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The Asklepia Foundation


Stanley Krippner, Ph.D., Saybrook Institute

Chaos, as its name implies, is the study of chaotic phenomena, processes that are so haphazard that they do not appear to be governed by any known laws or principles but which actually have and underlying order (Langreth, 1991; Talbot, 1991, p. 176).  For example, when smoke rises from an extinguished candle, it flows upward in a thin and narrow. stream.  Eventually the structure of the stream breaks down and becomes turbulent.  Turbulent smoke is said to be chaotic because its behavior can no longer be predicted by known scientific principles.  Other examples of chaotic phenomena include water when it crashes on the bottom of a waterfall, the apparently random electrical fluctuations that rage through the brain of an epileptic person during a seizure, the dynamics of increases and decreases in animal populations, hour-by-hour fluctuations on the stock exchange,, and the weather when several different temperature and air pressure fronts collide (Talbot, 1991, p. 177).
Chaos, although apparently random, actually consists of an infinite number of different periodic motions, or orbits; usually a system will move from one motion to the other.  Even the smallest change in a chaotic system will move from one motion to the other.  Even the smallest change in a chaotic system can lead to a huge effect later on, a property known as "extreme sensitivity to initial conditions" (Langreth, 1991).  Until recently, chaotic systems were studied by linear analyses; it was presumed that these chaotic system -- like the classical linear systems -- tended toward stable equilibrium states and that the erratic behavior found i real-life chaotic situations resulted from unidentified variables not yet detected.  For example, researchers believed that the weather would be predictable if it were somehow possible to gather enough information about all the relevant variables (Goerner, 1988).
However, nonlinear dynamics is the basis of chaos theory.  This is in contrast to the tradition in classical physics that started with Laplace in the 1770s.  A seminal paper on chaos theory was published by Edward Lorenz in 1963.  It was titled "Deterministic Nonperiod Flow" and appeared in the Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences.  Lorenz won the Crafoord Prize in 1983 from the Swedish Academy of Sciences for this and related contributions.  In accepting the award, he described how he was able to understand complex atmospheric events only after he understood them as "irregular dynamical systems."  He described one complex quality of irregular dynamic systems as "strange attractors" which he considered "probably the features of chaotic systems which have attracted the most mathematicians to the field," an event that enabled chaos theory to develop more rapidly than would have been true had the "attractors" assumed a more commonplace form (Rossi, 1989, p. 115).
Benoit Mandelbrot (1977) was one mathematician who became interested in the field.  He coined the term "fractal geometry" to describe his efforts to portray the complexity of nonlinear systems in visual form, admitting his fascination for the beauty of many fractal forms.  In fractal geometry, irregular figures of fractal dimensions may fall between the traditional Euclidean whole-number dimensions.  Fractals, basically, are geometric shapes with fractional dimensions (Abrahman, Abraham, & Shaw, 1990).  Chaotic oscillations evolve around, and are attracted toward, an area called the attractor.  The dimensions of this attractor are fractional -- not 1, 2, 3, but, say, 1.75 or 2.25 (depending upon how much of the dimensional space is occupied).  Hence, fractal geometry is the geometry of chaos (Vandevert, 1990).

Two Potential Revolutions

Some enthusiasts have claimed that chaos theory will herald the third major scientific revolution of the 20th century because it reveals discontinuity in continuous speed and mass variables (Briggs & Peat, 1989; Gleick, 1987; Rossi, 1989).  According to these writers, the first revolution held that an object moving far in excess of everyday speeds demands relativity theory for an explanation.  The second revolution held that an object far smaller and less massive than everyday microscopic objects needs quantum theory for an explanation.  The third revolution holds that an object so complex that its behavior is far less predictable and definable than everyday objects requires chaos theory for an explanation.
Each of these revolutions placed a new bound or limitation on human abilities:  (1) No person can go faster than the speed of light; (2) No person can make simultaneous precise measurements of two conjugate variables; (3) No person can measure any continual variable precisely.  Therefore, relativity theory eliminated the Newtonian illusion of space and time.  Quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian illusion of a controlled measurable process.  Chaos theory eliminates the Laplacian illusion of deterministic predictability.  Thus, Newtonian dynamics no longer can take refuge in non-relativistic, non-quantal domains.  However, Newtonian principles are still useful for studying the non-random orbits of slowly moving macroscopic objects.
Just as these writers hail chaos theory as the third revolution in natural sciences, humanistic psychology has been referred to as the "third force" in American psychology (Poppen, Wandersman, & Wandersman, 1976, p. 17).  Seeing themselves as an alternative to the predominant schools of psychoanalysis and behaviorism, humanistic psychology has been descried by Charlotte Buhler and Melanie Allen (1972) as "revolutionary" because it presents a positive model of the human being, and believes that life is lived subjectively (p. 24).  Unlike the psychoanalysts who derived much of their data from rats and pigeons and who focused on externally observed behavior, humanistic psychologists laid claim to the whole person as their domain of investigation.  Indeed, Buhler defined humanistic psychology as "the scientific study of behavior, experience, and intentionality."

Models of Research

By including human intention in its domain, humanistic psychology assumed that human beings were able to make choices, to search for meaning, and to engage in self-reflection.  Like chaos theory, humanistic psychology took exception to laplacian determinism which held that a superhuman intelligence acquainted with the position and motion of atoms at any moment could predict the whole course of future events, physical as well as human (Rychlak, 1977, p. 100).
While mainstream psychologists spoke of their goal as the understanding, prediction, and control of behavior, humanistic psychologists emphasized understanding and description.  For them, psychology could never be a science of the complete prediction and control of behavior.  In a similar manner, chaos theory holds that through amplification of small fluctuations, it can provide natural systems with access to novelty (Crutchfield, Doyne, Packard, & Shaw, 1986).  Ernest Rossi (1989) sees this amplification of small functions as the process that accounts for "everything from the quantum creation of the universe our of an apparent nothingness will" (p. 127).  This is a far different model than the Laplacian clock the movements of which, once set in motion, could be predicted by a master intelligence.
Humanistic psychology uses a variety of research methods in its attempt to describe and understand behavior, experience, and intentionality.  Amedeo Giorgi (1986), observed that the activities of most concern in the human are the least susceptible to treatment by existing research methods, and called for a "reform" in the way that science studied human beings.  This "human science" would include "phenomenological research, hermeneutic clarification of meaning, life and case history studied, and a variety of studies using qualitative data and/or reconceptualized quasi-experimental designs" (p. 70).
Arne Collen (1990) identified systems science as a human science as well; this method involves the study of relationships at each level of a human system (e.g. cell, organ, organism, group organism, society, suprarational system) as well as the isomorphies that may exist between levels (Krippner, Ruttenber, Engelman, & Granger, 1985).  In a similar way, chaos theory brings a new challenge to the reductionistic view that a system can be understood by breaking it down and studying each piece.  Chaos demonstrates that a system can have complicated behavior that emerges as a consequence of simple, nonlinear interaction of only a few components (Crutchfield, Doyne, Packard, & Shaw, 1986).
Just as the attempt to study chaotic systems with linear analysis had yielded little -- or incorrect -- data, the attempt to use behavioral and psychoanalytic models to study complex human experiences has been unsatisfactory.  An example is human creativity, thought to be mere sublimation of repressed drives by psychoanalysts and, by behaviorists, a lack of ordinary environmental reinforcement.  Charlottle Buhler (1933) was one of the first to criticize the psychoanalytic concept of homeostasis as the end goal of human striving, claiming the homeostasis was only a goal in illness.  She emphasized the creative processes by which humans attempt to bring values into existence, whether those values are artistic, technological, social, or spiritual.  Indeed, human creativity may have an underlying chaotic process that selectively amplifies small fluctuations and molds them into coherent mental states experienced as thought (Rossi, 1989).
Research at Saybrook Institute
Saybrook Institute was founded in 1970 in order to provide graduate education and training in humanistic psychology and to foster human science models of research.  Rather than emulating the methods and models of the physical and natural sciences, Saybrook emphasizes alternative methodologies so that psychologists and other scientists can study the actual world and the way that people experience it.  Although traditional scientific methods are not abandoned in humanistic psychology, they are utilized in those instances where they will not result in what all too often has been isolated, arbitrary, and trivial aspects of human behavior.
The titles of some of the dissertation research in which my students are currently engaged demonstrates the width and breadth of humanistic psychology:
A hermeneutic inquiry into neo-shamanic practice.
A heuristic internal search towards knowing:  "Imaginative intuition" in a business organization.
Associations between demographic variables, afterlife belief, and euthanasia attitudes among California right-to-life and right-to-die members.
A psychosocial and psychoneuroimmunological study of patients with rheumatoid arthritis.
Assessing the impact of training in concentration skills on high school students' academic performance.
The burden placed by schizophrenics on their families in relation to symptom severity and social support.
Mutations of consciousness: A systems approach to the evolution of the psyche.
The social construction of disability.
Mythology, art, and healing practices in Chinese shamanism.
The influence of ethanol on dream formation and its implications for sleep physiology.
A phenomenological analysis of the experience of hop in seriously medically ill persons having an unexpected recovery or remission.
Toward a theory base for a curriculum of evolutionary learning.
Vocation and initiation: An inquiry into transpersonal experience and personal mythology.
Viewing extraterrestrial abduction accounts as a dissociative phenomenon.

Models for Illness and Health

By focusing on the human being's potentials for growth, humanistic psychologists have constructed a model of the healthy personality that diverges from psychoanalysis' medical model of the person.  However, chaos theory has also been used to construct models of illness and health that take exception to certain aspects of medical models.  For example, the standard medical model holds that a healthy body has rather simple rhythms, tending toward homeostasis.  An unhealthy body, therefore, would have a more complex, less controlled tempo.  But new data indicate that a healthy bodily system has a certain amount of innate variability.  A departure from this healthy variability signals an impaired system.  Healthy variability is not random, it is chaotic (Pool, 1989b).
The case could be made that healthy bodies prefer chaos to homeostasis (Goldberger, Rigney, & West, 1990).  The healthy heart might remain within 60-80 beats per minute, but varies immensely from second to second, minute to minute, and hour to hour during the day; its complexity can not be predicted easily (Goldberger, Bhargava, West, & Mandell, 1985).  On the other hand, before a heart attack, the victim's EKG is described by Pool (1989b) as "the epitome of stable regularity -- a mostly flat line interrupted every second or so by a quick up-and-down blip marking the beat" (p. 604).  The nerves that carry electrical signals to the ventricles of the heart are structured in a series of branchings, much like the toot system of a plane.  In other words, they display fractal structures as do other parts of the body such as the lungs and the circulatory system (p. 605).
Chaos may also play a role in other bodily systems: in leukemia the number of white blood cells changes dramatically from week to week but are more predictable than those of healthy people who have chaotic fluctuations in their levels of white blood cells.  Congestive heart failure is typically preceded by a stable, periodic quickening and slowing of respiration.  Further, the EEG of an epileptic is extremely regular just preceding a petit mal seizure (p. 605).  Finally, Parkinson's disease may be caused by a loss of variability in some bodily systems, and aging may involve a loss of variability suggesting that youth is more chaotic than age (pp. 606-607).

The Frontiers of Chaos

To psychologists, the application of chaos theory to brain research has evoked considerable interest.  Christine Skarda and Walter Freeman (1987) propose that chaotic behavior serves as the essential ground state for the neutral perceptual apparatus, and that the ensuing explanatory model of  brain activity has greater utility than brain models based on the brain's purported resemblances to digital computers.
The degree of chaos in sleep and wakefulness has been evaluated from EEG recordings (Babloyantz, 1987).  This latter investigation has important implications for the proposal that dreams result from the brain's attempt to bring meaning to the images evoked by a random (perhaps chaotic) stimulation of the brain's visual and motor centers during rapid eye movement sleep (Hobson, 1988).
Some researchers have suggested that chaos theory might help bring some order to the potpourri of provocative but largely unrepeatable finding in parapsychology (e.g., Blackmore, 1990; Kyriaszis, 1990).  For over a century, parapsychologists have investigated have investigated such purported phenomena as extrasensory perception and psychokinesis using linear models from natural science--models that date back to Laplace.


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