Just for Fun: The Butterfly Effect and Brain Symptoms

Here is an fun little video of 30 seconds.

So, what does this have to do with the brain? Well, although this is intended to be an amusing video, it is a fun explanation of a principle of the physics of nonlinear systems — what is popularly called the “butterfly effect”.

That sounded like a bit a mouthful, so let's back up just a bit.

The Butterfly Effect

The “butterfly effect” is more formally called “sensitive dependence on initial conditions”.

People who mention it more popularly talk about the idea that a butterfly in the Amazon, by the tiny wind created in flapping its wings , can create a typhoon in India — the idea being that even the smallest of changes can ultimately create huge effects. You can see this idea in the video —  the accidental alighting of a butterfly on the car ultimately leads to the disaster of the homeowner's roof.

And you've probably experienced it yourself — you wake up 10 minutes late, therefore miss your bus or get caught in traffic, and wind up 30 minutes late to work and miss your opportunity to consult with someone who isn't back in the office until the end of the day after which you end up home 1 hour late and miss meeting your partner for dinner as planned. Ouch! Sensitive dependence on initial conditions in action.

More seriously, have you ever taken a medication with side-effects? It maybe was supposed to just make a small change in some part of your system — those side effects can nevertheless be quite serious, hard to predict for any one person, and result from the fact that our body is one big network of inter-connected activity. Sensitive dependence on initial conditions.

So, there are really three elements to this effect:

(1) the idea that small changes can create large differences in outcomes;
(2) that there are many many interconnected elements in a system — a whole network of connections; and
(3) that these outcomes are not very predictable.

How the Butterfly Creates Change in Your Brain

All these elements are characteristically true of what are called non-linear, dynamical systems.

What a mouthful! Allow me to explain…

Non-linear means that change isn't a gradual, predictable, smooth process. Non-linear change is unpredictable — maybe even looking as if it's random. And dynamical systems are those that are in a constant state of change — think of any living or natural system — “you can't step in the same river twice”, right?

Now here's the really important part:

Your brain is a “non-linear, dynamical system”, so its change is not always tidy and predictable and small changes can create large swings in outcomes.

You may have always assumed that experts know best how to treat your brain, but medical and research experts are a bit like weather forecasters. While they can sometimes see the patterns
evolving or identify severe weather warnings for systems already out of control, we all have experienced their difficulty in getting it “just right” (remember those side-effects?).

As a non-linear system, like weather systems, the brain is immensely complex and its activity is always changing and interconnected, making it virtually impossible to predict exactly what will
happen when you try to change something specific. That’s why, in my experience, the best tools for changing the brain’s activity are those that help it to better self-regulate – to change itself – and to discover its own best way of functioning for the person you are becoming. 

And that's why I choose the neurofeedback tools I do. But maybe that's another post…