Global Sensemaking

Tools for Dialogue and Deliberation on Wicked Problems

Everybody does what they do because it makes sense to them at the time, because they think it will benefit them somehow. Even the people who deliberately harm themselves (like attempting suicide) see a benefit (ending pain), although we may call it insane.

Insanity is wrongly being defined lately as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Actually, that’s just an example of irrational behavior. The law defines insanity as a mental illness so severe that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality. An insane person’s picture of the world is deeply distorted.

I assert that our modern view of life on earth is insane. We think we can hurt one another and the planet and not pay for the damage. Thinking we can act without consequences is crazy.

Newton’s third law of motion — cause and effect — governs life. In Eastern philosophy, the term for balancing the life scales is karma. What goes around comes around. Whatever we put out is what we get back. We reap what we sow. Every action produces consequences.  Only an insane person leaps from an airplane without a parachute and sings aloud while plummeting down, “So far so good!”

A pebble plopped in a pond radiates ripples lapping every shore. Each behavioral act reverberates outward. My irritation with a store clerk stimulates her curtness to her next customers, who then go out and infect others with my mood. Actions also radiate inward. My anger lingers inside of me, affecting how I feel about myself, which affects all my interactions, including how I relate to Spirit.

How we each interact creates the societies in which we interact. We co-create our cultures through our acts of communication.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz asserts language weaves the web of culture. Acts of communication compose the cultures that comprise our world. Communication is how we make sense of the world and our lives within the world. Communication theory labels this process as sense-making. I want to discuss this because we need to know how we make sense of life to grasp the power of a global sensibility.

Sense-making physically occurs in the synapses of the brain as we are encoding and decoding messages and experiences. We integrate a thought, emotion or sensation by coding it electrochemically into our neural network. A stimulus first goes to the medulla oblongata, the oldest instinctive portion of the brain stem that decides our fight-or-flight reactions. Signals processed there next enter the cerebral cortex, seat of our awake mind. First we yank our hand away from a hot pot handle; a moment later we think, “Damn! That pot is hot!”

The hypothalmus in the brain triggers neural peptides that affect behavior while the limbic system records emotions, motivations and memories. We store emotions in the cellular memories of our brain, muscles, bone marrow, and intestines. We can get a pain in the neck, know stuff in our bones, get gut feelings. A network of mirror neurons records whatever we see others do as if we are doing it, so our bodies sway as we watch people dancing; we learn by watching.

The human body is a scalable, searchable data processing network for accessing all the information we have ever stored about “reality.” Our sense-making database contains genetic traits, life experiences and acquired knowledge. All these form our mental model of reality — the map and compass we use for navigating life. Our mindmap, worldview, weltanschauung, zeitgeist, paradigm organizes life for us, so new data can fit into a pattern.

Without a Big Picture of how life works, even if it’s inaccurate, our lives do not make sense to us, thus religion flourishes. Without a mindmap of reality, we get lost. We get frightened and confused. When life stops making sense, we must change how we think about our lives, or else our minds will fracture. We’ll go insane.

This essay is an excerpt from Judah Freed's book, GLOBAL SENSE: The 2012 Edition: A spiritual handbook on the nature of society and how to change the world by changing ourselves. Visit

Tags: Geertz, big, communication, freed, global, insanity, judah, mindmap, paradigm, picture, More…sanity, sense, sensemaking, worldview, zeitgeist

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Hi Judah,

Can't help it. You write .... Newton’s third law of motion — cause and effect — governs life. This is clearly not correct. Complex adaptive systems (like Life, Earth and the economy) do NOT obey that law as effects happen while causes cannot be uncovered. So what does that mean for your book?





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