As our society becomes more and more complex, the tendency is that our roles become smaller and smaller. We hope that it is enough for each individual to know his/her part, assuming that the whole is the sum of its parts. In many cases, this is indeed an extremely effective approach. For example, mass production of many industrial products, such as cars, became possible only after the introduction of the "assembly line" approach. People suffering from rare diseases often can stay alive, thanks to highly specialized medical care.

However, not everything can be approached reductionistically. As people focus on their own small roles, the combined effects of a large system can easily eclipse anyone’s comprehension. There are many examples of this type, as well: world hunger, global warming and the U.S. health care crisis.

To understand and solve these and other complex problems, we need holistic approaches, accepting that the whole can be more than the sum of its parts, drawing from multiple perspectives and building an overarching view not necessarily gained from a single perspective. Unfortunately, most people are continuously taught to focus on their own turfs, often guided by external motivations, such as financial rewards and test scores. If this situation continues, complex problems may eventually overtake us and the very existence of our species, as well as many others, could be in danger.

For us not only to survive but to thrive, it is important to balance our exceedingly reductionistic mindset with a more holistic one. Then, every one of us can think and act for the sake of something much greater than our small territory.

There are a few points we must consider. First, it is difficult to change people’s minds once they are fixated on reductionism throughout their lives. It is necessary to educate people from early on about both reductionism and holism.

Interesting phenomena around us – be it physical, biological, psychological or social – are great subjects for approaching both of these ideas. Complex, real-life problems can be interesting educational subjects, even for children. They may be interested in observing the life of ants. By doing so, they can learn about communication, social class, reproduction, etc. The greatest benefit of exploring such problems is that children will be able to understand the big picture better. When the child becomes an adult, he or she may well need to focus on her small role. However, with her experience with complex systems throughout her life, she is more likely to be able to understand the complexity around her.

If each one of us is capable of thinking in such a way, there will be a higher chance that challenging complex problems will be addressed and solved.

Secondly, the current education environment tends to be driven by test scores and grades. The current emphasis on reductionism tends to accelerate this situation. Using complex real-life problems, students can learn more from open-ended discussions than from standardized tests. This way, students would work because they want to solve problems rather than to get a good grade. This type of intrinsic motivation would be a key for an individual to continue learning through her life. When she grows, it is likely that she explores around her own territory to learn about the complexity surrounding her small territory.

To change the tide, we all need to learn not only from reductionistic approaches, but also holistic ones. Our lives are full of complex problems. Learning must be lifelong, and it must be guided by an intrinsic motivation, rather than an extrinsic one. Then, many of the complex problems we are facing today may no longer be threats in the future.

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Nobo Komagata is a full-time family support person, who is interested in mindfulness and complex systems. Copyright © 2008 Nobo Komagata. All Rights Reserved.

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