Developing the Fission-Fusion Concept: A Journey through the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and Natural Sciences (Part 1)

Dr Miranda Anderson is an Honorary Fellow in History, Classics and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh and an Associate Lecturer at the Open University. She has held several prestigious fellowships and was principal investigator of an AHRC-funded project, titled ‘The Art of Distributed Cognition’, which involved collaboration with the Talbot Rice Gallery. Her work has investigated the relations between cognition and culture, particularly literary works, challenging the boundaries between disciplines and engaging with numerous contemporary science, technology and society (STS) questions. In this perspective article, she evokes the ‘fission-fusion’ concept on which she has been working for some years now – a concept that contributes to debates surrounding the issue of identity by drawing on the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.

Picture of Dr Miranda Anderson, black and white.
Dr Miranda Anderson

I began trying to grasp the nature of the mind and the self through exploring the ways in which different periods and cultures create concepts and devices to understand and enhance them.[i] I also wanted to understand what connects us and makes us distinct. For instance, why can we read a text, hear a piece of music, or look at an image from a long-gone time or a far-away place and resonate with it, and conversely what makes it unfamiliar? And why are both the resonances and dissonances valuable? Across cultural, scientific and technological concepts and devices some aspects tend to be intuitive while others require learned knowledge or skills. Grasping such fissions and fusions in our experiences and their relation to wider contexts, helps us understand the past, reflect on contemporary concepts and structures, and on the connections and distances between each and every being.

Notions of the mind and self are implicitly or explicitly manifested across academic disciplines and, more generally, in the ways we organise our world: for example, in the ways scientific experiments are set up, or technologies are designed, as well as shaping governmental policies and legal processes. Recent debates have focused on questions about the nature of identity, for example, in relation to decolonisation. One mode of responding to this has been through raising the complex nature of our identities: age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, nationality, class, and so on, and the ways these intersect with one another. Yet the postmodern framework from which responses have arisen tends to elide the roles of physical bodies, focusing rather on the play of sociocultural forces, resulting in a form of cultural determinism. For example, Judith Butler has discussed how discursive modes give rise to the ways in which bodies materialise.[ii] Yet her argument remains focused on our shaping by linguistic and other sociocultural forces; she does not consider the ways in which our neurophysiologies also poise us to adapt dynamically to these. In the vein of thinkers, such as Heidegger, I have argued that it is in fact our psychophysiologies’ adaptive natures, that make them capable of operating seemingly transparently, enabling us to fuse seamlessly with aspects of the world beyond.[iii] (Though aspects of our bodies move in and out of being more or less evident, particularly when they do not function as expected or intended.) Ironically, it is their capacity for transparent operation that has enabled the emergence of the very socioconstructivist theories which consequently neglect them.

Butler persuasively makes a case as to the iterability of discursive modes that shape identity. Their iterability affords the opportunity for norms to be critically mimed and differently performed: ‘when we do act and speak, we not only disclose ourselves but act on the schemes of intelligibility that govern who will be a speaking being, subjecting them to rupture or revision, consolidating their norms or contesting their hegemony.’[iv] She defends the incoherence and multiplicity of human beings as producing the basis for ethical responsibility: that is, it comprises our connectedness to each other. Yet, important aspects of our incoherency, multiplicity and capacity to think are bodily: both the connectedness and the specificity of ourselves and the histories from which we emerge matter, and important aspects of these relate to physical bodies and bodily environments.

How can we explain the nature of identity in a way that is true to the complexity of people’s lived experiences and that acknowledges biological and cultural factors in making us human? I set out to find a way of negotiating a path between extreme relativism and universalism; one which respects human histories and our adaptive natures. This path seeks to recognise continuities across people and the potential for distinctive characteristics to be of significance, leading to the possibility of more empirically grounded debates around matters of identity.

In some of my past works, particularly those ranging from 2015 to 2022, I have worked towards adapting a concept from the natural sciences to try to describe more accurately the nature of the mind and self. I use the term ‘fission-fusion’ for a more holistic conceptualisation of being human in the world. I created the term ‘fission-fusion cognition’ to describe the ways that clusters of elements (existing across the brain, body and world) merge (and divide) in their composing of cognitive processes.[v] Fission-fusion describes the flexible and shifting nature of the clusters that constitute the mind or self across a range of temporal and spatial scales. An instantiation of any mental capacity can be composed of processes in my brain, body or the world and may at times be composed by different clusters of these, with the particular nature of the composition only of import in certain cases. So, for example, pain can be caused by a complex amalgam of features that span internal and external phenomena; it could be caused by physical or psychological issues or by aspects of my social or physical environment, with different notions of ethical responsibility attendant on the nature of the combinatory factors.

Fusions sometimes seem to catch us up in our entirety and at others seem only to involve certain aspects of our minds and selves, while other aspects remain focused on other processes; so I can be drawn along by the patterns and moods of a piece of music that I am listening to, at the same time as I am aware of the rumble of traffic outside my window, the breeze from a fan on my skin, the lingering taste of coffee in my mouth, and the feel of the laptop keys beneath my fingers, as yet other aspects of my mind are caught up in attempting to form my thoughts into coherent sentences to convey my experiences to you. Aspects of these occur simultaneously, others consecutively or overlapping in waves, as my experiences are persistently shifting in and out of my awareness and varying in degrees of intensity.

Other entities in my environment –a flatmate, a fly, a plant, the building, the air – share in aspects of these experiences, according to their physical constitution, its state and activities, and on the degrees of sharing across sociocultural, developmental and evolutionary realms. Fission-fusion, a physics term for the division of a nucleus or merging of nuclei, is also used by ethology to describe dynamic social networks, such as those found in elephant and monkey groups, that periodically merge and divide in order to optimise the performance of activities and in response to resource availability.[vi] Fission-fusion occurs more complexly in the human domain due to the extensive nature of our cultural development.

Fission-fusion can express the nature of an experience of joy, for example, which might be constituted through the recalling of a particular memory, a chance meeting with a friend, or by my coalescence with the harmonies and melodies of a certain piece of music. Such experiences can, to varying degrees, involve sensory, interoceptive, verbal, affective, and other processes. Fission-fusion can also be used to describe the complex nature of the creation or performance of a piece of music, a literary or other artwork, which can occur across media, other people, environments, and time.

Fission-fusion also resonates with the notion of ‘agential realism’ proposed by another feminist theorist, Karen Barad, which I have recently come across, though in her case it merges from a quantum physics based approach. Like me, Barad argues for the entanglement of notions of ontology, epistemology and ethics. Like Butler, she puts an emphasis on there not being pre-existing entities, a notion Barad views as deriving from atomism. Barad rejects the notion of ‘the prior existence of independent entities’, instead arguing that ‘relata do not preexist relations; rather, relata-within-phenomena emerge through specific intra-actions’.[vii] Instead, I would argue both that boundaries are constantly renegotiated, and that there are significant temporal and spatial lineages expressed as aspects of the constitutive elements of any cognitive or ontological coalescence, though these are inflected distinctly in each iteration. While I may be composed of an ad hoc array of factors, these bring with them evolutionary and developmental dispositions, and many of these factors form patterns that persist across prolonged durations. Therefore, I can still refer to myself being a self.

Find the second part of Dr Miranda Anderson’s post on the ‘fission-fusion’ concept here.


[i] See, for example, Anderson, Miranda (2007) The Book of the Mirror.

[ii] See, for example: Butler, Judith (1993) Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex.

[iii] Anderson, Miranda (2015a) The Renaissance Extended Mind.

[iv] Butler, Judith (2005) Giving an Account of Oneself, 132.

[v] Anderson (2015a); (2015b) ‘Fission-fusion cognition’, Narrative 23.2, (2022); ‘4E Cognition and the Mind-Expanding Arts’.

[vi] Aureli et al. (2008) ‘Fission-Fusion Dynamics’, Current Anthropology 49.4.

[vii] Barad, Karen (2003) ‘Posthumanist Performativity’, Signs 28.3, 815.