Science, Soul and Fourier Transforms


There really are people who think in scientific terms and there really are people who have a poetic sense of human experience. We can all give thanks that human experience still spans a vast range and that the spirt of 1984 has not yet closed us down.

In a past that is now literally rather dim for me (was that really me?) I was a geophysicist doing oil and coal exploration, and later writing vast suites of software to process the data. Geophysical exploration crews record signals from the deep underground and then try to turn them into pictures and to interpret and visualise what is there. Oh, and we had to deal with the strange fantasies of oil companies and their emissaries.

One of the very core processing tools is the Fast Fourier Transform, FFT. Not exotic to us. Transformation has been fashionable for a while now. A Fourier transform takes a time signal and turns it into a frequency spectrum, or in a piece of mathematical beauty takes the frequency spectrum and uses exactly the same process to go into the time domain (again). For once the “fast” is not advertising but a piece of algorithmic magic that makes it economic to do transforms wherever you need them.

Quite science-y. In those days seismic processing used a high proportion of the world’s computing power and sexiest, fastest computers. And data meant data. Vast quantities of tapes with oceans of numbers on them, the traces of those signals in the ground. In the National Coal Board processing centre I was required to wear one of the white coats that computer high priests used to wear. My chest was then about 56” and the coat was so small it pulled my arms behind my back!

At Thinking, recently, we has the privilege of working with Peter Gruenewald for the day. We spoke of and investigated some of the science of adaptive resilience, bodily and mental, and how these are often tightly coupled. For demonstration purposes, Peter used a PC program called emwave from HeartMath, available retail, this time with lots of advertising claims. The system clips to your earlobe to pick up a pulse (time signal, you see where this is going) and has a gizmo like a memory stick. The gizmo does FFTs, yes it does. It transforms the trace of your biorhythm signals into a spectrum, visible on your computer screen.

Peter’s interest is in the autonomic nervous systems, sympathetic and parasympathetic, and their dynamic effects on human performance. These two systems work at different frequencies, so the FFT enables us to see them as separate areas of a spectrum. There is an area between these two fundamental biorhythm frequencies that are associated with high performance and there are ways of going there. So far so good. Amazing really.

So we are close to soul territory here. Remember Keats: Life is the vale of soulmaking. And his conviction stated in a letter: “I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”. Here we are discussing the capabilities of the soul and how to develop them. Surely these are lacking in our work and we pay for it daily.

Soul is about putting down roots into the messy particulars of our life and work. If you like, it is the opposite of bottom-line linear thinking. It says, how can we make a garden out of a desert or a tangled thicket? How can this group of people who have been set at each other’s throats become a way of transforming the world? Such soul rejects purpose-driven madness in favour of finding out what the real potential of a situation is. Like anything else worth having, but perhaps most particularly, soul needs to be nurtured and needs to be able to experience the pain and suffering in this vale.

Science and soul. A piece of PC software, described as way to deal with stress, a gizmo with a fancy algorithm implemented in it, and for those prepared to study there, a window on soul development. We think these things live in separate worlds and have separate tribes who live with them and through them. Is anyone looking at where they enhance each other?

As I write this we don’t know for sure whether the world is going down the tubes or not. We don’t normally think of Marx as soulful but his “all that is solid melts into air” is the quote for our times when we try so desperately to make money solid, to make power solid, to live in the manner to which we are accustomed without thought of the consequences. It is soul that has a response to this, a compassionate and above all patient response.

It would be inappropriate after that to try to sell a service, but we welcome the opportunity to explore value together, crossing boundaries.

Aidan Ward

Thinking Partner