We Fractals Re-Visited

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
Winsights No. 47 (January/February 2001)

We may be fractals. But we are not only gorgeous and (eventually) infinitely adaptable Mandelbrot sets — many of us, including yours truly, have drawn from their study much inspiration and powerful insights about the human condition.

Even amoebas are more than Mandelbrot sets. They act upon and modify their environments — they are expressive of their environments, not merely expressions of their environments.

We humans are more than amoebas. Amoebas live only in the moment. Not much in the past experience of an amoeba informs its present or future experience. There is tremendous value, as we have been teaching here, and as — from a different perspective — Buddhists have been teaching for thousands of years, to living in the moment, in the sense that we really pay some attention to what we are actually sensing and perceiving, that we respond to and thus reinforce some of our perceptions, some of our perceiving, for there truly is a window on infinity.

But I propose further that we not only live in the moment, but do so with all of ourself. It is in interfacing all of ourself with our current actual sensings and perceptions that we come to wider and wider possibilities.

What I find to be insight-inspiring in the gorgeous Mandelbrot set is not only its occasionally soul-searing beauty, but one of its defining aspects:  a complex system which remains essentially itself yet changing, as it takes back in some feedback from its environment and from its own actions and incorporates these feedbacks into its ongoing evolution.

If you’ve looked closely at a Mandelbrot set, you see that each portion of the fractal is essentially the same, but just a little bit different according to where it is. Yet those incremental differences add up until the figures we see seem to be entirely different species.

We have that in common with “mere” Mandelbrot sets. We can look at our human genome, for example. We look at another person, who has 99.99% the same genes as ourself; essentially we see ourselves. We look at a monkey, and we still essentially see ourselves. Amazingly, we can still see ourselves when we look at a cat or dog. We can even look at a fern or a tree and still see a lot that is us. We can look at an amoeba and still see ourselves. Yet we are more….

An amoeba transcends the non-living Mandelbrot set, however infinite the possibilities of such a fractal, because it is more than just an expression of its surroundings — the amoeba also acts upon its surroundings. We humans are more than amoebas; our past experience informs our present experience. That is our glory and our bane, our burden and our reward.

  • Current perception can gain so much more meaning when related to prior experience — exploring this richness is pretty much the work of Art and the Arts.
  • Current perceptions can also gain so much more meaning when related to one another through elements of prior experience — that is much of the work of Science.

The richness of meaning is there and has always been there. It is exposed by our capacity to perceive, interfacing with our capacity to conserve prior experience and to let it inform the present and our current actions. Together, through this interface, these two capacities of ours have opened wider possibilities for us humans.

Indeed, we are looking at that defining quality of the Mandelbrot set all over again, at a higher level, recognizably itself though different. Our experience as ourself, remaining recognizably itself and yet taking in and adapting to a portion of our feedback — feedback from our surroundings and feedback from what we’ve been doing or putting out — that is our bane and our glory as human beings.

What our evolving fractal self is, depends largely on what it is that we’ve been putting out. It depends also upon what we choose to take back in. It is, in whichever case, that fractal-like, adaptive interfacing of our self-based experience with current sensory reality which has opened to us the whole wide wonderful universe.

In your own life, make a point at times of noticing everything you can, and of describing it or responding in some specific way to your own perceptions. Each time you do that, you reinforce the particular perception and, more significantly, you reinforce the behavior of being perceptive. The subtler the perceptions to which you can respond, the richer this process becomes and the richer your life in every meaningful human sense becomes.

And in your life make a point, at least at times, of making sense of everything you can. This hotwires (or hardwires, choose whichever metaphor is more meaningful to you!) more and richer meaning into every facet of your existence, expands your own universe, and opens your doors toward a higher infinity.