Norman Holland

Norman N Holland Ph.D.

This Is Your Brain on Culture

How You Are Who You Are--in Chaos Theory

Chaos theory can picture how you are who you are.

Posted Aug 31, 2010

In my first two blogs on this topic, I've suggested:

We have characteristic styles in which we do specific behaviors, like walking, speaking, writing, loving, hating, and all the rest.

We can trace in those styles for individual behaviors a consistency that represents a style of styles, or a style of being. I call this a person's identity.

Following the work of Grigsby and associates, I suggested that this identity or style of being is learned and then embodied in the brain as procedural memories.

Understanding a person's identity as procedural memories can explain why personal styles persist even into dementia, why they are slowly acquired, and slowly changed, if at all (as in psychotherapy), and why we ourselves can't easily put them into words.

In this last blog on "How You Are Who You Are," I suggest a way of thinking mathematically about such a style of being, a style of styles, or, simply, an identity.

As long ago as the 1980s, people had begun to see the flaws in pharmacological approaches to mental disorders. They were based on a linear model of mental illness. That model says that something goes wrong somewhere in the linear sequence from a gene to a receptor to dysfunction.

Instead, as more recent work shows, we need to recognize that the brain is a chaotic system. Reality is continuously changing, and its changes perturb our mental functioning, which is also continuously changing. A small perturbation of our brains produces waves and waves of neuronal response.

The initial conditions of the neurons that we bring to any given change in reality will be varying wildly. Small changes in reality can result in very large changes in our experience because our reaction depends on the initial conditions our brains bring to those changes in reality, and those initial conditions are constantly changing.

Behaviorally, we are here or there, happy or unhappy, worried or secure, alert or soporific, and so on. Each of us responds differently even to medications, to say nothing of novels, movies, politicians, or any of the myriad things that our culture and environment bring us. Our brains respond differently because they not only differ from person to person, but their states also vary from moment to moment.

Grigsby and Stevens propose chaos theory for mathematicizing our characteristic defenses (and I would extend the idea to an identity, the pervasive quality in all an individual's particular behaviors). (Grigsby and his colleagues were the first to suggest this idea publicly, but my colleague Murray Schwartz and I had speculated along these lines before we knew of Grigsby's work.)

According to chaos theory, one can describe a chaotic system (like the weather or our everyday behaviors) as a myriad of energy states, some requiring high energy, some low. If you graph these on a plane, they appear as a surface with high points, hills, and low points, valleys between the hills. The system will tend to gravitate to the valleys. Hence they are called "attractors" and sometimes "strange attractors." (That doesn't mean the people are strange, just the attractors.)

We can think of our character, including our defenses, as a configuration of such attractors. That is, we will tend to respond to the ever-changing and random demands of reality (chaos) in ways that involve the least expenditure of energy. Our mental state will roll down, as it were, into the valleys. We will, therefore, tend to repeat the valley patterns of behavior.

Notice that this theory has much in common with Freud's concept of a repetition compulsion (Grigsby and Stevens 2000, 317). Basically, if a solution to a problem from reality worked before (and even if it didn't), try that solution first. That uses the least brain energy.

We can think through, then, how you are who you are in two ways. One, how you are who you are consists of a series of procedural memories widely distributed in your brain. Together they constitute the style of your various styles, the style of your being, your pervasive identity.

Two, we can imagine your style of being mathematically as a configuration of strange attractors in a three-dimensional graph of your mental states. How you are who you are equals the way your momentary mental states will gravitate to the valleys in the configuration of mental states by which a mathematician would represent—quite simply—you.


Items I've referred to:

Freud, Sigmund, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, (1920g). Std. Ed. 8: 7-64.

Grigsby, Jim, and David Stevens, Neurodynamics of Personality (New York, 2000).