FAQ Waves/Particles

Is the spiral about waves or particles?

Both. There are two ways to approach the theory included in SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs. One views the emergent systems like overlapping waves that roll across the shifting sands of human nature. Each comes in gradually, breaks mightily and then folds back to become part of the next surge. There is overlap, mixing and interaction with as much emphasis on the transitions as on the peaks of the curves. This is closer to the original Gravesian view of human development, and corresponds with other developmentalists who found stages and phases.

In the wave view, the foaming waters of new thinking cause our world to be different – either actually so due to our actions or at least so in our perceptions. So as the waves roll in, we become different and change our world. Of course, sometimes our world changes and we revise our thinking in response.

From this wavy perspective, the transitional states are apparent within the waves as they rise and fall. Graphics appropriate to this framing show overlapping curves, blended stacks and multilayered sequences as the point of centralization slides among a hierarchy of systems in a sequential flow. There is a certain fuzziness to this approach which is discomforting to those who demand precision and reassuring to those who are uncomfortable with absolutes and categories. It does not lend itself to simple typology.

It does suggest a sequence, and perhaps a hierarchy based on increasing amplitude as one system subsumes those which came before and then adds something new to them. Within this wave-like view comes the notion of centralization. Centralization is energetic center of a personality or organizational culture. Think of it as a sliding bell-shaped curve along the continuum of systems with most energy allotted to some position (either a nodal or transitional stage), then less on each side of that point of centralization such that some energy is in the previous system, some leaning toward the next. Closedness is reflected in a very narrow wave length, whereas a more open system would have a relatively longer one.

Some renditions of the Spiral Dynamics application treat the levels of psychological existence (or vMemes in SD lingo) more like discrete particles or building blocks of personality. In this view, they have virtual lives—almost consciousness—of their own. Thus the parallel with Dawkins’s meme construct – virus-like information packets. Because it is closer to the memeticists’ idea of how memes migrate, this view sees Graves’ systems as quasi-independent entities that arrive and depart from human awareness as conditions change. At the extreme, they are like colorful dirt you can shovel into a mental landscape or scrape away to achieve the desired balance – landscape management of the mind. From that come notions like needing more of this, less of that, adding some more of this vMeme and scraping some of this less desirable one away, planting more Blue, applying a concepticide to reduce the Green, for applying Yellow fertilizer. This is a very metaphor-level understanding which generally misses the nuance of Graves theory, but it’s quite popular and occasionally useful.

One can speak of the arrival of vMemes, their brightenings and dimmings, and even how they compete for prominence on the mindscape. In this approach, the vMeme is the focus with the person functioning more like a host. The idea of tracking vMeme migrations and monitoring their emergence fits this school. Graphics typical of this framing involve stacks of blobs, proportional onions and even stair steps. Interventions involved buckets of psychosocial stuff to be mixed and spread.

The particles view does serve well to differentiate segments of organizations – more DQ here, more ER dominant there, scant FS in this area, too much CP in there. You still need to move to the waves perspective to get beneath the superficialities, but the particles approach can be a quick-and-easy way to distinguish differences and lay out appropriate next steps.

Whereas the wave-like view is more of an emergent process with a prescribed hierarchical sequence for the arriving waves, the particles metaphor allows discussions to center around proportions of vMemes, various combinations that skip around the usual sequence, and even lead to talk of “jumping” across a level to take shortcuts. This misses Graves’s theory in that systems grow upon those which come before. It is possible to talk-the-talk of more complex levels (oblique change) without engaging them so as to walk-the-walk fully. Such leaps are fragile and usually temporary since the foundational thinking provided with the previous level is missing, thus leaving sinkholes and pitfalls. People usually end up having to back-fill the missing competencies and conceptualizing.

So, there can be waves and there can be particles. This dualistic nature of the model is sometimes confusing, yet it needn’t be unless one takes either view as an extreme position. Much of Dr. Graves’ own original writing was rather particle-like because it is far easier to be descriptive and concise when speaking of levels (and sub-levels) one at a time, as if they were discrete entities. That sometimes leads to such categorical language as: “4s do thus..,” “an Orange would..,” or “if an FS personality were in charge, she would…” when phrases like “a person centralized in her ER would tend to…” and “when the person is moving from CP toward DQ…” or “while centered around CP…” are more apt.

Yet many of Dr. Graves’ graphics were efforts to depict the wavelike shape of human nature and how these “ways of thinking about a thing” do not represent all-encompassing typologies for people, but describe the level of thinking about a given aspect of living as it relates to other aspects. Indeed, most of the theories to which he compared his work involved stages and developmental sequences of a more wave-like (though not double-helix) nature. Had computer graphics been available in his day, no doubt his illustrations would have been 3-D or holograms because both sliding scales and oscillation are needed. The Spiral Dynamics book leans toward the particle view in many places, toward the wave-like in others. Most people who rely on it as their source fall into the particles camp because it comes more easily and fits their need to categorize and classify.

Readers need to be comfortable with both and recognize that they do, in fact, overlap. Sometimes waves, sometimes particles, just never fixed types.  Waves serve well to describe the emergence of human nature across psychological time, and to track the development of individuals, organizations, societies, and our species. Accurately reading the waves that are visible and learning to anticipate those which are not and prepare for them, too, is the art of Gravesian analysis. At the same time, if one has a desired outcome in mind, and can develop a recipe for getting there, then the ability to mix ingredients in the appropriate proportions is crucial, and canisters of particles are useful, too.