Chaos Comes to Psychology

Just when you thought it was finally making sense, scientists have officially declared life completely chaotic.

For the last decade, researchers in fields from math to meteorology have been applying chaos theory to explain spontaneous, individualistic, and virtually unpredictable phenomena. Now psychologists believe it may also shed light on the complex organization of the brain, human relationships, and the often baffling progress of psychotherapy.

While there's no universally accepted definition of chaos, chaotic phenomena generally have three characteristics: They display highly disordered behavior-like the random branching of a lightening bolt or the twirling path of a falling leaf, they can change dramatically in response to insignificant events - a normally functioning heart, for instance, may suddenly start to beat erratically if a few random neurons fire out of sync; and chaotic phenomena may actually follow patterns that are detectable-if you look closely.

Paul Rapp, Ph.D., a physiology professor at the Medical College of Pennsylvania, has been looking for a while. He's found, for example, that the human brain becomes more electrically active, or chaotic, when solving simple arithmetic problems than when at rest. Rapp predicts that all brain activity-normal and abnormal-produces precise electrical patterns that can be detected, measured, and correlated with overt behavior.

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By determining the amount of neural "chaos" In a person predisposed to seizures, for example, doctors my one day be able to better target medication and dosage before seizures actually happen.

Avoiding the customary after-the-fact analysis of psychological events may also be possible in individual and family therapy, thanks to chaos theory. "We know that a certain amount of randomness is bound to occur in the therapeutic process," says psychologist Judith Johnson, Ph.D, an associate professor at Villanova University. The seemingly unpredictable chaos of crisis-prone families, for example, seems to occur in cycles. Therapists may be able to Intervene and set concrete structures that help the family regroup.

Meanwhile, physiologist Rapp is applying his measuring techniques to the chaotic dialogue of therapy sessions, using computers to analyze transcripts and to detect patterns critical to different therapeutic methods. So far Rapp has discovered that, despite their training, most therapists ask very similar questions and direct clients toward the same goals.

Chaos theory aside, though, psychology will never be completely predictable.

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