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Emotions and Anxiety, Family Systems and Brain functioning: A natural systems theory of human behaviour :

Bowen Family Systems Theory:

------- © Dr. Satya Prakash Choudhary

An introduction to a natural systems theory of human behaviour

Most of the pioneers of family therapy were pragmatists, more interested in technique than theory. Murray Bowen was an exception. Bowen therapy follows a blueprint based on Bowen theory. Through the development of an original, comprehensive, and unified theory, Bowen played a primary role in laying the foundation for much of what is now defined as Marital and Family Therapy (Wylie, 1991). As Horne & Hicks (2002) point out, the overarching purpose of Bowen's work was to begin an odyssey toward a science of human behaviour and functioning for which Bowen steered the development of his theory toward evolutionary thought, which was and still is the prevailing paradigm of the life sciences (Kerr, 1998). "If evolution ever becomes an accepted science, then human behaviour will also be a science." (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p. 362). Bowen theory also incorporates ideas on the functioning of the brain and how anxiety affects its functioning considerably.

Bowen theory or Family Systems theory is based on the assumption that the human is a product of evolution and that human behaviour is significantly regulated by the same processes that regulate the behaviour of all other living things (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). In spite of the human's elaborately developed cerebral cortex that makes him unique in some respects, there are more similarities than differences with other life forms. Family systems theory tries to understand the human in the context of natural systems. Though Family systems theory and General System theory have areas in common they spring from different roots. While General System theory is derived from mathematics and human thought, Family systems or Bowen theory is derived from factual knowledge gained from direct observation of the human family.

Bowen anchored his theory on the assumption that the human and the human family are driven and guided by processes that are “written in nature”. The human family is a particular kind of natural system called an emotional system (Kerr & Bowen, 1988). Thus Bowen theory uses the term emotional illness in place of the more conventional mental illness . In Bowen theory emotion refers to the automatic processes governing life on all levels, from the cellular to the societal. These are processes that guide the individual automatically within the environment. According to Bowen emotional functioning “includes the force that biology defines as instinct, reproduction, the automatic activity controlled by the autonomic nervous system, subjective emotional and feeling states, and the forces that govern relationship systems. In broad terms, the emotional system governs the ‘dance of life' in all living things (Bowen, 1975, p 380). The automatic emotional system is believed to operate according to principles that when understood, can be used to predict behaviour.

Family systems theory conceptualizes two other systems in addition to the emotional system to be important influences on human functioning and behaviour- the feeling system and the intellectual system. Bowen theory makes a distinction between emotions and feelings, though they are used interchangeably in common usage. As already described above the emotional system is instinctual and refers to the automatic processes that govern life at all levels. Human shares the automatic emotional system with other life forms. On the other hand the feeling and intellectual systems are fairly recent acquisitions by the evolutionary line of animals that led to homo sapiens . Thus the newer systems were additional influences on human behaviour while the emotional system continued to be a major influence (Kerr & Bowen, 1988).

The intellectual system refers to that part of man's nervous system most recently acquired in evolution, generally referred to as the “thinking brain”. It includes the human capacity to know and to understand, to abstract the processes of the natural world and to communicate complex ideas. In this sense the human is unique. The feeling system too is quite influential in human activity, especially on the social process. People can be aware of feelings by virtue of feeling them. In contrast emotions are not felt. The influence of emotions is inferred. Feelings appear to be an intellectual or cognitive awareness of the more superficial aspects of the emotional system. Most animals react emotionally automatically. Humans too are reacting emotionally “but with a layer of feeling on top of it. It is the feeling component that we are aware of, but there is more to the reaction than just feeling.” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988, p31).

Thinking can be objective or subjective. In other words there is a distinction between thinking that is not influenced by the emotional and feeling process and thinking that is influenced by it. Much of the time man's intellect operates in the service of the feeling and emotional process. Thus at times the feeling and emotional processes distort thinking. It appears that the emotional, feeling, and intellectual systems mutually influence one another and no system is better than the others. Each system serves important functions for the species. Yet there is a downside to it. Often the intellect is acutely and even chronically overwhelmed by the emotional and feeling process, resulting in a loss of objectivity.

While Bowen developed the concept of these three systems based largely on clinical observation, brain researcher Paul MacLean (1976) developed a similar model on the basis of neuroanatomical and neurophysiological research. An understanding of Paul MacLean's model of the triune brain helps appreciate Bowen theory better, bearing in mind that a discussion of the role of the brain in thinking, feeling, and emotion should not be taken to mean that the brain is the seat of the emotional system. Though obvious parallels can be drawn between some of MacLean's neurological concepts and Bowen's natural systems concepts, one should bear in mind that precise equation of the corresponding concepts will result in reductionism. “What is occurring in the brain can reflect processes occurring throughout the body, even at the cellular level, and what is occurring throughout the body can reflect processes occurring in the brain. The concept of the emotional system is intended to encompass all of these relationship processes operating in the organism.” (Kerr & Bowen, 1988)

Can MacLean's Neurological model provide at least part of a Psychological model for Human Behaviour?

Nature never destroys any of its creations fully. Features that once evolve will not be lost to the species, unless a changed environment makes those features handicaps. As more complex life forms evolve, after each evolutionary step, the older portion of the brain must still be accommodated and is preserved in a new form, though newer structures with new functions are also added to the older ones. Paul MacLean, one of the main exponents of this view, has developed a captivating model of the brain structure and evolution based on extensive comparisons of the brains of reptiles, lower mammals and higher mammals. He calls it the ‘ triune brain ' (MacLean, 1990). The combination of spinal cord, hind brain and midbrain, MacLean calls the ‘neural chassis'. He has distinguished three sorts of drivers of the neural chassis. The most ancient of them is the R-complex (R-reptilian) which we share with other mammals and reptiles. Surrounding the R-complex is the limbic system which we share with the other mammals. In reptiles it is not found in its full elaboration. Finally surmounting the rest of the brain, obviously the most recent evolutionary accretion is the Neocortex (neo-new).

The neocortex eventually became the largest and most prominent part of the brain, the command post for the cingulate gyri and other deep, older parts of the brain. The neocortex makes it possible for us to cope with life rationally and not just depend on our emotions, instincts, and reflexes, and by allowing us to think, plan, talk, act, and behave efficiently, and to understand the significance of all the various sensations sent to the brain. Yet the neocortex is tightly connected to the older structures, and most of the data that flows from part of the neomammalian brain to the other has to be relayed through the older circuits underneath. MacLean emphasized that the three structures are not separate, but rather integrated into one hence, “triune.” He further argued that all the old structures are active in determining behaviour, and that different behaviours originate from these different-but-connected brains (brain structures rather). While the older parts of the brain are necessary for survival, they are not often integrated properly with the newer brain structures. Many problems arise because of a lack of coordination between different brain structures. Understanding that the older brain structures account for seemingly irrational behaviours that otherwise have a survival value helps acknowledge where such behaviours are appropriate and where inappropriate.

MacLean's model is oversimplified and deeply flawed in some ways. A full-fledged discussion of the same is out of the scope of this article. Though the triune brain hypothesis, as stated by MacLean, is oversimplified and flawed in some ways, it does not undermine his contribution in integrating evolutionary theory, comparative neuroanatomy, animal behaviour, and psychology. MacLean's central insight- the existence of evolutionary homologies in brain and behaviour, is an important one. As MacLean insisted human behaviour must be viewed in terms of its neurobiological roots and evolutionary origins. In addition his contentions that some brain structures and associated behaviours are conserved across phylogenetic change, is essentially correct. In spite of its flaws MacLean's neurological model of the brain provides at least part of a psychological model or metaphor by which we can understand human behaviour better.

Emotions, Anxiety, Brain Functioning and Bowen theory

Stress is really an undifferentiated name for the effect of emotion on our body. In fact the limbic system governs many of the body's physiological processes and thereby influences physical health, the immune system, and most major organs. Anxiety can be viewed as a product of the paleomammalian brain with its arousal mechanism that alerts the organism to danger. Danger represents a threat to survival and over the course of evolution, the fear of separation. Because of the basic primitive survival instinct we are able to respond to acute anxiety successfully. The organism's ability to function with anxiety is greatly influenced by the “hardwired” ancestral past and in later primates by the responses learned from parents.

Though emotions involve the human brain at all levels, the neocortex and its associated pathways, can be temporarily shunted out of the decision making as older, simpler circuits take over during anxiety. A suitable term for this is ‘downshifting' (Hart, 1985). Under any kind of threat we tend to downshift. Downshifting is an automatic protection mechanism that enables us to shift to more primitive and dependable response patterns. For instance when we confront a wild beast an instantaneous decision to run is quite appropriate. The older brain structures work well in these kinds of situations as they are designed to make very quick decisions. Unfortunately, downshifting has an obvious downside. When we downshift, full use of the neocortex is suspended and more control is given to the older structures. The consequence is something we have all experienced many times- we can't think clearly, our ability to think straight seems to vanish. But the problem is that we continue to downshift even when it is not necessary or even beneficial to do so (Hart, 1985). "When confronted with a life-threatening situation, our rational brains may become confused and override our instinctive impulses. Though this overriding may be done for a good reason, the confusion that accompanies it sets the stage”. (Levine, 1997, pp. 18-19) What gets overridden is our innate, self-regulatory process- the return to homeostasis of our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous functions which in the face of overwhelm is disrupted. It is therefore now understood that “anxiety is in the nervous system, not in the event".

Similarly Bowen theory too postulates that chronic anxiety is more closely related to an individual's reactions to the disturbance than the event itself. Bowen theory postulates two main variables in human functioning: anxiety and differentiation . Bowen makes a distinction between acute and chronic anxiety. Generally specific events trigger acute anxiety, while chronic anxiety appears to be triggered by a disturbance in the relationship system. Humans tend to cope well with acute anxiety. But chronic anxiety is more closely related to an individual's reactions to the disturbance than the event itself.

Family as a multigenerational emotional unit

Bowen's view of the family as a multigenerational emotional unit understands the emotional system as a product of several billion years of evolution. It is the driving force of the family and other relationship systems. Bowen had an idea that the basic unit of emotional functioning might not be the individual, as previously thought, but the nuclear family (Gilbert, 1992). The emotional system refers to what ‘energizes' the family system, and includes those aspects that humans have in common with other forms of life such as the “automatic instinctual mechanisms such as finding food, fleeing from enemies, reproducing, rearing young, and other aspects of social relationships” (Peter Titelman, 2003, p 19).

Emotional Fusion and Differentiation of the self

Bowen (1978) postulated that the emotional system is governed by the interplay of two counterbalancing “life forces”, individuality and togetherness , which are rooted in biology. One of the most fundamental features of the human condition is the struggle that arises out of the need to strike a balance between two basic urges: the drive toward being an individual, and the drive towards being together with others in relationship. Ideally these two tendencies are brought into a fulfilling balance. More often, however, the result is an unremitting tension (Gilbert, 1992). The work of building a self, with its beliefs, goals, and boundaries that are distinct from those of other people, begins early in life and ideally, continues throughout.

The force of togetherness is undoubtedly as old as life itself as it is thought that there is a togetherness force that works to direct all aggregates of living cells. In humans the togetherness force finds expression in companionship, family, and society itself. Emotional Fusion refers to taking on or giving up self in a relationship. Fusion reflects the joining together of two people out of emotional neediness. It is a trading and borrowing of 'selves', so that the thoughts and feelings of one person are indistinguishable from another's. Fusion can be expressed in several emotional patterns, including conflict, distance and pursuit, over-functioning and under-functioning, and projection. "Human beings will attempt to complete the self in relationships to the degree that it is incomplete by itself." (Gilbert, 1992, p. 22). The effort to make a complete self out of two undifferentiated selves results in a fusion of selves. It is based on the need for togetherness, that wasn't resolved in the original family. Cutoff and fusion are two faces of emotional intensity in families, which become more pronounced in lower levels of differentiation. The less individuated individual has a high level of reactivity which can be expressed as either conformity at the expense of autonomy, or rebellious defiance at the expense of connectedness and intimacy. In a conflictual relationship, individuals are unable to maintain their identity in a relationship without reacting with emotion or anger to another.

The concept of differentiation is central to understanding Bowen's other concepts of family systems theory. Emotional patterns do not create problems in a family, but are rather a reflection of the differentiation of the individuals. This distinction is crucial to Bowen Theory. Differentiation is seen as the ability of any family member to become less anxious, less reactive, and more thoughtful about their part in the interactions. If a person has a level of basic self that allows them to think about and act for their life direction, then they are freer to be connected in meaningful and open communication in relationships. If they are so fused that they are always considering the reactions of others to what they do, then they will have less freedom to maintain an adult attachment.

The paradox of Bowen theory is that a level of basic self is defined by a person's ability to separate emotionality from the primary relationship system, while at the same time staying in emotional contact with the important people in her life. Maintaining individuality does not mean disconnecting from or not cooperating with others, but managing one's reactivity and sense of direction despite the disagreement of others. Thus differentiation includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) non-anxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one's own destiny and emotional being (Friedman, 1985). These are complicated concepts based on Bowen's study of evolutionary theory.

Thus staying differentiated requires combined use of the neocortex and limbic system as opposed to the reactive functioning that comes from the older but shorter circuits between the R-complex and limbic system. It is here that BFST partly overlaps with the more recent emotional intelligence advocates. Put another way differentiation is the capacity to reflect, to be aware. Awareness is the key to bring down reactivity. Such awareness is made possible by allowing the neocortex to function fully. In fact full functioning of the neocortex implies neocortical regulation of emotional responses. Unfortunately ‘downshifting' during anxiety doesn't allow the neocortex to take over.

In well-differentiated family systems, age-appropriate individuation occurs, allowing the young adult to engage in both intimate contact with others and autonomous functioning. In contrast, in poorly differentiated family systems, the family members are dependent or disengaged from one another. This leads to age-inappropriate individuation, the emerging of a child without clear identity, boundaries, or ability to set a life direction. As an adult the child continues being fused with others, or in an attempt to be separate, they are cut off from important relationships.

According to Bowen (1978), differentiation of self is essential for healthy psychological development. Poorly differentiated individuals are thought to experience higher levels of chronic anxiety and thus more psychological and physical symptoms. Symptoms feed on chronic anxiety. Research has provided some support for this theoretical notion in that lower levels of differentiation have been associated with greater amounts of chronic anxiety and more symptomatic distress (Skowron & Friedlander, 1998), higher frequencies of health problems and greater psychological distress (Bray, Harvey, & Williamson, 1987; Harvey & Bray, 1991; Harvey, Curry, & Bray, 1991), and lower levels of marital satisfaction (Skowron, 2000). Thus differentiating from one's family of origin is a key developmental task associated with young adulthood (Carter & McGoldrick, 1989).

While differentiation of self is of utmost importance for autonomous functioning, not many appreciate fully the significance of the complementary and counterbalancing emotional competence as an inherent but less obvious side of being differentiated. It is a paradox of Bowen therapy that it aims to enhance family relationships primarily not by focusing on relationship building alone but by focusing on the opposite too. However it has to be remembered that part of the attempt to differentiate involves, building a person-to-person relationship (Bowen, 1974). Bowen's concept of differentiation emphasizes the capacity to be in “close emotional contact with significant others” (p. 37). Thus in well-differentiated family systems, age-appropriate individuation occurs, allowing the young adult to engage in both intimate contact with others and autonomous functioning. In other words differentiation of self involves two complementary functions: (1) individuation leading to autonomous functioning (2) emotional competence that allows an individual to engage in intimate contact with others



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