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|Complexity Choir - Page 4|
A Healthy Mind: Complexity and Self-Organization
Diving again into the scientific literature, I finally came across an unlikely discipline that could be relevant to our exploration of the mind: a branch of mathematics that focuses on complex systems. Here was a plausible scientific foundation for the benefits of integration—a reason integration is a good thing in our lives.
In brief, complexity theory examines systems that are capable of becoming chaotic and are open to receiving input from outside themselves. Thinking in systems terms requires that we focus on the relationships among the elements that interact to compose the "system." One classic example of a complex system is a cloud—a collection of water molecules capable of random distribution (it can be chaotic), and which receives light and energy such as wind and heat from outside itself (it is open). Complexity theory explores the natural movements of this open and chaos-susceptible system across time—explaining, for example, why clouds emerge, change shape, and dissipate. It seemed to me that human lives also meet these criteria—we are open systems capable of chaotic behavior—so I read on.
A complex system is said to regulate its own emergence. This means that the system itself has certain properties that determine how it unfolds over time. This self-organizational process, the way the system shapes its own unfolding, is built from the mathematics of complex systems. There is no programmer, no program, no outside force governing how the system will flow across time. Self-organization emerges from the interactions among the basic elements that comprise the system. Again, if self-organization applies to clouds, it likely applies to other open systems capable of chaos. We are certainly capable—sometimes too much so—of becoming chaotic. And we are quite open to influences outside of ourselves—from people we meet, experiences we have in the world, books we read. If these ideas were relevant and true, then perhaps this was an argument for the idea that we too are capable of self-organization. It seemed to me that our triangle of well-being, the system of mind, brain, and relationships, might be more fully understood in these terms, and we might apply the principles of complexity and integration to creating health across each of these three aspects of our lives.
The River of Integration
A system that moves toward complexity is the most stable and adaptive. Reading this for the first time in the literature on the mathematics of complex systems, I thought, What a clear definition of well-being! I jumped up and pulled off my shelf the 886-page psychiatrists' bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I decided to open it at random to any page. There it was: Wherever I put my finger, on whatever symptom of whatever dysfunction, there was an example of chaos, rigidity, or both. Could it be that mental health was indeed a function of integration? When our minds move away from integration, away from harmony, are we then prone to live in chaos and/or rigidity?
I began to try out this hypothesis on my colleagues and students, and even though some of them found it rather new and strange, it seemed to fit their experience as clinicians. Then I started to apply it to my own work with patients, exploring ways to promote integration as a framework for helping them move from illness to wellness. Just like that, fresh approaches to treatment began to emerge, some of them startlingly effective. This notion of the central role of integration was and remains an amazing organizing perspective that has enabled me and now my colleagues to promote well-being in powerful new ways.
I am an acronym lover, always looking for ways to make clusters of related items stick in my mind—and to make them easier to teach. One day in a seminar, I asked my students for suggestions about how we could remember the flow of an integrated system. "Oh Dan, that's easy," a young woman replied. "Just remember Saks Fifth Avenue: Stable, Flexible, and Adaptive." I thought for a moment and then pointed to my clothes. There was the evidence that this mnemonic probably would not work for me.
I also wanted to capture the sense of vitality and energy that emerges from the complexity choir at its harmonious best. Later that day, an acronym came to me: safe, as in Stable, Adaptive, Flexible, and Energized. And then a few weeks later, after reading more into the mathematics of something called "coherence," I realized that coherence was a fifth essential characteristic of integration, which fit beautifully with my own area of research, which had found that "coherent narratives"—the way we make sense of our lives and free ourselves from the prisons of the past—are an important predictor of relational health.