If you’ve ever read anything about chaos theory, you have probably seen words and phrases like “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” (aka The Butterfly Effect), “bifurcation”, “period doublings”, “onset of turbulence”, and “strange attractors”. These terms are used in connection with any dynamical system, whether discussing stock prices, weather forecasting, or animal populations. In other words, they deal with the behavior of complex systems where quantities can be measured. However, the very same processes take place in the human mind. Quantifying events is not feasible, but one can visualize very easily fragments of the same patterns in the context of thought and mood over time. You will see how recognizing these almost but not exact repetitions can help reduce stress and avoid self-destructive behavior.
Let’s start by looking at the two basic ways of thinking. I call them radial and linear, though I’m sure the profession of psychology has their own ideas and terms. Radial thinking is what happens when you visualize your current situation and look for the immediate result of your next decision. Linear thinking is a more detailed look in one direction, guiding yourself through a series of choices, only choosing one option for each, and predicting the possible or probable outcome.
In reality, we all do some of each at the same time. You might apply radial thinking to a restaurant menu, considering which food item is most likely to satisfy your appetite, and then taking your choice and following it linearly through the rest of your day, how active you will be, if you’ll get gassy or suffer acid reflux, and whether it is the appropriate amount of food to last until your next meal. A more complex example of the combination would be a chess master planning ahead by 5, 10, even 15 moves, while considering all the possible and likely actions of their opponent each step of the way.
So, the first appearance of chaos comes at the point where there is more information involved than you can keep a mental record of, and as you forget random bits here and there you lose some of your ability to see all outcomes without losing the entire framework. It is very much like cutting a branch off of a tree. Depending on how close to the trunk you cut you could remove a small part of the tree or an embarrasingly large piece whose absence is visible from half a mile away. The same thing is true in your mind. Losing information close to your starting point can cause points further in that direction to become detached. You might not forget all of it, but it might become very difficult to explain an idea that came out of the missing information.
So far I have remained in a descriptive stance towards thought processes. The intention up to this point was merely to focus your attention on something you already do, perhaps subconsciously at times, so that you can form a model of your current situation that reveals connections, problems, weak links, and most importantly loops or recurves that affect your ability to reach the desired goal of the moment, whether a diet plan, chores, or anything else with a goal later than now.
Time to dig into your own mind. Let’s start with making a simple yes/no decision. It won’t always be a simple cut-and-dried choice. Some questions call upon your moral and ethical standards, your knowledge and/or expertise in the matter at hand, what state and federal law has to say, or even just “what am I going to tell Mom?” Traditionally these decisions are whittled down to two lists; Pro and Con. For a decision of a personal nature that may be enough. Other times there will be so many factors that it is impossible to compare the consequences because the outcome will continue to develop over time as additional people and ideas pop up as a reaction to your choice. The question “will you marry me?” has the ability to generate a lengthy series of unpredictable consequences that can last from a few months to 75 years or more. Ask anyone who has been married for 50 years or more how their life would have been different if they had not chosen to propose or say yes when the opportunity arose. Then ask someone whose marriage disintegrated violently into divorce, custody battles, lengthy legal proceedings and broken homes the same question. You’ll find that their answers will have an eerie symmetry, and there will be similar branches after the initial choice that have very different outcomes.
So, clearly, when making an important life decision it is important to utilize both radial and linear thinking to see potential and likely outcomes of not only the initial decision, but ones that will follow as a result. “I want my mother to come live with us for (this, that, and the other) reasons.” “I don’t think it’s a good idea because of (a, b, and c).” The most important thing to understand about decisions is that you can’t always choose what benefits you. It may seem counter-intuitive at first, but often to make gains over the long term you will have to make concessions and take losses. Sometimes the direct benefit of not getting your way is that someone who directly contributes to your happiness or lack thereof is getting what they want and in turn this will increase your own happiness over time despite having to concede in some way. Put briefly, losing one skirmish can win you the whole battle. This is why the pro/con system is highly fallible, because it doesn’t show any pros created by the cons, and conversely it won’t show cons created by the pros. Food for thought next time you go out to eat.
A secondary aspect of the chaos of choice is the explosive outcomes of events that are not related to any choice currently in front of you. A parent is in the ER, not breathing well, has sharp pains in their abdomen and is urinating blood. That is enough to frighten anyone. The way it gets out of control is that an event with an unknown cause has exponentially more potential outcomes than something with a singular and obvious cause. Even if death isn’t one of the probable outcomes, often the mind runs through all the possibilities over and over again. The list won’t repeat in the same order, and may gain or lose items based on memory, but the essential structure is there.
The burning question is of course “Why am I going crazy with worry?” The answer is really the only simple part of the situation. When presented with a long list of negative potential outcomes, the mind has a tendency to generate the full stress of each potential outcome before the outcome is known, thereby combining the stress of each possibility as if in fact all of them had occurred. Before the oucome is revealed the mind could be undergoing twenty times or more the amount of stress that even the worst case scenario alone would create. They have a name for that already, it is called anxiety. This is a situational anxiety, capable of reducing the staunchest heart to a dismal purple lump. Traditional anxiety remedies are not likely to be effective in these cases because the source of the stress isn’t something that can be pushed to the back of the mind or forgotten. The way to reduce stress in this type of situation is captured in the motto “hope for the best, prepare for the worst.” This effictively cuts the stress by 95% or more, by peripherally acknowledging and accepting only the worst case scenario and focusing on the hope that all will be well soon.
This same chaos can be found in the most calm of settings such as meditation. Every noise, disturbance, or thought creates ripples that can cause even larger ripples if allowed to continue unchecked. For many people, quieting the mind can be extremely difficult. This often is the result of trying to think of nothing at all. Nothing is an incomprehensible idea because nowhere in our human existence do we encounter the absence of everything. It is much more effective to focus on an inanimate object that possesses interesting characteristics at any scale, perhaps an interesting piece of wooden furniture with grain patterns, knots, scratches, dents, hardware, shape, and purpose. The key to disconnecting from the world is hidden in the complexities of simple objects. It requires no thought or conscious decision to follow the grain as it runs into and around a knot, whether it is darker or lighter than its neighbors, who might have built it, and so on. These are the things that daydreams are made of, taking you out of your rigorous shell and allowing you to wander freely wherever the breeze of the butterfly’s wings push you.
To summarize, thoughts and decisions are extremely complex systems that take on a life of their own. The key lies in the knowledge that not only are there a multitude of ways to move forward, there were also a multitude of ways to arrive in your current situation. Failures can lead to success as readily as success can bring about failure.