Order Out of Chaos Non-Equilibrium Thermodynamics of Positive Disintegration

In the early 1980s, after moving from Poland, I joined the Department of Physics at the University of Calgary, first as a graduate student in theoretical physics, and later as a researcher of non-linear phenomena in astrophysics. During my graduate studies, I was fortunate to attend lectures on chaos theory at the Santa Fe Institute’s Nonlinear Summer School. Listening to these lectures, it occurred to me that the core ideas of chaos theory—to be open and sensitive, to accept unpredictability, and to favor instability over equilibrium—could be applied to psychology and education.

Almost a quarter of century later, I decided to try to realize this idea.  I wanted to talk to someone about the possibility of applying chaos theory to psychology, so I searched the University of Calgary’s website and found Dr. Michael Pyryt, a professor of applied psychology who shared my Polish background and who specialized in the education of gifted students. After listening to me patiently, he said, “You should study Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration. I will give you the name of a person who has Dabrowski’s books and articles on disk; then you can start studying his work and see what you can do with it.”

It was clear to me that Prigogine’s dissipative structures and Dabrowski’s theory of positive disintegration were referring to essentially the same process.

As I read Dabrowski’s book Mental Growth through Positive Disintegration, I experienced a profound sense of resonance. Moreover, as I immersed myself in the works of Dabrowski, I was mesmerized by the beautiful parallels between the theory of positive disintegration and chaos theory. It was clear to me that the dissipative structures of Nobel Prize winning physical chemist Ilya Prigogine and the theory of positive disintegration were referring to essentially the same process. One was simply focusing on the physical world, while the other was looking inside the human psyche.

Introduction to Chaos Theory

Though I think the idea of chaos theory will be accessible to anyone interested in Dabrowski, I know most of you will not be familiar with the main concepts of chaos theory. Therefore, let me take a moment to introduce some key concepts: sensitivity to initial conditions, positive and negative feedback, bifurcation points, self-organization, dissipative structures, and attractors.

Chaos theory focuses on the behavior of open, complex, and dynamic systems that constantly interact with and adjust to their environments. They are always changing, growing, learning, and evolving. Chaotic systems exhibit an extreme sensitivity to initial conditions. You might be familiar with this phenomenon under its popular name, the butterfly effect. Slight differences in the starting points of such systems make very large differences in their outcomes. Such systems are always on the move, changed by each and every stimulus, never to revert to their original states.

One reason that chaotic systems are so sensitive to their initial conditions is that they are subject to feedback, which can be either positive or negative. Positive feedback pushes the system to change. More change leads to its exponential growth, whereas less change leads it to decline. Sometimes, if the positive feedback is strong enough, it drives a system to explode—to spiral out of control or totally block all its activities. In psychological systems, emotions play this dynamic role. They act as positive feedback loops by amplifying cognitive activities such as increasing our awareness, signalizing approaches to our problems, and making us more perceptive and sensitive to the external world. Negative feedback keeps things in check and regulates the system’s stability. In psychological systems, cognition plays the role of negative feedback by controlling and regulating emotional processes. One of the most important discoveries of chaos theory has been that positive feedback can cause chaotic behavior and disrupt an orderly system, while negative feedback can grow inside a chaotic system, suddenly organizing it and making it stable.

Systems that change radically as a result of feedback are said to be nonlinear. Under some conditions, nonlinear systems behave in a regular, cyclical manner—until something sets them off. A critical point is passed, and suddenly they go chaotic. This point where system changes its behavior is called a phase transition or a bifurcation point. This is where the system’s orderliness breaks down, its sensitivity to perturbation increases, and new patterns of organization rapidly amplify themselves within it.1 Before a bifurcation point, a system can be well behaved, but as it approaches bifurcation, the system’s trajectory becomes random and unpredictable, and large fluctuations occur. At this point, the system hesitates between various different directions of change. Even the tiniest fluctuations in the subsystem can combine through a positive feedback loop, becoming strong enough to shatter any pre-existing organization. When this happens, the disorganized system either disintegrates into chaos or leaps to a new, higher order of organization. In the latter situation, order arises spontaneously, through self-organization.2

Self-organization is a scientific term for the spontaneous emergence of new patterns in systems. Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian physical chemist working in the mid-20th century, studied self-organization in complex physical systems. He introduced the concept of dissipative structures, which must interact with their environment continually, maintaining a flow of energy in and out of the system. Think for example of a whirlpool or a hurricane, which require continuous flows of matter and energy to maintain themselves. The same can be said for living organisms. Prigogine won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1977 “for his contribution to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theory of dissipative structures.”3 Prigogine stressed the importance of openness and strong thermal instability of the system in the process of the formation of dissipative structures. As Prigogine wrote, “At equilibrium molecules behave as essentially independent entities; they ignore one another. However, non-equilibrium wakes them up and introduces a coherence quite foreign to equilibrium. This is the concept of ‘order through fluctuations.'”4 In a state of non-equilibrium, the rapid flow of energy links its components into more ordered and complex patterns. Complexity can be characterized by differentiation and integration. Differentiation refers to the variety of components that behave in different ways, while integration refers to the links between a system’s components that lead to order. Complexity arises when both differentiation and integration are present. It can be said that complexity is situated between order and disorder, where the system finds itself at the “edge of chaos.” In this state, the system is displaying intelligent behavior in adapting to environment stimuli.

The Theory of Positive Disintegration Through Chaos Theory

Are the connections between chaos theory and the theory of positive disintegration as obvious to you as they are to me? In case they are not, let me explain.

First and foremost, consider Dabrowski’s idea that emotional turbulence is essential in the process of human development. He stated that nervousness and psychoneurotic symptoms such as anxiety and depression are necessary for human growth and are signs of the beginning of positive transformation. “Such conflict is a necessary prelude to the gradual process of adaptation to new external and internal conditions, “ Dabrowski wrote. “This results in a disequilibrium, which allows the emergence and organization of new levels of control, higher than those of the previous stable period.”5 This idea corresponds to Prigogine’s notion of non-equilibrium as a source of order.6 In other words, chaos—variability, instability, and unpredictability—is an inherent part of human development.7

Moreover, when I was studying the five levels of positive disintegration, I saw in my mind different attractors. In chaos theory, an attractor is a set of mathematical values toward which a system tends to evolve, for a wide variety of starting conditions of the system. They are useful for characterizing the system’s behavior, and there are three types: the point attractor, the periodic attractor, and the non-periodic, chaotic attractor.8 A single system can be characterized by different attractors at different times in its development.

In the theory of positive disintegration, then, each level represents a qualitatively distinct, relatively stable, and coherent developmental structure, characterized by a distinctive set of developmental dynamisms that interact with each other, creating a unique pattern of behavior. In other words, each level represents an attractor state, assuming that the complex system self-organizes into a few modes of behavior rather than remaining unconnected.9

As I proposed at the 2006 Dabrowski Congress in Calgary, positive disintegration can be modeled by the sequence of transitions from a point attractor (primary integration), through a periodic attractor (unilevel disintegration), to a chaotic attractor (spontaneous multilevel disintegration), through the process of self-organization to an emerging order (organized multilevel disintegration) and finally to an order of increasing complexity (secondary integration).10

Spontaneous multilevel disintegration (level III) represents a state of non-equilibrium that is necessary for self-organization to emerge in a psychological system, giving rise to more complex and ordered states of mental structure. The chaotic behavior of this level is a result of nonlinear and recursive interactions between different dynamisms. Developmental dynamisms act as loops of positive feedback, pushing a mental structure into a state of non-equilibrium and creating instability. The instability disintegrates the former structure and forms novel patterns of behavior. As Prigogine put it, “Matter acquires new properties when far from equilibrium in that fluctuations and instabilities are now the norm. Matter becomes more ‘active.’”11

This period (level III) is characterized by turning toward oneself and seeking solutions within oneself. Intensive internal conflicts, existential anxieties, and obsessions are fluctuations and instabilities in the mental structure. As Dabrowski wrote, “The instability and partial or even complete disorganization of behavior is necessary in the process of development from lower to higher level of mental functioning.”12

When a mental structure is in non-equilibrium, the rapid flow of energy links its components into more ordered patterns of behavior. Organized multilevel disintegration (level IV) emerges. This level is directed and controlled by highly conscious, autonomous and self-determining developmental processes. They act as negative feedback to stabilize and organize a mental structure. This stage of development is characterized by lesser tension and greater ability to systematize experiences and to take the development into one’s own hands. Higher levels of emotional and emotional-intellectual functions produce greater psychic complexity, higher levels of creativity, self-awareness, empathy, and social responsibility. The intellectual and emotional functions interconnect and reciprocally advance the level of the other functions. This level is characterized by openness to external experiences, sensitivity, and identification with others. I compare this level to Prigogine’s dissipative structures, which maintain their existence by interaction with their environment and maintaining the flow of energy into and out of the system. Mental structure transforms itself into a new ordered state of increased complexity—and therefore stability.13

The following fragment, from an interview with singer Mika Urbaniak, illustrates the transition from chaos to the emerging order in her psyche:

“My older sister and I experienced a period of rebellion and maybe a little bit of madness. Artistic souls already played in us. We did not listen to anybody. Our parents did not have easy lives with us. Fortunately, some years have passed and I have changes, calmed down, and found my own path. Keeping a diary helped me a lot. I wrote down my thoughts and emotions. I learnt my life through my mistakes. Today, I look at a world and myself in completely different way. I’ve begun to enjoy being a woman and suddenly realize that knowing myself is a great delight. Since, I struggled to find myself and realize my dreams, I became friends with myself.”14

1 Kelso, J.A. (1995). Dynamic patterns, the self-organization of brain and behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

2 Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos. Toronto, New York, London, Sydney: Bantam Books.

3 www.nobelprize.org/prizes/chemistrt/1977/summary/

4 Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos. Toronto, New York, London, Sydney: Bantam Book, pp. 180 -181.

5 Dąbrowski, K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego. (p.11).

6 Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. (1984). Order out of chaos. Toronto, New York, London, Sydney: Bantam Books.

7 Thelen, E. (1992). Development as a dynamic system. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1, 189-193.

8 Abraham, R.H., & Shaw, C.D. (1984). Dynamics- the geometry of behavior. Santa Cruz, CA: Aerial Press.

9 Van Geert, P. (2009). Nonlinear complex dynamical systems in developmental psychology. In S.J. Guastello, M. Koopman, & D. Pincus (Eds.), Chaos and complexity in psychology. The theory of nonlinear dynamical systems, (pp. 242-2810. New York: Cambridge University Press.

10 Laycraft, K. (2009). Positive maladjustment as a transition from chaos to order. Roeper Review, 31, pp.113-122

11 Prigogine, I. (1997). The end of certainty. Time, chaos and the new laws of nature. New York, London, Toronto, Sydney, Singapore: The Free Press, p. 65.

12 Dąbrowski, K. (1996). Multilevelness of emotional and instinctive functions. Lublin: Towarzystwo Naukowe Katolickiego Uniwersytetu Lubelskiego. (p.11).

13 Laycraft, K. (2009). Positive maladjustment as a transition from chaos to order. Roeper Review, 31, pp.113-122

14 Kotowska, M. (2009). Już się nie boję. Viva! No. 10, pp. 60-68 (in Polish)

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Krystyna C. Laycraft holds a M.Sc. in theoretical physics from the University of Warsaw and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Calgary. She is a certified coach practitioner and professional member of the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association. Krystyna offers assistance to troubled and gifted adolescents and young adults and helps them to achieve their potential. She delivers seminars and workshops that include topics related to their psychological development.