Daimon Publishers

Living at the Edge of Chaos
Helene Shulman


In the following pages, the situation in a contemporary American mental hospital is analyzed by interweaving current models from several disciplines that give some insight into the dynamics that occurred there. Chapters 1 and 2 focus on two case studies of schizophrenic patients in dialogue with the hospital system. These patients are people I met in the hospital, but their personal histories have been somewhat disguised in order to protect their privacy and that of their families and caretakers.

Chapter 3 begins with the results of a World Health Organization study completed during the 1980's on the incidence and outcome of schizophrenia in ten countries. The study produced some startling results with regards to the difference in treatment outcomes in industrialized and nonindustrialized countries. Affiliation and information flow in various healing environments in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Latin American is explored along with some of the theories of anthropologist Victor Turner, which could help us to understand which elements might be important.

Chapter 4 begins a more general analysis of the social environment of various healing methods based on recent cultural anthropology, which has applied systems theory to ethnographic data. The dynamics observed by this theory will be compared with those recorded by several Jungian psychologists.

In Chapter 5, anthropological material discussed in the previous section is used to understand the social environment in which the current psychiatric diagnostic manual, DSM-IV, was produced. Here some of the questionable assumptions grounding the social production of the diagnostic system are analyzed. Doubts that have been raised by practitioners within the mental health system about its goals, objectivity, and usefulness are presented.

This leads to a more general discussion in Chapter 6 of how human beings develop neurologically so that any models at all of the environment can be made. The dynamics of social environments and information processing are compared to the activities of the immune system and neurological networks, showing that these must be based on nested, hierarchical, and emergent structures of organization. A series of philosophical and psychological problems are explored concerning the relativity and reliability of the interface between models and the worlds they attempt to know.

Chapter 7 provides a brief overview of the development of the new paradigm in complexity theory that is being applied to psychological and biological development. The theory is based on the work of computer scientists using parallel rather than serial computer processing to simulate evolutionary learning and adaptation. They have discovered various systems grammars that apply when nodes in any information system connect to pass on information. In some situations, self-organizing systems arise in which order develops spontaneously without an outside cause. The stage is set to show that the dynamics that have been examined in previous chapters can be defined within complexity theory, suggesting that this is a fruitful new way to consider psychological issues.

In Chapters 8 and 9, new work in the field of complexity theory is compared with various philosophical and psychological attempts to understand human consciousness, symbol systems, and healing experiences. Complexity theory gives a grounding in natural science for regularities that have been noted by both Jungian psychology and many other healing systems that have traditionally been rejected by Western medical practitioners. Through the lens of complexity theory, the experience of synchronicity can be viewed as an autonomous and unconscious speed-up in information processing which brings a system to an "edge of chaos," where self-organized systems mutate at a very rapid rate. Under the right conditions, this can produce a heightened experience of meaningful connectedness as well as a symbolic integration of models which function to promote a sense of well-being and wholeness. In Chapter 10, these ideas are connected with psychological and anthropological research on possession states and other altered states of consciousness.

In Chapter 11, complexity theory is applied to a consideration of mental illness. Using the material developed so far, the many different diseases listed in the DSM-IV are modeled as variations of affiliation and information-processing strategy. It is suggested that these strategies move unconsciously across thresholds in painful environments resulting in emergent qualities of experience. A threshold of experience at the edge of chaos in terms of ego permeability and brain physiology is connected with schizophreniform episodes as well as with religious ritual, healing, divination, and mystical states.

Chapters 12 and 13 take up the question of health and expanded states of consciousness in a postmodern context. With examples from my own practice and from other analysts, cases of healing by people who are no longer part of traditional cultures are discussed. Analyzing images produced by schizophrenic patients, normal laboratory subjects, Jungian analysands and individuals in cultural groups which experience healing trance, characteristic patterns are illustrated which can be used as an index for a psychological state "at the edge of chaos." By exploring creativity reflexively, a spiritual pilgrimage can develop out of states of alienation or "loss of soul" toward experiences of meaningfulness. Finally, psychological healing, creativity, synchronicity, and the spontaneous end states of Buddhist meditation practices are compared in terms of complexity theory.

In the Conclusion, spontaneity is looked at from an evolutionary perspective as a marker of the possibility of an emergent psychological state at the edge of chaos. A cultural "restoration ecology" that seeks to "garden" our personal and social affiliation systems could be undertaken now that we can begin to conceptualize their differences, instability, and constant evolution. Whatever we do from an ego perspective has consequences for surrounding information systems even when we are not aware of them, whether our actions involve withdrawal, control, negotiation or resistance. In many environments, we need to recreate rituals of inclusion and expression for lost portions of our psyches, excluded members of our communities, objectified subjects of discourse, and all other ecosystems which have been classified as marginal through information systems currently in use. Otherwise, if too much is repressed with too much energy, parts of the system can lose energy and go dead or else go over into a state of anarchic chaos. There is evidence in the dying economies and polluted environments of small towns in the northeastern part of the United States and the unemployment, discontent, and violence in big cities that such a scenario is already underway here. The widespread use of alcohol, tranquilizers, anti-depressive medication, and street drugs suggests that there is a problem in regulating inner economies as well. As individuals and as a culture, we need to learn how to hear the voices of "otherness" which have been silenced or have not yet spoken and reintegrate them creatively in an ongoing project of information-sharing and dialogue.


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