When I was younger, I viewed myself as one person, one identity, one man. Over time, when working on my self-tracking activities, I learned more and more about the complexity of my life. At first, I learned that my “one identity”, could be better viewed as many separate aspects working together, making one identity or a network. Aspects like work, studies, sleep, and private life are all interacting with each other and cascading on one another. I learned how my moods, physiological parameters, and activities change dynamically but repetitively over the minutes, days, weeks, and years. Furthermore, I learned how transitions take place in my moods and activities when shifting from studying to work, and from moving from place to place. I learned many things about my life that I couldn’t give a place within the (Health) sciences I specialized in.

In Health sciences, I couldn’t find any studies or statistical methods describing this much complexity in one person over time. No surprise, because science hardly studies one person. I didn’t know what to do, and I developed my own theories and statistical methods out of desperation but was insecure about their correctness. Then, I stumbled upon Complexity science. Complexity science is the study of systems and their dynamics over time. Complexity science is concerned with complex systems and problems that are dynamic, unpredictable and multi-dimensional, consisting of a collection of interconnected relationships and parts. Unlike traditional “cause and effect” or linear thinking, complexity science is characterized by non-linearity (source). System dynamics is an approach to understanding the behavior of complex systems over time. It deals with internal feedback loops and time delays that affect the behavior of the entire system. This view of systems resonated with my view of (my) life. From the day that I heard of this branch of science, I started viewing myself as a complex dynamic system. Viewing myself as a system, helps me a lot to understand, and work on my behavior, identity and needs. I hope it will help you too! Below I have written some of the key lessons I’ve learned which support me during my daily decision making.

A figure using my own data showing how strong different aspects of my life relate to each other, positively (green), and negatively (red). Read more about this figure on http://www.justintimmer.com/the-complexity-of-life/

I am a network
A complex system consist of different parts which are interacting. You can imagine a system as a network of points. So instead of seeing myself as a single dot, I see myself now more as a network of different nodes. I have different nodes like work, sleep, family, spouse, friends, strangers, and so on. This network can adapt to certain situations, and certain nodes from the networks can be more prominent than others. So my identity/or behavior flows with the situations across the network. I behave differently at work than being with my partner. Everyone does this, but in psychology, personality types are not considered to be this dynamic and fluid. Moreover, I am a network who is multi-scaled, meaning that each node consists of smaller sub-nodes. So if you zoom into my node “work”, you will find many sub-nodes like the project I work on, and if you zoom deeper into one of these projects, you will find more nodes of details of this project, and so on. This has a fractal aspect to it, watch my talk at the Quantified Self conference  to learn about my view on this.

Interactions across the system
Another thing I learned, is the interaction of the different aspects of my life, how my work activities are interacting with my sleep for example. Stress at work causes worse sleep, lack of sleep causes more stress at work, resulting in even more sleep-problems. Everyone recognizes these vicious cycles in their personal life, but these dynamics are hardly studied. Also in this case, it is hard determine what the causes and effects are, because work and sleep are both influencing each other. So in life I believe that causality is overrated (one of my other blogs which I wrote before being aware of complexity science). So instead of individual nodes in the network, there are continuous feedback loops across the nodes. Therefore, I believe that viewing the nodes more as spiraling clusters of fluids is more appropriate. Read this blog to learn more about that.

The robustness and adaptability of a system
Robustness and adaptability have become core elements within my life. According to systems theory, a system should be able to adapt to its environment to survive (source). But if it adapts to much all the time, it will lose its own identity. So a system should have some robustness with its own patterns. A system is most likely to be sustained once it finds its balance between robustness and adaptability, where a system shows fractal features as well. Within our own lives, adaptability is a quite intuitive concept. You need to adapt to the rules of society, your parents, your organization, and your environment. Otherwise, you’ll get kicked out. But if you only adapt and show no robustness, you are not interesting, not creative, not contributing. Finding a balance between robustness and adaptation is therefore key to existing.

A system requires a dynamic equilibrium
Complex systems need a dynamic balance to be sustained. In systems theory, a dynamic equilibrium a general topic. A dynamic equilibrium is a dynamic balance, where the system itself responses with adequate feedback towards the disturbances to return to is equilibrium. This phenomenon is also known as resilience. If it isn’t able to do this, the system will dissolve or change by making a transition. Just think about the dinosaurs or vanished cultures, which couldn’t handle disturbances. Just like that, you need dynamic balance in your life as well. Balance and healthy living is so intuitively, but there is no real framework for this. For example, you should be able to respond to disturbances like stress, and fights, and return to your initial state. E.g. you should be resilient and have your own equilibrium. Get more in to depth by reading my blog about the dynamic balance of life in my blog; “Why balance is key to our existence“.  

Having attractor states (habits)
An attractor is a set of numerical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. System values that get close enough to the attractor values remain close even if slightly disturbed. You can see habits in your daily life as attractor-states as well. Structural patterns which repeat every week, every day, or every hour make us pron to follow them. So the pattern itself causes us to follow the pattern. For example, you have attractors called work, eating, and sleep repeating every day. Over time, when you repeat them on a structured basis, the’ll become habits. Often you don’t have much reason to go to work, you just go because it is an habit. Somehow your work is just pulling you towards it. However, in the weekends we have very different “attractor-states” where we tend to do other things. Attractor states have a lot to do with the optimal energy dissipation. Where you have your habits to reduce the energy dissipation as well. Doing familiar things you already know cost less energy than doing new things. Maybe I’ll dedicate a blog to it soon.

Transitions
Complex systems are known to make sudden transitions once in a while. As a human we make a lot of transitions; over the years, from school, to college, to work, to retirement, but also during the day, from home, to work, to friends, etcetera. We can make transitions through multiple levels of our lives. We can fundamentally change our activities, the place where we stay, or with the people we hang out with. Across these levels we have multiple interactions and together they form changes that we perceive as transitions over time.

But what is the use?
So it could be quite appropriate to describe a human life in terms of a complex dynamic system, but what is the use of it? This area of science is a well studied area in fundamental science like physics, math, and fluid dynamics, and we could make use of that. I believe we could draw many parallels across these fields from fundamental sciences and apply it to discover the working of the brain, behavior, stress, cognition, consciousness, and so on. I am certain that more applied sciences like psychology, sociology, neurology, artificial intelligence, could really benefit from it. I am not the first one who thought about this, there have been a lot of studies using this theory, but still in many area’s it is relatively undiscovered yet. But here are some examples that use the theory; brain dynamics, consciousness, social and personality psychology

 

 

 

2 Comments

  1. Siebe

    I really enjoyed this post! Great to see your views come together. I now finally really understand the strong link between quantified self and complexity science. I believe you might be the only person (in the world) to combine these so strongly, and thus you have arrived at an unexplored domain! While studying this further, it will probably be very difficult to 1) convince others (reviewers, funders) there’s depth in studying one person/life, and 2) find people who can support you and sharpen your ideas.

    Some points of comment:
    – On the spectrum of fragility to robustness, robustness might not be an extreme but the middle, and anti-fragility might be the other extreme: “Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.”
    – I know your views have evolved since writing that post about causality being overrated, but I think a more precise summary would be that you believe that “linear causality is overrated”. Is that correct?
    – “Doing familiar things you already know cost less energy than doing new things. Maybe I’ll dedicate a blog to it soon.” Looking forward to this one! See comment on other post for my thoughts on this (path of least resistance and the relation to entropy)
    – “But if you only adapt and show no robustness, you are not interesting, not creative, not contributing.” I agree, but why is this the case?

    Good stuff,
    Siebe

    Reply
    • justintimm

      Thanks for your comment! In regard to the difficulty of convincing others (reviewers, funders) there’s depth in studying one person/life, I believe you are right here, and I have encountered this challenge already. This “new paradigm” is largely different from the usual way of performing science. Nevertheless, analyzing time-series of individuals become more and more relevant within health-sciences, but also in (consumer) behavior. Scientists start to accept that large-scale studies can’t support everyone, and thus the interest is growing towards personalized- medicine, health, content, advice. In this area, the view of CDS is very useful.
      Regarding your second point (find people who can support you and sharpen your ideas). Yes, it might. I would love to meet physicists and mathematicians who are specialized in the CDS area, and cross-influence each other.

      Your comments
      – On the spectrum of fragility to robustness, robustness might not be an extreme but the middle, and anti-fragility might be the other extreme: “Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.”
      I like that you use the word “fragility” here. That’s an interesting way to name it. But the quote itself says that anti-fragility is similar to robustness right? I don’t really get your point.
      – I know your views have evolved since writing that post about causality being overrated, but I think a more precise summary would be that you believe that “linear causality is overrated”. Is that correct?
      Yes, that is correct.
      – “Doing familiar things you already know cost less energy than doing new things. Maybe I’ll dedicate a blog to it soon.” Looking forward to this one! See comment on other post for my thoughts on this (path of least resistance and the relation to entropy)
      Thanks! Yes it’s a great topic to talk about 🙂
      – “But if you only adapt and show no robustness, you are not interesting, not creative, not contributing.” I agree, but why is this the case?

      Reply

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