More Bits from Cybernetics

As I read Steven Heim’s book* I keep finding more and more interesting information. The concept of communication was an important component of cybernetics. In fact  Norbert Wiener’s seminal work Cybernetics was subtitled, Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine. The emergence of the field of cybernetics was the result of more than a decade of informal talks among scientists from diverging fields, each applying techniques of his or her own discipline to problems of communication. Mathematics and engineering methods of feedback loops for example, were applied to biological systems.

In Chapter 6, Problems of Deranged Minds, Artists and Psychiatrists, Heim surveys the work of Gregory Bateson.  With expertise in evolutionary biology and social anthropology, he tackled the issue of communication in psychiatry along with Swiss psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesh. Ruesh made the following observation about the prerequisites needed to establish communication:

“The perception of the perception…is the sign that a silent agreement has been reached by the participants, to the effect that mutual influence is to be expected. The mutual recognition of having entered into each other’s field of perception equals the establishment of a system of communication. The criteria of mutual awareness of perception are in all cases instances of communications about communication.” (Ruesch, “Communication and Mental Illness: A Psychiatric Approach,” p 23-24)

Bateson and Ruesh focused on observing how psychiatrists interact. According to Ruesh, they “…studied psychiatrists in non-controlled interviews… wherever the opportunity presented itself. In this type of interview the focus of the investigation centered in the interaction with the psychiatrist, in order to gain a better picture of the informant’s interpersonal approaches.” (p. 147)

Successful interaction – an example:

Bateson studied one particular psychiatrist (John Rosen) who was particularly successful in reaching otherwise unreachable schizophrenics. Bateson could not quantify any behaviors in Rosen that would give him a clue about how he (Rosen) could tap into the psychological state of his patient. Rosen posited that his own unconscious state was able to communicate with the unconsciousness of his patient. Furthermore, “Rosen found that psychotics who have been analyzed by him tend[ed] also to make good staff in caring for other psychotics.” (p. 152)


I venture to say that those of us who are siblings with emotional connections to our autistic (or mentally disabled) brothers or sisters are able to communicate on deeper levels with other people. Somehow, we develop an extra amount of empathy by our desire and need to communicate with our loved ones who cannot.

* Heim, S. The Cybernetics Group (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press 1991) [Note – unless otherwise indicated, all references are to this volume.]

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