Movie Review: An Ecology of Mind

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 10 Comments

I recently had the pleasure to attend a special pre-screening of a new film entitled An Ecology of Mind.

The film is an hour-long documentary about the anthropologist and philosopher Gregory Bateson that was created by his daughter Nora Bateson. At the start of the film Nora claims that it is a film “about the way Gregory Bateson thinks.” I would go further and say that the film actually manages to give the viewer a glimpse of the world the way Gregory Bateson saw it.

An Ecology of Mind is not a biographical look at Gregory Bateson’s life although it includes aspects of both his personal and professional story. It is also not a character study or a study of his ideas and discoveries although both of these are also included. If I were to try to sum up the film in a phrase I would call it a multidimensional mosaic retrospective of an extraordinary mind. After seeing the film I felt for a while as if I was seeing the world anew – like I had seen through ‘the matrix’ for fans of the movie – and I wondered about how the film had brought about so subtle a shift in perspective.

The image that came to my mind was flying a kite as a small child. Sometimes the kite would fly so high that I would loose site of it. My own father would try to point his finger in the direction that I should look, but still I couldn’t find my missing kite. Eventually he would stand behind me and with one hand on either side of my head he would direct my eyes in the direction that I needed to be looking. When my eyes finally made contact with the kite I would feel a combination of exhilaration and gratitude.  Seeing the film An Ecology of Mind was similarly like having your attention directed toward something you couldn’t see before.

What world did Gregory Bateson see? First and foremost he saw that the world was not made up of a collection of things arranged in some spatial and temporal order. Rather he saw that what we perceive is a constant sense of relatedness that morphs and alters in front of our eyes. We perceive relationships, contrasts, and then we imagine that threre are things being related or contrasted. Things are phantoms created from an assumption about the nature of relationship. “When I realized that there was no-thing in the universe.” Gregory Bateson says in the film, “I found myself floating in an ocean of ideas.”

The film includes many video clips taken from lectures and talks given by Gregory Bateson. In one of them he is shown teaching to an audience. There are two objects on a table and he asks people to consider what the difference between them is? He makes the point that the difference does not exist in the space between them – you can put the objects closer together or hold them further apart and the difference between them will not change at all. What you actually experience when you experience ‘objects’ is the sense of the difference between them. When you experience anything what you perceive is the difference, or the relationship, between one thing and something else. We do not live in a world of things; we live in a world of relations.

Gregory Bateson was an extraordinary pioneering systems thinker who was enthralled with the holistic and holographic nature of reality. He saw how relations constantly change – at one moment playing the role of content and then shifting to become the context for some other content. To understanding anything, he believed, was to understand the system of connections that create it; ultimately he was  looking for “the pattern that connects.” No matter what he was studying, whether it was native tribes as an anthropologist working with his first wife  Margaret Mead, or pathological states of consciousness, or systems theory, what he was really looking for was the pattern that connects. His way of looking at the world was an inspiration to many prominent figures and to untold multitudes of the rest of us.

Many attributes of Gregory Bateson’s life and work are conveyed in the film, but most importantly it has the power to change the way you see.  It will show you how you habitually see ‘things’ as ‘real’ and the relations that connect things as some sort of invisible, intangible and ultimately unreal connection between things. Slowly as the film redirects your gaze you will find that you are not looking at things at all, you are looking at patterns of relationship – here and there, now and then, fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, teachers and students, animals and humans, humans and the earth, and even two cups sitting on a table.

When you have the opportunity to see this film please do. And when you do, don’t just watch the film, give yourself the luxury of looking at the world through Gregory Bateson’s eyes.

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Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Jeff, that looks very interesting. Recently I was thinking about Time [ what is Time? the 100000000 dollars question for physicists and probably one of the key question to reconcile physics and spirituality]. The train of thoughts was going in a direction similar to what you describe in this blog. If I say the bike that was yellow is now red, I express a change and by this I express time. What do I have in this change? I need first an element which is fixed [ the bike] and an element which is moving [ the color]. If I… Read more »

Willa
Willa
10 years ago

Great post, Jeff, it’s really exciting to take apart our habitual ways of looking and realize how used we are to them, and how much of them we “make up as we go” because we actually can’t fully grasp reality! I was just before this reading Kant on space…: “Space… is a pure intuition. (…) As far as space is concerned, an a priori intuition of it (i.e. one that is not empirical) underlies all concepts of space. (…) Therefore the original presentation of space is an a priori *intuition*, not a *concept*.” (from the Critique of Pure Reason) I… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Catherine, the way I understood it -from Kant- is that we cannot explain time because, like Willa says, time and space are a priori, it is the way our brain functions, we can only think in time. The building block for perceiving reality is time and space, that is basic. The basic building blocks for reason are the twelve categories (previous post) in the brain, which leads to concepts (bikes) and so on. Knowledge only exists through uniting sensory representations and mental concepts. The brain produces thoughts and that can only happen in time. But this doesn’t say that there… Read more »

jim paradisi
jim paradisi
10 years ago

Jeff,
Mr.Bateson is certainly an extraordinary thinker.I went to the home page an saw a short clip of the film.When I come across people like him, I’am always left with a feeling of not knowing anything but a desire to know.I somtimes get tired of making the forever on going inquiry,but then something rises up in me that want let me stop, and so the search goes on.I think it’s that desire to make that connection to see the relatedness of all things.

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Dear Lisbeth, I am not sure that one cannot understand “Time”. I am just not convinced of this, deep down. Of course it depends on what you mean by “understanding”. When Einstein was starting his theory of Relativity, much before he was famous, he was interviewed by a friend who asked him about what he was doing . His answer was :“ I try to understand Time, Space and Light”. The friend thought he was crazy. We all know the result of this… one of the most brilliant physical theory ever produced. If you say“ we cannot understand time” then… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Dear Catherine, thank you for answering. After posting the reply, I immediately felt very wrong. You have such a difference back-ground that we are like emptiness and fullness (we might end at the same place), but I respond from no idea of time and you probably are aware of all that has been said about it. I remember it is the core of your work in quantum physics. It was just such a coincidence that you talked about time while I just had the éureka experience caused by (someone talking about) Kant. For me this is enough because I won’t… Read more »

Willa
Willa
10 years ago

Liesbeth, I object, I think it’s great you responded because it forms a great discussion and without responses there’s no debate and we wouldn’t learn anything! (and by the way, is this Liesbeth in Amsterdam? So cool to meet up here again!) I think the key is what Catherine said: depending on what we mean by “understanding”. Taking that into account, we know and we don’t know time. We can understand conceptually just about anything that makes sense, but that doesn’t always mean that we can empirically understand it. For instance to really understand the infinity of time from our… Read more »

Liesbeth
Liesbeth
10 years ago

Yes Willa, it is so great you read all these things..it is so great to meet in this context. I never understand why so few people participate -even though I agree that too much mind is not the way-, it is so amazingly interesting to look deeper into things, especially when we have differend back grounds, it can be so helpful and so stimulating to search for more. I will read the book of Wilber, which I have (Catherine, I remember you and others mentioning mistakes in it, I’ll keep that in mind). Thank you for the suggestion, that is… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
10 years ago

Actually, what I was saying is a bit simpler than what Willa has in mind. It is not a question really of “understanding Time” but of trying to understand it. Let’s put it this way; anybody who says he or she knows what Time is I ask him or her a definition. I am pretty sure I will be disappointed. What my blog tried to convey is that Time is one of the few concepts that, when on tries to understand it honestly, without pre-conceived ideas, puts us in a different world. Our brain gets strange and much bigger, we… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
9 years ago

Can we view Reality as a movie that is being “filmed” and edited as it goes along until the end of time?

It’s a story that could never have been invented, the most gripping and actual than any fiction could ever be. The plot twists and turns are hard to follow.

Enlightenment is to be able to do that. I don’t think it’s humanly possible. There are those more able but not totally so.

To attempt to do so would drive anyone mad.

It’s said that if Reality were revealed and perceived it would blind the perceiver.