Gathering Systems Knowledge: The Third Point on the Mindful Compass

The following blog is a longish chapter for my new book, Interrupting and Mindfulness: Two Keys to Living in Social Systems. 

I think it’s important to understand how our knowledge of human behavior has been erected stone by stone, life by life.  The third point on The Mindful Compass, acquiring systems knowledge, makes us less vulnerable to life’s challenges. It is one fabulous way to steady one’s self against the disinformation (gossip and bias) and the emotionality we see and hear everywhere.

One of my heroes of the information revolution, Steve Jobs died last week.  I was one of his early fans, buying my first Mac in 1986, and still love all things Apple. His story will be told in many ways, but his life, like all of ours, is bounded by time, relationship skills, and courage. There are other elements, perhaps intangible, like spirit or grace or a gift from the gods.  Like Jobs, each of us has a limited time to tell our story and deal with the forces that impinge on us, especially our assumptions and beliefs. This is a simple appreciation for his genius and the inspiration he is.

“Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.” ~ Steve Jobs





The Third Point on the Mindful Compass: Gathering Systems Knowledge

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else-by some distinction sets aside and rejects.

Francis Bacon, January, 22 1561 – April 9, 1626



A good scientist is a humble and listening scientist and not one that is sure 100 percent in what he read in the textbooks,” according to Nobel laureate Daniel Shechtman.  Schechtman never doubted his findings and considered himself merely the latest in a long line of scientists who advanced their fields by challenging the conventional wisdom and were shunned by the establishment because of it.  Robert Lee Hotz, Wall Street Journal. 2011



Investigating the Nature of Man:  A Short Overview

In the first chapter we saw how the Mindful Compass can help us see the natural process that influences us as we make our most important decisions, especially family processes impacting our near and dear.  Chapter two shows us the link between our actions and the inevitable resistance we experience, and gives us the opportunity to alter our responses and create a more positive story about our lives.  The third chapter focuses on systems knowledge, the third point on the Mindful Compass.   This chapter does two things.  First it traces the important trends in thinking in psychology from focus on the individual as the primary locus of issues and answers to a systems view of the human and the influences of the family on the human.  Second, it considers the challenges in looking at our assumptions to question our own versions of truth.

Initially I thought I should warn people not to read this chapter unless they are interested in an overview of those who have influenced the development of psychology.  But I think it’s important to understand how hard it is to develop insight into the nature of the human, particularly when an insight may be contrary to the conventional wisdom of the time.   Having an overview of the development of ideas in psychology gives us a picture of how varied the discoveries have been and how difficult it has been to carve out room for new ways of thinking.

The Development of Psychology from 1850’s to WW II : Wundt, James and Freud





Darwin published his book, On the Origin of Species, in 1859 providing compelling evidence for evolution.  He traced the evidence for evolutionary principles back to the writings of Aristotle.  It may be that Darwin influenced the thinking of William Wundt, William James, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, much as Aristotle had influenced him.  What are the roots of our thinking in psychology today?

Wilhelm Wundt, (1832- 1920) was the first person to use scientific research to consider how the mind influences the body. Wundt’s thinking was based on Darwin’s idea that we humans have a great deal in common with other forms of life.

From the standpoint of observation, then, we must regard it as a highly probable hypothesis that the beginnings of the mental life date from as far back as the beginnings of life at large. Wundt [1]

He did painstaking research observing the relationship between the body and subjective thoughts. He set about to connect the mind and body in a very scientific way. In his own words: Hence, even in the domain of natural science the aid of the experimental method becomes indispensable whenever the problem set is the analysis of transient and impermanent phenomena, and not merely the observation of persistent and relatively constant objects.

Few people now give Wundt credit for the work he did looking at the physiology of consciousness.  He highlighted the importance of people’s experiences, subjective as they are, and described how the physical body was affected by (and in turn affected) consciousness, feelings, emotions, volition, and ideas.  He believed that self-examination of the content of one’s mind could be evidence for understanding behavior.

Wundt established psychology as a separate science, exploring in his lab the nature of religious beliefs, self-identity and mental disorders. In his book, Principles of Physiological Psychology, published in 1902, he presented beautifully detailed drawings of the nervous system and explanations of how consciousness could arise.[2] He published over 490 works, becoming one of the most prolific scientists of all time.

Did his family life have something to do with the questions that puzzled him?  A few clues follow.

Wundt’s father was an Evangelical pastor. Wilhelm was an only child due to his siblings’ death from malaria. Since his youth Wundt was labeled as a daydreamer which left him alone and out casted from the other children. When Wundt’s parents heard of this they sent him to live with his aunt. Here Wilhelm began to flourish and graduated at the age of nineteen. Wundt attended medical school at Tubingen where he became interested in his uncle’s course in brain anatomy. http://www3.niu.edu/acad/psych/Millis/History/2002/wundt.htm

I mention Wundt’s family life as just one example of how early family life can set up a person to become a more independent thinker.  Wundt and his parents suffered the loss of his sibling from malaria. We do not know how that altered the relationship configuration in the family, however it appears he was isolated and it took time for his parents to notice him. Eventually they took action, sending Wundt off to live with others who must have had more time and energy to deal with him.

How often do we see that a person who has the go power to establish a different professional direction either directly suffered family losses early on or had parents who disappointed them or who themselves had early losses. Frank Sulloway took up this subject in his book, Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives.

An assumption is that early life challenge and disruptions in relationships may allow individuals to question the status quo.  All of this depends on the family and the go power of the individual, as losses can also promote great fear and the inability to grow due to increasing levels of dependency.

Many of the people I interviewed, some of whom you will meet later in the book, noted that they felt very alone and different as a child.  These factors: early loss, disappointment in parents and feeling different, may increase the opportunity for autonomy and may be prominent in the lives of those who establish a new way of thinking. I will leave it to the interested reader to investigate the early lives of the other pioneers and draw their own conclusions.


William James, (1842-1910)

Known as the “great explainer” of psychology, James focused on how behavior actually functioned to help people live in their environment.  He founded the Pragmatist movement. Some of his ideas exist today in outcome-based research in which any method of therapy that works will be paid for. No theory or explanation is required.

James was anxious to uncover what true beliefs amounted to in human life, what their “Cash Value” was, what consequences they led to. A belief was not a mental entity, which somehow mysteriously corresponded to an external reality if the belief were true. Beliefs were ways of acting with reference to a precarious environment, and to say they were true was to say they guided us satisfactorily in this environment. In this sense the pragmatic theory of truth applied Darwinian ideas in philosophy; it made survival the test of intellectual as well as biological fitness. If what was true was what worked, we can scientifically investigate religion’s claim to truth in the same manner. The enduring quality of religious beliefs throughout recorded history and in all cultures gave indirect support for the view that such beliefs worked. James also argued directly that such beliefs were satisfying — they enabled us to lead fuller, richer lives and were more viable than their alternatives. Religious beliefs were expedient in human existence, just as scientific beliefs were.[3]

James also developed a theory of emotions published in 1884 in the paper entitled, “What Is an Emotion?” He conceived of an emotion in terms of a sequence of events and used the story of a bear to explain his views.  He posited that we fear the bear simply because we run away from the bear.  Fear is generated by the act of running.

To some extent current research has found that muscle activity does occur before thinking and that the brain is mostly autobiographical. In other words mental reactions follow bodily actions and therefore it follows we must still the body to calm the mind.

James was open to many ideas. His reputation suffered because of his inquiries into spiritualism and psychic phenomena. We do not know if his thinking was influenced by Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but he did write that humans had more instincts than many other animals and that these instincts were often conflicting. His bottom line was that automatic habits, including those triggered by traumatic events, could always be overridden by new experiences.  All that was required was to wake up.

Compared to what we ought to be we are half awake.

William James




Sigmund Freud, (1865-1939)

We are never so defenseless against suffering as when we love. S. Freud

Freud was born fourteen years after James, but he lived until 1939, giving him twenty-nine more years than James to influence society. Darwin too influenced him.  Freud’s ideas were shocking and his influence pervasive, perhaps because he conceptualized the locus of human problems in the human’s primitive nature and emotions.  Sex sells.  People find it intriguing to think sexual primitive urges are ruling our unconscious, and by association, us.

“It is the fate of all of us, perhaps, to direct our first sexual impulse towards our mother and our first hatred and our first murderous wish against our father. Our dreams convince us that that is so. King Oedipus, who slew his father Laïus and married his mother Jocasta, merely shows us the fulfillment of our own childhood wishes… Here is one in whom these primeval wishes of our childhood have been fulfilled.  While the poet, as he unravels the past, brings to light the guilt of Oedipus, he is at the same time compelling us to recognize our own inner minds, in which those same impulses, though suppressed, are still to be found.” S. Freud[4]

Freud was well aware of the Greek myths in which portrayals of our hidden instinctive wishes were easy to see and understand.  He used these stories to explain our blindness to our deepest motives that drive our actions, the unconscious.  What a leap from the way others had described the human condition.

Freud’s writings were compelling and his thesis of our everyday behavior, linked to early childhood memories, was another step in highlighting the importance of reflecting and understanding each individual’s life story.  Freud wrote up his cases, which included the lives of well-known people.  In addition Freud even analyzed fictional characters like Hamlet to help us understand our hidden selves.

“The play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations and an immense variety of attempts at interpreting them have failed to produce a result. According to the view which was originated by Goethe and is still the prevailing one today, Hamlet represents the type of man whose power of direct action is paralyzed by and excessive development of his intellect.” S. Freud [5]

Freud believed the intellect was suspect and the only way to knowledge of our instinctual strivings was through free association, where the undisguised truth could emerge.  It did not matter if a person’s stories were fact or fiction.  Each patient could disguise the truth, but over time, with the help of the therapist, the threads of deeper truth would stand out from the clutter and be analyzed for the insights they offered.

Everyone is telling a story and Freud thought people could gain insight through an analysis of their dreams and through slips of their tongues and even through the jokes they told or laughed at.  More importantly he saw the way that the mere telling of one’s story could captivate and polarize an analyst.  The ego of the analyst was at risk of becoming a part of the patient’s story.  To be captivated by the patient’s story ran the risk of linking the therapist’s self with that of the patient.   Patients loved and hated the analyst as they loved and hated their parents.  Freud accurately described the danger of (and warned other analysts about) getting caught up in other people’s stories and activating the counter-transference.

Transference (the patient relating to the therapist as if he/she were a significant someone else, a father, for example) and counter-transference (the therapist relating to the patient as if he/she were a significant someone else, a mother) are now accepted as part of our popular culture. Those who have been through long years of analysis like Woody Allen, use their knowledge of transference and counter-transference to make humorous movies, demonstrating the confusion in seeing our love objects for who they really are.  Since we are a bit removed from the interactions as movie viewers, we can laugh as we see versions of ourselves exaggerated or diminished in his portrayal of human problems.

Every normal person, in fact, is only normal on the average. His ego approximates to that of the psychotic in some part or other and to a greater or lesser extent. S. Freud

Freud’s bottom line was to interpret the meaningfulness within a person’s story to enable his patient to accept the ordinariness of reality. At the same time both therapist and patient had to remain aware of the instinctual strivings for sexual pleasure or romantic adventure based on idealized feeling states. Freud encouraged us to look for the daily hero within self, not in the other, and to accept the tension of failure while striving to be realistic.

Freud and his followers saw the family as a complex web of relationships that were partly to blame for the problems of the patient. Freud believed that the family had interests other than the well being of the patient, the result of which was the sealing off of the patient and analyst from the corrosive influence of the family.   The family was assigned to social workers, creating a split that persists today.  The treatment time for Freudian analysis was three to five times a week, over three to seven years, allowing for natural maturational changes to solidify the on-going integration of perception and feeling. Freud’s method therefore could not be used for the general population. In addition his opinion that religion was a drug for the misery of the masses is evidence of the profound differences that led to, if not created, Freud’s split from Carl Jung, his once hoped for successor.

Another interesting twist is that Freud’s choice for best thinker in his group was Carl Jung.  Would he have picked him if he had known more about his family history and not just his intelligence and psychological strength?  Perhaps we can figure this out by looking at Jung’s family life.







Carl Jung (1875-1961)

Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to a better understanding of ourselves. C. Jung

Born in 1875 in Kesswil, Switzerland, Jung was the only son of a Protestant clergyman.  Jung’s mother came from a family that believed in séances and communing with the dead.  His father was a far more traditional man. Jung could not mange the conflict between the two. After his father’s death Jung had a dream, which he told to Freud, who interpreted it as Jung’s disguised wish for his father’s death. Jung instead saw it as his need for his father as a spiritual guide.

In Jung’s autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections (1961), Jung explains that his father “suffered from religious doubts” himself and could offer “nothing but the same old lifeless theological answers” to his questions.  When Paul Jung died in 1896, his 21- year-old son was left without a strong father to guide him into psychological and spiritual maturity. Jung looked both inward and to the external world studying religious traditions around the world.

Jung studied biology, zoology, paleontology, and archaeology. His explorations did not stop with that.  He looked at philosophy, mythology, early Christian literature as well as religion. His interest in religion could be attributed to his heritage as well as watching the demise of his father. C. Jung[6]

Like Bowen, Jung was more focused on the health of the individual or the wholeness of the psyche. By studying word association in his patients, he saw repression at work, as did Freud.  But Freud and Jung split over the role of sexuality and the nature of the unconscious. Their relationship ended when Jung published “Psychology and the Unconscious” which argued against some of Freud’s ideas.  Jung’s focus was on understanding the symbolic meaning of the contents of the unconscious. He clarified his differences with Freud in explaining the mechanism of personality in his book Psychological Types.  A popular psychometric instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), has been developed principally from Jung’s theories.

Jung’s advice to us about the nature of reality and change follows

Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. There is no coming to consciousness without pain.  We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses.   C. Jung

Like Freud, Jungian therapy deals with dreams and fantasies but transformation occurs when opposite tendencies are integrated to achieve wholeness. As in Bowen theory, integrating the feeling and thinking systems is key.  This requires us to understand how the fast brain (the reptilian and or limbic older parts of the brain) and the slow brain (the frontal lobes, which can inhibit the more primitive reactive parts of the brain) coordinate their actions. Current research explains how slowing down the more reactive parts of the brain and using our memory, allows us to shortcut the runaway reactivity in the lower parts of the brain, like the amygdala. At its best, the way the brain integrates information allows us to make more thoughtful decisions.

You can think about Freud and Jung as trying to unlock the unconscious through analysis, which over time promotes integrating conversations allowing people to learn to see their reality more accurately. Eventually this analytic relationship leads to more thoughtful, less reactive relationships.

People interested in Bowen Theory have found that Jung’s interest in spirituality adds to areas only beginning to be addressed in Bowen Theory.  Bowen explored his thinking about this area in his ninth concept, Towards a Systems Concept of Supernatural Phenomena.  The videotape is available at The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.[7]

The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. C. Jung





The Behaviorists

There are as many theories in psychology as there are people who have investigated different parts of the human and used scientific tools to make a case for their findings. After Freud appropriated the feeling life of people by interpreting their subjective reports, along came the behaviorists who stripped the human of any subjective take on life, going in an entirely different direction.  Many people working in psychological labs began to think about behavior as learning or conditioning. What mattered to these researchers was observable behavior, not the feelings or the unconscious mechanisms of the individuals.


Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936) investigated classical conditioning. You may recall that in his famous experiments, the dog salivated when food was brought to it at the same time a bell was rung.  Eventually just ringing the bell caused the conditioned dog to salivate. Pavlov rejected introspective methods, instead seeking to restrict psychology to experimental (and observable) methods.


“It is clear to all that the animal organism is a highly complex system consisting of an almost infinite series of parts connected both with one another and, as a total complex, with the surrounding world, with which it is in a state of equilibrium.”Don’t become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin.” Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise.”[8  Ivan Pavlov


B.F. Skinner, (1904-1990) conducted research based on his theory of operant conditioning and also rejected unconscious feelings as drivers of behavior.  He saw behavior as a natural science, like physics, in which one does not examine the inner state of the object being studied.  A few B.F. Skinner quotes below explain his thinking

“Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything.

“I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.”

“If you’re old, don’t try to change yourself, change your environment.”

“Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless.

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.”[9]

The behaviorists’ work has become the basis for recent behavioral cognitive therapies, including behavior modification for children and adults, and many therapeutic feedback systems like biofeedback and neurofeedback.



Bion and the Tavistock Clinic

During WW II, the military in England needed better ways to identify leaders. In addition, soldiers with war trauma needed help.  There were more people disabled by trauma than by physical injuries. Neither psychoanalysis nor behaviorism as it was then conceived, offered answers to either set of problems.

The Tavistock Clinic had taken on similar problems during WW 1.  They developed psychological treatments for shell-shocked soldiers and these methods were greatly expanded in the nineteen thirties. Wilfred Bion, one of the leaders of the Tavistock Clinic during WW II experimented with leaderless groups, eventually writing Experiences in Groups.  His observed that emotional states could disrupt any task because of feelings of dependency, or the urge to fight or flee.  The priority of the leader of any group, he suggested, was to deal with the emotional states of people in the group.

These observations began the transition in psychology and psychiatry from focusing on a two-person therapeutic relationship to observing and working in the context of group dynamics. Now researchers could see how the behavior of one impacted, not just one other person as in the transference, but was key to influencing the actions of the whole group.  A different world emerged when people could see the influence of one person on all kinds of people who needed to interact to complete a task.

The ability to problem solve and be a leader in a peer group seems to have little to do with the story one person might tell their analyst about their family life. There was little correlation between one’s neurosis and the ability to lead.  Bion saw that people assigned to groups would make the group itself into a kind of a family.  Group members would act out in defensive ways unless the leader could keep them working on the task.  Bion concluded that those who function as leaders in their families, despite their neuroses, are far more likely to become leaders in the group. The capacity for mental growth is based in an emotional experience, in the family or in a group. Leaders are not without their problems, but some individuals are far more capable than others of standing up for a way to solve problems and they are leaders.[10]

During World War II, when the death toll and scale of human misery were extreme, “leadership savvy” was the key skill that the British Army sought in its new recruits. They needed individuals who could remain calm, optimistic and solve problems. The Tavistock Clinic, using the ideas of Bion, developed a plan to find those with these attributes who could be officers and leaders for the war department.

Based on Bion’s ideas about the leaderless group, the Tavistock Clinic advised the British Army to institute use of an observer, not a trainer, to identify individuals with the skills and behavior to become leaders. A consultant (observer) would be sent to watch a group of men as they gathered. There was no plan; there were no directions, no uniforms, nothing, just a consultant with a clipboard. The consultants’ job was “not to permit themselves to insist even subliminally that the group adopt their way of proceeding.”[11] The consultant simply took notes on how the leadership emerged and whom the group would listen to. Once a thoughtful leader emerged, the group quickly became calmer and more capable of figuring out what needed to be done. Clearly the influence of relationships on individual functioning was beginning to be seen.  It was not a huge leap now to observe the emotional process in the family.



Murray Bowen

Family Systems Theory contains no ideas that have not been a part of the human experience through the centuriesMurray Bowen, Introduction: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice

Bowen chose psychiatry due to his experiences in WW II.  He had seen more people suffering from what was then called “shell shock” than with physical wounds and thought he could make the greatest contribution in psychiatry.  He gave up his cardiac surgery residency and applied to the training program at the Menninger Clinic where he became convinced that Freud had not gone far enough to create a science of human behavior. Bowen determined that a science of human behavior had to be linked to understanding the human as a part of evolution.

Observing family members at Menninger’s as they came to visit their grown children led to his budding research interest in the ongoing relationships between family members which evolved into his keen interest in carefully observing several family members living together. Later, in 1956, he accepted a position as the head of a research unit at National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington DC, where he was able to observe families actually living together there.  During the next four years he observed how individual members of a family (and their “helpers”, the staff) functioned in relationship to each other.  This long period of observation led to the development of Bowen’s Theory, based on the nature of the emotional system, with all its interlocking parts.

Among other discoveries, Bowen saw that when the staff avoided diagnosing individuals, and refrained from taking sides or providing “answers” to the family, growth was possible.  The nursing staff led by example.  They observed and gave feedback about what the family issues seemed to be, how they saw the family members functioning and trying to manage self in the interactions with family members.  The family members listened to the staff as the staff worked on their own issues. Eventually one person in the family, often the father, made up his mind about what he thought and what the family would do.  Bowen saw that the family could heal itself twice as fast as anyone he had seen in psychoanalysis. This was a totally new way of seeing what happened between people and led to his theory, of human behavior.

Bowen described how family members are connected to each other in the following quote.

“Emotional reactiveness in a family, or other groups that lives or works together, goes from one family member to another in a chain reaction pattern.  The total pattern is similar to electronic circuits in which each person is “wired” or connected by radio, to all the other people with whom he has relationships.  Each person then becomes a nodal point or an electronic center through which impulses pass in rapid succession . . . Each person is programmed from birth to serve a certain set of functions and each “senses” what is required or expected, more from the way the system functions around him than from verbal messages . . . Each person . . . has varying degrees of ability for handling impulses . . . and an intellectual awareness . . . for understanding the operation of the system.  There is another important set of variables that have to do with the way the family unit functions together.  Each person becomes aware of his dependence on all the other nodal points. To be remembered is that each nodal point is “wired” to the others with two-way circuitry. There are a wide variety of subtle alliances for helping each other, refusing to help, or hurting the other.  The larger unit can punish a single member, and a single member in a key position can hurt the whole unit.

The electronic model has the potential and the flexibility to accurately account for almost every item of human functioning . . . except for that which is determined by biology and reproduction and evolution.” [12]



A Playful look at Bowen and Freud’s Imaginary Relationship

It has been a short ninety-nine year journey from Wundt’s 1902 publication, Principles of Physiological Psychology, to the present.  A paradigm shift has occurred during that period, from diagnosing what’s inside an individual’s mind a la Wundt and Freud, to Bowen’s understanding of the individual as a player in a sensitive, reactive, linked and interdependent system.

A playful way to consider the differences from Freud to Bowen is to imagine Mother Earth on the couch. Of course Freud really wants to know what’s up with Mother Earth and why she is spinning the way she is. In the first session, Freud is fascinated to find out why Mother Earth has covered up so many layers of unconscious “dirt,” and why that “dirt” has made the earth spin as she does.

Freud tries to remain objective as he listens to Mother Earth’s stories about how she spins. His assumption is that if only Mother Earth would let the dirt rise to the surface through free association, she could be real with her feelings and get her affect, the emotional tone, correct about why she is spinning the way she is. She could deal with the buried unconscious dirt once she could see it and feel it. And then of course, all would be integrated and she would be able to see how to spin in a more natural and authentic way.

Freud plans to focus the sessions on allowing the dirt to be seen, and also noting how he himself reacts to Mother Earth’s dirt.   Freud will let Mother Earth know a bit about what he thinks, but not too much as her spinning self may be too weak for the whole truth.  Slowly over years, the trust will be built, the dirt uncovered and the healing process will take hold.

Right after the first session, Dr. Bowen comes into the room to consult and says to Freud, “Would you like a different view of Mother Earth’s path?  OK, so let’s see what happens when we back up and ask Mother Earth what kind of relationships she’s been in with the Sun and with Jupiter and Mars?  Think about it, didn’t she say all this trouble started when Mars jumped out of his orbit and all the relationships changed?  I would like to know how the pull of the Sun and her relationships with the other planets have influenced her path.”  Freud responds saying, “Let’s keep looking at relationships and see where we end up.”

In fact, Freud himself experienced a version of this story with his daughter Anna.  Anna had a conflict with Melanie Klein, who believed that the imagination and primitive instincts of people created their mental health issues.  Anna Freud, on the other hand, saw that children could recover from trauma without analysis if they had caring relationships with caretakers in the Hampstead orphanage.  After looking at the evidence that she brought to him, Freud said to Anna there was not yet enough evidence to show which direction was best to liberate the psyche from neurosis, the intense relationships encountered in life or psychoanalytic treatment.[13]

We find the same problem today; not enough data has been gathered in a scientific manner to demonstrate clearly what type of interventions work, Freud or Bowen’s.

The scientific method can be costly to conduct, because we must find control groups so that we can compare the differences in methods. Eventually systems research may be able to compare many variables in some kind of factor analysis.

Right now the scientific method is set to find the cause, the one variable that makes a difference.  We can see how the scientific method has led researchers to turn a blind eye to a system with its interacting variables.  It is too confusing and confounding for proper research analysis.   Once research developers are able to consider the function of multiple variables, then systems behaviors will come into view and we will have moved closer to a scientific study of the family as an emotional unit. [14]


We’ve come a long way baby, or have we?

It is very hard to understand we humans in an objective way. It is easier to learn more about the behavior of planets than to consider how we orbit around one another in our social systems

The well-known investigators of human behavior had not, until Bowen and others in the late 20th century, even seen the influence of the family on the individual. Perhaps it’s far easier to see the individual, rather than to see a relationship system. We have been shaped over multiple generations to see and respond to other individuals, but how our multigenerational families influence us has not been seen or possibly the real problems is that the data does not fit into a cause and effect model.  We may not be able to make science out of human behavior but we can enlarge our viewpoint about human behavior.

What good does it do to question our beliefs, values and even our ways of making decisions?  How much do we know or need to know about human behavior?  Can others’ work give us courage to be more aware of our own journey? Who among us wants to see how relationships are impacting us or how we impact others?  Much of our current thinking has status because it’s old and it’s what we “know”.  We are attracted to what has been because it seems to work for us now and again.  We are not so sure about the “new”.

New knowledge in any field is like the new kid on the block with no status.  So it is in the field of psychology and science in general.  There is considerable resistance to changing any prevailing theory or point of view. Sometimes one of us sees something new, but we have no idea how to adequately respond.

A classic example is the reactions of some folks on September 11, 2001.  People from Europe were staying at my home at the time. They could not believe that planes had become weapons and that their flights would be canceled for weeks. They begged me to take them to the airport.  Despite my most rational and logical arguments, the emotional belief that the past was the future was firmly in place.  Driving to the airport, past the empty roads and parking lots, with no sound or sight of planes in the sky, finally they were able to see that indeed the world had changed.

There are many factors inhibiting our ability to see the so-called reality of situations. Personal traumas such as a death or a divorce can extract a toll on our ability to think well. Such pressure and anxiety diminishes our ability to perceive and think well. Besides history and trauma, there are other mechanisms in the brain that diminish our ability to see “what is” and instead to react in automatic ways.

Evolutionary pressures have designed our brain in a cobbled together way not unlike a Rube Goldberg machine.  We are hamstrung by assumptions and the status quo.  Our brain is designed to make even simple decisions activate a lot of reactive bells and whistles. The struggle to be a self in our family is ongoing, as our brains are tuned to react in a stimulus-response way to others.  Reactivity gives us little room to see complexity. The automatic response is to focus narrowly, defend self and blame others. Our brains are full of all kinds of interlocking emotions, instinctual needs and reflexes such as jealousy, aggression, hatred, competition, cooperation, and of course the overriding need to be loved. By understanding a bit about reactivity we can see again the challenge in remaining mindful.


The Brain and Playful Interrupting

Paul MacLean, a physician and neuroscientist, made the discovery that we humans share with reptiles our mating mechanisms and obsession with territory.  Not a pretty thought.  Since evolution also gave us language allowing us to speak and sometimes to actually communicate, we can mute our more primitive responses. Sometimes we can interrupt our old habits of thinking by being playful with one another.  Play is a by-product of raising children notes MacLean. Both play and the separation cry are responses to the new. [15] One issue is that our perception is tilted to respond to threats in defensive ways, choking off the opportunity to play.

Evolution designed our brain with bells and whistles that can go off at the perception of the slightest threat.  We fear, a snake or a bear and then our physiology changes when we see one.  We may have been taught that our aunts or stepfathers or others are somewhat like bears.  We cannot see or think well in the presence of those whom we see as a threat or when we are actually reacting to a threat.

In order to respond more playfully it helps if we can observe our reactions and thereby interrupt the programmed fear response.  For example, if we think we see a snake as we walk along, if we can pause and look carefully we can decide if it is a snake or a stick.  There is the fast brain response and the slow one.  The slow one takes more time to develop.

It takes time to know the difference between over and under-reacting.  Over-reacting is when we react to each possible stick as a snake. We can also under react, especially when it comes to threats that seem distant in time or space such as addictions to drugs or money or threats like global warming.[16]  Our brains prefer short-term pleasures and/or profits and cannot really comprehend the danger from long-term problems

Unfortunately our ability to reason things out does not exist in a separate province of the mind where emotions are banned from influencing us.  Antonio Damasio in his book, Descartes’ Error, carefully explains to us that the neurobiology of our thinking processes is deeply intertwined in our emotions, feelings and beliefs. [17]

If you say I am thinking, well, you are also feeling. As most of us know, although people think that their religious beliefs and political views are rationally based, these beliefs are grounded in deep emotional feelings.  All that we believe and think is highly influenced by our emotional system.  Our state of mind and our psychology is often run by the way our brain is organized.

We are wired differently depending on our relationships and our sensitivities. We may not feel our blood pressure rising, but we know messages are sent from the heart to the brain.  The soma of the body is linked to our mental process but not in a linear or straightforward way as Wundt noted long ago.


“Certainty” can blind us to “what is”

One thing that makes it so hard to see accurately, or to see what really “is”, is this stubborn belief that our views are more correct than the views of others. We do have empathy, therefore most of the time we can understand that others hold different and valid viewpoints.  But especially under pressure, we see the “right way” and are sure that the others are “wrong”. To put it bluntly, we are often over confident that our way of seeing things is the correct (and only) way.

Unfortunately it turns out, overconfidence is a burden.[18] But for survival purposes evolution handed us a brain able to make decisions with as little information and as much certainty as possible. [19] Instinct made it possible for this behavior to persist and so it does, even in our more modern social jungle. How we perceive threats and take action springs from the emotional system, which we share with all other species.  It is our primitive guidance system, springing into action as a response to stimuli.

Most species do not have the luxury to wonder about their Rube Goldberg, instinctually designed brain.  They do not pause to reflect and self regulate.  They may spring to attack whomever is near when problems arise.  They can freeze or run or just take any action when instinct requires it.  But we humans can, to some extent, self regulate.   We know now that our perception is formed by many kinds of internal mechanisms and biases and that our brains, unfortunately, do not see accurately all that is right before our eyes.  Knowing this enables us to have reasons to gather knowledge, to question what is accepted, and to be more responsible for how we participate in social systems.




In this chapter we have heard about the effort to gather knowledge about human behavior. We have looked at some of the discoveries in psychology over the past 150 years. We see that the overriding focus of psychology during this time has been on the individual, not on the relationship system. It wasn’t until the 1950s that researchers saw the family as an interactive relationship system.

It’s safe to say that there is still no consensus on who sees the big picture, or just what is driving or influencing human action and how to understand human behavior.   Given the divisions in psychology, and that various groups are backed by both beliefs and research papers, organizations and political movements, we must live with conflicting data and types of analysis that are available.  There is no tool that can consider multiple variables interacting over long periods of time as more than correlations.  We don’t know it all.  But we are simply more aware that there are different lenses through which to see human behavior.





1) The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Paul D. MacLean, 1990, Springer.

2) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, Jared Dimond

3) Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics, and Creative Lives, 1996, Frank Sulloway

4)  Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, 1994

5)Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

6) Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology.

7) Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

8) Pragmatism, From the introduction to William James’s  by Bruce Kuklic

9) The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.296.

10) Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

11) Jung’s Collected Works in English, Bollingen Foundation in New York and Routledge and Kegan Paul in London.

12) Experiences in Groups, W. R. Bion,  (London 1980) Introduction, pp 5-6                  13) The Shaping Of Psychiatry By War (1945) Rawlings Ress John. P 70                    14) Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pages 420 – 421) Murray Bowen, (1977)           15) Anna Freud: A Biography, Young-Bruehl, Elizabeth, (1988).                                    16) Natural Experiments of History, 2011 Jared Diamond, James A. Robinson

17 Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

Web References:








[2] Principles of Physiological Psychology, Wilhelm Wundt (1902) 
Translated by Edward Bradford Titchener (1904)

[3] From the introduction to William James’s Pragmatism by Bruce Kuklic

[4] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.296.

[5] Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams, tr. James Strachey, Avon, N.Y. 1965. p.298.

[10] W. R. Bion, Experiences in Groups (London 1980) Introduction, pp 5-6

[11]The Shaping Of Psychiatry By War (1945) Rawlings Ress John. P 70

[12] Murray Bowen, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice (pages 420 – 421)

[13] Young-Bruehl, Elisabeth (1988). Anna Freud: A Biography.

[14] Natural Experiments of History, 2011 Jared Diamond, James A. Robinson

[15] The Triune Brain in Evolution: Role of Paleocerebral Functions, Paul D. MacLean, 1990, Springer.

[16] Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005, Jared Dimond

[17] Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, Antonio Damasio, 1994

[18] Fischhoff, Slovic and Lichtenstein (1977) gave subjects a general knowledge test and then asked them how sure they were of their answer. Subjects reported being 100% sure when they were actually only 70%-80% correct.

[19] Daniel Kahneman, psychologist and Nobel laureate, notable for his work on the psychology of judgment and decision-making, behavioral economics and hedonic psychology.




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