Bowen theory contains eight interlocking concepts which can be used to predict the ways in which a family will respond to environmental pressure. As one of these eight concepts, differentiation of self pertains to an individual and is the main construct of the theory. As of this writing, it is not possible to measure the other seven concepts but many attempts have been made at measuring differentiation of self. Aside from the clinical evidence from Bowen’s NIMH research project and subsequent anecdotal evidence, these instruments represent the state of the art of Bowen theory as a verifiable science.
This post is philosophizing in a general way, probably more akin to the thinking of von Bertalanffy than Bowen.
Differentiation is a term which comes from biology and describes the process in which a non-specific cell specializes in relation to its neighbors. Relationship is embedded in this otherwise individual-centric term. Specialization implies a relative position inside a unit. Something that specializes is different from its peers. As it specializes, it differentiates.
If differentiation is a process that pertains to an individual cell, Bowen wrote about differentiation of self as the process that an individual person goes through in relation to their emotional system, particularly their family of origin. It describes the ability for a person to be an individual while remaining a part of the integrated system. I am beginning to see this differentiation concept apply to many other areas, and am beginning to think of this as a property which determines the adaptability of any system. Flexibility may come from a combination of increased complexity and coordination. Evolution implies increase in differentiation so long as the original function is not lost.
This section is part of a chapter which includes:
In his seminal 1988 publication, Family Evaluation, Michael Kerr described the shortsighted nature of our approach to the most important human problems, “We demonstrate against war as if we understand the causes of war. We could just as easily demonstrate against schizophrenia” (p. 27). This critical view of what is known and what is not known, and how our inability to distinguish between the two impacts our decisions, will be an important emphasis of this section on Bowen’s way of thinking and the theory that is a product of that way of thinking.
This section is part of a chapter which includes:
A natural system is quite simply a system which occurs in nature. Hall and Fagen (1956) write that “The description of these is the task of the astronomer, physicist, chemist, biologist, physiologist, etc., and again the amount one can say about a given natural system depends on the number of essential variables involved” (p. 72). Natural system researchers are typically more interested in direct observation with fewer a priori assumptions than Bertalanffy’s pure mathematical ideal for GST or Weiner’s machine-control philosophy for cybernetics. Though they may use mathematical models to describe the behavior of the system, the models are the result of the inductive process; they are derived from the observations as opposed to explaining the observation from the model. One may think about a naturally occurring system using some of the terms from general systems, but it is the intention of discovering the nature of the system that is not pre-supposed in the human mind that distinguishes natural systems research.
This section is part of a chapter which includes:
The purpose of this chapter is to position Bowen theory in relation to mainstream research and applied psychology. An important aspect of describing this position is to distinguish the unique paradigmatic position of the theory, which to the greatest extent is called here natural systems philosophy. Without such a distinction, it is easy to confuse the subtle meanings of biological terms used in Bowen theory such as basic-self, emotion, differentiation, fusion, etc. with general systems or non-systems concepts, and lose sight of the broad reach of Bowen’s contribution to the natural sciences.
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?”
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.
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:
- Complexity in Science
- Compartmentalization in Science and Society
- Challenges to Psychology as a Science
- 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.
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:
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.