Invited Symposium: Nonlinear Dynamical Systems in Psychiatry


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Non Linear Dynamic And Schizophenic Troubles Of Personal Identity

Contact Person: Evelyne Andreewsky (andreews@ext.jussieu.fr)


Personal identity could be represented as a dynamic process linked to various constraints. According to von Foerster (1974), the involvement of an individual for elaborating its personal identity is similar to its involvement in language or world interpretation, etc. This results in genetic interdependence of cognitive registers (notably language, identity, communication, etc.), and in a theoretical approach to these registers, stating that language and personal identities, namely, are in constitutive interaction with the individual's interpretation of the objects and events that he perceives. In formal terms, to generate cognitive registers, this approach uses recursive dynamic systems which (by their very definition) take into account the genetic development of registers to model their stability regimes. We intend to present how such systems can be used to characterize certain properties of these cognitive registers, the psychiatric clinic being useful as a means of studying borderline conditions of these properties.

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Personal disorders

Personnel Identity Disorders and Interdependence Constraints

We will focus on the single example of schizophrenia for a certain number of reasons, notably: - the problem of identity is at the heart of the concept of schizophrenia, in an almost etymological sense (concepts of dissociation, discordance, etc.); - the multi-dimensional aspects of this disorder (biological, social, cognitive…) exclude no methodologies a priori; - in the history of psychiatry, schizophrenia has always constituted a privileged domain to conceptualize psychosis.

The communication theory suggested by von Foerster (1974) is rooted in a genetic interdependence of cognitive registers. In this theory, communication is defined, not as a transfer of information, but as an internal representation of a relationship between oneself (internal self-representation) and another (a development of these formalisms and concepts can be found in von Foerster's paper). Schizophrenia designates an association of disorders relevant to several registers, notably communication, language and identity. A logical approach should try to minimize the number of hypotheses to be made to explain this association. The simplest way to do this is obviously to postulate an interdependence of these disorders. This would assume - unless hypotheses are forwarded ad hoc to explain clinical co-occurrences - a much more general interdependence: that of these cognitive registers. Von Foerster had foreseen the interest of his formalisms in pathology; indeed, he noted that certain recursive auto-referential expressions will never attain a stable form… which could offer some important clues in a behavioral analysis. This means that the very same formalism (involving different parameters) is able to characterize both the general case (continuity, coherence) and the pathological one (rigidity, instability), in a space thereby opened to mental pathology.

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Models of disorders

1)Towards a Preliminary Theoretical Articulation.

For von Foerster, the concepts of "personal identity", "object", "communication," etc. are mutually generating relational representations. From this viewpoint, there is notably the idea of mutual generation between language and self-representation. If the personal identity is built in terms of an auto-referential and recursive process (by specular cross-referencing), interpretation of language and objects will also be linked, articulated on this identity. In these conditions, what happens if the auto-referential expression defining the personal identity proves unstable? Several possibilities can be envisaged to represent the behavior of such an expression:

- If the personal identity trajectory converges towards an attractor, the individual will generate his interpretations of the outside world with a certain rigidity. - If the trajectory oscillates around a given attractor, the degree of freedom represented by these oscillations will enable the individual to escape the previously-mentioned rigidity, yet his interpretations will remain coherent through continuity of its identity unity. - If the trajectory oscillates around two (or more) attractors, the interpretation process can no longer call on previous experience to make extrapolations; such discontinuities of the personal identity therefore affect all of the individual's interpretations and thus his behavior. This can lead to several interesting theoretical consequences that underline clinical data characterizing schizophrenic patients.

2) Clinical Pertinence of the Suggested Hypothesis.

Bleulerian symptoms characterizing schizophrenia (i.e., very briefly, disorders in the thought and language processes and, in terms of personal identity, intra-psychic "dissociations," since the individual who develops these discontinuities can apparently have neither stable representations of his own identity nor temporal continuity in his interpretations) will result from the postulated discontinuities. The discontinuities do not appear immediately; they remain latent for some time. This corresponds to the time it takes for the phenomena observed in clinic to emerge. The discontinuity hypothesis leads to an approach to schizophrenia not unrelated to those centered on notions such as paradoxical injunctions (the "double bind", Bateson, 1972). But unlike the double bind, this approach does not imply specific external constraints. Indeed, the double bind refers to externally driven oscillations taken as related to exogenous social constraints, whereas in the suggested hypothesis, discontinuities are endogenous and linked to biological, cultural or social parameters.

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Similarities with the lexical meanings

Von Foerster associates to his communication theory an approach to language in terms of emergence. Contrary to most communication theories (qualified by the author as "communication techniques"), this theory does not presuppose the existence of primary symbols, communication elements - words or messages -which take communication for granted. In this approach, words refer to meanings in terms of both cross-reference to other words (and their respective references) and characteristics of the context: word meaning therefore functions recursively for the individual, in a similar manner to that described above in reference to personal identity. Language formalisms are discussed in von Foerster (1974). Andreewsky (1991) has presented a less formal study on the notion of emergence in language, and some remarks on the articulation between language and personal identity.

The three cases of attractor dynamics are three different mathematical trajectories of auto-referential expressions. Insofar as these expressions sum up the preceding theses, they can be used to model certain language phenomena. We suggest that the ways the major types of words-(that is, proper nouns, usual content words, and polysemies)-acquire a signification can be characterized in terms of the three different trajectories.

.- Case 1, convergence towards an attractor, stability. This is representative of the trajectories of the meaning of proper nouns; indeed, if the reference of these nouns is known, their meaning will no change. Therefore this meaning depends on no other parameters, namely not on any given context.

- Case 2, oscillations around an attractor, continuity-coherence: These oscillations constitute the degree of freedom available in the elaboration of meanings of a given usual content word at each occurrence of the word, depending on the context of each occurrence. The space of potential meanings is determined by the width of the oscillations.

- Case 3, oscillations around two or more attractors, discontinuities: These discontinuities represent the behavior of polysemies, i.e. the discontinuities in the meaning of polysemic words (numerous in language) at each of their occurrence (e.g. a tear in clothing vs. a tear on the cheek).

It is interesting to note that discontinuities in the personal identity of schizophrenic patients echo the discontinuities linked to polysemies, in that patients' interpretations of polysemies are experimentally different from the norm. Normally, the context-driven single interpretation of a given polysemy emerges in comprehension. For schizophrenic patients, at least in a temporal context, all interpretations seem likely to emerge (Andreewsky et al., 1988).

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The postulated constitutive interdependence, in phenomena such as language, communication and personal identity, has been represented in terms of a recursive-type formalism. An homogenous theoretical framework is defined, apt to handle either the normal general case or the diversity of symptoms observed in clinic. In the framework of schizophrenia, these formalisms highlight dynamics which are common to both linguistic and clinical phenomena. Are these simple analogies or do they go much deeper, establishing "strong links" between the two? The theoretical approach presented provides a starting point from which such questions can be further investigated.


Andreewsky E., Boyer P., & Waintraub L., 1988, "L'ambiguïté lexicale, outil de recherche en Neuropsychopathologie". In Fuchs C. (ed.) L'ambiguïté et la Paraphrase, Université de Caen, 315-318.

Andreewsky, E. (ed.) 1991. Systémique et Cognition. Paris, Dunod. Bateson G., 1972, Vers une écologie de l'esprit, Seuil, Paris, 1977, 1980.

Foerster H. von, 1974, "Notes pour une épistémologie des objets vivants". In Morin E. & Piatelli-Palmarini M. (eds.), L'Unité de l'Homme, 2 : le cerveau humain, Seuil, Paris, 139-155.

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Andreewsky, E; Parisse, C; Fargeas, X; (1998). Non Linear Dynamic And Schizophenic Troubles Of Personal Identity. Presented at INABIS '98 - 5th Internet World Congress on Biomedical Sciences at McMaster University, Canada, Dec 7-16th. Invited Symposium. Available at URL http://www.mcmaster.ca/inabis98/sulis/andreewsky0518/index.html
© 1998 Author(s) Hold Copyright