One of the expressions that says a lot to me about the process of SelfDesigning is, “Love is the only emotion that expands intelligence”. When I first began to hear this sentence I thought it was simple and intriguing, yet it took me a while to stop and think what it really might mean. For Humberto Maturana, the Chilean biologist and philosopher credited with the phrase, I think it reflects his belief in the importance of relationship and how strongly we affect one another in the environments we create. With that in mind, let’s take a few moments to explore how an emotion can grow our capacities.
I’ll start by describing my own definition of intelligence that may or may not be similar to Maturana’s. It’s emerged for me over time and is one I’ve seen increasingly explored as society ventures more deeply into ideas around 21st century learning.
During the early baby boom days of the 40s and 50s, many of us were culturally conditioned to think of intelligence as if it were a measurable quantity, one that represented both a knowledge base and an ability to problem-solve or reason due to that knowledge base. Even though I was one of the multitudes receiving pretty high scores on the tests thought to measure and predict ability and therefore future success, it never made sense to me that my IQ number truly represented the qualities that might give me a sustainably successful life.
As I got a bit older I began to take close note of those people I deeply admired, and in my noticing I saw a broad spectrum of elements well beyond the traditional definitions of either intelligence or success. Those people had good brainpower, yes, but they also demonstrated qualities like perceptiveness, flexibility, discernment, insight, intuition, spaciousness, understanding, humour, compassion, integrity, listening, imagination, creativity, presence, and the ability to hold multiple perspectives. They were not just mentors to others as a result of those qualities, but I could see that they were also learners, drawing from their interactions and conversations in a continuous journey of growth and development. I also saw that over time the qualities of these admirably intelligent people became deeply integrated, evolving into what we might call wisdom — the kind of wisdom we associate with true leaders or respected elders. These people lived valuable lives of positive influence, whether or not it translated to the success of finance or power, and I held them in high esteem.
Coming into present time, if there is resonance for you in the idea that intelligence for a successful life in the 21st century might require a strong blend of the above qualities, let’s set that aside and look to emotions, of which there are many. When we simplify out as far as we can to find the broadest categories possible, though, we might visualize two large baskets that could hold most all the feelings we experience; for me those baskets are “fear” and “love”.
Fear is an interesting emotion, rooted deep in our brains as a fight or flight instinct when various parts of the nervous system respond to a perceived threat. We automatically move into protection mode, and the body releases hormones like cortisol due to the stress we are experiencing. Our attention narrows to the need for survival and we constrict around that. Take a moment to picture yourself in an environment where you must aim your awareness toward constant watchfulness or vigilance, where you are untrusting, needing to find situational control, and generally feeling tense or anxious. Your cortisol level is high, and scientists have demonstrated that elevated levels of this hormone interfere with learning and memory, as well as focus and motivation. Learning can certainly occur but it’s often of a traumatic nature and is difficult to reinterpret into the positive. Small wonder that the kind of intelligence described in my opening paragraphs doesn’t easily bloom in an atmosphere where fear (of abuse or punishment, of failure, of inadequacy, or even of life’s next challenging turn) is the ruling emotion.
Now picture an environment free from that kind of ongoing fear, an environment where loving acceptance relaxes you into the trust of being seen as a legitimate other, where your attention is able to be drawn to that which interests or intrigues you. It’s a place where fight or flight shifts to rest and digest, and in this state you can open to newness and can absorb (moving from a literal to a more metaphorical interpretation of “digest”) or integrate all you take in. Positive learning occurs here and builds on itself with each affirming experience. These are the kinds of loving environments we support and foster with our SelfDesign approach, whether within family or in learning community.
People sometimes declare that fear is necessary for survival, and of course that can be true when heightened awareness helps us avoid a bad situation. Yet love, the kind of relational love that connects us to one another and to the world, is also necessary for survival — and not just for surviving but for thriving as we grow our capacity for a successful life.
Maturana says, “Love consists of opening a space of existence for another in co-existing with oneself in a particular domain of interactions”. When we maintain a disposition for love, whether with ourselves, our children, or our many other relationships, we increase our opportunities for recognizing and valuing the legitimacy that unfolds each of us like a flower. Building our capacity for intelligence begins with love, and in caring environments learning blooms and intelligence grows.