Fast, deep, and uncertain: the currents of thought and feeling

Big whorls have little whorls which feed on their velocity,
And little whorls have lesser whorls and so on to viscosity

Lewis Fry Richardson

These lines appear in Sarah Dry‘s tremendous book Waters of the World, a work of history which explores how scientists, researchers, and passionate amateurs gradually pieced together an understanding of our global climate system. The story spans continents and generations; some of its characters collaborate or compete, while others work alone, unaware of the wider context in which their endeavours might be received. Some don’t even live to see the difference that their research will make to the world. There are false starts and dead ends. Politics, from the sweep of colonialism to the pettiness of institutional squabbles, plays its part; and for all that this is a tale of systematic observation and theorisation, it’s no less deeply human for that. As one of Dry’s scientists, Joanne Simpson, put it:

“I think I am generally perceived as a pretty cool character. Nothing could be farther from the truth. To understand how a woman, or a man, for that matter, creates original work in any field, it is necessary to penetrate the emotional masks, and my masks have intentionally been hard to penetrate.”

Dry’s book, and particularly its chapter on “Fast Water”, exploring the currents of the ocean’s depths, makes me think of the ways that emotions can swirl around us and within us when we address difficult issues, alone or together.

Prior to the surge of scientific research which Dry chronicles, those who worked at sea already had some sense of the ways in which currents affected their environment. Experienced sailors would make navigational judgments based on their local knowledge of where currents ran, and what kinds of winds might be expected in a given region – but they lacked direct access to, and therefore observation and analysis of, what was really going on beneath the surface or at a global, systemic level.

Dry’s scientists took a range of approaches to charting and analysing the currents of the ocean. American oceanographer Henry Stommel hand-calculated the effects of a limited number of variables, such as wind stress, friction, and the rotation of the earth, to develop a simple yet effective model of asymmetry in the world’s currents. Britain’s Lewis Fry Richardson, whose verse opens this piece, sought to understand turbulence at a range of scales, leading him to observe smoke rising from chimney pots, seeds let loose on the wind, and balloons launched over Hyde Park bearing tags which could be returned to the scientists by mail when a balloon finally fell to earth. Together, Stommel and Richardson would float slices of parsnips in a Scottish loch. The root vegetables, dug from Richardson’s garden, had a buoyancy which meant that they bobbed low in the water, with just a small portion appearing above the waterline: floating freely but easy to track visually.

Other, more sophisticated endeavours involved surveys made by naval expeditions – but these, too, had their limits. Comprised of single ships, such ventures were constrained in the area they could cover; measurements could only be taken one after another as they went from place to place, and the real work of bringing together their results for analysis could happen only after they had completed their journey.

Technological limitations played an additional part. Instruments had to be developed which were resilient against pressure and salinity. Here, as in so many other endeavours, improvisation and bricolage had their part to play. The oceanographer John Swallow developed neutrally buoyant floats which could be made to “hover” at any depth by scavenging tubes of scaffolding and subjecting them to caustic chemicals which eroded them to precise thicknesses. (The technique was fine-tuned in a stairwell of the building in which Swallow worked, where he’d set up large tubs of water in which to adjust his floats). This was one of the more effective of the “inventive but ungainly” ideas which Dry recounts. These range from Stommel and Richardson’s parsnips to a proposal to deploy underwater floating devices which would drift with the ocean currents and let off controlled explosions so that listening devices might track their location.

All of this is a powerful metaphor for studying what’s going on within and between us whenever we gather, work together, collaborate, or compete. Great energies are at play, but sometimes deeply concealed. As Richardson’s poem which opens this blog suggests, larger currents of feeling can shape small interactions, supercharging them; in turn, the accumulation of all those little interactions makes our social lives thick with meaning, viscous and sometimes hard to navigate or penetrate.

Like the sailor, even if we lack the ability to formally detect or analyse what is going on, we may still sense some of the dynamics, or at least their results. We can recognise and name repeating patterns of feeling or behaviour, and sometimes this lets us work with them as a sailing ship exploits the conditions at sea, successfully anticipating, exploiting, or mitigating the emotional currents in a given setting.

However, we may not have access to, or understanding of, the depths where the emotion originates. Furthermore, like a deep sea creature caught and brought to the surface, only to collapse from the lower pressure, sometimes what we retrieve from the depths can’t be understood unless we are careful about the ways in which we bring it to light.

Like Dry’s scientists, specialised equipment can be brought to bear on these issues – even if that just means the disciplined inquiry of a researcher or analyst, someone who has done some work to calibrate their own perceptions and prejudices so that they can register and consider what a group is making its members feel. Again, there are elements of bricolage, as such work involves drawing on different theories, insights, and metaphors to help surface what is going on. And again, like the rival schools of oceanography which sometimes came to an impasse, there are different theories and ways of thinking about the mind, or about interpersonal dynamics, which may compete or come into conflict.

Even strategic foresight, in the tradition within which I practice, relates to this. Scenario planning, the creation of plausible future contexts for a given entity or issue in order to challenge assumptions and enrich our understanding of the here and now, can trace a lineage to the work of Eric Trist, one of the founding members of the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

In a 1965 paper Trist, co-writing with F.E. Emery, identified a key problem in the study of organizational change: “that the environmental contexts in which organizations exist are themselves changing, at an increasing rate, and towards increasing complexity.” Scenarios offer a way to approach the uncertainty and complexity of the present by considering how the sea of contextual forces beyond our control may “come ashore” in times to come, redrawing the immediate environment in which a given entity operates.

The challenge becomes that all too often we expect those forces to come ashore in predictable ways – like steady measurable trends – or in accordance with our plans and visions – as if we had learned nothing from the story of King Canute, and the sea would fully bow to our wishes. It is not that we are entirely without agency in such circumstances, but rather that we must, with humility, admit that we are rarely the sole and omnipotent authors of our own context.

Dry’s story of the ocean currents, and the way that humanity came to know and understand them, reminds us that the work of plotting out the forces which shape the motion of the sea was itself ongoing, haphazard, piecemeal, experimental, and iterative. If it took so much to even begin to know the circulation of the waters, should it surprise us if understanding the circulation of our thoughts and feelings is even more challenging – especially when it comes to making sense of uncertainty?

Perhaps part of the work is to approach the uncertainties of the present as Wilfred Bion proposed that therapists should aim to listen to their clients: “without memory or desire”. This means resisting the urge to be captured by our sense of what has already gone before or our wish for the future to play out in a certain way.

If, when facing uncertain times, we resist the expectation that tomorrow will play out much as yesterday did, and avoid the trap of thinking that the world will unfold in simple accordance with our desires, visions, or fears, then perhaps we can also usefully face broader strategic decisions “without memory or desire”. Scenarios can help by getting us to deliberately manufacture visions of future circumstances in which the sea of uncertainty has played out in ways which surface and challenge our assumptions and expectations, revealing some of the currents which lie beneath the comfort and constraints of our apparently rational thinking.

The birth of climate science as we know it today required the work of many thinkers in many places; it grew from a mess of warring hypotheses and theories, whose seasons of dominance waxed and waned. Something similar is true of the ways we try to understand what goes on in the groups, communities, and organisations to which we belong.

As Dry’s book shows, humanity has slowly moved from the sailor’s pragmatic but limited understanding of local currents and winds to a more systemic vision which has revealed to us a global set of interactions, yielding the realisation that our activities have caused drastic changes to the planet’s climate. Perhaps we can also move from a local and limited sense of our own thoughts and feelings to ever wider systemic perspectives on what goes on within and between us — and what that means for making wise decisions in times of uncertainty.

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