Something I wrote for the Gaia magazine

The return of chaos consciousness

In the early days chaos theory was like the early Internet, accessible only to those who could read and speak the specialist languages which are the province of experts. Then in the 1980’s chaos  burst on to the scene with psychedelic/strange looking pictures called fractals full of dazzling colour and hypnotic pattern, discovering order in what previously had been dismissed as random. In the nineties came the World Wide Web which (with the growth of PCs) allowed graphics, sound and text to be construct powerful interfaces – so much so that web sites have become part of people’s lives. The public progress of the non-linear science of chaos has been painfully slow in comparison. There appears  precious little to show for it, until now: “As we understand the processes by which life organizes itself and as we learn how to work with life’s creativity rather than controlling against it, we are discovering a path filled with new possibilities for how to work and create together.” (1)

Chaos may have captured the public imagination with films like ‘Pi’ but the application of this chaotic understanding in the mainstream have been slow to emerge. But this is about to change. In August last year two US researchers Chris Sackellares and Leonidas Iasemidis announced a technique for predicting epilepsy, inspired by chaos theory, after more than a decade’s work: “Their technique involves using sophisticated mathematical formulas to sort through the brain’s complex electrical signals. The scientists theorize that a seizure’s function is to correct a neural system gone awry. Though it may sound counterintuitive, a build-up of organized, harmonious signals is what needs to be fixed to return the brain to its naturally chaotic state.” Exact prediction (the goal of linear science) of the seizure is not their aim, rather identifying a window of opportunity to prevent seizures, says Iasemidis: “We’re interested to see (using electricity or medication) if we can knock the system out of its route to the seizure.” (2)

People’s understanding of the unpredictable way the world works isn’t new however – it’s been essential to human survival over the last 100,000 years. Indeed a key idea in chaos theory, that of sensitive dependence on initial conditions, is contained in a well known folk saying: “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of a shoe, the horse was lost; For want of a horse, the rider was lost; For want of a rider, the battle was lost; For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!” Another example analogous to ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’ is the folklore saying ‘Red at night shepherds delight, red in the morning shepherd’s warning’. Indeed scientific interest in the predictive powers of folklore sayings pre-dates chaos science. Fifty years ago this year a panel of US traditionally-minded scientists was set up to examine the validity of 153 traditional sayings: The panel found that at least 80 of them were sound.

I put my chaos consciousness to the test as a freelance journalist, helping cover the 30th anniversary of the death of Dr Martin Luther King for the BBC, in April 1998. Contrary to the mainstream US and UK media I decided James Earl Ray was not King’s assassin. I based my decision on the views of the people most emotionally involved, the King family, and their supporters, not the so-called experts. When the Memphis assistant district attorney I interviewed questioned the validity of the King family’s call for a new investigation (3), he was also failing to recognise the predictive power of chaos consciousness: “Case study after case study of the human rather than the chemical level reveals our capacity – by no means 100% reliable, but to a higher degree than present chaos theory dictates – to predict the future in situations of extreme instability.” (4) The King family’s hypothesis was vindicated in December last year when a Memphis Circuit Court jury found that a cafe owner and the government at several levels conspired to assassinate King. The jury took less than an hour and a half to reach its verdict in the wrongful death lawsuit.

The idea that there could be a people’s reading of the world is in any way equivalent to educated knowledge is starting to attract some serious backers. In the forward to Ervin Laszlo’s ‘The Whispering Pond’ Karan Singh highlights: “The growing convergence between the mystical world view (predominantly, but by no means exclusively Eastern) and the emerging paradigm of reality among scientists at the cutting edge of contemporary knowledge”. It is rare to find anyone arguing this kind of equivalence in the West, and for good reason, the colonisation of chaos consciousness by the linear values of the educated has had longer and deeper to run. This colonisation is so complete because the human eco-system, and consequently one’s success within it, has been dependent on how ‘well’ one adapts to the linear world view.

These tried and tested relationships between people and systems (where the system comes first and people adapt to it) are changing rapidly, but no more clearly  than in the IT sector which is turning the accepted way of doing business on its head. From the success of free internet providers, free PC deals to internet subscribers, to the reason why Netscape’s latest Navigator the programme codes are all on full view to competitors, the human environment is undergoing rapid change, which itself set in train. In the very near future the most successful people will be those ‘working with life’s creativity’. As the linear world goes non-linear then people’s consciousness is going to have to shift just as dramatically. The irony is that its simply returning to a state of creative chaos long established by human evolution, but within the context of a virtual rather than a natural environment. As the old saying goes ‘you never return to the same river twice’.


(1) Margaret Wheatley, from an interview in, the online magazine for Information Executives.

(2) In fact just such a device for preventing epilepsy (aka: Neurocybernetic Proesthesis System for Vagus Nerve Stimulation Therapy) is already in clinical use.

(3) In interview in April 1998 Memphis Assistant Distict Attorney Lee Coffee dismissed the King family’s stand on the assassination: “They are making public statements without a solid factual foundation for taking those opinions.”

(4) David Loye, Darwin’s Lost Theory: A New Grounding For The Chaos Revolution, a paper presented at the Ninth Annual International Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences in July 1999.