All together now

Do you ever feel like you’re going to pieces? Disintegrated and fragmented, as if the various forces within your body are pulling your life in wildly different directions? Of course you do. We all do.

This experience may feel troubling, but there’s actually a very sound reason for this internal diversity. That is, the human body and brain are not unitary by design; we are built up from component parts, bolted on to one another over the course of millions, even billions of years. We are, in other words, a kluge.

A kluge (rhymes with huge) is an assembly of parts, cobbled together to solve a problem or serve a purpose. It’s a work-around, a quick-and-dirty, makeshift solution. Instead of being designed from scratch with an ultimate purpose in mind, a kluge is simply a create-as-you-go collection of elements. The word is often used in technical settings, where engineers voice their disdain for a particular product or solution; the device in question is overly complicated and barely functional, a real kluge.

In the world of engineering, this bias against the kluge may well have merit; we all want our bridges, cars and phones to be designed intelligently, from scratch, to serve a purpose. But in the world of biological evolution, the kluge reigns supreme. All of evolution’s most astonishing and beautiful creations are in fact kluges. This is simply the way that nature works. Start with a simple form, add some variation to the mix, expose the result to the wild forces of nature and see who survives.

Next, add some new features: new organelles, new membranes, new tissues, receptors, organs. There’s no way to tell in advance what will work. Innovate, mutate, and when the dust settles, innovate again. There is no planning in this process, no forethought, no intelligent design. After all, there is no way that DNA can predict the future; it doesn’t know what kind of environment its offspring will inherit. So, it just keeps adding to established solutions, experimenting with new variations. This is how our brains and bodies came to be. We are nothing if not kluges, all the way down.

In our daily lives, this internal diversity works pretty well. Our various organs and tissues talk to one another constantly in an incredibly intricate dance of feedback and regulation. We get out of bed in the morning, gather our component parts into a single coherent whole, and head out to meet the world. But problems arise in both mind and body when our component parts pull in wildly different directions. We’re all familiar with the experience: the hot, deep survival parts of our brains drive us towards impulsive behavior, lust, greed and instant gratification while the cool circuits of the prefrontal cortex try to turn down the heat with reason, reserve and self-control.

It’s no wonder that we sometimes feel disjointed; diversity has been built into our bodies and our brains over the course of millions of years. As Gary Marcus points out in his book Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, “the human mind is no less a kluge than the body.” But it’s a mixed bag: the diversity gives us internal conflict, but it also gives us creativity, passion and all our greatest works of art, literature and science. Being a kluge is not always easy, but it can also be a wellspring for art and inspired living. Of course, to maintain our health and excel in athletics, we need our component parts to be mostly on the same page. If the kluge becomes too disintegrated, the body begins to break down. Metabolic friction increases and function decreases. Injury and illness soon follow.

Fortunately, we know how to promote the synchronization and integration of the kluge. The process begins with natural light. By exposing ourselves to sunlight, especially early in the day, we entrain our entire physiological system into harmony with circadian rhythms. Next, exercise synchronizes the kluge by calling on all its subsystems to act with a single purpose. Heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, muscle; the whole physiological orchestra playing together to produce powerful, graceful, vigorous movement.

Meditation also integrates. When we sit quietly, gradually relinquishing our attachment to thoughts, worries and images, the body and brain naturally fall into a more harmonious state. The cognitive flywheel slows down and the mind-body begins to synchronize. This is just the beginning. Having a sense of purpose, meaning and vision also contribute to our integration. When we know what we’re trying to do in the world, we bring focus to our bodies and we become stronger. Likewise, a powerful sense of curiosity harmonizes our internal diversity. When we’re moved by wonder and the quest for discovery, we focus our energies in a single direction.

Adversity and stress can do it too, especially if the stress is moderate and comes in the right doses. Cortisol and other stress hormones can be powerful integrators, helping our organs and tissues to pull together in the same direction. Cognition and memory sharpen as the body prepares for action.

Finally, our sense of loyalty and love for others also integrates. When love fills our hearts, conflict and anxiety fade away and our minds and bodies become one.

So stop worrying; your sense of internal diversity and occasional conflict is completely normal. It may feel like a source of worry and confusion, but it’s also your ticket to creativity. You are large. You contain multitudes. Don’t fight it. Dance with it. Get some natural light, some good movement, a sense of purpose and curiosity and maybe a little love, and things will all come together very nicely indeed.