Chaos Theory in Psychology

Instructor: Gaines Arnold
This lesson looks at how chaos theory, which has been used by many scientific disciplines, applies to psychology. After defining chaos theory we'll take a look at how chaos theory research has had an effect on psychology and practice.

The Underlying Chaos of Depression

When Randal first went to a therapist, he was suffering from a depression that he just could not seem to shake. He said that it didn't seem to be caused by anything; he was just down a lot of the time. He was given an antidepressant to help balance his mood, and the therapist agreed to see him once a week. As the therapist worked with Randal, she saw that there were many deeper issues that he was keeping hidden. He had repressed some issues so far that he had completely forgotten them. The therapist recognized that a seemingly simple case of malaise (or mild depression) was actually backed by a complex and confounding web of prior events.

For psychologists, chaos, or random disorder, is a fact of life. However, a great deal of research into something called chaos theory has begun to shed light on how the brain functions. More importantly for mental health professionals, chaos theory driven investigations of brain function have led to discoveries that have helped frame new theories of practice.

What Is Chaos Theory?

Scientists had long turned a blind eye to the unpredictable nature of nature. If they weren't able to see some reason in a process, an argument or the universe at large, it was because they weren't looking hard enough. The overarching belief in science was that everything that happened was due to predictable patterns which were simple if they were viewed correctly.

Enter Henri Poincare, a physicist, who at the turn of the twentieth century, turned the scientific world on its head. He demonstrated that even seemingly insignificant (and seemingly simple) systems could produce very complex and confounding behaviors. Later, scientists would invent a name for what Poincare had discovered: the butterfly effect. This idea says that a small change in one place and moment of time (such as a butterfly flapping its wings) can lead to an outrageous effect at another place and time (such as a typhoon).

How Chaos Theory Applies to the Human Psyche

The human brain is a frightening place to be. At least, there are times when most brains work to confound and confuse the humans who possess them. The human psyche is unpredictable and complex. There are more than seven billion people on the planet, and we are all snowflakes having different personalities, dreams and developmental paths. Psychology tries to make sense of the chaos. It's not easy, which is why the diagnostic manual mental health professionals use is so generic and relatively nonspecific.

For many years, psychologists and other mental health professionals have tried to understand mental disorders using rational methods of explanation. Unfortunately, it is inherent in the definition of disorder that when something goes wrong with an individual's mental health, it is anything but rational. Psychologists needed to devise a system of thought they could use to help them understand the vagaries of the mental process. Chaos theory offers that system.

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