Volume 3, Number 2 Spring, 1990

Editor : Dr. Charles Laughlin, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA K1S 5B6, Phone (819) 459-1121, E-mail charlesl@carleton.bitnet.


Your checks and money orders keep coming in. Thanks for that. It was suggested by one of you that if everyone were to request that their library subscribe to the newsletter, we could go a long way in deferring costs. Why don't you try it? Remember, don't make your checks out to me, but rather to "Carleton University." The network has its own account now, and the University gets the money.


We've all had those days when everything seems to be falling into complete chaos around us. And on those days we all become intimately acquainted with the desire for order. But the present theory in "chaos" research states that complete order may not be attainable and may not in fact be a desirable thing. Chaos seems to be an inherent part of certain processes -- weather, for instance -- and may be a characteristic of all complex systems. And, as some physiologists would say, chaos forms a part of normal healthy human existence.

What is chaos? W.M. Schaffer, in a paper published in Chaos in Biological Systems , lists a number of elements that characterize "chaos". Chaotic systems exhibit both complex dynamics and determinism;i.e., they don't fall into equilibrium. They always exhibit motion which never repeats, but there are no random inputs. As well, there is always a very sensitive dependence on initial conditions and any small deviation will be considerably amplified, adding to the impossibility of long-term predictions. In addition, when a parameter is changed, the type of attractor that is the locus of a particular motion may also change. This is called "bifurcation" and is the point at which a normally stable system may become chaotic. Finally, chaos itself is essentially fractal. That is, when chaotic motion is mapped, it shows a continuous stretching and folding which, under magnification, reveals structure within structure. James Gleick in his book Chaos comments that "in the mind's eye, a fractal is a way of seeing infinity."

Chaos theory was born out of a certain problem facing meteorologists, namely that of trying to understand the unpredictability of weather. Edward N. Lorenz came the closest to understanding the integral quality of atmospheric behavior by treating it as a fluid exhibiting turbulence. Through this work he realized that weather systems were governed by a new kind of attractor, which was called chaotic or "strange" -- an attractor being loosely defined as a point which captures nearby orbits. Three other attractors were known by this time: the fixed point attractor (visualize a swinging pendulum which must always come to rest at the same fixed position); the limit cycle attractor (which describes stable oscillations, for example a heart beat); and, the torus attractor (also describes oscillations, but those that are quasi-periodic). These three attractors, which were already known in 1963 when Lorenz did his work, are extremely predictable. Strange attractors, however, have much more complex geometric forms and correspond to unpredictable behaviors. They are, in essence, fractals, which reveal greater detail when they are magnified.

Work on fractals was largely pioneered by Benoit Mandelbrot, and he was the one to coin the term. He first approached this work by trying to clarify the periodicity of random noise generation. Mandelbrot argued that even within the smallest burst of random noise are periods that are completely noise free. In this manner he "reconstructed" a Cantor set, which is essentially a line where the middle third is extracted, leaving two segments from which the middle thirds are extracted, leaving four segments from which the middle thirds are extracted, and so on to infinity. This interest in "bursts of error" led Mandelbrot to explore problems in economics, periodicity of flooding on the Nile, and the fractal nature of coastlines.

All of this impacts on how we come to understand the chaotic nature of the universe we live in and are a part of. Chaos theory is now being used to illuminate how the human body functions. Cardiac research is one of the areas that is coming under increasing scrutiny And, of course, there is controversy here. Some physiologists argue that chaotic process can only be tracked in the heart when it is undergoing turbulent cardiac arrythmia (i.e. ventricular fibrillation), whereas others say that the cardiac system always exhibits some type of random noise. If variations in the normal beat-to-beat heart rate are plotted for a length of time and analyzed, they will show rapid fluctuations that resemble fractals, which is taken as evidence for the presence of a chaotic attractor. Morphogenetic processes also seem to be influenced by strange attractors. This can be seen in the large number of cases of "self-similarity" of anatomical structures. The tracheo-bronchial tree is a good example of this, as is the system of veins and capillaries in the body. Both systems clearly show fractal branching, fitting huge surface areas into a limited volume. The entire network of vessels and blood take up no more space than approximately five percent of the body. The redundancy of these types of fractal structures lead to a very strong system that has marked resistance to injury of any type.

For a long time, the irregular fluctuations observed in a number of biological systems, including the brain, were being ignored as possible manifestations of chaos, or were swept away as unexplainable errors. By 1985, however, Walter J. Freeman was wondering whether the "disorderly bursts" that he noted in various studies of EEG patterns could in fact be chaos. Studies of the brain show that there is always a type of random noise being generated. Neurons in the brain are known to exhibit irregular discharges with a seemingly random spontaneity. Freeman showed that chaos could be generated in the olfactory system (using rabbits specifically), while Paul E. Rapp analyzed human electroencephalograms and found evidence of chaos in the nervous system. Rapp did an interesting experiment by monitoring the brain waves of people who were asked to count backwards from 700 by sevens. When people have to think about what they are doing, their brain waves show dramatic variations in the intervals of voltage peaks and troughs. Although there is always a background "noise" in relaxed people, the act of thinking seems to show a particularly chaotic process. Interestingly, in disorders such as epilepsy there seems to be evidence of the loss of irregular fluctuations and an increased periodicity and regularity. The nervous system in general, then, seems to provide a basis for the presence of ongoing chaotic phenomena. However, E.C. Zeeman, in response to a question raised at the proceedings of the Royal Society in London (published under the title Dynamical Chaos ), advised caution when trying to use chaos theory to model biological systems, particularly in reference to human behaviour, because of the difficulty of isolating any part of the system for periods of long-term study. There are simply too many factors that would influence possible outcomes. But he did advance the idea that the limbic brain might provide a potential base for a chaos model. This area of the brain which is implicated in mediating mood/emotion could evidence certain types of attractors. Zeeman stated that each mood as it arises is representative of an attractor, which after its stability is broken would cause a shift in moods (i.e. a catastrophic shift to another attractor, or a "bifurcation"). He cites schizophrenia as a particularly strong possibility for the presence of a chaotic attractor -- interestingly this disorder also shows EEG patterns akin to epilepsy (which also displays abnormal dynamics.

Physiological research shows that a certain amount of chaos is good for us. We may in fact need chaotic flux in order to stay alive. The conventional approach to bodily systems holds that disease occurs when normal periodic rhythms are upset. This theory is now being challenged by data that supports the presence of greater erratic periods in healthier systems.

Chaos research makes necessary a reformulation of the concept of randomness and has far reaching implications for a number of areas of study. For those who wish to know more about the general background of chaos theory, try James Gleick's book Chaos , which offers a wonderful outline. L. Glass, B.J. West, and A.L. Goldberger are names to track for those interested particularly in chaos in cardiac research and fractal anatomies, although they do tackle other physiological problems as well. The latter two recently authored an article in the February 1990 Scientific American entitled "Chaos and Fractals in Human Physiology". Those who want specifically to access the neurophysiological material might want to look up the work done by Paul Rapp, Stephen Foote and Walter J. Freeman.

Unfortunately, part of the problem for the layperson is understanding the information which is already available. Books like Chaos in Biological Systems (a NATO Advanced Science Institute publication, 1987) have some excellent sections that are relatively accessible for those people who don't read math, but most of the work done is written only in mathematical language and has yet to be translated into English. There are numerous books and monographs (which include transcripts of meetings of various associations) available in any university library on chaos theory in general, and on how chaos theory impacts on physiology, but these demand that the reader have a great desire for wading through turgid mathematical prose. Anyone interested in this approach may find additional information under "nonlinear dynamics" of which chaos and fractals are a part. For the time being, best bets on easily understood material still lies in the popular journals (particularly Scientific American , December 1986; Discover , May 1989) and the aforementioned book by James Gleick.

For a more complete list of sources, check out the following: Anonymous (1987) Dynamical Chaos . London: Proceedings of the Royal Society; Crutchfield, James P., J. Doyne Farmer, Norman H. Packard and Robert S. Shaw

(1986) "Chaos." Scientific American 255 (6):46-57; Degn, H., A.V. Holden, and L.F. Olsen (1987) Chaos in Biological Systems . New York: Plenum Press; Freeman, Walter J. and Christine A. Skarda (1985) "Spatial EEG Patterns, Non-linear Dynamics and Perception: the Neo-Sherringtonian View." Brain Research Reviews 10:147-175; Freeman, Walter J. (1986) "Petit Mal Seizure Spikes in Olfactory Bulb and Cortex Caused by Runaway Inhibition After Exhaustion of Excitation." Brain Research Reviews 11:259-284; Freeman, Walter J. and Kamil A. Grajski (1987) "Relation of Olfactory EEG to Behavior: Factor Analysis." Behavior Neuroscience 101 (6):766-777; Gleick, James (1987) Chaos . New York: Penguin Books; Goldberger, Ary L., David R. Rigney and Bruce J. West (1990) "Chaos and Fractals in Human Physiology." Scientific American 262(2):42-49; Gregson, A.M. (1988) Non-Linear Psychophysical Dynamics . Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum; Heim, R. and G. Palm (1978) Lecture Notes in Biomathematics: Theoretical Approaches to Complex Systems . Berlin: Springer-Verlag; Taubes, Gary (1989) "The Body Chaotic." Discover 10(5)62-67. If any of you run across a readable (i.e. non-mathematical) description of chaos theory, either general theory or as it is applied to specific problems, that I haven't mentioned above, I would appreciate hearing about it. I can be reached at the following permanent address:

Karen Richter

1297 Woodroffe Avenue

Ottawa, Ontario

Canada K2C 2T7




The following is Part II of my phone conversation with Prof. Earl Count. Part I was published in the winter, 1990, issue of NNN.

CDL: How would you briefly define the biogram?

EWC: In the light of all that has been said, the biogram attempts to describe the life-mode of any animal (I am avoiding all other biological organizations simply to "play it safe"). Theoretically, it would add a further dimension to the conventional approaches to the human phenomenon. I think this is because the biogram concept is holistic while the conventional approaches are reductionistic -- despite frequent claims to being holistic. But I must avoid further digression here. Perhaps I can best answer your question by repeating the title of the article in the American Anthropologist (60:1049-1085, 1958): "The Biological Basis of Human Sociality," and that of the article in Homo (9:129-146, 1958; 10:1-35, 65-88, 1959): in English, "The Biogenesis of Human Sociality: An Essay in Comparative Vertebrate Sociology" (see Being and Becoming Human for the English version). Actually, the biogram idea comprises all of behavior, not just its social aspect, but in practice I have focused upon the social aspect because the original (1950) question sought to bridge the discontinuity between the socioculture of man and its evolutionary antecedents. Later, I discovered that sociality is a primal property of all animals, even protozoa. All animal kinds engage in exchanging information intramurally (they communicate).

CDL: Can you clarify for me the use you make of the concept of anlagen ? What are the anlagen of the biogram in evolutionary terms?

EWC: It is a common term used in biology. You can find it in an English dictionary. I might translate it as primordium . In embryology it is the earliest differentiation of what will develop into a structure or feature. I have extended the meaning to phylogenesis: something that occurs in a lower form but elaborates in a higher form. A good illustration of this would be the evolutionary expansion of the roof of the reptilian forebrain with its new neural fibre connections with the thalamus which results in the mammalian cerebral hemispheres.

CDL: You are specifically referring to morphology here.

EWC: Well, of course -- but more than that. I could not talk about what the cerebral hemispheres do until I had recognized what the cerebral hemispheres are. And admittedly I cannot explain in functional terms just why it should be this particular combined up-growth of the telencephalic roof and diencephalic floor that evolved into cerebral hemispheres; yet I think there are specialists in this matter who could do much better than I can (I could name a few).

CDL: What then do you mean by a "metatheory" of the biogram?

EWC: I think I have already answered this question essentially. But beyond that, I am not ready to give a list of the topics about which it would be profitable to have theories. They will appear in the monograph I am completing for Homo , However, I cannot refrain from registering some guiding principles. In this our time, the very meaning of science is undergoing a fundamental transition of thought. A sound man science will rest upon a scientific conception of order, not of yesterday, but of today. The central fact of human evolution is the evolution of the brainmind. Human sociality is a tremendous Weiterbildung (further elaboration) of a primal property of living self-organization. We can have no fundamental definition of human sociality unless and until we can refer it to life as a multidimensional ingredient of universal order. I am trying to think holistically. It is not easy. But brainmind cannot be thought of in any other way.


Judy Anne Sproles, 3938 N.W. 20th Terrace, Gainesville, FL 32605, USA.

E. Mesimaa, Department of Social Sciences, Tallinn Technical University, Tallinn, Estonia, USSR.

Tom Kitwood, Interdisciplinary Human Studies, University of Bradford, Bradford West Yorkshire BD7 1DP, UK, Ph: 0274 733466 ext 262, Fax: 0274 305340.


Arbib, Michael A. (1989) The Metaphorical Brain 2: Neural Networks and Beyond . New York: Wiley [Hurray! The sequel to his 1972 classic.]

Callaway, J.C. (1990) "Do Endogenous Psychedelics Catalyze the Visions of Dream Sleep? ASD [Association for the Study of Dreams] Newsletter 7(1):9-10; (1988) "A Proposed Mechanism for the Visions of Dream Sleep." Med Hyp 26:199. [links endogenous alkaloids to production of dreaming]

Cousins, Norman (1989) Head First: The Biology of Hope . New York: Dutton. [discusses brain-willed healing; laugh therapy; psychoneuroimmunology]

Laughlin, C.D., John McManus and E.G. d'Aquili (1990) Brain, Symbol and Experience: Toward a Neurophenomenology of Human Consciousness . Boston: Shambhala New Science Library. [modesty prohibits me from extolling the virtues of this glorious book]

Shav, G. et al. (1989) Neurobiology of Learning and Memory . World Scientific Pub.

Dudai, Y. (1989) Neurobiology of Memory: Concepts, Findings, Trends . Oxford University Press.

Churchland, P.M. (1989) Neurocomputational Perspective: The Nature of Mind and the Structure of SCience . M.I.T. Press.

Young, D. (1989) Nerve CElls and Animal Behavior . New York: Cambridge University Press. [neuroethology, sense organs, motor systems, behavior]

Rose, S. (1987) Molecules and Minds: Essays on Biology and the Social Order . Philadelphia: Open University Press. [reductionism, politics, vivasection, learning, memory]