Strange Attractors: Chaos, Complexity, and the Art of Family Therapy

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by Michael Butz, Linda Chamberlain, and William McCown

In Strange Attractors: Chaos, Complexity, and the Art of Family Therapy, William McCown, PhD, Louisiana psychologist and Associate Dean at University of Louisiana Monroe, stretches readers’ minds to the edges of the galaxy.

A fun, inspiring, and seriously theoretical look into connections between the “Third Revolution in Science” and psychotherapy concepts, Strange Attractors is at the same time surprisingly useful.

Despite the publication date of 1997, the concepts still fascinate. Strange attractors, fractals, bifurcations, chaos, and complexity – the authors show how the concepts relate to the course and sometimes chaotic movements of family systems. It feeds the reader with fantastic notions from theoretical physics.

“It’s become so mainstream in physics,” said Dr. McCown to the Times, “and well accepted in psychology.” There is an organization for this area of study, the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology & Life Sciences, he noted. “The area is now usually called non-linear dynamical theory,” he explained.

Drawing on chaos theory, and showing how chaos has inspired advancements in almost all scientific fields, guiding our attention to the unexplained phenomena, the authors make their major point: nature includes disorder. Sometimes there is no cause and effect, regardless of how much we want to believe in it.

The value of the work is to shake us up, to cause us to drop or at least reconsider our linear, mechanic thinking about things.

The concepts and writing are poetic, as authors grab new ideas from chaos theory and apply them to family systems. Titles are imaginative and intriguing: “Warning, Objects Behind the Mirror May Be More Complex Than They Appear;” “The Eerie Beauty of Strange Attractors;” “Fractals and Forks in the Road;” and “Trying to Unscramble the Eggs.”

There is much that does seem more art than science in Strange Attractors, but the wisdom is the intuitive truth that some things don’t fit, are not linear, and cannot be predicted. Often the eggs cannot be unscrambled. A system must adapt to the new state. Therapists should be able to recognize this in psychology.

We are reminded of a lesson we should not forget, the dramatic limitations of the machine model, the linear model. “… the Age of the Machine is screeching to a halt … the decline of the industrial age forces us to confront the painful limitations of the machine model of reality,” the authors quote Alvin Toffler from Order out of Chaos.

“What does chaos theory do that cybernetics and general systems theory do not do?” The authors pose the question and explain that on a pure systems model, cybernetic theory relates to characteristics of mechanistic processes. These ideas were adapted to family therapy by Haley in 1959 and organic systems by Von Bertalanffy in 1968, with concepts of “steady state and transformative states,” they write.

Chaos goes further. To show us five paradigm shifts in family theory, they take us on a trip through the advances in family therapy, through familiar names of Don Jackson, Jay Haley, John
Weakland, Lidz, Bowen, and Whitaker, and Laing, Minuchin, and Satir.

Bateson’s double bind and metacommunication tangles were first. Then came Jay Haley and his use of cybernetic theory to describe how a “totality that autocorrects.” The third shift came with General Systems Theory, a shift, once and for all, from thinking of organisms as machines. With Bertalanffy the concept of open systems and transformative states made permanent the recognition of homeostatsis in concert with transformation.

By the early 90s Maturana and Varela had described the idea of “autopoiesis,” that living things are self-producing.

And the fifth paradigm, and the Third Great Revolution in Science, came at the turn of the century, “self-organization and chaos theory,” pointing to a constant motion of systems and the constant non-linear change, explained the authors.

For this new paradigm we give up predictability, viewing the therapist as a force, and the traditional view of resistance, and we take up the circular rather than linear reasoning, changing from “cause” to “fit” and adding positive to negative interpretations. It is a lot to change, for a linear mind, but the authors move us along tenderly.

The work opens Part One with “Sensitivity to Initial Conditions,” and “Warning, Objects Behind the Mirror May be More Complex Than They Appear.”

In “A Walk Through the Canyon,” authors give us a partial definition. “Chaos theory, as an umbrella term, describes a holistic process of adaptive transformation, where over time, small instabilities may result in complex behavior, that eventually appears random and is experienced as chaos by those accustomed to linear science.”

The authors introduce the reader to chaos theory concepts of attractor, point attractor, strange attractor, and also perturbation, bifurcation, sensitivity to initial conditions– called the butterfly effect, and also self-organizing, and period-doubling route to chaos.

“Where chaos begins, classical science stops,” they quote Gleick and tell us that new theory is essential for understanding reality, pointing out how quantum theory challenged how we tried to understand the nature of the world, and crystallized the limits of reductionism.

Part Two, “Families … Complex Terrain,” brings it closer to home. For “Into the ‘Phrase Space’,” the authors help define the clinician’s role, looking through this new view finder, and in particular the focus on the system’s attempt to adapt and its fluid boundaries.

In Chapter 4, “The Eerie Beauty of Strange Attractors” authors show the reader how a dynamic system can settle into a pattern, how a system can function between stability and change, that phenomena repeatedly observed in nature change once scientists began looking for it. It is a state that can be “thought of as an idealized state toward which an unpredictable or dynamical system is attracted.” The concept can be applied to mental states of people in therapy, fluctuations in mood, and personality dynamics, explain the authors.

“Catching the Butterfly–Chaos in Therapy,” Part Three, expands on the activities and thinking of a family therapist embracing this new perspective. Authors describe what the “butterfly” means in family therapy, and relate it to more traditional concepts of reframing, paradoxical, surprise, confusion, and strategic techniques.

The metaphor of the butterfly effect, the chaos theory idea that the flapping wings of a butterfly can impact the weather, points to the importance of small changes, magnified by the system.

“Any small difference that can be magnified by the existing family system can generate new and potentially more adaptive patterns,” the authors explain. Therapists need to be aware of small interactions that are not receiving notice, attention, or energy, such as “playfulness, humor, privacy, affection, diversity, conflict, forgiveness, respect …”

In “Fractals and Forks in the Road,” authors expand on the concept of fractals and bifurcations. When researchers starting looking for fractals they found them to be everywhere in nature. While the Western mind typically thinks in symmetrical shapes, “fractals are devoid of transitional symmetry. This means they are infinitely jagged,” a concept authors relate to work with undifferentiated family systems.

“At the Turning Point,” may be one of the most salient chapters for the application of chaos theory to family therapy, focusing on issues of family crisis, with constructs of steady states, change, and self reorganization.

Authors show how Chaos Theory helps to highlight issues in crisis, such as the meaning of abrupt changes, the unpredictability of changes, and the self-limiting aspect of crisis.

“Trying to Unscramble the Eggs,” looks at destabilization. Authors provide case studies and define the dangers, ethics, and prediction about when destabilization is countertherapeutic.

In “The Critical Moment,” the authors apply the concept of bifurcations and the “irreversible path cut by the system over time.” The authors say to look for bifurcation points in the family’s history, and this will help see stability, flow of information, and boundaries.

“No Predictable Period,” Part Four, continues with “From Chaos to Order, or … From Order to Chaos.” The authors look at the future of family therapy, the impact of the concepts of chaos on the present theories, training, ethics, and how we measure outcomes. They note their belief that therapist will become less invasive, and that views regarding psychotherapy outcomes, measurements, and ethics, will need to change to encompass this perspective.

The text closes with Chapter 11, “Epigram: Measuring Change in Chaotic Systems, Problems with Modeling, and the Need for Case Studies.” Authors approach the challenge of how to collect data and create models for this new paradigm in family therapy.

He explained that many theorists call the approach non-linear dynamical systems, and the term chaos sometimes less favored, but that the concepts are appealing and the text is still selling well.

Strange Attractors is a delightful walk through the canyon, apt to bring about some very new views for the reader. It can be acquired through for the Kindle from Amazon.

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