On those occasions when I’ve been on the Motorway alternating between 60mph and zero for no apparent reason, I’ve often wished I could be in a helicopter watching the traffic acting like one of those slinky springs that used to make their own crazy way down our stairs when I was a child. I find it amazing that a dab on the brakes that drops my speed by 3 mph can set off a chain reaction that causes cars five miles behind me to come to a complete halt 2 minutes later. This is called the Butterfly Effect, named by a brilliant meteorologist called Edward Lorenz.
Back in the 70’s Lorenz had developed a computer simulation that modelled weather patterns. By keying in data representing wind direction, tides, rainfall etc, he could watch their interaction in his virtual world develop. As would be expected in a Newtonian world of cause and effect, using the same data produced the same weather systems.
One day something curious happened. To save time on a particular experiment he took the data from a previous run, and began a new run half way through. He left the computer running and returned several hours later to find something inexplicable – the results were completely different to the earlier weather run using the same data. Eventually he found out why. The original data had been entered to six decimal places (.606832). When he copied it for his new experiment the computer only recorded the data to three decimal places (.606).
Within the context of the weather model this difference amounted to a belch in a hurricane. According to accepted wisdom, and perhaps even common sense, this shouldn’t make any difference. To quote a prominent theoretician “The basic idea of Western science is that you don’t have to take into account the falling of a leaf on some planet in another galaxy when you’re trying to account for the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table on earth.”
Lorenz proved different, small differences can make a massive difference further down the line.
This phenomenon was popularised by the analogy that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could result in a thunderstorm in Australia – hence the Butterfly effect. Its technical name is ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions’. It affects any complex, dynamic system.
That is where this element of Chaos Theory meets therapy. The brain has more neurons than there are stars in the universe; there is nothing more complex. The brain makes millions of calculations every second; there is nothing more dynamic. The brain uses memory to make sense of the information it is receiving from the senses every waking moment, so events in our life that are given meaning at four years old will guide our responses to events when we are ten, which will then guide our responses when we are forty. A butterfly event as a toddler may culminate in the storm of a mid-life crisis.
The technical term for the Butterfly Effect fits perfectly into this picture. The term is ‘ sensitivity to initial conditions’. In the recent TV programme ‘Child of our Time’ Professor Robert Winston himself said that events in the womb, including traumatic incidents such as car accidents, anxiety of the mother, or the experience of birth, can all affect the personality of the child. For example, children delivered by caesarean section are likely to be bolder than those born naturally. Are extroverts the product of an easier birth?
The brains of children in the first two years of life shed millions of neurons, they atrophy on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. In other words, nature has equipped us for a variety of possible conditions for us to adapt to. Those parts of the brain that are stimulated by the environment become active, those that are not called upon wither, or remain inactive. In a physical sense as well as a psychological sense, we do appear to be sensitive to our initial life conditions, the consequences of which ripple through our lives.
This is because as our cognitive abilities develop the little scientist that is every child develops and tests theories about how the world works. Particularly important are the theories about who they are in the great scheme of things –our developing sense of worth.
All childhoods are likely to contain key ‘Butterfly’ events, what in complexity theory are called ‘points of instability’ – critical moments where a small push can have large consequences, as with a ball balanced at the top of a hill. In personality terms they are likely to be events which trigger a large emotional response. Rapturous applause for a precocious talent in a school play may metamorphosise into an Oscar winner twenty years later. Tripping over in front of the same audience may cause a lifetime of performance anxiety and low self-esteem. But only may. An individual’s response to an event can never be predicted. One child who trips up laughs with the audience, another runs from the stage. It is never the event; it is the individual’s perception of the event that matters. That is why it is vital for the therapist to not superimpose their response to an event onto the client – as in “that must have been terrible for you.” Your client may have been the child who laughed.
To understand this range of possibilities within us imagine taking a child at birth and clone it one hundred times. Place each child in a different environment and re-visit thirty years later to view the consequences of the Butterfly effect. It is likely that you will find a huge variation in the potential they have fulfilled. One may be a brain surgeon, another a bank robber. All of us are a version of ourselves that has evolved in response to our environment. If our past had been different so would we be, often markedly so. Imagine that we are born as a golden seed bursting with infinite potential. As we grow our interaction with others, traumatic events, and the beliefs we are fed, distort us into the form you find in the mirror, a form that in most cases has been separated from aspects of its original potential. That is why in NLP we say that people are doing the best they can with the resources they have. In a sense the purpose of regression is to take a client back to when this separation occurred and re-integrate it into their personality by undoing the power of this negative Butterfly event – to guide the seedling personality to grow in a more productive way.
Reduced to the essential elements, most regressive approaches work in the following way; the client is taken back to the Butterfly event and assisted to bring new meaning to it. Whether by discharging the negative emotion attached to it, or by cognitively reframing the old perception, whether the client is associated or disassociated, new learning of old material takes place.
But why should going over old territory matter? Surely what is done is done? Not in a dynamic system. All events in our life are potentially present in the mind at all moments. They are all part of the neural net. What is understood at this moment depends on what was understood before. Our memories are alive within the system and continue to exert influence over the present, they are not filed away in a musty cabinet.
That is how regressive therapy brings benefit. Take a client back to the Butterfly event connected to the problem, and change the way it flaps (the way they perceive it). Do more, guide the client in choosing the way the butterfly flaps for them to get the most benefit. In this way, the effect of that new perception ripples throughout the personality system. If the past changes in the neural net, it changes the perception of the present, and the future.
Take the client to the memory of themselves as a child who tripped over in the school play. Assist the client, and the child within that memory, to realise that the audience would have laughed at any child who fell over, that it was not about the child as an individual, then the humiliation may be released from the memory. The consequence of this in the present is that if there is no ‘humiliation butterfly’ in the past, there is no reason for a ‘performance anxiety storm’ in the present. That is the therapeutic change.
Lorenz may never have envisaged weather systems being a model for mental functioning, but it does gives another meaning to the word ‘Brainstorm’!