Complex Homeostasis

Understanding the behavior of systems

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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Balancing Act — photography by Elan Sun Star

…On Balance

How one thing affects another. How things interact. How one thing bears on another.

There are regularities, there are natural laws which describe those regularities, those patterns of behavior which we call the general nature of systems, or the general theory of systems. Once you understand how systems behave, you understand much, much else.

Once you understand the general nature and behavior of systems you understand much, much else because everything you study in any discipline or field or specialty — including you, and including the people around you, is an example of systems.

It’s all one Universe, with one set of natural laws, no matter what the name of the field or specialty through which we attempt to study it.

Therefore you should learn and understand systems behavior as soon in your career or life or schooling as possible, as that would make things very much easier for you — every time you have to learn a new subject or field, even from scratch, you’d already know and recognize most of it as you go into it — more on that in a moment.

You are comprised of systems. Indeed, you are made up of many billions of systems. These are contained within and regulated by systems which also are a part of you. You are a system. You are also a part of many, many systems. There are certain actions, certain behaviors, in common to all of these systems, easy to recognize, easy to predict once you know them.

Understanding One Key Part of Systems Behavior

Even though there are many types of systems, nearly every system is of the type that is complexly homeostatic. Complexly homeostatic systems maintain multiple equilibria at multiple levels. Every system within you is complexly homeostatic, or you wouldn’t be here. Very nearly every system you are part of is also complexly homeostatic or you/we wouldn’t be here. At any given time, systems which are not complexly homeostatic don’t last very long, and that condition has only intensified over billions of years of biological evolution and thousands of years of social evolution. Understand complex homeostasis and you will understand much of everything that is going on.

Simple Homeostasis

A simple thermostat is an example of simple homeostasis. It senses the actual temperature, in comparison to the desired or “goal” temperature, such as of the air in your living room. If the air is too warm or too cool in relation to the setting or goal, the expanding or contracting coil of the thermostat automatically tugs over a switching mechanism which turns your air conditioning on or off. The mechanism is wonderfully simple:  metal expands when warmer and contracts when cooler. A coil of metal can do a lot of expanding and contracting. One end of the coil is attached to the switch which controls the conditioner, so that expansion and contraction of the coil tug that switch on or off.

Driving down the right side of the highway toward town, you adjust the steering reflexively to stay in your lane. You may swing around curves, you may swing around obstacles, change lanes to pass or to let stampeders past, but basically you keep returning to staying in your lane until you’ve reached town. Keeping to and returning to that lane or thermostat setting or goal, or to that equilibrium, is — like the thermostat — an example of simple homeostasis. Think of it as “homing in” on that stasis goal or equilibrium.

Other and more complex forms of homeostasis are also usually reflexive. If you get cold, you do things to get warmer, almost by reflex without thought, such as pulling on a sweater, or shivering, or moving to a warmer part of the room, or getting up and doing something physically more active, or that second cup of coffee… If you get warm… If you get hungry…. If you get thirsty… Once you get sated… And at other levels:  the correct levels of each and every hormone and endocrine, enough exercise, enough rest, not only within your body but in each part of your body, each organ, each cell, literally trillions of systems and subsystems all complexly homeostatic within themselves and complexly homeostatic in their relations one to another.

Huge, Urgent Consideration for Medical Research

Each of these trillions of complexly homeostatic systems defines and maintains some sort of equilibrium. What that means is — not only a balancing with the products of other systems which feed into that equilibrium, but specific mechanisms to detect when the situation is swinging or being pushed out of equilibrium, and to set countervailing forces to work returning that situation back to stable balance.

Even though medical science has known about general systems theory for a half century, and specific branches of endocrinology and of family psychology have incorporated narrow elements of it into their own theory and slightly into their practice, the simple truth is that every quantity and function and structure studied or treated by medical science is a complex self-balancing system, with discrete factors feeding in as part of that balance, and with specific mechanisms to maintain and restore that balance. To improve a given situation, work with the factors feeding into that equilibrium and with the specific mechanisms which nature uses to maintain and restore that equilibrium.

Medical researchers know this — but they don’t know it. They haven’t internalized that awareness or made it part of the core of what they are investigating. Contemporary medical intervention mostly simply overrides what’s happening, trying to restore an overt problem by what amounts to brute force. More often than we like, this heavy-handed approach leads to more problems cropping up elsewhere as more and more systems derange from the imbalance and from that overriding intervention.

Yes, the factors feeding into a given situation are themselves equilibria of other systems whose balances in turns are equilibria fed from yet other systems. But a medical science that related directly and mainly to the behavior of complex homeostasis would be a lot more effective and, certainly in the long run, a lot less costly in both human and material terms.

Easy-to-Understand Examples Involving the Brain

Your friend Joe could be perfectly normal, until he goes through a windshield in a car accident and suffers brain damage. Within a month after the accident, the palm of his right hand could be flat against his right wrist, the way you may have seen with other brain-damaged people. It wasn’t his hand and wrist that went through the windshield and were injured, it was his head and brain. What had changed was “rest position,” the position where Joe’s brain defined for the hand and wrist to be in normal balance or equilibrium. Sensory feedback from one side was mostly gone; the new equilibrium perceived by the brain was so far away from the rest position you or I would consider normal that in a month the bones themselves would have re-shaped to accommodate the one-sided pressure being exerted on them by Joe’s brain.


Why is someone near-sighted, far-sighted or astigmatic? The books tell you (and it’s their error!) that the eyeball is too long or too short. It’s not. What’s controlling the shape of the eyeball? The muscles in and around the eye. But it’s not the fault of the muscles, either. What’s controlling those muscles? The brain. For some reason, the equilibrium defined by the brain has been distorted. Change what’s feeding into that equilibrium and you change the eye’s sightedness. No eyeglasses (crutches for vision); no irreversible laser surgery


Whatever functions or aggregate level of functions which the professionals have been arguing over for a century as constituting “intelligence,” or constituting “the seven (or eight, or gazillion) intelligences,” each individually and/or together, or as “I.Q.” — each of these represents an equilibrium fed by other more basic factors and maintained by specific mechanisms. Change what’s feeding in and/or change the mechanisms and you obviously change the intelligence. Neither those who have argued over the past century that intelligence is the product of our genes (“nature” in “nature vs. nurture”) nor those who have argued the case for environment, have come yet to grasp that “intelligence” is a result of dynamic interaction between nature and nurture (like the outcome of play at second base in American baseball). Nor do they grasp that slight differences in those sequences and interactions lead to major differences in outcome (like such differences involving the runner, the fielder, the second baseman, field conditions, and the thrown baseball). They have yet to perceive that “intelligence” is an expression of equilibrium of dynamic factors which, if changed and/or if the relevant mechanisms are changed, can vary its outcome all over the ballpark!

Main Organ for Maintaining Balance

Of course the limbic brain is our main organ for maintaining, at least in the more general systems, the balance in our lives, biologically, socially, and in other regards. Our vaunted cerebral cortex, cupped over the limbic like a hand over an upward-held fist, is mainly supplementary memory chips to fill in on the operations of our brain’s mainframe computer, the limbic. — It adds buffers to sustain the span of awareness in which a given mental process can take place.

Needless to say, not even one percent of one percent of this hugely significant topic has yet been developed, even in specific regard to the complex homeostasis represented by the limbic brain, much less the thousand-and-one other life-and-death-level concerns of the human organism.

Social Equilibrium

Just about every stable or long-lasting situation in human affairs is a complexly homeostatic equilibrium, with factors fed into its equilibrium and with specific mechanisms for reflexively maintaining and restoring that equilibrium situation.

One very clumsy example is the Federal Reserve Board trying to offset economic fluctuations, trying to act like a thermostat for the national economy. “The Fed” pursues expansionary economic policies for the USA under conditions of a contracting economy and pursues contractionary, cooling-off policies during times when an economic boom appears to be overheating. The process appears to leave something to be desired in terms of results, though it does appear to be a substantial improvement over the more absolute boom/bust conditions which used to prevail before 1933.

Find a cluster of some of the most promising applications thus far of this complex homeostasis recognition in the social and psychological areas, with the Win/Win-Finder procedure and analysis. Even in this area, arguably equal in importance to our other most major developments in Project Renaissance, only the very barest beginnings have yet been made. There and everywhere throughout this very broad topic, of understanding the behavior of any action in any field as an example of systems behavior, and usually as an example of complex homeostasis, huge opportunities abound for anyone qualified for research or even given over to a little thoughtfulness from time to time, to easily perform strong, obvious, original research highly vital to the human condition and highly likely to be recorded in history as discoveries of major importance. A little this side of such prospects….

Significance in Education

….This side of such prospects, it would be invaluable to just about anyone to develop and build his understanding of how systems generally behave, and especially how complex homeostatic systems behave.

  • Just about anything one looks at or thinks about is an equilibrium fed by discrete factors (which themselves are equilibria fed and maintained!), reflexively maintained by mechanisms which work not only to maintain things in balance but to restore them when they get out of balance, puttingeverything back to status quo ante.
  • Understanding systems behavior, especially complex homeostasis, will tell you most of what you need to know about the phenomena and behavior of any field of study even before you begin to study it. What remains to be learned about it can fill in and integrate quickly and easily around that already-understood core.
  • Most Americans now have to change their work career many times during the course of their lifetime, each change requiring the learning of some new fields, specialties and subjects. To make career change easier, quicker, less costly and more effective, most Americans should learn the general theory of systems, especially in the regards cited above, even if they are not researchers.
  • For the same reasons, everyone, including young children, should learn the general behavior of systems as early in their education as possible. Thereafter, in subject after subject after subject, they can accomplish far more and far more readily and easily and with greater meaning, enjoyment, and permanence. (This is the reason why Project Renaissance is searching for writers who can help co-author texts and programs for very young children to help them understand the general nature and behavior of systems.)

Probably the most comprehensive source for most of the relevant aspects of this side of general systems theory is James O. Miller’s monumental text, Living Systems. A very simple, concise, but rather idiosyncratic treatment of elements of general systems theory is our own little book, Toward A General Theory of Systems. That might be as good a place as any to start. But Google can help you find a good many sources and treatments on complex homeostasis. Your acquiring that extraordinarily convenient way of thinking and perceiving can make for far easier going and for far greater advantages in your life than you might imagine.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…..

Additional Reading

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