This short excerpt is from an article by Louis W. Sander, a psychoanalyst, former Professor of Psychiatry (Boston University School of Medicine), and currently is Professor of Psychiatry Emeritus (University of Colorado School of Medicine). The article is Thinking Differently: Principles of Process in Living Systems and the Specificity of Being Known [Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12(1):11–42, 2002].
His writings have been collected in Living Systems, Evolving Consciousness, and the Emerging Person: A Selection of Papers from the Life Work of Louis Sander (Psychoanalytic Inquiry Book Series).
I really like his perspective in this section - it has become increasingly impossible not to take a systems approach in understanding how individuals (from amoebas to human beings) interact and and participate in the "ever-ongoing exchange with its surround." He seems to be offering here another take on complex adaptive systems, from the perspective of psychoanalysis.
Life Process and Paradox
Immediately we begin to think about life and the mystery of life process, we begin to confront paradox, actually a list of paradoxes. For example, we cannot think of any organism, down to the smallest microbe, that lives without having to think of an environment within which it must be in an ever-ongoing interaction. Thus, if we begin with life, we begin not with the living organism itself, but with a “system”—the organism and its environment. But, if we begin with a system—the organism always within an ever-ongoing exchange with its surround—we are thinking of process, a continuing process with many levels of complexity occurring together. A process with many levels of complexity occurring together immediately becomes paradoxical since life process requires both ongoing continuity and ongoing change. What appears to have the stability of the material structure of the body is found to be, itself, within a flow of change. The molecules that make up the body today are not the same molecules that constructed it a month ago. This flow of change, paradoxically, must maintain the organized wholeness of the organism, while its components move through disorganization, removal, and replacement, all the while maintaining the vital coherence of the organism, essential for the continuity of its life. How can all this be done? How can continuity, discontinuity, and wholeness go on together? What we have been accustomed to thinking of as having the permanence of “structure” we now seek to understand as an ongoing process, a process “organizing complexity.” Later we will come to a way of thinking about this by taking a glimpse at chaos (or complexity) theory, but first let us return to paradox—that, by thinking of life as process, we must think of the organism actively and continuously engaged with its ecology at a complex hierarchy of levels—that is, we must think of the functioning of a system, not of life as the property of the organism alone.
Let us start with the meaning Webster gives to the word system: an assemblage of objects united by some form of regular interaction or interdependence or “a group of diverse units so combined as to form an integral whole.” For life to continue over time, the combining of diverse units to form an “integral whole” also must be continuous over time. If a coherently organized wholeness stops, life begins to fail; if process stops, life stops. We know that in living systems life does stop, but we know also that the new keeps appearing. Thus we must think of process as a flow of input and output in the system through an ever-moving, overarching, organizing process that, through ongoing interaction between organism and surround, is constantly achieving continuity in the face of discontinuity—rather than thinking of the continuity of life as having a kind of given permanence. It is process at all levels of complexity, from the molecular to our ecology within our solar system, that is required to keep the almost unimaginable diversity of parts combining to achieve the “integral whole” that the living system represents.
1. Beebe and Lachmann (1996) have been on a similar search for principles of process in living systems at the human level, coming up with their “three principles of salience”: Regulation, Disruption and Repair, and Heightened Affective Moments. The experience of “heightened affective moments” provides the essential positive affects in our experiencing that accompany being “together-with” another. At the psychological level, then, events that generate the experiencing of positive affects become the source of the essential motivating impetus that pushes us to restore connection when it has become disrupted. Without something of this positive dimension as part of our framework of expectancy, we become vulnerable to a lapse into the dis-organization of depression or illness.