The Relevance of Discontinuities for Developmental Processes

Abstract of the lecture of

Jürgen KRIZ
University of Osnabrück (Germany), Executive Editor of Gestalt Theory

Abstract of the lecture at the 10th Scientific Convention of the
Society for Gestalt Theory and its Applications (GTA)
Vienna/Austria, March 1997


Life is understood to be a perpetual process which runs according to inherent autonomous laws and, whether supported or hindered (but not planned according to a design), can be ordered by outside influences.

No gardener would be so absurd as to think that in order to "produce" a particular leaf shape he would have to use scissors and form the shape from undifferentiated leaf tissue. However, gardeners are in no way damned to complete idleness. Rather they can try to influence the varying growth, ordering and differentiation processes by trying to provide a promoting environment.

This view is shared by modern systems theory: Pearls of wisdom and systemic thinking have one thing in common in that they suggest a form "in tune with nature". However, if we emphasize the correspondance between pearls of wisdom and modern systems science with regards to the fact the "world does not be but happens ", then there is no repitition of "the same". "One can not enter the same river twice", it is said and the space-time constellations in the infinite phase space (the system of describing all variables) between the Big Bang and the Apocalypse are never repeated exactly.

As a consequence, the basic phenomenon is an incomprehensible, complex dynamic process, which we may call "world evolution". Then, the programm of life is based on reducing complexity (or on abstracting particular aspects) and thereby achieving "regularity". No "evening" in the history of the universe has been "exactly" the same and no "morning" truly identical with any other. Nevertheless, it does not only make sense to speak of "evening" and "morning" but also to use the sequence of these categories as "rules". It should be emphasized that this reduction and abstraction is in no way linked to terms and language and so thereby becoming primarily a human quality. Rather, this type of recognition is clearly so fundamental and important for life at all that, even in it's "lowest" form, life has adapted itself, through evolution, to this sequence of "mornings" and "evenings".

There, where life has abstracted such a phenomenon as light as a central basic quantity from the infinite complex process, the incomparabilty of "morning" is reduced to "the reappearance of light" and, with regard to this aspect, all mornings are equivalent to one another. Wholly in accordance with the formalisms of synergetic (nowadays the most famous systems theory in the interdisciplinary field), one can say that "order" involves a reduction of complexity (ie. the degree of freedom with which a system is described). In the well know example of the Benard instability (a self-organizing system, which develops macroscopic, honeycombed roll pattern) the myriad of directions of movement and speeds of the molecules involved after the formation of order can be described by way of few macroscopic dimensions of the rolls. Only through such a reduction can we experience "order" and "regularity".

Infinite complexity is clearly so threatening to a person that practically from the day one is born, evolutionary programs start to work searching for possible "regularities" in the processes of the perceived world. For example, even the youngest of children have the ability to break down the heard language into phonemes and thereby to acquire the grammatical rules of the respective language community. Even in cases where this search for rules inevitably proceeds without success, structures are nevertheless constructed.

Amongst other things, this verifies an old perception psychology experiment (Scheffer, 1959) in which a maze contains say 10X10 lamps which are lit, not according to any rules whatsoever, by a random generator. The observer, however, is too far away to see the randomly flashing lights. Instead, what he sees is a moving picture (or shape). The various results are numerous. It is very reminiscent of similar experiments on "social gradients" by Heider (1944) or on "causality perception" by Michotte (1954) in which moving geometric figures gave the convincing impression of certain "social relationships" or "causal creations". This active search for regularities, and the constructed organisation of "stimuli" applies in a simi-lar way to practically all "rules of life" (although this can not be further explained here).

In the case of humans it is significant that they can, either individually or socially, reshape or even invent completely new areas of rules which go beyond the acquired evolutionary-biological rules (which serve as a basic pattern and which are certainly not to be underestimated: language, sexual behaviour, certain social behaviour, panic behaviour, logical thought, archetypes etc.). In a narrower sense, these serve the individual adaptation to ones personal circumstances in life. This analysis and reduction of a unique process into regularly recurring classes (ordered according to terms) structures chaos, reduces uncertainty and allows for prognoses and reliability. However, it also limits the ability to experience the uniqueness of process-like life.

By way of explanation, I would like to use the following example: If somebody says: "This week I got up at 7 o'clock every morning and ate breakfast with my wife..." he is not only holding to society's division of time into days and hours (with an abiological exactness/"punctuality"). Rather he is ignoring the fact that the incomparable dawn on a clear, cold "morning" last Tuesday was completely different to the one off show of a fog soaked morning sun on Wednesday and that this in turn differed from the sparkle of the rain drops on Thursday (just to mention a few aspects of "the mornings"). It is not a question of "language" but of whether more than just "the morning" was perceived and experienced and whether it was noticed that "breakfast" too showed many varying details "every morning", despite the organization of human planning. However, if the variety and complexity is not experienced but reduced to categories such as "ate breakfast" "every morning" shortly after 7 o'clock then we should not be surprised when "every evening" the "same quarrel" and the "same problems" arise.

That is, the same process of reduction to (too) small and (too) rigid object categories also affects the structuring of the social world. "Always the same old story" with a partner, the children etc. can result. In this perspective, the possibilities for dealing with the "world" can become categorized under one of two extremes: the more we become involved in the uniqueness of the process then the fewer categories we have at hand and, moreover, the less we can make a prognosis based on "regularitites". But then we are confronted all the more with the fear of unpredictability and a loss of control. However the experience which allows the perception of the new, the surprising and the creative is also less reduced. On the other hand, the more we categorize and find (invent) regularities then the greater our ability to plan and make prognoses will become. So our experience of the world becomes all the more secure. However, the "things" dealt with in this manner appear to us to be all the more rigid, boring, reduced and uniform.

When we browse through the literature on systemic clinical psychology we find that most authors refer to interaction patterns. This fact represents a valuable change of perspective: mental illnesses that were considered "individual" in other approaches (whether they were caused by inner conflicts, by learning, by "faulty thinking", or whatever) are analyzed in terms of their status and their function for the communicative structures in a social system - especially in the family. A "pathological" family thus regulates itself through patterns of communication that reflect the type of symptom. It is evident that these patterns of interaction are the results of self-organized processes. There are no external orders or rules given in a way that each person has to act in a well-defined way to fulfill these, but the persons act together by some kind of mutual under-standing, each one acting so as to fulfill the rules of a game. In my "person-centered system approach" I have stated that patterns or rules in the communication process of a familiy is related to categories of perceptive and cognitive processing of information (e.g. communications of other family members) - especially in families where observers describe a "lack of flexibility" and a "rigid" behaviour.

Therapist often hear the argument of single familiy members: "Why should I change my behavior - the others wouldn´t notice it". This seems to demonstrate that only a few pieces of information are taken and may already suffice as the basis for pattern formation or "recognition" - that means that the order parameters of the cognitive patterns (=interpretation of the behaviour) follow a trajectory towards an attractor, which might be of low dimensionality and, moreover, there may exist only very few attractors. If a family member experiences only very few categories (attractors) of behaviour, motivations etc. there is no reason to "react" to these in a highly differentiated manner. As a consequence, he or she will practice a small repertoire of communication behaviour. As in the whole communication process of a family the communication behavour of one person is closely related to the perception-, cognition-, and interpretation-process of an other one - and vice versa - this dynamic may show a decreasing repertoire both in "expressions" and "impressions" of communication behaviour. The arguments appear to indicate that it is important to look at attractors in the dynamic of cognitive processes. We have done some empirical research on this topic - however, it is not the place here to give an report.

As a consequence, both in intrapersonal cognitive processes and in interpersonal interactive processes stable attractors can be found - described as "rigid" patterns of behavior. This is due to the fact that rules reduce chaos and, by this, anxiety. However, phase transitions or discontinuities are the only way to upset the system and to enable new patterns. Life events and different tasks in relationship to different periods of life call for such an adaptation.


This is a short preliminary draft of the lecture.

Back to conference program 1997 in English.
Zum Tagungsprogramm 1997 in Deutsch.


Click here for a list of on-line abstracts of lectures at the Scientific Conventions of the GTA since 1997


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