NOTES ON A TRANSFORMATION: An Application of Chaos Theory & Depth Psychology (2014): Part VII – Attention, Distraction, & Activism

15 February 2014

“Believers make liars,” except that, as Jung (1956)[1] reminds us, “Belief is a substitute for a missing empirical reality” (¶666), so believers do not always make liars, but only unverified asserters.[2]


Recently (and currently), I experienced (and continue to experience) a “re-centering”[3] of my identity, by which I mean that patterns and behaviors in my life changed (and continue to change).

Over the course of some fourteen posts, I will describe the various inputs that brought about this change, analyzing them through a lens of chaos theory and Jungian depth-psychology, only in part to further articulate the roots of the change (for myself) and more to provide a descriptive model of the experience that might prove useful (for others). As such, everything autobiographical in this post I consider trivial; its significance resides only in its illustrative value for you (the reader) and for the model.

This seventh post continues the exposition of chaos theory and relates attention, distraction, and activism to my notion meaningful change or transformation. It also summarises the exposition on chaos theory.

Attention,[4] Distraction, & Activism

It is not enough to construe the effect of an order parameter or key variable or entrainment as only a change of attention, given that studies of attentional shifting show it occurs frequently. Background noise, for example, impacts attention on visual tasks;[5] such noise gets incorporated into one’s attentional spectrum, rather than persisting as merely an alien factor in the environment. Moreover, while visual distractions get more easily activated—occur more readily—auditory distractions appear as more pronounced and have more lingering effects.[6] Generally, distraction seems more difficult to achieve when we add a tactile modality, as when kinesthetic learners doodle with a pencil while a teacher lectures to help maintain attention and concentration;[7] for children with autism spectrum disorder, greater perceptual loads can also help to avoid becoming distracted.[8]

In fact, the very wealth and overload of multisensory information that bombards us moment to moment[9] appears to illuminate the origin of our selective attention in the first place.[10] And if this seems far afield of the current topic of this essay, not only does the poorly characterized mechanism or process of the interaction of attention and the integration or non-integration of multisensory inputs remain a very open question in cognitive disciplines,[11] but this issues also tracks, on a smaller scale, the moment analogous to the integration of the individual into the multiplicity of the crowd or the integration of the self into the multiplicity of society, &c, i.e., of the “I” into any “us.”

Jung (1907),[12] referring to previous work by Tarchanoff (1890)[13] and Bleuler (1906)[14], describes attention as “nothing more than a special form of affectivity. Attention, interest, expectation, are all emotional expressions” (¶1048). More recent experimental evidence suggests that multiple instances of experience rather than the strength of any one given experience tends to strengthen memory,[15] even when those multiple experience occur at different times.[16] Contrasting instance versus strength theories, Logan (1988) notes:

In instance theories, memory becomes stronger because each experience lays down a separate trace that may be recruited at the time of retrieval; in strength theories, memory becomes stronger by strengthening a connection between a generic representation of a stimulus and a generic representation of its interpretation or its response ( 494).

But let’s not either/or this. For abrupt transformative change, we might say that all sorts of antecedents have finally built up (a sort of earthquake theory of change), but whatever appeal this has, it poorly describes the experience. I didn’t experience a gradual build-up; only looking back, as I do now, can I convince myself that I see factors leading up to it. That only after the fact may we recognize how all those various seismic tremors, that meant nothing at the time, actually came together—we insist—in a catastrophic shift renders suspect any claim about those factors as “inputs”.

Either way, I will rather say that gradualist notions of change apply in some cases, while non-gradualist descriptions apply in others. Specifically, this paper describes more non-gradualist scenarios.

From the image of symmetry breaking above, we see that it does take some time to get to the state of chaos. But the difference between the effects of positive feedback (chaos) and negative feedback (homeostasis) also suggests a difference exists between at least two means or processes of change. Beyond this—ignoring that a gradualist description of my transformation or my father’s doesn’t accord very well with our experience of that transformation—the gradualist approach requires considerably more time to come about; and when I hear that kind of “wait,” I remember Faulkner’s reply to a question put to him about Civil Rights: “Yes, but not yet.” Easy for a white guy to say.

From an activist standpoint, the gradualist strategy seems untenable. Time and money already exist heavily on the side of Power and its gradualist habit of absorbing whatever change it can to maintain itself. Gradualist change (in society as in biology) operates in a deeply conservative way, and when what exists needs conserving, gradualist change (and its negative feedback) suffice. But we cannot let the current status quo persist. A non-gradualist view, by contrast, suggests that we can bring about transformative change in short order (and on a tiny budget). We need only induce a state of chaos and then provide a new order parameter into that chaos. Historically, this manifests in anarchy and revolution, and my incompetence compels me to avoid saying anything more about this as a social program. Another social variety of anarchy and revolution, however, occurs in Art, and that I can speak to.

Example. Two years ago, the ASPCA ad with the sad dogs and Sarah McLachlan song got me—now I donate. I don’t know if I already thrummed in a state of chaos when it came on TV, but I rather suspect the very piece itself broke my symmetry and provided me the new order parameter “donate, it helps”. We can critique the ASPCA, this method of fundraising, and so on. I mention the experience to illustrate how the power of Art can function to induce a change in behavior (whether a life-changing one or not).[17]


The above offers in precise detail a description of a process of abrupt (nongradualist) transformation: from an initial phase transition moment of symmetry breaking, when bifurcations articulate to the point of a state of chaos, then the introduction of a new order parameter (or key variable) into the positive feedback characteristic of chaos may lead (will lead) to a shift from one’s previous (strange) attractor to a new one. On the personal or individualistic level, from a “dislodging” shock in our life, the introduction of a new idea (from others, from counselors, from dreams, &c) during that state of chaos (if it comes about) may lead, will lead, to a meaningful change of life direction. This process seems to arise most often involuntarily and so benefits from the help of friends or others external to the situation to provide us insight. On the social level, this process proposes a hypothesis for how we might deliberately design works of art first to induce a state of chaos and then to introduce a new order parameter (or key variable) as a way to make artwork and activism rooted in it more effectively counter-hegemonic and less absorbable by the (gradualist) negative feedbacks of Power. The only or most preeminent difference between this and either advertising or reactionary propaganda: the values in its politics.


[1] Jung, CG (1970). Mysterium coniunctionis: an inquiry into the separation and synthesis of psychic opposites in alchemy. (Vol. 14, Collected Works, 2nd ed., Trans. R.F.C. Hull) Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[2] Also, from Two Essays in Analytical Psychology:

One could easily assert that the impelling motive in this development [of the desire to obtain magical prestige or social influence] is the will to power. But that would be to forget that the building up of prestige is always a product of collective compromise: not only must there be one who wants prestige, there must also be a public seeking somebody on whom to confer prestige (¶239).

[3] One might typically hear “re-centering” but I do not believe that the circle represents the correct geometric metaphor; rather, as in planetary orbits, the ellipse does, which has two foci that influence the course of the orbit. As just one partial illustration of this, I wrote elsewhere:

This elliptical shape changes the characteristic or consequences of the planetary motion, to the point that we experience seasons (in different ways) on the earth. It means the Sun offers the most predominating factor, but that not only do other planets exist, we might actually stand on them at different times, pointing to Jung’s notion of complexes—as alternative personalities (or at least pseudo-personalities within our psyche) as well as rationalizing his sense of possession. Epistemologically, this points not only to a multiplicity of points of view but also to their incommensurability into the bargain; it never boils down only to a difference of semantics, but to a fundamental difference in value-orientation that cannot resolve simplistically. Ethically, that we move relative to two “centers of gravity”—two loci of motion—means not only that we have a radical, existential demand to take responsibility for ourselves but also that the Sun must have obligations as well—we do not merely spin round the Sun, solely or helplessly worshipping it while it owes us nothing more than to just keep on doing what it always does and has. We become in our rights to make demands of it, which the Pueblo people nicely hint at when each morning they venerate the Sun in order to help him up. No simply all-powerful deity, humanity must serve as his alarm clock each day, suggesting that we not only have a duty to do so, for the sake of the whole world, but also a right to. Were it not for our intervention, the Sun might just sleep all day!

Murphy (1991)* puts this another way: “The struggle is not to abolish any type of centering, but to recognize the relative nature of centers and their dynamic relationship with margins” (51).

*Murphy, PD (1991). Prolegomenon to an ecofeminist dialogics. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 39–56. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[4] I borrow the text here from a friend’s unpublished dissertation research.

[5] Trimmel, M., & Poelzl, G. (2006). Impact of background noise on reaction time and brain DC potential changes of VDT-based spatial attention. Ergonomics, 49(2), 202-208.

[6] Bendixen, A., Grimm, S., Deouell, L., Wetzel, N., Mädebach, A., & Schröger, E. (2010). The time-course of auditory and visual distraction effects in a new crossmodal paradigm. Neuropsychologia, 48(7), 2130-2139. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2010.04.004.

[7] Eimer, M., & Driver, J. (2000). An event-related brain potential study of crossmodal links in spatial attention between vision and touch. Psychophysiology, 37, 697-705. doi:10.1017/S0048577200990899

[8] Remington, A., Swettenham, J., Campbell, R., & Coleman, M. (2009). Selective attention and perceptual load in autism spectrum disorder. Psychological Science, 20(11), 1388-1393.  doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02454.x

[9] Dux, P., & Marois, R.. (2009). The attentional blink: A review of data and theory. Attention, Perception and Psychophysics, 71(8), 1683-1700.

[10] Lavie, N. (2005). Distracted and confused?: Selective attention under load. TRENDS in Cognitive Sciences, 9(2), 75-82. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.12.004

[11] Navarra, J., Alsius, A., Soto-Faraco, S., & Spence, C. (2010). Assessing the role of attention in the audiovisual integration of speech. Information Fusion, 11(1), 4-11. doi:10.1016/j.inffus.2009.04.001.

[12] Jung, C. G. (1981). Experimental researches. (Collected Works, vol. 2) 1st Princeton/Bollingen paperback printing, with corrections. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

[13] Tarchanoff, I. (1890). Galvanic phenomena in the human skin in connection with irritation of the sensory organs and with various forms of psychic activity. Pflüger’s Achiv für Physiologie. [cited in Jung (1907 / 1981)]

[14] Bleuler, E. (1906). Affektivität, suggestibilität, paranoia. Halle: Carl Marhold.

[15] Logan, G. (1988). Toward an instance theory of automatization. Psychological Review, 95(4), 492-527. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.95.4.492.

[16] Clemons, L. K. (1989).  Degrees of implementation of multisensory reading instruction by teachers involved in naturalistic research. (Record of Study);. Ed.D. dissertation, Texas A&M University, United States — Texas. Retrieved from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text.(Publication No. AAT 9015435).

[17] I can object to this kind of manipulation. I an object that the ASPCA has  shit-ton of money and this, then, does not offer a “non-gradualist” feint for (meaningful) change. Let’s not let the example upstage the point, which emphasizes the power of Art to prompt change. One may object also that (as I noted above) interventions should not provide their own order parameters; the question remains if the order parameter provided amounts to “donate now” or meant something else to me? All of this provide grist for numerous other essays that I don’t wish to pursue here.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: