We’ve all heard of the “butterfly effect,” thanks in no small part to the 2004 film of the same name. The idea goes something like this: a butterfly flapping its wings in Texas may cause a hurricane in China due to a complex series of causes and effects resulting from the initial butterfly wing flap. However, the butterfly effect is more than a poorly received science fiction thriller starring Ashton Kutcher, it is a concept in dynamic systems theory – a theory with important implications for how we heal from past harms in life and in psychotherapy.
In psychotherapy, we seek to understand our experience of psychological distress – for instance, we might find a connection between neglect in childhood and relationship patterns in adulthood. However, the factors that contribute to our experience of distress are far too numerable and complex to understand entirely. We can consider interpersonal systems (family dynamics, relationships, friendships) or neurobiological systems (such as the nervous system) or personality and natural born temperament.
All of these factors – or systems – are connected to and are impacted by one another. The same can be said for the healing process. We might not understand it entirely, but change takes place when we place a reasonable degree of trust the process.
We can think of each moment and instance within the therapeutic relationship as one flap of a butterfly wing in a complex web of interacting systems. What might seem like a minor intervention may contribute to lasting impacts or changes in other domains of life. Hold this idea in mind as we learn more about dynamic systems theory and healing in psychotherapy.
What are dynamic systems theories?
The “butterfly effect” is a concept in chaos theory, a branch of mathematics that studies the underlying patterns beneath seeming “chaos” or disorganization in a system. Chaos theory is a type of dynamic systems theory. In this theory, all systems (biological, social, economic, etc.) are complex in nature and non-linear in development. Small changes in the state of a system may result in seemingly unrelated larger changes later on. Examples of phenomenon produced by “systems” include ocean waves, consumer choices, traffic patterns, and the motor abilities of children.
Dynamic systems and human development
Human behavior and mental health phenomenon impact and are produced by larger systems. Examples include aggressive behavior in children, narcissistic personality tendencies in adults, or preoccupation with solving the problems of others. The traditional medical model has viewed these behaviors and traits as symptoms of a brain-based disorder. A dynamic systems lens takes this narrow understanding a step further to explore the why of human development. Although we can’t entirely understand how we became the person we are with complete scientific precision, we deserve the time and space to explore the meaning of our experience with the complexity and nuance it warrants.
What systems influence human development? To name a few: neurological, biological, societal, cultural, and environmental systems. These systems include factors like cognition, beliefs, temperament, personality, values, attitudes, expectations, knowledge, skills, family relationships, and social relationships. The list goes on.
Dynamic systems are open systems. This means that they maintain organization even though their parts are always changing. Think of a family system. Stability in the family structure remains intact despite frequent changes – children leave home, form new families, new children are born, elders are lost. Emergence describes how systems change, which includes “the butterfly effect” concept. Self-organization is a principle of dynamic systems describing processes of disequilibrium and spontaneous adaptation.
How has your life or family system or romantic relationship become disrupted? What led to this change? How did the system reorganize itself?
In my work with children as a mental health therapist, dynamic systems theory guides my process of understanding behavioral phenomenon. If I am told that a child has behaved aggressively, my job is to understand this behavior rather than rush to extinguish it. Change emerges out of understanding. How can we intervene in a system as complex as human behavior without understanding the systems that surround it?
In this example, I might want to look at the family system, the school setting, the social environment, and/or developmental and neurobiological factors. How have these systems interacted with one another to produce the behavior of concern?
In some cases, aggressive behavior reflects an adaptation of the nervous system to hostile home, school, and/or social environments. Temperament and personality are also factors, although genetic explanations for human behavior are lacking on their own. Even when genes associated with behaviors are identified, these genes are experience expectant – meaning that their development is activated or hindered by life experience.
Although we can’t understand dynamic systems with detail and precision, we can remember that systems are self-organizing. Human behavior results from the self-ordering of chaotic systems. This calls into question the effectiveness of systems of reward and punishment that fail to identify the meaning of the behavior of concern. All behaviors serve a function. As such, how does this behavior make sense is a more helpful question than what is wrong with this behavior.
Dynamic systems and healing in psychotherapy
People are comprised of smaller systems (the cardiovascular system, the digestive system, the nervous system, etc.) and are part of larger systems (interpersonal relationships, society, the economy, and nature). One change in any of these systems may result in changes elsewhere. Losing a job (in an economic system) might result in a threat response (in the nervous system). As a therapist, I consider all of the systems that comprise and surround my client and encourage them to do the same.
Exploring the meaning of human behavior with a dynamic systems approach may reduce psychological distress in the course of psychotherapy. Healing processes are nonlinear, just like dynamic systems. People don’t only get better. They get a little better, a little worse, a lot better, and back and forth. As with all systems, people sometimes fall into chaos before self-organizing into a new state of equilibrium. Each time a system falls into chaos, we are presented with an opportunity to intervene in how it adapts and reorganizes.
For instance, a client of mine just broke up with her partner. She is feeling disordered – alone, confused, and questioning her identity as a “good” partner. She also realized that she has felt this way numerous times before. In line with the dynamic systems concept of equilibrium, her systems of interpersonal relating have tended to replicate themselves. She sticks to what she knows. However, now her state of equilibrium has become disrupted. She has begun to question what she might want to do differently next time. Although the chaotic state of her system is causing distress, she is also presented with an opportunity to re-assemble her approach to relationships. Psychotherapy is a factor in this process.
Psychotherapy primarily deals with psychological and interpersonal systems. Psychiatrist and author Stephan Seligman writes that psychotherapy “seeks to change the patterns that order and coordinate life processes.” He further clarifies that “we must expect to find ourselves regularly at the boundary of order and chaos” as we seek healing in psychotherapy.
The behaviors and patterns that complicate our lives result from how systems influence our psychological and interpersonal development. Although systems rely on spontaneous self-organization to persist, minor interventions – say, the flap of a butterfly wing – carry potential for significant alterations. Healing in psychotherapy rests on deepening our understanding of the various systems that make up who we are in hopes of re-organizing into new, healthier, and happier individuals.
Written by Luke Romano, M.Phil.Ed., M.S.Ed.
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Newman, B.M. and Newman, P.R. (2016). Theories of human development. New York, New York: Psychology Press.
Seligman, S. (2018). Relationships in development: Infancy, intersubjectivity, and attachment. New York, New York: Routledge.