A More Refined Kernel

­­Murray Bowen defined what he saw as a new way of integrating empirical research with clinical practice by rooting a theory of human behavior in the philosophy of natural systems. Bowen’s novel contribution stems from the assumption that all living systems, from the most complex vertebrate to single-celled organisms to protoplasm, arise as a function of mutual-causal, reciprocal relationships which organize an emotive, or emotional character. He used Darwin’s definition of the term emotion to describe the driving forces which pertained to all species, and is “synonymous to instinct” (Papero D. V., 2016, p. 17) “as used in biology and the natural sciences” instead of the “special meaning in psychoanalysis” (Bowen, 1978, p. kpp 446). “The output of the emotional system is emotional reactiveness or reactivity” (Papero D. V., 2016, p. 18). Abandoning essentialist notions, the natural systems paradigm views elements of living systems as a part of their context yet simultaneously defining their context by virtue of symbiotic interdependence (Gilbert, Sapp, & Tauber, 2012; Macy, 1991; Bowen, Family therapy in clinical practice, 1978).

This assumption formed the basis of Bowen’s emotional system concept which defines living systems in terms of the patterns which emerge from reciprocal exchanges of emotional energy between individuals which regulate both individual and collective adaptation to the environment (Papero D. V., 2016). As a result, Bowen’s family systems theory views human behavior more as a function of what humans have in common with other living things than of psychological factors which pertain to humans alone. The universality of the emotional system concept serves as a starting point for organizing knowledge from many species to enrich a science of human behavior (Noone & Papero, 2016). As with natural system theories pertaining to other species, Bowen theory is the product of the direct observation of human behavior as it is in nature as opposed to a superimposing a priori concepts from general systems (Bertalanffy, 2015) or cybernetics (Wiener, 1961) which are generated by the human mind (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

Michael Kerr, a close colleague of Bowen, describes the potential importance of the emotional system concept as “comparable to the significance of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. kpp 39). He writes that while “Darwin established this physical link between man and the lower forms, Bowen’s concept of the emotional system has provided a basis for establishing a behavioral link between humans and other animals” (p. kpp 39). The concept is rooted in systems thinking as “the ability to be aware of the process of nature as opposed to simply the content of nature” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. kpp 24). Similarly, the application of Bowen theory involves an individual developing the ability to observe the processes that define one’s most sensitive relationships as opposed to simply the people and issues in those relationships (Papero, 1990). A fixation on issues instead of the processes leading to issues is seen to lead to linear, cause-and-effect thinking which loses the systems view. By studying the movement of processes and relationships, thinking systems aims to overcome polarization generated by essentialist thinking in the natural and human sciences (Laszlo, 1973). Thus, Bowen theory represents a broad paradigmatic departure from mainstream perspectives on human suffering toward the development of a viable science of human behavior.

It is possible that the Buddha may have also defined a theory of human suffering that is better understood through natural systems thinking than through analogical comparison with psychological theory. This theory, known as paṭiccasamuppāda, known in the West as Dependent Origination, the Second Noble Truth, or “the cause of suffering,” defines life as an interaction of universal processes, for example, consciousness, perception, sensation, and reaction (Goenka, 2012). The most important aspect of this theory is the reciprocally interdependent nature of the elements in these processes, which implies a non-essentialist system of mutual-causality (Macy, 1991). Thus, the Buddha saw suffering as a function of a deeper processes that are universal to all of life, one which predates homo sapiens and will exist long after them. Though described as the “truth” of suffering, the theory is taught as a falsifiable hypothesis which stands to be disproven through rigorous experiment (Hart, 1987). The experiment consists of becoming aware of universal laws of nature by observing those laws as they play out in one’s own body and mind (Fleischman P. R., 2016; Young, 1994). This experiment represents the core of the Buddha’s teaching and is called Vipassanā meditation (Goenka, 1998).

This study proposes that the Buddha’s approach to understanding human suffering may share a degree of conceptual and paradigmatic compatibility with the natural systems approach reflected in Bowen theory. Together, these approaches may further support a viable science of human behavior by virtue of their consilience (Wilson E. O., 1999). A natural systems science may lessen the compartmentalization of mainstream psychology, for example between academic and professional psychology. This study examines that potential by asking the question, “To what extent did the Buddha define a natural systems theory?”

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A Refined Kernel

I have been struggling to clearly articulate the problem I am addressing in this study. It has taken a lot of reading and writing. Now I think I have it:

This philosophical-theoretical study examines one possible way of addressing the polarity between the natural sciences and the human sciences in psychology as the study of human behavior. Murray Bowen defined what he saw as a new way of integrating empirical research with clinical practice using concepts from the philosophy of natural systems. The resulting theory assumes that human behavior is determined more by what man has in common with all of life, from the most complex vertebrates to single-celled organisms to protoplasm, than by psychological factors that are unique to homo sapiens (Papero, 1990). The most novel concept of the theory is the family as an emotional unit, which is based on an even more basic concept, the emotional system. The emotional system concept pertains to the interdependent and emotive nature of the components that make up all living systems. It is rooted in systems thinking as “the ability to be aware of the process of nature as opposed to simply the content of nature” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. kpp 24). By utilizing the natural systems perspective, Bowen theory represents a broad paradigmatic departure from the poles of reductionism in the natural sciences and holism in the human sciences toward the development of an accepted science of human behavior.

It is possible that the Buddha may have also defined a theory of life and suffering that is better understood through a natural systems perspective than through analogical comparison with psychological theory. This theory, known as the Second Noble Truth, or the “cause of suffering,” (Goenka, 2012) defines suffering as a process of nature that is inherent to all of life and so predates homo sapiens. Though referred to as the “truth” of suffering, the theory is taught as a falsifiable hypothesis which stands to be disproven through rigorous experiment (Hart, 1987). This experiment represents the core of the Buddha’s teaching and is called Vipassanā meditation. If true, the similarities between these two schools may support a new direction for the science of human behavior that transcends polarity between the natural and human sciences and with a deeper connection to the rest of the natural world.

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Proposition of this Dissertation

The following is a draft section from the introduction chapter of my dissertation proposal, which addresses the problem of erosion of benefits of vipassanā from the conflation of widely different Buddhist traditions in popular and scientific literature and confusion of technical terms in vipassanā from their original traditional context. It is mean to be read after the posts:

  1. Complexity in Science
  2. Compartmentalization in Science and Society
  3. Challenges to Psychology as a Science
  4. Challenges in the Study of Vipassanā Meditation

We have now reviewed the reductionistic assumptions of mainstream science and associated philosophical limitations for addressing problems of complexity. We have reviewed the limitations that those assumptions place on psychology as a science, and the conflict between positivist or constructivist clinical theory and the stated goals of the APA for psychology as a science. We have also reviewed how academic understandings of vipassanā meditation limit the potential of the teachings for postpositive science.

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Slides for Buddha and Bowen

This is a quickly slapped together powerpoint overview of the hypothesized results from this experiment. It is more or less off the top of my head. Many of the points may not seem clear. That is because it is going to take a dissertation to explain them.

But here is the file nevertheless.

Download to Powerpoint:


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Modeling the Family as an Emotional Unit

I just returned from Flocks, Families, and Organizations in put on by the Bowen Center in Washington D.C. Dr. Iain Couzin was the guest speaker and he gave an amazing exposition of his research in collective intelligence in groups of locusts, crickets, and baboons. He was able to show how the group as a unit possesses an ability to intelligently solve problems using simple variables like proximity and direction that the individuals are not even aware of, and in fact have no attributes that suggest they are a part of an intelligent group when studied individually. He developed computer models based on these simple rules which gives weight to the validity of his theory of the regulation mechanisms of the group.

It occurred to me that developing a model for humans based on Bowen theory would also be possible. I had never thought about what goes into such a research model beyond having the values of the variables precisely defined. But some conversations with attendees revealed that it doesn’t have to be that difficult in the beginning. You just start by writing a program which expresses the basic relationships between the variables, and then start down the long, long path of refining them through research. I probably don’t have the patience for the second half of that description, but I do have the patience for the development of the model and some visualizations to accompany it.

The basic idea would be to show the members of an emotional unit with lines connecting them. I would love to be able to show togetherness and individuality as physical density and sparsity in the system as I have experienced in Vipassana meditation as “gross sensations.” But this has technical challenges because the triangles flip so fast which may necessitate a member moving very quickly across the map. Maybe it’s not important, and it can work so long as it’s animated. Actually as I write this this sounds like a fantastic idea.

At any rate, this project is on the table. The Family Diagram is still top priority, but I am very excited to see what new ideas can come from building a model of the human family emotional unit.

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Research Question: Did the Buddha define a Natural Systems Theory?

The most profound distinction that we know in nature is that between spontaneity and consciousness, between the blind actions of natural forces and systematic human efforts. Here we can expect the greatest heterogeneity of methods and their irreducibility to a unity. Here is the best place to start our research.  – Alexander Bodganov, 1910-1913

To what extent did the Buddha define a natural systems theory of the body and mind as a unit, and what testable hypotheses and practical outcomes might this theory generate?

The term natural systems theory is taken here from Murray Bowen’s theory of the family as an emotional unit.  Bowen’s family systems theory, or Bowen theory as it was later renamed to differentiate from misinterpretation by the family therapy movement as a mere series of therapeutic interventions, is a component theory of human behavior created to be compatible with systems thinking in general and biological evolution in particular. As I understand it, Bowen differentiated his natural systems theory as being derived more from direct observation of nature and less on ideas originating from the human mind such as mathematics in general systems theory or mechanical control systems in cybernetics. His ultimate goal was to create a theory that might some day lead to a science of human behavior derived purely from nature and accepted among the ranks of astronomy, paleontology, etc (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

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Hypothesis: The Self-Organizing Principle

I thought I would try to clarify the underlying idea behind a previous post about the election and Societal Emotional Process.

Everything here is, as always, a work in progress.

One hypothesis forming within my dissertation is that at least two natural systems, those of the mind/body unit (i.e. a single person) and family unit, may possess a common natural tendency toward health that is not yet formally recognized. This tendency is not a choice or special added feature, but as intrinsic to their existence as air’s tendency to rise in water. I am provisionally coining this tendency the self-organizing principle. Because this idea first came to me through the practice of Vipassanā meditation which (at least initially) examines the the interaction of mind and body, I will begin by describing this principle in that context.

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Exploratory Research Questions

The following stems from the problems stated in Can Human Behavior Become a Science?.

I am in a creative phase of exploratory research for my dissertation, expanding my understanding of pertinent problem domains in order to hone in on a research question and it’s respective hypotheses. The following are questions that will guide my research. The goal is to be able to answer them in writing and not just in my mind. References are a plus. Not all of them need to be answered in the end but the list will provide a little pragmatism through this otherwise intuitive phase of search in the dark.

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Can Human Behavior Become a Science?

I am happy to have finally read Bowen’s epilogue to Micheal Kerr’s (1988) book, which I am calling the “Odyssey chapter.” In it, Bowen outlines his opinions and assumptions that guided his seminal research project at NIMH, and includes his critique of “science” in the “social sciences.” This chapter provided more stock in my sense that Goenka’s particular dispensation of the Buddha’s teachings as “pure science” share something unique with Bowen’s attitude toward theory.

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Accounting For Varying Attachment Presentations

This literature review aims to provide a chronological overview of peer-reviewed research which assess the capability of attachment theory to account for the variance in an individual’s presentation of attachment styles in different social contexts. It stands on the assumption that an individual may present, for example avoidant with one person and anxious with another, and asks what variables account for such variance. This review hypothesizes that this variance exists and is accounted by variables outside the current scope of attachment theory. It was found in research spanning from 2002 to 2016 that attachment style has a limited capacity to account for triadic attachment dilemmas, that a secure dyadic presentation may morph to an insecure triadic presentation, and that attachment style may in fact be a part of the systemic concept of differentiation of self as mediated by triangulation in the nuclear family. This review did not directly produce a concept which accounts for variations in attachment presentation, but suggests triangulation mediated by differentiation of self as a possibility for future research.


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