Cohering and decohering
It’s been far too long since I’ve written anything, and the longer it goes the bigger a deal it becomes, so I figured I’d just write some stuff. Here’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.
There’s an internal experience I think of as cohering, which is when you find a consistent version of yourself to be in the moment, and then commit to it.
An extreme example of the experience: You’re feeling vaguely out of sorts, not quite sure what to do with yourself. You’re cooking something, you’re vaguely aware that the dishes need doing but you don’t wanna, so you’re idly checking your phone. You start by reading something, but it doesn’t really grab you so you end up doomscrolling on Twitter. Suddenly you smell something odd, look up, and your food is on fire! You spring into action. You turn off the gas, run for the fire extinguisher, and bring it back and put out the fire.
That moment where you spot the crisis and switch instantly from aimless and not doing anything in particular to wholly committed to the task of putting the fire out is when you cohered. The coherence doesn’t last long - just enough to put the fire out - but for that brief window of time you are a fully coherent being whose sole focus is putting out the fire.
You are “cohered” in this sense to the degree that all parts of you are pulling in a single direction. When your mind is wandering, or you’ve got nagging doubts about what you’re doing, or you’re multitasking three different things at once without really paying attention to any of them, you are decohered - not forming a unified whole.
Cohering doesn’t necessarily happen in response to a crisis. Anything where you’re in flow is cohered, as you’re fully immersed in your task, but coherence is more general than flow. For example I find I am mostly cohered during deep conversations, but they’re not really flow states.
Coherence in this sense is not a binary. If I’m driving along, practicing my singing, maybe thinking about some post I’m going to write, I’m still reasonably cohered. Less cohered than I would be if I was doing any one of these things wholeheartedly, but more cohered than I would be if I were at loose ends, drifting away the time, bouncing from task to task.
Being decohered is not necessarily bad, because you often have to pass through it in order to cohere correctly, and while being cohered is usually good, this is only true if you’re cohered in the right direction. If your partner is currently trying to talk to you something important about your relationship, it’s good if you cohere around that topic, and bad if you’re like “OK that’s great honey, but I’m at a really tricky point in this level, let me just finish…”
To return to our kitchen example… I started by talking about how you go from decohered to cohered, but you might equally well have been cohered around something else. You might have been writing something while your food cooks, or playing a game, or any one of a bunch of other targets of coherence, but when you notice the fire there is a brief moment of decoherence as your mind switches gears and goes “No, pause that, this is the thing that we’re dealing with now”. That period of decoherence is, I think, essential, because it allows you to switch between radically different cohered states much more rapidly.
My internal metaphor for this is that there’s a certain amount of you to go around, which you can think of as a sort of blob of self-stuff. When you’re decohered it’s spread out in many directions and sortof diffuse and wibbly, or sometimes chaotic and spiky.When you cohere, it snaps into a dense self-object pointed in a single direction. If that’s the wrong direction, you can shift it a little bit, but if it’s completely the wrong direction then your self briefly snaps out of focus and refocuses in a new direction.
Although decoherence is not necessarily bad, I think difficulty cohering is usually bad, because coherence is a much more effective (and usually more pleasant) state than decoherence, but it can be bad in at least three crucially different ways:
You may have some generalisable difficulty cohering. This might be due to physical or mental health problems (illness, depression, etc). Certainly this is how they often manifest for me.
You might be trying to cohere around the wrong thing, or at least something that some part of you strongly believes is the wrong thing. Procrastination and the like are often the result - you’re trying to cohere, but something is stopping you from doing so.
You might not yet know how to cohere in the particular way you want to cohere, and need to learn.
These aren’t really three distinct categories - they all blur together at the edges - but they have different central examples and typically admit different classes of remedy.
The first is a problem to solve at its root (just stop being depressed! Easy, right?), the second is a sign that you need to think about what you’re doing and either try to understand why it’s the wrong thing or decide that it’s the right thing after all.
The third, in contrast, is a sign that probably you just need to learn some stuff. It’s a signal that you might want to try just being good at it, but you’re not there yet and need to figure out how to be.
One of the reasons I’m interested in this is that even once you’ve solved the things preventing you from cohering, it’s not totally obvious to me how you choose to cohere. This ties into the question of prompts from my “Learning to exercise agency” post: It is relatively easy to cohere around an external prompt, but suppose you are currently in a decohered state, how do you spontaneously go from that into a cohered one?
You do know where your fire extinguisher is, right? On an unrelated note, BRB…
I don’t understand how anyone with a daily driving commute isn’t an amazing singer after a few years.
You can easily feel the difference between the two. Vague drifting, idle day dreaming, mind wandering, etc. are all diffuse and bloblike, while internal conflict, anxiety about what you’re doing, second guessing yourself, etc. are chaotic and spiky.