Chaos and Self-Organization: Emergent Patterns at Critical Life Transitions

by Patricia Skar
© 2015


A feeling of chaos can accompany many real-life events over which we have little or no control, and latent developmental needs may create tension that manifests in symptoms of depression or anxiety. Particularly at critical life transitions, conflicts may arise which have no obvious solution. From an analytic perspective, recent scientific models from the area of complexity theory can prove illuminating as analogies to Jung's archetypal view of the individuation process.  Throughout life, human beings, like many complex, open systems, pass from disordered phases to more complex stages of order.  This paper shows how the scientific concept of self-organization can be compared with our physical and psychological developmental processes. From embryology, the model of the "epigenetic landscape" (C.H. Waddington) is introduced as an analogy to Jung's individuation process, with a clinical example to illustrate these parallels. The emergent nature of behaviour and development is seen from the viewpoint of the organism as a dynamical system, and Jung's concept of the archetype viewed as an emergent property of the activity of the brain/mind. 


Just how relevant is current scientific research to our work with patients in psychoanalysis, and how do our analytical models of mind hold up in light of recent research on the brain? Within Jungian circles, there has been considerable debate on the nature of the archetype, in particular with regard to the "structure-content" question: whether the "archetype-as-such" can be said to possess a neurophysiological substrate. A dynamical systems view of the psyche sees both structure and content as emergent properties of an interactive dynamic system. Different areas of scientific research have shown that simple systems of perception and action can give rise to complex behaviour. Even Jung emphasized the emergent nature of behaviour, for example, in his ground-breaking article, "The Nature of the Psyche", first published in 1947: 

… every instinct bears in itself the pattern of its situation.  Always it fulfils an image, and the image has fixed qualities. The instinct of the leaf-cutting ant fulfils the image of ant, tree, leaf, cutting, transport, and the little ant-garden of fungi. [Jung's Note: For details see C. Lloyd Morgan, Habit and Instinct.] If any of these conditions is lacking, the instinct does not function, because it cannot exist without its total pattern, without its image. Such an image is an a priori type. It is inborn in the ant prior to any activity, for there can be no activity at all unless an instinct of corresponding pattern initiates and makes it possible. … The same is also true of man: he has in him these a priori instinct-types which provide the occasion and the pattern for his activities, in so far as he functions instinctively.  … They are not just relics or vestiges of earlier modes of functioning; they are the ever-present and biologically necessary regulators of the instinctual sphere, whose range of action covers the whole realm of the psyche and only loses its absoluteness when limited by the relative freedom of the will.  We may say that the image represents the meaning of the instinct.  (Jung 1954/1969, para. 398) 

In this vein, mathematician Peter Saunders and I have proposed a new definition of Jung's concept of the archetype, which links the dynamical systems view of the psyche with the original development of Jung's ideas (Saunders and Skar, 2001). Jung formulated the concept of the "feeling-toned complex" first, and introduced the term "archetype" somewhat later to categorize these complexes. Most of us have been taught to imagine archetypes as existing "somewhere" in the unconscious (aided by diagrams which show archetypes as little circles floating around in the unconscious1). Scientists, in contrast, are by now accustomed to the idea that out of a given physical or chemical process there can emerge a limited and predictable set of structures (in a quite general sense of the word structure). While the structures are readily observable, the processes that give rise to them are generally too complicated to be analysed in detail. The set of possible structures can be found from experience and observation but it is often not practicable to derive them from the laws of physics and chemistry even though the scientist is confident that it is through the workings of these laws that the structures arise. Similarly, while it is possible for us (like Jung) to recognize complexes (typical patterns of behaviour that fall into a general category), we cannot associate a particular neurophysiological process with a given pattern of behaviour.  

In our paper, we gave examples of self-organization from physics and chemistry and connected these to Jung's thinking about the archetype as a category of experience (ibid., pp. 313-317).  We showed how the archetype can be seen as a property of the developmental dynamic that forms the complexes. It need not have a separate physical existence, either as a heritable structure in the brain or as a gene, or in any other way. This is in contrast to the view, which some Jungians now hold, that while archetypes do arise out of self-organization in the developmental dynamic, they are themselves emergent structures. This seems to be based on a misunderstanding of what the physicists and chemists are telling us. Hurricanes and whirlpools are emergent structures that arise by self-organization in the motion of fluids, but they are not archetypes. The archetype is the form that they take, and this has no separate physical existence; it is implicit in the laws of fluid dynamics. Similarly, in the psychological realm, it is the complexes that are the emergent structures and thus the entities that we can observe. Here also, archetypes are not structures; in particular they are not, as Jean Knox has written in her account of our work, a form of complex (Knox 2003, p. 66). On the contrary, we define the archetype as a class of complexes that fall into the same general category. We identify archetypes by observation, as Jung and his successors have always done. What is new is that we ascribe their existence to the self-organizational properties of the mind/brain.

When we employ a dynamical systems view of development, we no longer need the "archetype-as-such" to explain the formation of complexes.  In fact, we could do without it altogether and still have the same basic psychological system that Jung proposed. If we did this, it would be very much like what happened in biology many years ago. While the archetype was an important issue in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, modern biologists no longer use the term.  However, they still make use of the observations and classification schema of those who did.  Once you understand what the cause of the repeated pattern is, or at least what sort of thing it is (development is still by no means completely understood) you no longer need the archetype-as-such: only, if anything, the archetype as a convenient label. This view is not so different from what Jung wrote in 1956:

. . . the complexes are not infinitely variable, but mostly belong to definite categories . . . inferiority complex, power complex, father complex, mother complex, anxiety complex, and all the rest. This fact, that there are well-characterized and easily recognizable types of complex, suggests that they rest on equally typical foundations, that is, on emotional aptitudes or instincts. (Jacobi 1959, pp. ix-x)

These "typical foundations" could be viewed not only as emotional aspects or instincts but also, from a dynamical systems viewpoint, as the self-organizational processes that make us uniquely human. Jung recognized various types of complexes and categorized them; he then postulated an archetype at the core of each complex which somehow affected the formation of the complex. Our modern understanding of the processes of self-organization allows us to see how complexes can form without some pre-existing entity at the core, but it is still convenient to use the term archetype to separate the developmental aspect from the individual manifestation of the complex. It also allows us to retain the familiar classification and nomenclature. For example, while all personal mother "complexes" are unique, the mother "archetype" can refer to what is central in the process of mothering as a developmental and psychic experience. Human beings may come from radically different cultures and have completely different personalities, but there are central processes in our development and relationships that we recognize and experience, often with a highly charged, or numinous emotional affect.  That is why there are countless, variable cultural expressions (e.g., of mother and child) that are instantly recognizable to us.  The words "archetype" and "archetypal" remain effective in describing these key human processes, if we remember that the archetype is not the cause, but rather the essence of the experience.   

A Burnt-out Case

It was somewhat synchronistic that while thinking about emergent patterns at critical life transitions, I happened to pick up a novel by Graham Greene called A Burnt-out Case.  It begins with the sentence: 

The cabin-passenger wrote in his diary a parody of Descartes: 'I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive'.  (Greene 1960/2001, p. 9)  

The passenger turns out to be a world-famous architect named Querry, who is literally "burnt-out": the aesthetic ideals he brought to his work have been slowly eroded by public acclaim, and he is haunted by the growing realization that he has never truly loved anyone. So he simply decides to disappear: he sets off on a voyage to the Congo, his only goal being to get as far from civilization as possible. He finally ends up at a leper colony, where medical treatment is given by a lone doctor and a group of Catholic priests and nuns.  

At first, Querry just wants to be left alone. Then, slowly, he becomes involved in the work of the colony and the parallels between his own psychic situation and the physical condition of leprosy emerge. Early on, we learn that, in the medical jargon for leprosy, a "burnt-out case" is someone whose disease has literally run its course-no more bacilli appear in skin smears for at least six months. These burnt-out cases have often lost all their toes and fingers or suffered other mutilations in the long course of their illness before they are finally in remission. The book proceeds to explore the analogy between Querry's critical life transition and the physical course of leprosy.  

Linking body and mind as Greene does in this novel provides a useful backdrop to thinking about the dynamic forces that affect our development. Although few of us are famous like Querry, we all know what it means to feel burnt-out. We know we have come to the end of something, that the goals and pursuits of the past are no longer fulfilling or authentic. This may come primarily as a physical realization: for example, when we know we can no longer count on the continued resilience and physical powers of youth. At these times, we may feel like we are experiencing a long illness, over which we have little or no control. This illness often takes the psychological form of a feeling of "chaos".  

In my experience, individuals often enter analysis when their inner chaos has reached a critical point. They may say something like, "I don't know what's the matter with me-everything's upside down and the whole world feels chaotic!"  This chaos can accompany many real-life events over which we have little control, such as physical illness, the break-up of a relationship or the loss of a loved-one, a change of career, or a conflict with the surrounding world. Often, the chaos expresses itself as a symptom--like depression, anxiety, fear--or simply the feeling that nothing makes sense anymore-the old order has lost its meaning. As I began to ponder these questions in an individual sense, I asked myself how these mental states may also relate to collective assumptions regarding chaos and order. I wondered whether we might be able to see parallels in physical processes that would heighten our awareness of the psychic dimensions of chaos and order, which are so relevant to our experience of important life transitions.

Chaos and Order

Most people hearing the words "chaos" and "order" would tend to think of them as opposites. This is no surprise, since we have been programmed to think that way from the very foundations of civilization. Creation myths from many cultures describe the universe as an original formless mass from which the creator moulded the ordered universe. Order is generally equated with "good" and "progress"; disorder, with "evil" and "decay".  

In the history of science, we could generally say that human beings have been striving to understand the regularities in nature and the laws behind the complexities of the universe-to bring order out of chaos2.  A high point in the West in this struggle for order was the publication, a little over three hundred years ago, of Isaac Newton's The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. Its message has been thoroughly absorbed into our thinking, and that message is: "Nature has laws and we can find them." The scientific thinking that culminated in Newton led to a vision of the universe as a gigantic mechanism, functioning "like clockwork". This vision provided a sense of security. After all, a machine is predictable--under identical conditions it will do identical things.  

But this ordered "clockwork" view started to break down as twentieth-century scientists discovered, with more sophisticated measuring devices, the inherent unpredictability in the order of the universe. They also have been discovering that our bodies are far from clockwork mechanisms. There is a natural background of chaos in the body-for example, in brain activity-which performs useful functions. Loss of chaos can actually be dangerous.  The seizure in epilepsy, for example, may appear as an attack of chaos, but it is in fact due to loss of chaos: it is the result of an abnormally periodic order in the brain. Epilepsies involve the synchronization of large areas of the brain cortex, and so an epileptic EEG appears much more ordered than a normal one (Solé and Goodwin 2000, p. 135). Also, our normal heartbeat is slightly irregular; when it becomes too regular, we could be in danger of cardiac arrest. Why is this? Analyses of healthy hearts reveal the presence of long-range correlations in heart dynamics that appear to be an emergent property of complex physiology. The resulting balance of coherence is subtle, but it means that the heart avoids getting locked into any dominant frequency that might prevail under particular patterns of an individual's behaviour. In general, a loss of physiological variability in a variety of systems in our bodies seems to be characteristic of the ageing process (ibid., pp. 109-117).  

Scientists from a variety of fields have discovered many systems which pass from disordered phases to more complex stages of order. The basic instability of such systems actually enables them to adapt to changing conditions. A famous example of this process is known as "Bénard convection" (after the French physicist who first studied it). If we take a large shallow container, fill it with water and then heat it evenly from below, soon the water begins to move as warmer water rises from the bottom and cooler, denser water sinks. Eventually, and spontaneously, this motion organizes itself into a regular pattern of cells, looking something like a honeycomb. The pattern does not reflect either the way in which the water was heated nor the shape of the container. It is an emergent property arising out of the dynamic of the system itself. We could say that it is latent in the nature of the system.  

This process is known as "self-organization". The capacity for self-organization enables complex systems to develop or change their internal structure spontaneously and in order to cope with their environment. The environment doesn't create the form of the system, but it generally influences it by affecting which of the system's potential forms is actually realized.  Among the most familiar examples in physics are hurricanes and the red spot on Jupiter. Self-organization also occurs in the development of organisms; it is most easily seen in the formation of patterns, such as the coats of animals and the arrangements of feathers on birds. Even though we still know comparatively little about how the brain works, we do know that it has a complex network of connections and that there appears to be a constant process of organization going on. This suggests that the brain is likely to exhibit self-organization, and we can expect to observe it in mental processes.

To summarize, here are the main features of self-organizing systems:   
  1. They are open and intimately connected with their environment. Because they exist in far-from-equilibrium conditions, they are able to develop and maintain their structure and organization; the Second Law of Thermodynamics does not inexorably drive them towards increasing disorder as it does closed systems.
  2. They can create novel new structures and new modes of behaviour. Therefore, we can say that they are "creative".  
  3. Their parts are so numerous (in all but the simplest of examples) that there is no way in which a causal relationship between them can be established.  Their components are interconnected by a network of feedback loops.  

The Epigenetic Landscape

To illustrate these concepts further, I would like to bring in an image from biology which might help us to see the parallels between our psychological journey through life and what we know about physical self-organizing systems. This model is called the "epigenetic landscape" and was introduced by the embryologist C.H. Waddington. (Waddington 1940). 

Waddington first used the epigenetic landscape to illustrate the process of canalization, or the increasing differentiation of tissues and organs during embryogenesis.3 As development proceeds, the initial undifferentiated embryo becomes canalized into more specific body tissues and organs. One of the important features of embryonic development is that it is stable-the embryo does not need a perfect environment and it can survive many small disturbances and even some fairly large ones. This stability however, does not mean that if an embryo is perturbed it will return to its previous state. Instead, if it can recover at all, it will continue to develop and eventually reach more or less the state it would have attained if it had been left alone. What is important here is that it is not the state of the embryo at any one time, but its path of development.  

Waddington asked the central question:  How, despite variations in genetic inheritance and environmental conditions, do developmental processes produce stable, species-typical phenotypes? We might postulate that this is the same question Jung asked when he studied human cultures around the world. He noticed that there were certain features of behaviour that seemed universal to all human societies. Jung wrote: "Ultimately, every individual life is at the same time the eternal life of the species" (Jung 1958/1991, para. 46).  
The Epigenetic Landscape

The complex system of interactions underlying the epigenetic landscape

(from Waddington, C. H. (1957). The Strategy of the Genes. London, Allen & Unwin, p. 29; 35)

In these diagrams of the epigenetic landscape, Waddington portrayed the development of an organism as a mountainous terrain whose shape is determined by guy ropes representing the influence of genes. The valleys represent possible pathways along which the development of an organism could in principle take place. A ball rolls down the landscape, and the path it follows indicates the actual developmental process in a particular embryo. If the ball is somehow deflected off its course--if it is not pushed over a watershed--it will return to the original pathway, but at a further point down the valley rather than where the disturbance occurred. This corresponds to the ability of the organism to develop normally despite the inevitable disturbances it will experience (Saunders and Kubal 1989, pp. 16-17).  

Why is this? The short answer is that the organism is a complex, non-linear dynamical system.  Linear systems can be modelled by simple equations where the variables appear only to the power of one. Linear relations can easily be expressed as a straight line on a graph and we know where the line is going. Nonlinear relationships involve powers other than one and are much harder to analyse. It is difficult to predict what is going to happen. Familiar examples are abrupt climate changes and the proverbial "straw that broke the camel's back". Almost all real systems are nonlinear. Linear models are much easier to analyse than nonlinear ones, and quite often they are good approximations to real nonlinear systems. So we can learn a lot from them, but we must not let this success fool us into thinking that the only things real systems can do are what we see in linear models. Their repertoire is a lot bigger and more interesting than that, and one of the most active and exciting areas in present day mathematics, dynamical systems theory, is devoted to learning about it. 

Returning now to the epigenetic landscape: we know that the stability of development is very important for evolution. So, in this model, the valleys are deep enough that neither minor changes in topography nor small random disturbances to the ball are likely to divert it from its normal course. The guy ropes underneath in the second diagram, representing the influence of the genes, are so complex that changing the position or tension of any one rope is unlikely to alter the landscape very much, and most such changes will have little or no influence on the end result. The majority of exceptions will be near the end of the process, where the sides of the valleys are flattening out and where the ball may not have enough time to return to its original trajectory (Saunders 1993, pp. 41-63). So, the landscape is a series of potential valleys, where the steepness of the sides indicates the amount of "push" the system needs to escape. In dynamical systems terminology, the behavioural modes represented by the valleys are "attractor" states, as the system, under certain conditions and at a particular phase of development, has an affinity for that state. Remember that in a dynamical systems view, development is a function of the interaction of internal components and their sensitivity to external conditions. The attractor regime is only determined as the system is assembled: there are no codes, prescriptions, schemata, or programs orchestrating the nature of the attractor or its trajectory. While some attractor states are so unstable that they are almost never observed, others are so stable that they look like they are inevitable. Because of this, it is easy to believe that they are hard-wired structures or programs within the system. 

As an example, think of the simple pendulum. If the workings of a pendulum were not so transparent, we could easily believe a little clock were hidden somewhere, making it swing regularly. Very stable attractors take very large pushes to move them from their preferred positions, but they are nonetheless dynamic and changeable. Many patterns in development that seem like permanent programs or structures are actually stable attractors. Here I emphasize again that the attractor develops and is not pre-ordained in the genome! These stable attractors can be shifted, however, given the appropriate circumstances. For example, object permanence and walking are attractors of such strength and stability that only the most severe perturbations can disrupt them. Other abilities, such as many sports skills and playing the piano, have attractors whose stability is easily upset by contextual manipulations, like lack of practice or not paying attention.  

If we extend this model to the psychological phases of life, we could say that the landscape itself is an image for the background of our individuation process, composed of both our genetic inheritance and our real life experiences. If we are like the ball rolling down the hill, then we could imagine our development existing on a fairly stable developmental pathway, but there may be jolts from the environment which knock the ball off course. Mostly, however, we will fall back on course and survive. If the perturbations are too great, however, we may be diverted into an alternative pathway which may or may not allow us to function normally. What is not obvious from the landscape model, but follows if you think in terms of the dynamic (i.e. the reality) is that if one is knocked off the normal course, even at a relatively early stage, the path that is followed may be in many respects not too different from the usual development. The nature of the mind/brain and the fact that the person will still experience many things in common with the rest of us will mean that many developments will occur more or less as they should. But there may be significant differences: some aspects of the personality may not develop in quite the way one would expect. This is because the person would not be on the normal path, but on a different (though rather similar) one. Developmentally, this would be almost like finding yourself in Canada rather than the UK. In Canada, they (mostly) speak English, dress more or less the same, have the Queen on banknotes and postage stamps, and a similar legal system.  But there are some deep differences too, and you cannot infer from the similarities that these could easily be changed. 

Sometimes random events lead us to follow one path rather than another, and this will have an effect on later paths. We are on a trajectory whose path may take all sorts of twists and turns, but ultimately will end up at the bottom of the landscape. As we move through life, there are relatively predictable physiological changes that correspond roughly to age. However, in our psychological lives, far more than in our physiological development, we construct, or at least influence, our own landscape. For example, imagine the Mississippi River: its path can be changed by soil erosion, or when human beings actively divert its course. If the river were walled in at one point to protect a city, this would change what it does downstream. I think we can easily see the analogies to the potential complexity that develops from even the smallest of life's choices.  

In pondering the epigenetic landscape as a model for development, I was also reminded of Jung's theory of neurosis, in which he urges us to look at what present "wall" (or developmental hurdle) we have not been able to scale, driving our vital energy back to an earlier period. On the epigenetic landscape, we could imagine this as the ball needing to go back up the mountain to be able to take a different turning. Psychologically, this is similar to the idea of "regression in service of the ego". If we imagine another scenario where the ball actually goes over a mountain and into another valley, this would be where we psychologically go through a transition which is not one of the inevitable ones. And of course, this would be much harder than moving over to another valley when the landscape is flat.  

In light of all this, I am proposing that our phases of life could broadly be compared to the different possible structures or states of a self-organizing system. We could say that each phase of life represents a phase space in which certain developmental processes form powerful attractor states. This is related to Jung's idea of complex formation, or how certain archetypal energies come to the fore in different phases of life. Major life transitions lead us to bifurcation points on the landscape. This might be like the valley becoming shallower and shallower until you reach a point where a change is possible, or where a change of some sort really cannot be avoided. When that happens, there is bound to be instability, represented by the flattening of the valley.  

In addition to basic developmental phases we go through physically, psychological needs that are not met when they emerge create a tension in us that may need to be resolved at a later stage in life. From Jung's standpoint, these deep archetypal forces work unconsciously on us, in the sense that they are parts of ourselves which have not been able to develop or become part of our conscious personalities. Even if we do not suffer from developmental deprivations, as we move through life, there are different archetypal energies that are constellated and demand recognition in consciousness. This naturally creates periods of instability, but these are a necessary part of a larger process that is constantly evolving and existing in intimate relationship with the environment, both physically and emotionally. If we do not view these chaotic periods in our lives as something bad that needs to be fixed, then these stages can be lived through as necessary parts of our journey though life. This is similar to Jung's concept of "staying with" the experience of the opposites, rather than trying to eradicate the symptom or suffering. As we explore the meaning of the chaos, the "transcendent function" may indeed emerge in a new attitude to our situation.  

How did Jung define the transcendent function?  In 1916, he wrote:  

The tendencies of the conscious and the unconscious are the two factors that together make up the transcendent function.  It is called "transcendent" because it makes the transition from one attitude to another organically possible, without loss of the unconscious.  (Jung 1957/1969, para. 145)

Here Jung is obviously describing a dynamic, emergent process between consciousness and the unconscious, leading to a new self-organization, or attitude of mind. Although he was not using the terms "chaos" and "self-organization", Jung was speaking of much the same thing when he described the emotional and psychological process of individuation. As we know, Jung compared individuation to an alchemical process-an allegory for the transference relationship and the communication between the conscious and unconscious psyche. The fact that alchemy was Jung's preferred metaphor for psychological transformation shows us the importance he placed on the dynamical processes of relationship. Because alchemy dealt with the transformation of metals, there is an implied continuum to dynamic processes in the inorganic world. 

How did Jung conceive the analytic relationship as facilitating this transformation?  

The suitably trained analyst mediates the transcendent function for the patient, i.e., helps him to bring conscious and unconscious together and so arrive at a new attitude.  In this function of the analyst lies one of the many important meanings of the transference. . . . The understanding of the transference is to be sought not in its historical antecedents but in its purpose.  (Jung 1957/1969, para. 146) 

Jung strongly advocated active imagination to open up the unconscious, making the emotional state of the patient the basis or starting point for the procedure.  

In the intensity of the emotional disturbance itself lies the value, the energy which he should have at his disposal in order to remedy the state of reduced adaptation. (Italics in original) (Ibid., para. 166)

Jung wrote that active imagination could be done in a variety of ways, depending on the inclinations of the person: drawing or painting, working with clay, etc. In my own practice, in addition to spontaneous drawing, I include the possibility of using simple percussion instruments as a form of active imagination.4  In active imagination, as far as possible the unconscious should take the lead in throwing up chance ideas and associations. When an image or symbol emerges, Jung writes: 

. . . the ego must seize the initiative and ask: 'How am I affected by this sign?5 This Faustian question can call forth an illuminating answer. The more direct and natural the answer is, the more valuable it will be, for directness and naturalness guarantee a more or less total reaction. . . . Very often a total reaction does not have at its disposal those theoretical assumptions, views, and concepts which would make clear apprehension possible. In such cases one must be content with the wordless but suggestive feelings which appear in their stead and are more valuable than clever talk.  (Ibid., para. 188)

In analysis, the confrontation between the conscious and unconscious of both analyst and analysand creates a charged emotional situation, which Jung refers to in an alchemical sense as the "heating up" of the vessel.  When this "heat" reaches a critical point, the "third thing" can emerge, which may be a new attitude or a realisation of changes that have to be made. This is similar to what we saw happening in Bénard convection: when the heat of the fluid reached a critical point, a new pattern in the whole emerged. In a psychological struggle with the opposites, this is like the "Aha" moment when things somehow fall into place, and a new direction forward becomes clear. However, the new direction forward has to be lived for it to be real. It is only when we dare to act in new ways that a change can actually be said to occur. Of course, change is also represented by the emergence of a genuinely new attitude, which also influences our decisions at critical life moments.  

Clinical Example

Analysis provides a container for this process to take place, but just as in a complex system, there are so many variables that we cannot predict if and when changes will occur. Of course, the tasks change as we move through different stages in the analytic process. Particularly important symbols may emerge in the later stages of the work, as the patient faces the act of severing the dependency relationship to the analyst.  

For example, one of my long-term patients ("Kay") who had negotiated some major life changes during our work together was now moving toward the idea of termination. There had been severe childhood wounding, and a positive mother transference to me had facilitated the growth of her sense of self, recognizing her own needs and shedding what had formerly been huge guilt at being assertive. However, as we discussed the idea of termination, what emerged was tremendous fear: without the analysis, would she lose all of this new-found strength?  

Kay had been attending analysis twice weekly for some years, and when we discussed the possibility of cutting back to once a week, this instilled panic in her. In fact, she could not distinguish emotionally between moving to once a week and actually finishing the analysis, to the point where she referred to cutting back as "finishing". Throughout our work together, Kay had often brought drawings or paintings she had done at home or in her painting class into her analytic sessions. At this point, she painted many chaotic forms, sometimes in bright reds and black, which powerfully represented chaos and destruction. Over about half a year, the subject of moving to once a week was discussed off and on (usually at her own instigation) until finally, she wanted to try it. This was only possible for her as a provisional measure. I agreed that she could return to twice weekly if she found it too difficult to bear.  

Finally the big day came-she was to come again only the following week. Of course, I thought of Kay when her second hour came up several days later, and wondered if there would be a panicky phone call from her, but there was no contact. The following week, Kay appeared for her session, looking somewhat shy, but nevertheless beaming. "I did it!" she said. Kay had several paintings in tow, one from her painting group the evening of the cancelled second session. The instructor had asked them to meditate and allow images to come up before starting to paint. Before showing me her painting, Kay further explained that years before coming to me for analysis, she had been on a retreat where participants had been encouraged to meditate on images having to do with the life of Jesus. The image that emerged for her was the stone in front of Jesus' tomb. I found the relevant passage in the Bible later:

And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock:  and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.  (Holy Bible: Matthew 27, verses 59-60.)

Kay said that she had worked with the image of the stone in her previous therapy, but could never get it to "shift": the feeling was of being stuck, locked in the tomb. Every once in a while, the image would return, the boulder always firmly fixed over the entrance to the tomb.  But now, in her meditation in the painting class, the boulder split apart!  

She then showed me the painting of this splitting boulder, and indeed, it was very powerful. In many ways, it looked like a cubist work, with shards of grey and black at various angles, forcefully emanating from a central point. But there were also rays, like lightning, which infused the scene with a golden background. There was nothing to say-the image spoke for itself. And although I was aware that she was in a partial inflation (there would be many valleys to come), this was a major movement forward out of her dependence on me. It was the conjunction of the act itself and its timing in the analytic relationship that produced the transformation, represented by the image.    

On the epigenetic landscape, I would compare this moment to a bifurcation point. She was now on a new pathway, represented by the change from two to one hour of analysis per week. This had been prepared by a long process-or long trajectory on the landscape-in which she was constantly being changed by her interaction with me and all of her other interactions in the world. The analysis provided a safe space to create order, and make sense of all that she was going through. It also facilitated the growth of new possibilities and a new way of thinking about herself. From a physiological standpoint, new association networks were being created in the brain.6 

It is interesting that the symbol of the stone blocking the entrance to Jesus' tomb linked to a previous therapy, and could represent all that was still blocked in her psyche when she came to me. Another way of seeing it could be that it was connected to the need for a necessary regression, a return to the dependent-child state where healing of her abandonment-wound could take place. On the epigenetic landscape, we might imagine this as the ball needing to go back up the mountain to be able to take a different turning. The image of the stone, first blocking the entrance, and then splitting apart, captures energetically the main feeling states we explored in the analysis. Those were: being stuck, as opposed to the strong energy which was released, when she dared to assert her independence and strength. Therefore, the stone-image could represent the principal poles of the trajectory of her life path, down her own symbolic epigenetic landscape. Kay realized that the image of the boulder's splitting apart was not a once-and-for-all victory: she knew that the stone would again appear, blocking her movement in the world, but that now, she might have a little more confidence in her own ability to remove it.  

Implicit Memory

If we imagine a patient who enters our consulting room at a critical point in life, the first thing we can provide is a container for their feelings of chaos, which simultaneously represent the fear of the unknown and the loss of the familiar structures of the past. As we listen to the patient's story, it is also important to remember how that story may be expressingeven in the structure of the language itselfearly relational patterns and collective cultural assumptions. How someone uses language is one of the most revealing aspects of how their thinking is being controlled by what is known as "implicit memory", early models of the world patterned through experience that structure the way we relate to new experience.7 As Jean Knox points out:  

The transference does not arise as an expression of instinctual drives which somehow spontaneously produce complex imagery and fantasy, which is then projected out onto real people; transference arises out of the internalization of actual people and real events in the world and gradually produces an unconscious pattern of generalized expectations about relationships.  (Knox 2001, p. 622)  

These ideas are corroborated by recent brain research, which verifies that memories are not stored anywhere as discrete "packets" of information, but are instead reconstructed in the present. However, throughout life, neuronal pathways are constantly being laid down and modified. Experiments with mammals indicate that explicit and implicit memory storage proceeds in stages. Storage of initial information (short-term memory) lasts minutes to hours and involves changes in the strength of existing synaptic connections. The long-term changes (those that persist for weeks and months) require the activation of genes, the expression of new proteins, and the growth of new connections. The profound implication of this is that our brain's anatomy is changed as we learn and forget.  

Many investigators have addressed this question, among them Michael Merzenich of the University of California San Francisco. Merzenich examined the representation of the hand in the sensory area of the cerebral cortex, which until recently was considered to be stable throughout life. In his experiment, 

a monkey was encouraged to touch a rotating disk with only the three middle fingers of its hand.  After several thousand disk rotations, the area in the cortex devoted to the three middle fingers was expanded at the expense of that devoted to the other fingers.  Practice, therefore, can lead to changes in the cortical representation of the most active fingers.  (Kandel & Hawkins 1992, p. 153)  

Many pianists like myself already know this from experience: what begins as the impression of many individual notes, through practice, changes into a holistic experience of the music as dynamic patterns and feeling states. Also, as one learns a musical instrument, it becomes easier to approach a new piece as a whole, rather than as single notes or in small sections. This is because our brains are establishing sensorimotor networks that encompass the underlying patterns (scales, chords, arpeggios, etc.) which form the music of our culture.  

In general, our set of neurophysiological reflexes is formed through repetition and emotional intensity, and these reflexes become 'hard-wired' in consciousness, to such an extent that they respond independently of our conscious choice. This is similar to Jung's description of how the complex works, and of course, Jung was aware that we have many complexes. The one we most consciously associate with our identity is the ego complex, but Jung's important contribution was the idea that the ego is only one of the complexes that contribute to forming our personalities as a whole.  

As we open up the communication between consciousness and the unconscious in our analytic dialogues, we begin to realize the richness of the possibilities inherent in ourselves:  we are a dynamical system constantly changing in interaction with others and the world. In fact, a dynamical systems view of relationship and development might say that the flow of meaning between people is more fundamental than any individual's particular thoughts. In our analytic dialogues, we are engaged in the process of creating meaning, both in our reflective function and in our ability to truly empathize and understand the patient's situation. We are met with implicit memory in every construction of reality, as we listen to the tones of voice, rhythm, passive or active verbal constructions, and bodily movements that accompany our patients' stories. These patterns of expression are simultaneously affecting our own implicit memories or complexes, and an important part of our job as analysts is to be aware of what is being constellated in us. It is both through our ability to give ourselves to the psychic structures that are coming alive in the room and our skill at being able to discern what unconscious assumptions are underlying the patient's presentation, that we realize our effectiveness as analysts.  

Summary:  Analysis and Critical Life Transitions

With our patients at critical life transitions, what we may first notice is an old, worn-out pattern of relating. This old pattern may emerge in the transference, in an expectation for-or repetition of-the old situation, and the old roles.  Initially, we may need to let this process happen, so that the "vessel" of analysis can heat up. However, if we provide the right catalyst in our interaction with the patient, a new form of order-or self-organization-may emerge. We, of course, are not making it happen, but instead providing the right environment for the system to organize in the direction of its own individuation.  

This brings me back to Graham Greene's story in A Burnt-out Case. During the course of the novel, the protagonist Querry has gradually let go of his old attitude and started to immerse himself in the life of the colony. This has been facilitated through his relationship to the doctor, who accepts him as he is and allows him to make this transition in his own way. Gradually, Querry returns to using his skills as an architect to help build a new hospital for the patients. Late in the book, he remarks to the doctor:   

"It's strange, isn't it, how worried I was when I came here, because I thought I had become incapable of feeling pain. . . . You said once that when one suffers, one begins to feel part of the human condition: 'I suffer, therefore I am.' I wrote something like that once in my diary, but I can't remember what or when, and the word wasn't 'suffer'".  (Greene 1960/2001, p. 186)  

Of course, Querry had previously written, "I feel discomfort, therefore I am alive". "Suffer" is a much stronger word than "discomfort". Its use here seems to indicate that one must be prepared to go into the suffering and chaos of life's transitions in order to continue to be fully alive, and to come out the other side with a new attitude and perhaps even a new self-organization. Jung constantly reminds us that individuation is a natural process in which we have the opportunity, and perhaps also the moral responsibility, to respond to on a conscious level. However, he also emphasizes the role of our unconscious, instinctual side, as in this passage from "Answer to Job":   

Something empirically demonstrable comes to our aid from the depths of our unconscious nature.  It is the task of the conscious mind to understand these hints.  If this does not happen, the process of individuation will nevertheless continue.  The only difference is that we become its victims and are dragged along by fate towards that inescapable goal which we might have reached walking upright, if only we had taken the trouble and been patient enough to understand in time the meaning of the numina that cross our path.  (Jung 1956/1991, para. 746)

What does Jung mean when he says that even if we are not open, "the process of individuation will nevertheless continue"?  I understand this as indicating that when we resist authentic psychological change (which should reflect our biological development and knowledge of our eventual death), psychic changes will happen anyway, yet perhaps in an unconscious or destructive way, not in consciousness or in creative expression. 

Analysis provides a dynamic, relational vehicle for change, for going through the suffering of transitional periods in life, and for recognizing that we need not be slaves to the collective or the "old order" within ourselves. The good news from science is that real change is possible, through the incredible plasticity of our brains, which have evolved over millennia and continue to evolve in the course of our lives, in dynamic relationship with others in our particular environment.  

As neuroscientist Walter Freeman writes:

each of us is a source of meaning, a wellspring for the flow of fresh constructions within our brains and bodies . . . these constructions are by the exuberant growth of patterns of neural activity from the chaotic dynamics of populations containing myriads of neurons. Our intentional actions continually flow into the world, changing the world and the relations of our bodies to it. This dynamic system is the self in each of us. (Freeman 1999, p. 190)  

The challenge of critical life transitions is essentially one of enlarging the self, if we take the self to be an emergent product of development, not an a priori structure.  As our "intentional actions continually flow into the world", we are not only becoming all we can be, but building the world through our uniquely human consciousness.

[A version of this paper was first presented by the author in a workshop at the Journal of Analytical Psychology Conference in Charleston, Virginia, USA, on 24th April 2003. A different version of the paper was later published in the JAP: Patricia Skar (2004), 'Chaos and Self-Organization: Emergent Patterns at Critical Life Transitions', The Journal of Analytical Psychology, 49/2, 249-264.]

Copyright © Patricia Skar 2015


Freeman, W. J. (1999). How Brains Make Up Their Minds. London: Phoenix. 

Greene, G. (1960/2001). A Burnt-out Case. London: Vintage. 

Jacobi, J. (1959). Complex/Archetype/Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung. New York: Bollingen Foundation, Inc., Princeton University Press. 

Jung, C.G. (1954/1969). 'On the nature of the psyche'. CW8.
________. (1956/1991) 'Answer to Job'. CW11.  
________. (1957/1969) 'The transcendent function'. CW8.
Holy Bible (King James Version). (1984). New York: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Kandel, E.R. and Hawkins, R. D. (1992), "The Biological Basis of Learning and Individuality" in The Scientific American Book of the Brain, Scientific American (1999), p. 153. 

Knox, J. (2001). 'Memories, fantasies, archetypes: an exploration of some connections between cognitive science and analytical psychology'. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46, 4, 613-635. 
______. (2003).  Archetype, Attachment, Analysis. Hove and New York: Brunner-Routledge. 

Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984). Order Out of Chaos. Man's Dialogue with Nature. New York: Bantam Books. 

Saunders, P. T. (1993).  "The Organism as a Dynamical System", in Thinking about Biology, SFI Studies in the Sciences of Complexity, Lecture Notes Vol. III (F. Varela & W. Stein, eds). Reading:  Addison Wesley, pp. 41-63. 

Saunders and Kubal (1989).  "Bifurcations and the Epigenetic Landscape" in Goodwin & Saunders, Theoretical Biology.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 

Saunders, P.T. and Skar, P. (2001). 'Archetypes, complexes and self-organization'. Journal of Analytical Psychology, 46,2, 305-323.

Solé, R. and Goodwin, B. (2000). Signs of Life. How Complexity Pervades Biology. New York: Basic Books.  

Waddington, C.H. (1940). Organisers and Genes. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 
______________. (1957). The Strategy of the Genes. London: Allen & Unwin.


1. See, for example, Hall, James. (1986), The Jungian Experience. Analysis and Individuation, Toronto: Inner City Books, p. 146.   

2. This is also the title of a famous book: Prigogine, I. and Stengers, I. (1984), Order Out of Chaos. Man's Dialogue with Nature, New York: Bantam Books.
3. It is interesting that Jung used the expression "canalization of libido" to characterize the process of energic transformation or conversion in his Symbols of Transformation (CW5: para. 203f.).

4. For more information and case examples, see Skar, P. (1997). "Music and Analysis:  Contrapuntal Reflections," in Mary Ann Mattoon, ed., Zurich 95: Open Questions in Analytical Psychology, Einsiedeln, Switzerland, pp. 389-403; Skar, P. (2002). 'The goal as process: music and the search for the Self', Journal of Analytical Psychology, 47, 4, 629-638; and Skar, P. (2003). 'Sound and Psyche: The Common Rhythm in Mind and Matter' in Cambridge 2001, Proceedings of the XVth International Congress of Analytical Psychology, Einsiedeln, Switzerland, pp. 533-541.

5. Note 3 appearing after this quotation in the text: [Cf. Faust:  Part I, Wayne trans., p. 46.]

6. From the perspective of attachment theory, new working models were being formed in her brain. 

7. See Schacter, D. (1996), Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the Past, New York: Basic Books.