I’ve recently been fascinated by the idea of emergent intelligence. I know, not a subject that we would generally associate with increased work capacity across broad times and modal domains, aka CrossFit, but stick with me for the next few hundred words and hopefully I’ll get us somewhere closer to a shared understanding of my recent musings rather than simply lost in the deep recesses of my Thanksgiving turkey-saturated and sweet potato casserole-ladened brain.

I first came across the concept of emergent intelligence and the synchronicity of consciousness when reading Max Tegmark’s Life 3.0. I’ve written about his work before and still struggle to understand many of the higher-end concepts of artificial intelligence but what I enjoy stealing from him and others in the field is this idea that order often emerges, seemingly unintentionally, from disorder and chaos when there exists some kind of internal tension within a system that we must let exist without inserting or imposing an external control or force at an inopportune time. In other words, the magic of synchronicity happens not by us acting but rather by us NOT acting at the very moment when we feel we MUST act to make the magic happen. 

Anyone else’s brain just explode?

During this past summer, those of us in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States got to enjoy Brood X of the periodical cicadas. I found them fascinating as a function of this phenomenon of emergent intelligence. 

I often walk my dogs through Quiet Waters park and this summer I came across Alon Halperin’s The Network of Time, a work similar to Tegmark’s in its exploration of the human understanding of reality as a series of artificial and illusory frameworks.

In Halperin’s work, rather than consciousness as that framework, he unpacks our understanding of time as an inaccurately assumed a priori concept that we as humans impose on what is otherwise a chaotic and disordered reality where time as a function of entropic relationships between physical bodies does not truly exist. 

If you enjoy long historical examinations of philosophy and physics with rather difficult mathematics thrown in for good measure, then feel free to pick up The Network of Time; but, if not, then let me explain my takeaways from Halperin’s work with my cicada example.

While walking through the Quiet Waters trails with my dogs, I’d have the cicadas as a backdrop. Usually, they would simply be random noise that would drift into the edges of my consciousness. But every now and then, there would seem to be an emergent order to their chirping, almost as if they were struggling to get into some kind of rhythm or beat with each other. So I would start listening, and the order would evaporate.

I’d return to my walk and to my audio book and think nothing of it. And then it would happen again. There would be a rhythm, a beat, some kind of order emerging just on the edge of the chaotic chatter and instead of listening for it, I would simply let it sit at that edge of my awareness like a mirage on the periphery of my sight while out at sea just before the sun sets.

Walk outside as the light begins to darken and you will notice shapes, forms, perhaps even animals at the edges of your sight and awareness. Shift your focus directly onto the object and you will find that your ability to see it fades and you must once again look away while keeping the object just at the periphery of your awareness in order to make it reappear. 

No, I did not experience this type of thing during some psychedelic-inspired mushroom trip. It’s a normal phenomenon with eye-sight and actually a technique that sailors learn during look-out training. Look at something for too long or too close and we become blind to it. Let it sit at the edges of your peripheral vision, and you will once again find what you are looking for not by looking directly at it but rather by NOT looking directly at it.

Now I’m really going to blow your mind.

Psychologist Carl Jung describes synchronicity as an “intuitive intelligence” where our awareness of the world transcends ordinary functioning intelligence and connects with a deeper, more collectively shared understanding of the world that goes beyond, or exists underneath, our innate consciousness. 

Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen from walking too quickly or maybe it was the mid-summer heat and humidity, but, to me, Jung’s description of the divine as the moment we connect with this collective consciousness sounded eerily similar to the idea of an emerging intelligence as modeled by the cicada singing that I would hear on my walks. My connection with that rhythm transcended me or my ability to control anything but letting go of the need for control.

Emergent intelligence shows up everywhere in nature. A hive of bees always seems to know exactly where to go for the best nectar not because one single bee is intelligent but because the hive intelligence emerges from the genius of the collective intelligence of the colony. Force the bees into some kind of externally controlled order and they die.

In CrossFit, we prove the efficacy of our methodology not through a single workout, or by examining the performance of a single athlete but instead through the collective measuring, observing, and repeating of hundreds of thousands of athletes across over 15,000 affiliates around the world doing millions of workouts. 

This process comes to a pinnacle moment in the late summer at the CrossFit games where the fittest men and women compete for the title of Fittest on Earth. 

Justin Medeirous recently won the men’s title with only a SINGLE event win across the week-long competition. Factoring out the dominance of Mat Frasier the past 5 years, Medeirous’ performance is actually more in keeping with past champions, both on the women’s and men’s sides. 

In other words, one workout, one day, one isolated event is not the measure of your fitness but rather a single data point in the chaotic and slightly un-ordered path to a lifetime of fitness.

The order, like the rhythm of the cicadas, emerges through consistently and faithfully following the methodology of completing constantly varied functional movements at high intensity four to five times per week while eating mostly meat, vegetables, some fruit, little starches and no sugar in quantities that allow sufficient energy levels and limits the accumulation of unnecessary body fat. 

At some point, when you stop looking too hard or too closely for the gains, when you stop staring at every single workout waiting for the next PR, for the next best score, for the next 1 rep max lift, when you let the process slip to the edges of your consciousness and let it rest in the liminal regions of your awareness, I promise, you will have the synchronicity of fitness that you have been hoping for. 

And don’t count on this synchronicity being exactly what you had thought it would be. You may never get the bar muscle up or walk on your hands or overhead squat 200 pounds. 

The Open is just around the corner and for some of us our performances will meet our expectations. For some of us, we will be nursing injuries and won’t be able to compete as we had hoped. For others, we may be in a rut and just need to sweat and not even register for the competition.

The Open, like all of those individual workouts day in and day out, is but one point in a sea of points across a lifetime of fitness. Watch that one point too closely, listen to it too intently, hold onto it too tightly, and I promise, you will miss the moment of synchronicity just as I would often lose the rhythm of the cicadas.

But walk by the mirror naked after coming out of the shower and notice, “wow, I didn’t know my butt looked that good.” 

Or be surprised when your co-worker stares you in the face and says, “Molly, you look amazing. What have you been doing?” 

Or find yourself at the airport and realize you, a 60-year-old grandmother, are the only one who can lift the over-sized suitcase of the dumb-ass guy in front of you into the overhead compartment even though he should have checked his bag at the terminal.

That is the moment that you will be surprised by the synchronicity of fitness that emerges from the chaos and disorder of your constantly varied functional fitness methodology.  

That is the moment that you will smile in recognition that this shit really does work.

That is the moment you will hear the singing of the cicadas and, I promise, it’s pretty spectacular.

See you on the Creek.

-Coach Jack