Chaos of the Mind: During Psychotherapy, the Mind May Flow to the Currents of Chaos

By Pendick, Daniel | Science News, February 27, 1993 | Go to article overview

Chaos of the Mind: During Psychotherapy, the Mind May Flow to the Currents of Chaos


Pendick, Daniel, Science News


During psychotherapy, the mind may flow to the currents of chaos

Almost two years after her husband's sudden death, the woman sought counseling and embarked on a series of weekly psychotherapy sessions to quell the unusually prolonged aftershocks of her loss. She also agreed to participate in a new study charting the flow of thoughts and emotions that people experience when-talking to their therapists.

During the woman's sessions at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, two researchers monitored complex, seemingly random changes in her heart rate - patterns they believe reflect deep psychological processes.

The scientists, Dana J. Redington and Steven P. Reidbord, are using nonlinear dynamics - better known as chaos theory -- to recover potentially important information that conventional electrocardiogram analysis fails to capture. This marks the first use of nonlinear dynamics to study mind-body states during psychotherapy, Redington says.

Redington, a University of Californi.a, San Francisco, psychophysiologist wellversed in the mathematical art of nonlinear dynamics, hopes this research will yield a new understanding of how people shift between mental states. This may someday help therapists more effectively guide their patients toward recovery, he says.

"We're trying to use physiology - the way patterns in the body occur in time to give us more information about what's going on in the person's head and see how we might use that to make the person more healthy," Redington explains.

Nonlinear dynamics might also provide a sturdy mathematical foundation for psychodynamics, the long-standing theory that people behave and feel in certain ways in response to conflicting psychological forces, says Reidbord, a medical center psychiatrist and former research fellow at Langley Porter.

"If we can analyze in greater detail the moment-by-moment changes, the pushes and pulls, the flow, from one mental state to another, then we will really be doing a better job of describing psychodynamics," Reidbord explains.

Extraordinary claims, perhaps, but then chaos theory is no ordinary way of looking at things. This mathematical construct, which scientists use to explore nature, has gained numerous proponents during the past 20 years, cutting across disciplines as diverse as meteorology, physics, population biology, literary criticism, and, since the early 1980s, psychology

"Chaos" is a somewhat misleading description of the complex, unpredictable, seemingly random behavior that some natural systems exhibit - misleading because this complexity can mask underlying order. Redington cites the computer programs used to generate streams of random numbers (SN: 12/19&26/92, p.422) as an example of seemingly disorderly behavior.

At first glance, these numbers look like the result of a random, patternless roll of the electronic dice. But in reality, the dice are loaded. Analyzed correctly, the numbers reveal a subtle structure that reflects the simple equations at the heart of random number generators. What seems random in this case proves predictable and rule-based.

Redington and a number of other researchers envision the brain -- an exquisitely interconnected bundle of neurons that plays host to human thoughts and feelings -- as a nonlinear system. And although the flow of these thoughts and feelings may seem random at times, the underlying processes that generate them are not, Redington argues.

"Human beings and human behavior are not random phenomena," he explains. "Then there is something controlling the behavior [of the human mind], and that's what we're trying to catch."

Nonlinear dynamics seems ideally suited. "The wonderful thing about nonlinear dynamics is that it's a very good framework to describe complex systems in a very simple and elegant way, That's a lot better than trying to describe what humans do in very simplistic terms. …

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