana

Elaine Johnson on Maturana, Language, Prejudice & the Brain

These words from educator and World Café researcher Elaine Johnson:

I’m just beginning to work on a brain workshop I’m presenting to the Northwest Regional Conference of Mathematicians – and Juanita’s summary of Maturana’s comments touched a chord.

Maturana says that emotions and language, intertwined, shape our culture. Words especially, he points out, lead to actions. Words, then, have the power to shape our human community, our culture, our “manner of living.” In fact, so inextricably bound are language and community that scientists think
the longing for community, for intimate communication, gave rise to language.

Of course Maturana, a world authority on the brain, speaks to the heart of World Café. Café allows language to bring forth new actions and inspire new communities.

However, the brain presents obstacles to a Café’s success, and it is these that I wish to address. The human brain has evolved to reflect–it is the universe reflecting on itself.  The problem is that the brain does not think very well. Reason is supplanted again and again by raw emotion, or by our emotional attachment to our beliefs.  Each person’s brain holds beliefs, values, and attitudes that have been shaped by parents, friends, neighbors, teachers, and even television commercials.  These beliefs and values are
actually contained in brain circuits. They’re part of the physiology of the brain. As such, they act as “frames” or “schema” that shape our response to everything.  What we believe decides what we are able to see or hear or are willing to think.

Just as surely as an arm is part of us, and we will fight to protect and keep our arm, so a belief is part of us, and we will fight to keep it, even when it’s wrong.  We humans are so emotionally attached to our beliefs–they are wired in our brains, remember– that we first embrace them and later search for reasons to justify them.  We would rather be wrong than sacrifice a conviction.

Part of the problem, as neuroscientists explain, is that communication in the brain runs mainly from the emotional center to the thinking part of the brain, and not very much in the other direction.  We feel more than we reason. We have great trouble diminishing our emotions.

One of the challenges of World Café, then, must be to see that people think well–that they are truly mindful of deep-seated biases and able, somehow, to say, “This is a prejudice, and for the sake of our dialogue, I am going to set it aside.”

I teach advanced argumentation at university, and I’ve written about the steps involved in reasoning well. However, brain research compellingly insists that we regard the call to reason as more than an interesting
academic subject.

Reasoning well is the only source of those words we need so badly–the powerful, true words that can guide constructive actions, actions that will allow individuals, communities, and Earth to flourish.

Helping people ask good questions, and expecting that from considering good questions insight will arise makes sense. But . . .it especially makes sense among people who in all humility recognize that they are wired with circuitry that makes them biased and narrow and who are eager to set aside their biases, at least for the sake of a rich conversation.

A hopeful discovery is that the very act of thinking can change the brain. That means that words–true and valuable words reflecting keen insights–will emerge if we use practice them.  Practice and reason lead to words that can change society.


Juanita Brown was among those who had the pleasure of meeting with Humberto Maturana and others from the Matriztico Institute at their workshop in Boston earlier this month.  She shared her notes and insights with us over on the Conversation as a Co-Evolutionary Force blog … Here’s an excerpt from her post:

"As humans we are born in the trust of loving and in being loved–within
an ecology of the natural world and within the larger living cosmos."
Love is the legitimate co-arising of the other in the relational space
between us.  What we understand as humanness are relations conserved on
and in love over many generations of our co-existence."
For more…


Maturana & Humanness

I’ve recently returned from a week of truly inspirational and profound learning with Humberto Maturana, Ximena Davila and their colleagues at the Matriztica Institute learning about the cultural-biological foundations of human existence and our co-evolution as loving beings through the relational spaces and networks of conversation in which we participate.


Let me share a few seed ideas that relate to our work with the World Café to give you a flavor of this workshop on cultural biological matrix of human existence, and then provide a brief description of how I see the World Cafe embodying some these powerful scientific  insights about the origins and conservation of our very humanness.

Apologies to Humberto and his colleagues in advance for any
misinterpretations that I might have had, as they are quite precise and
I may not have interpreted it fully as they intended.

"As humans we are born in the trust of loving and in being loved–within
an ecology of the natural world and within the larger living cosmos."
Love is the legitimate co-arising of the other in the relational space
between us.  What we understand as humanness are relations conserved on
and in love over many generations of our co-existence. 

Humanness is not a genetic mutation. It is a manner of living where
there is pleasure in each others company, sharing food, nearness,
caressing and tenderness – nor is the capacity for language a genetic
mutation – it is an evolutionary drift emerging from the intimacy of
human community and the coordination of actions in language together. 
It is in the intimate community where humanness arises as a network of
conversations that is conserved over generations as a lineage through
the raising of children over hundreds of generations in manners of living that are conserved in that lineage.  Humanness did not arise
in competition, struggle etc.  It arose in intimate family/community co-existence.

We live in the braiding of emotions and languaging in our manner of
living together.  In this coordination through language, certain
consensus or agreements appear as"reality" and the objects we understand as "real" appear.

"Words are not trivial – words are the nodes or elements of networks of
conversation. Language is the coordination of doings, not a symbolic act  as we commonly understand it. With one word I can follow one path
and with another a different path.  Our languaging distinguishes a way of inhabiting a human community and culture.

As human beings we find ourselves living in communities in recursive coordination of doings, generating different worlds and realities as different manners of living together in networks of conversation.   

A person who reflects creates new worlds. All distinctions are made by
an observer. Our capacity for reflection in language is one essence of
our humanness.  We are human beings that emerged with the capacity to
reflect in language and conversations and in that we generate worlds.

"A key question is – how, in a human system, living what it is living, does pain and suffering arise from that manner of living? Culture is a network of conversations that both generates and conserves
states and manners of living and co-existence, even painful ones.

We have a choice and can be intentional about what we want to conserve in our manner of living and what we don’t. 

Everything changes and evolves around what we want to conserve.  Do we
want to conserve our essential nature as loving beings?

Homo sapiens amans amans?

The Matriztic Institute invites reflection on our
fundamental nature as biological-cultural loving beings who arise in language and who live in conversation as our manner of living (our doings) in conversation. Organizations, for example, are not the organizational chart, but arise in the living network of conversations that conserves certain manners of living together.

What is intelligence?  It is the behavioral adaptability/plasticity that we show as the world around us changes – in our manner of living in co-existence with a changing environment.

As a co-inspirator, I can be intentional about the nature of the
conversations I introduce into the conversational network that is the organization or the culture I am part of.  This is serious,
responsible, daring and playful work!  How I open spaces of
conversation is of the utmost importance to our capacity to co-inspire worlds we choose to live in.
All cultural change, for example, is a change in the network of
conversations and the manner of living that arises in it.  Language and
conversations are "doings" that lie at the heart of our capacity to
intentionally bring forth worlds that are life-affirming and ethical.

Everything changes around what we want to conserve.

And, here is a brief reflection on how I might now interpret the network of conversations that is a World Cafe!

In a World Cafe dialogue, intimate (4-5 people) circles engage in deep
listening and reflective conversation, where each member is seen, heard and honored for their unique contribution.  This creates a relational
space and dynamic in which what is conserved from round to round is what has life from each conversation that is taken into the next
round.  As the conversation unfolds through these multiple
cross-pollinating rounds of respectful dialogue in an intimate relational space (the
small circles), a living network of conversation emerges in which what
is conserved and spread through consecutive rounds becomes part of the embodied experience of that living network.

Collective intelligence (the "magic in the middle") begins to arise as
more and more people, in the intimacy and caring of the small table
groups, are truly seen and heard in the evolving "doings" of that Cafe’s
network of conversations.  A World Cafe dialogue is, in a sense, a
small lived experiment in the cultural biology of love and our fundamental
humanness with each other (love is defined as a relational space where
the other arises as a  legitimate other simply for who they are in their
"being" and their contribution) at increasing levels of scale.

The whole group reflection and harvesting at the end makes visible to the whole what is being conserved (patterns, insights, deeper questions, possible coordinated actions) that holds the life
(and the living) that has emerged through the network of conversations
embodied in that particular Cafe.

I think Maturana and Davila’s work provides wonderful insights and I look forward to learning more over these next years.

What kinds of insights come to you in response to these words?