Thought Leadership

Thinking Living Systems: A Neuroscientific Foundation for the Regenerative Mindset

In our modern world, being unwell can represent being disconnected from natural design. Dr Etienne van der Walt explains how the necessary reconnection can be offered by embodying 'the regenerative mindset': the fact that organic units, like individuals, come together to create higher-order living entities, like societies. Read more about this transformative insight, here.

Author: Dr Etienne van der Walt, neurologist and CEO & Co-Founder of Neurozone


In our intricate and interconnected world — where burnout and chronic stress proliferate, casting a shadow over longevity and wellbeing — a profound shift is imperative. We must re-evaluate the governing values of our lives as living, breathing systems. To embark on this re-evaluation, I delve first into the foundational principles that underpin our existence as biological entities — or as ‘psychobiological’ or even ‘psychoneurobiological’ entities. We must approach these principles through an organic perspective so that we may comprehend ourselves as living systems, from which we can then uncover the essence and importance of the ‘regenerative mindset’. This is a readiness to witness, and utilize, how organic entities are inherently bound to each other to achieve their own evolution, and how this interconnectedness must be re-embraced for (eco)systemic thriving. Such a mindset, it can be said, comprises a transformative set of values that align our actions harmoniously with the natural world. Such alignment fosters sustainability and growth, particularly crucial as we navigate a highly interconnected present, and even more interconnected future. In short, in this article, I explore through neuroscience how the regenerative mindset manifests in the intricate interconnectedness that characterizes the human race, and in doing so, I hope to convince you of its profound importance for everything that we do.

The Biological Foundation of Living Systems

To truly grasp the intricacies of living systems, we must recognize that our origins are woven intricately into Earth's biological fabric. Across vast spans of time, our brain-body systems have refined themselves, adapting to challenges and fine-tuning responses. This intricate orchestration involves many components, two of which emerge as paramount: the ability to conquer challenges via complex problem-solving and the use of memory systems to accumulate knowledge, skills, expertise, and experience. This understanding allows us to consider innovation and the neuroscience of creativity as synonymous perspectives on how the brain tackles complex issues. 

Our memory systems — essentially toolboxes for intricate problem-solving — span from the genetic to the short-term, encompassing at the genetic end deep-seated and stable programs that guide us unconsciously through life. Building upon these foundations, housed deep within our central nervous system are structures like the basal ganglia and cerebellum that drive unconscious, high-yield skills and expertise, enabling rapid challenge resolution. Layered atop this, our memory system constructs shorter-term memory via learning and repetition, and through value assignment, preferentially anchors new information in alignment with our perception of its importance. (This is the first sign here that mindset — about what counts as important — regulates knowledge and problem-solving.) Finally, the prefrontal cortex, our cognitive workbench, processes information from the immediate and most recent past. 

This arsenal of cognitive capabilities empowers us to comprehend the world, acquire knowledge, and triumph over the challenges posed by a dynamic external and internal environment. Notably, our problem-solving proficiency — anchored in the prefrontal cortex, especially the dorsolateral region — encompasses the ability to shift attention, exhibit cognitive flexibility, and incorporate relevant information, sidestepping clutter through applying mindfulness to reduce latent inhibition. This faculty ensures problem-solving happens in sophisticated and sensible ways. 

However, we all possess a ‘tribal brain’, which filters solutions based on their adaptiveness for a particular ‘tribe’ of which, our brain recognizes, we are a part. This speaks to our need to belong in a group. The ‘group-focused-brain’ is embedded through inheritance and our life experiences, and unconsciously drives what we learn and how we solve problems. The other edge of the sword is that our problem-solving perspectives may become set, stagnant, and inflexible if conformity to one group’s values dominates the possibility of seeing the value in others’. Diversity thus emerges as a key factor for greater collective resilience and creativity, by enhancing the pool of potential solutions and encouraging collective collaboration. Psychological safety, cognitive empathy, and affective empathy further glue the collective, facilitating enhanced and sustained problem-solving capacity.

Thriving in a Baseline Relaxed Physiological State

Beyond mere survival, thriving entails maintaining a baseline of physiological harmony. In this state, our brains and bodies respond optimally to every scenario, whether it's a cue, challenge, threat, or reward. This optimized dynamic interaction between our internal and external worlds enables learning from mistakes, adaptation, and continual evolution, propelling us toward successful survival and growth. The baseline relaxed physiological state represents an equifinal outcome, offering numerous paths to ensure its attainment. External changes continuously increase demands on our internal system (and vice versa), necessitating swift adaptation to secure a baseline relaxed physiological state. Thrivability hinges on this state, since it facilitates longevity. In it occurs the optimal removal of some cells (neurodegenerative and cancerous ones) and the reparation and maintenance of others, thereby bolstering our overall biological well-being. Moreover, this state ensures the immune system's smooth operation, akin to servicing an airplane mid-flight. Strikingly, this state aligns individuals, teams, families, organizations, tribes, and society at large toward optimal individual and collective functioning, guarding against chronic stress and burnout.

Aggregating the Complex Web of Interconnectivity

Our evolutionary path, from single cells to flourishing societies, underscores the inherent hierarchical nature of living systems. At the root, DNA and molecules coalesce to form cellular building blocks. These cells collaborate to shape organs — liver, brain, heart, etc. — which harmoniously unite to construct functional systems. These systems culminate in individual organisms, collectively forming the human race. 

Individual human flourishing peaks through successful intertwinement within society's intricate web. Our ability and tendency to aggregate into groups is innate, deeply ingrained in our essence. Bonds among us ensure offspring, and safeguard our existence via organic bonding, orchestrated by brain neurotransmitters and hormones. A pivotal bonding hormone, oxytocin, secreted deep within the brain's core by the hypothalamus, drives this entrustment process. Through these bonds, we establish connections with life partners, families, and teams. Teams and families emerge as a fundamental higher-order living and breathing entity, initiated as individual organisms, very much like organs, aggregate to form the next higher-order entity. Even higher order entities are formed as these smaller groups extend into organizations and tribes, and eventually into society as a whole. Tribes and organizations function cohesively through shared values and goals, which is what unites the parts into a whole. Dopamine, another neurotransmitter, fuels this unity through belonging (note that this is not bonding). This tribal brain system also guides solution generation, manifesting as values and mindsets. 

This intricate aggregation journey underpins societal structure, from molecules to the human race, reflecting the hierarchical nature of living systems. Understanding the variables governing these connections becomes critical for organizational and societal resilience, propelling us beyond our immediate scope into the realm of collective purpose.

From Cells to Societies: Hierarchical Structure of Living Systems

So our world emerges as a hierarchy, from molecules to society, fueled by critical variables governed by systems biology. These variables are reflected in the field of organizational psychology, too. Understanding these variables ensures successful aggregation and the formation of higher-order living entities — a necessary foundation to prevent burnout and sustain us amid the rapid pace of technological change.

Collective Resilience for a Sustainable World

Both organizational and societal progress rest upon collective resilience. Adaptability in our fast-paced world is essential for success. Nurturing a culture of collaboration, teamwork, and support empowers organizations to harness collective resilience, navigating challenges and seizing growth and innovation opportunities. This crucial insight, once embraced, propels us beyond organizational boundaries into a realm of interconnected life, forging a higher-order entity with a profound mystique, even beyond our comprehension. This extrapolation, while complex, holds immense importance in aligning us with purpose, both at an individual and organizational level. Viktor Frankl's work in "Man's Search for Meaning" underscores this, highlighting the significance of understanding oneself as part of a higher-order network with intrinsic meaning. Such understanding illuminates the dual facets of purpose — personal and collective — both critical to preventing chronic stress.

The Economy of Energy in Living Systems

The core essence of living systems is intricately tied to the principle of energy efficiency. As we aggregate into higher-order living entities, we unlock a superior energy-yield ratio, facilitating heightened efficiency and success. This fundamental concept, vividly illustrated by the idea that the whole surpasses the sum of its parts, particularly applies to living systems. Delving deeper, the example of a living cell and its components — cytoplasm, nucleus, organelles — illustrates this principle. Combining these components yields not just a cell, but life itself. This life embodies a heightened yield-energy ratio, endowing us with the capacity to navigate rapid change while embracing our role as complex adaptive organisms. For organizational leaders, grasping these components is imperative for effective leadership and organizational well-being. Understanding aggregation and collective effort is pivotal for optimizing resource allocation and maximizing outcomes in economic and business domains. Ultimately, embracing the profound concept of living systems empowers us to uncover the intricate connections shaping our existence. This foundational comprehension sets the stage for embracing the regenerative mindset, an approach aligning our actions harmoniously with the wisdom of nature. 

A Regenerative Mindset

Together, as humanity, we embark on a transformative journey, carving a path toward a regenerative and harmonious future. This trajectory is obstructed, arguably, by an individualistic mindset driven by fear and greed and the deep-seated, misguided belief that individual human organisms (or even the family/team/organization to which an individual belongs) represent the highest form of life. A crucial ongoing dialogue should revolve around this impediment, recognizing its potential to tear through the fabric of interconnectedness and inflict irreversible damage to society, its organizations, and its individuals. Nature's workings, though mystic, demand understanding, underpinning not just the regenerative mindset but also collective leadership. Thus, we shepherd the human race forward while sustaining and propelling the economy in alignment with the rhythms of nature's wisdom. Just as a tree thrives while rooted in the earth, the collective unconscious cultivates thinking living systems, nurturing a regenerative mindset that sustains and enriches all life. This journey aspires to construct a resilient, flourishing world that resonates with the symphony of nature's wisdom.

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