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Thinking in three dimensions
  1. John Launer
  1. Dr John Launer, London Department of Postgraduate Medical Education, Stewart House, 32 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DN, UK; jlauner{at}

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I have had only few major “eureka” moments in my life. One of them was when I realised the difference between ordinary linear thinking and systems thinking. Since then I have spent quite a lot of my time teaching systems thinking in one form or another to doctors, psychologists, educators and others. Sometimes people can be turned off by the word systems because it sounds so mechanical, but once they overcome this distraction most people find systems thinking incredibly helpful. For some, it is like moving from a two dimensional world into a three dimensional one. For others, it is almost like a religious awakening.

Systems ideas have been around since the middle of the 20th century. They arose in many different disciplines including engineering, physics, biology and anthropology—all of which were trying to understand how complex systems worked through processes like feedback and homeostasis. The ideas are associated with a number of names that have largely been forgotten outside specialist disciplines, including Norbert Wiener, Heinz von Foerster and Ludwig von Bertalanffy: you can look these up on the internet if you want to explore the diverse origins of systems theory. However, the most imaginative of all the systemic thinkers was Gregory Bateson. His ideas are probably the most useful ones for doctors.

Bateson was something of a polymath. His original background was in evolutionary biology. (His father was the great Cambridge biologist William Bateson, who coined the word “genetics”.) Bateson’s own essays covered a huge range of interests including evolution, political theory, religious mysticism, art and psychiatry.1 Unfortunately, he was not a very clear writer and his arguments can be hard to follow, but they can all be summed up by …

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

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