Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Applying Complexity Theory to a Dynamical Process Model of the Development of Pathological Belief Systems


O'Connor and Gabora premise their model for the development of pathological belief systems on the understand that "the web of understandings a human mind weaves about the world is not just complex, dynamic, self-organizing (Orsucci, 2002) but also self-regenerating, self-perpetuating, and thereby ‘alive’, and evolving not just at the biological organismic level but at a second, cultural level (Gabora, 1998, 2004, 2008)." Our ability to create an internal model of the world is founded in our capacity for a "self-triggered stream of thought," which allows to follow the freight-train of thoughts (monkey mind, in Buddhist lingo), and then to also manipulate the sensory experiences we have of the external world.

These manipulations (mental operations) allow us to structure sensations and impressions into a somewhat coherent "web of understanding" of the external world, a talent that also allows us to plan, prioritize, create analogies, adapt our behavior according to the situation, and so on. This is not without its issues, however, in that "the proclivity to mentally operate on impressions also provides for the possibility that they become increasingly distorted, particularly if the developing worldview that shapes this assimilation process is becoming a biased model of the external world."

This is an excellent and interesting paper using dynamical systems and complexity theory to make sense of how the human mind creates pathological belief systems in the context of mental illness.

Full Citation:
O'Connor, B, and Gabora, L. (2009, ). Applying complexity theory to a dynamical process
model of the development of pathological belief systems. Chaos and Complexity Letters, 4(3), 75-96.

This version:  arXiv:1309.5670 [nlin.AO], submitted Sep 23, 2013.

Applying complexity theory to a dynamical process model of the development of pathological belief systems

Brian P. O’Connor and Liane Gabora
Department of Psychology, University of British Columbia, Kelowna, BC, CANADA

ABSTRACT
A general dynamical process model of psychiatric disorders is proposed that specifies the basic cognitive processes involved in the transition from beliefs about self, others and world that are normal and adaptive, to beliefs that are rigid, extreme, and maladaptive. The relevant thought trajectories are self-confirming, and are considered to underlie the corresponding trajectories in symptoms. In contrast with previous work, the model focuses on underlying mechanisms, and it provides an evolutionary basis for the widespread susceptibility to psychiatric symptoms and disorders without the problematic claim that such disorders were selected by evolutionary forces. The model thereby incorporates both normality and abnormality in the same framework.

INTRODUCTION

Humans are susceptible to a wide variety of mental disorders that, despite their substantial differences, are all characterized by distinctive, rigid, extreme beliefs about themselves and others, and maladaptive ways of acting in the world. Examples of such beliefs include “I am a failure,” “I am incapable of having positive interactions with others,” and “I am overweight and cannot believe those who tell me I am dangerously thin.” The maladaptive beliefs associated with psychiatric disorders are evident and challenging to anyone who interacts with the individuals on a regular basis, including family members and mental health professionals. Yet most people were not born with such peculiar beliefs, and their family members can recall times when the client did not have such problematic views or any other psychiatric symptoms. How did they come about?


We propose that they are side-effects of the fact that the web of understandings a human mind weaves about the world is not just complex, dynamic, self-organizing (Orsucci, 2002) but also self-regenerating, self-perpetuating, and thereby ‘alive’, and evolving not just at the biological organismic level but at a second, cultural level (Gabora, 1998, 2004, 2008). The ability to weave an internal model of the world, or worldview, stems from the specifically human capacity for a self-triggered stream of thought, in which one thought triggers another, which triggers another, and so forth; our daily experience is formed not just by sensory impressions but also by mental operations on these impressions. These mental operations have the desirable effect of structuring impressions into a more-or-less coherent web of understanding, the integrated nature of which enables us to plan and prioritize, draw analogies, adapt behavior to the specifics of situations, and so forth. However, the proclivity to mentally operate on impressions also provides for the possibility that they become increasingly distorted, particularly if the developing worldview that shapes this assimilation process is becoming a biased model of the external world.


The goal of this chapter is to unpack this argument and propose a tentative, general model of the process by which once-normal individuals develop deep, maladaptive convictions that are seemingly impervious to refuting evidence and that are closely intertwined with other symptoms. Although the contents of beliefs vary across disorders, it is proposed that the basic cognitive processes involved are essentially the same across disorders. The model incorporates the possible influences of affective and biological factors on the trajectories of belief systems. The focus is on cognition, but there is no claim that cognitive factors are always primary or causal. Distinct belief systems are nevertheless almost always present in psychiatric disorders, and we are simply proposing a general model of how they develop. A proper understanding of how such belief systems develop will presumably be important to understanding how rigid belief systems can change for the better.


The chapter begins with descriptions of the particular beliefs that are commonly involved in a variety of Axis I and Axis II disorders from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, APA, 2000). In the second section, we provide an outline of relevant concepts from dynamical systems and complexity theory. Distinctions are made between how the present model differs from previous applications of these concepts to psychopathology. We also describe research on memory and thought processes, and on interpersonal processes, that are involved in the trajectories of belief systems. The fourth section describes the implications of our model and  the corresponding answers to a number of perennial questions in the literature.

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