Emergent Knowledge

The swarm knows more than the sum of what every bee knows.

This article is adapted from Philip Harland's book,
The Power of Six: A Six Part Guide to Self Knowledge (Wayfinder 2009, 2nd edition 2012), a definitive guide to the principles and practice of Emergent Knowledge in therapy, counselling, coaching, and teaching. 


Archimedes: Eureka!Rumour has it that Archimedes’ discovery of a formula for calculating volume and density came to him while he was on one of his visits to the local baths. His sudden realization about a body’s displacement of water may have come about when he slipped on a bar of soap, but we can be sure that the actual mathematics involved were the result of a great deal of earlier brainwork. 

When we add one idea to another, things can get knotty (or slippery) and intricate. Complexity builds over time, then tends to reorganize suddenly, when simple solutions emerge. If you have ever woken in the morning with an idea about something you gave up on the night before, you will have experienced emergence in action. When enough separate but related components have time and opportunity to interact, something new happens. According to ‘self-organizing systems’ theory, at a certain level of complexity a system will naturally reorganize. It starts to self-correct. Through a heightened awareness of our own patterns, new levels of knowledge emerge.

A little history: in the late 1990s, pioneering therapist David Grove began asking if the principles of the new science of emergence meant that the therapist could be eased even further out of the equation than his innovatory Clean Language procedures already allowed. He suggested that the information-rich spaces clients discovered in a Clean Space procedure would network together and that from their self-organization new knowledge would emerge. From here it was a small step to applying the iterative principles of the science of emergence to heal the systems of the mind. In an Emergent Self Knowledge process, the repetition of a single question drives an algorithm of change that prompts a restructuring of the client’s personal worldview in which the old stuff – fear, shame, guilt, and so on – reorganizes into a more manageable form and in many cases ceases to exist altogether.

How do iteration and emergence apply in therapy, coaching, and health management, where it may only take one or two small changes to produce life-changing effects? 

My client Colin is having trouble trying to communicate with his girlfriend. They are very much involved, but driving each other round the bend because she is very expressive emotionally and Colin is not. He struggles to recognize his feelings, never mind express them. What Colin wants, as he puts it, is “To know what is inside.” If I were to ask him a succession of “What do you know about that?” questions, he would probably not get much further than his first reply (“Nothing”), because my questions, being simply repetitive, would likely produce more of the same. However, if my second question is “And what else do you know about that?” Colin is obliged to find new information that incorporates and allows for his first response. “Nothing” is no longer sufficient.

“And what else?” is an iterative question. Through a series of six of these (thus ‘The Power of Six’), Colin is able to build on what he knows and to get successively closer to discovering “what is inside". It turns out to be not only a cozy mixture of love and joy, but also a bunch of disagreeable feelings like shame, guilt, and fear. Iterative questioning helps him find out a great deal more about what he had hidden from himself. The result is a systemic solution: emergence in action. 

Systems theorist Fritjof Capra explains in The Web of Life how small differences are amplified into large ones through a process of “self-reinforcing feedback”. A small difference feeds into the system → the system performs better → the difference is confirmed → the rewards are reinforced. Here is a simple example: a state of tension can be reduced easily and quickly by taking a deep diaphragmatic breath, which relaxes the body, which makes it less tense, which makes it easier to take more deep diaphragmatic breaths. The effect accelerates its own cause. Just as, say, laughter, an emergent effect of feeling good, releases endorphins, a cause of feeling good, and a good dose of endorphins produces a buoyant feeling that makes us more likely to laugh.

What happens in an Emergent Knowledge / Power of Six process is that clients work through their traumas without being retraumatized. And at the end of the day, they own their own process. They heal themselves. When conventional commonsense or intelligence fail usthe Power of Six is a means of tapping into the reservoirs of our own wisdom.