Thresholds, Bifurcations and Mental Control: An Application of Nonlinear Dynamics to Psychotherapy

Keith Warren, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work

Julien C. Sprott, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Physics Department


Mental control paradoxes—those times when we try to control a thought or behavior and the effort at control becomes counterproductive—are both common and enigmatic. Why is it so difficult to stand in a corner and refrain from thinking of a white bear—but only if we have been asked to do so? Why, when we try to control our thoughts and behaviors, do they so often spin out of control?

These are questions of more than theoretical significance. A variety of mental illnesses manifest themselves in the form of thoughts and/or behaviors that defy control. Examples include eating disorders, some sex offending behavior, obsessive compulsive disorder, and pathological gambling. A better understanding of mental control paradoxes might yield valuable insights into them all. Further, mental control paradoxes might be involved in the more general phenomenon of clinical resistance, in which psychotherapy clients with a variety of problems experience difficulty in changing their thoughts or behaviors.

In this paper, we will review and critique some of the contemporary literature on mental control paradoxes. We will then develop a simple nonlinear model that produces mental control paradoxes as the result of a bifurcation, and which answers the criticisms that we propose. We will demonstrate an application of the model to the self-rated intensity of ruminations in an adult psychotherapy client. Finally, we will discuss the implications of this model of mental control paradoxes.

Ref: K. Warren and J. C. Sprott, InterJournal Complex Systems, 329

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