Emotions: Complexity Perspective
V. Dimitrov and D. Wright
University of Western Sydney
Richmond 2753, Australia




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1. Magic of Self-organization
2. Emotions as Manifestations of Self-organizing Dynamics in Human Experiential Space
3. Holistic Nature of Emotions
  3.1. First Narrative
   3.2. Second Narrative
4. Emotions and Language
5. Inspirational Power of Emotions
6. Emotional Resonance
Emotions: Complexity Perspective
The emergent phenomena are at the focus of Complexity science; they express self-organizing ability of the complexly interwoven dynamics: energies, forces, substances, forms. Emotions are typical examples of emergent phenomena that reveal self-organizing capacity of the human dynamics. Therefore the findings of Complexity are applicable for studying dynamics of emotions.

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1. Magic of Self-organization

Self-organization is a virtual property of the interactive nonlinear dynamics. It becomes actual when the dynamics are materialized in some substance and their intensity of interaction increases so that they become swirling (vortical).

The swirling dynamics are characterized by the presence of self-propelling feedback loops and tend to form a vortex-like whirling structure sustained by forces directed towards its centre. At the same time, the forces that act towards the periphery of the structure cause the emergence of a multitude of pulsating vortical layers, similar to the fractals studied in chaos and complexity theories.

The dynamics of every emergent layer reflects the pulsation of the whirling structure as a whole, and the integrity of the structure crucially depends on the interactive dynamics of the layers. This unique dynamical interplay between the whole (as an expression of layers' interconnectedness) and the layers (mirroring the whole), drives the overall process of self-organization of the moving substance.

The magic of self-organization occurs in the cavity (emptiness, vacuum) at the axis of the whirling structure, where a powerful sucking force emerges. The power of this self-organizing force can be gigantic (in tornadoes, for example).

Self-organizing dynamics of existence manifest in the astonishing diversity of non-animated and animated forms in the universe, in their evolution, transformations and metamorphoses.

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2. Emotions as Manifestations of Self-organizing Dynamics in Human Experiential Space

Human emotions are bearers of enormous energy; the spontaneous emergence of certain emotions can produce irreversible changes (like heart attack or brain hemorrhage) in the physical body of individuals experiencing those emotions. Emotions can kill but they can also inspire and elevate the spirit of a person.

Emotions emerge in the human experiential space [1] -  a space where the dynamics of each individualís life release their energy through one' everyday actions and thoughts, emotions and feelings, expectations and dreams, spiritual beliefs and aspirations.

Let us zoom into the nature of the human experiential space and explore how it relates to the emergence of emotions. The Human Experiential Space is

~ one cannot predict what kind of experience will occur even in the nearest future, therefore one is uncertain about the emotions which could emerge out of this experience;

~ tiny little changes in the conditions under which oneís life unfolds or in the story that one has about oneself and reality can lead to dramatic changes in the experience of apparently identical events and processes, and hence can produce dramatic changes in the emotions related to this experience;

~ seemingly simple and routine modes of behavior can lead to extremely complicated experiential patterns accompanying by complexly interwoven streams of emotions .

    ~ an almost infinite number of external and internal interdependent factors create different dimensions of one's experience and thus different worlds of feelings and emotions;

    ~ each dimension (or group of dimensions) relates to a different level of experience - not only to the physical level, where human bodies live and die, but also to a multitude of much more subtle levels of experiences connected with constantly 'swarming' thoughts and ideas, words and stories, spiritual beliefs and aspirations; each subtle level is colored with an almost infinite spectrum of nuances of various emotions.

    ~ the higher the level of awareness of an individual, the greater the number of dimensions of his/her experiential space, the richer his/her emotional life; a three-dimensional consciousness is stuck in the material plane of existence, characterized by repetitive (mostly consumption-oriented or ego-centred) emotional patterns, therefore it can hardly recognize emotionally saturated experiences related to one's soul and spirit.
     free from linearity of time

    ~ both past and future meet in the experience of the present while enriching it with emotions;

    ~ the nature of an event directly reflects human experience of the time span of this event and its emotional load (the painful and sad events appear always longer than the events full of joy and happiness);

    ~ ënow' does not happen simultaneously for two spatially separated observers, that is, the emotional experience of ënowí is dependent on an observer's state of mind and heart in much the same way as the emotional experience of ëhere' is.
     saturated with chaotic (strange) attractors

    ~ out of the interaction of the experiential dynamics 'strange' attractors emerge as manifestation of the self-organizing power of these dynamics and pull towards their 'basins' long-lasting feelings, repetitive emotional patterns, deep spiritual beliefs, fixed ideas, stereotype activities, different kinds of addictive behaviour, compelling motivation, etc.

    ~ experience has a tendency to 'get stuck' on a specific attractor feeding one and the same (or similar) emotions; if these emotions are negative (like hatred, jealousy, envy, grief), the attractor is considered as detrimental to one's health;

    ~ the attractors are dissipative formations: gradually they lose their supportive energy, shrink and dissolve together with the emotions related to them.
     impregnated with potential for qualitative jumps (bifurcations)

    ~ critical conditions and factors stimulate the occurrence of spontaneous qualitative jumps in human experience and hence in the emotional patterns of an individual;

    ~ because of its complexity, human experience tends towards 'zone of criticality', that is, towards critical developments impregnated with possibilities for bifurcation from one emotional state to another;

    ~ the higher the intensity of the critical state of an individual, the more significant the qualitative jump in the emotional state of this individual.

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    3. Holistic Nature of Emotions

    Self-organizing ability of human dynamics is a holistic expression of the power hidden in their interactions. As far as any authentic emotion is a manifestation of this self-organizing ability, it is also holistic - it cannot be separated into smaller parts, although it could be 'fractalized' (let us recall that fractals are similar images of the whole at different scales of representation). For example, the grief of the whole nation in relation to the death of a national hero, can be expressed through the grief of a single person, without losing its wholeness; only the scale will be different - from the macro level of the nation to the micro level of an individual.

    Because of its holistic nature, the best way to explore emotions is through the narratives (stories) related to authentic human experience; such a story is always a holistic expression of one's experience and hence of one's emotions.

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    3.1. First Narrative

    Horst, an old family friend, had been at my fatherís funeral. I had driven him home that night, late, after the wake, and on my way back to the family home I had found myself parked in a quiet alcove in a pine forest, near a lake and crying a torrent. It was the first time I had really been alone since the death. Up until then there had always been people around and always things to do. It was also the first time I had felt the loss enter into my body and shake me beyond conscious control. My tears grabbed me hurtfully. I didnít know where they came from. It was as if the rust, the grit, the debris right at the bottom of my emotional tank had been rattled then shaken free. I didnít know I felt so deeply or so strongly. It gutted me. I hadnít cried for years and that night I cried myself out, I donít know how long it took but finally I regained sufficient equanimity and drove the final three kilometers home.

    In the years since then, it seemed, I had not greatly missed my father. I guess I thought I had purged my grief. In truth, I had on occasions even been grateful for his absence and the over bearing nature of his parenting. And yet I happened to glimpse a photo of him as I cleared my possessions from the home of Louisa, following a sudden and unexpected breakdown in our five-year relationship and I wept uncontrollably. In heartbreak and grief I howled, I wet half a roll of toilet paper with my salty tears.

    On a deep level I loved my father enormously. One of the reasons we argued so much was because of the affinity I felt for him - and him for me - such that whenever he failed to live up to my expectations I felt let down, and I wasnít afraid to tell him. The result was antipathy. When I saw that photo and found myself weeping, I realized just how much I underestimated the loss. If the possibility of such a response would have been mentioned a week before I would have laughed. I would have dismissed any suggestion that I still valued him and missed him and reaped the rewards - and suffered the conflicts - of his parenting. There was much of this chaos also in the separation from Louisa.

    As I gathered my things from her house and packed them into boxes I remembered the time she and I had shared. Rich memories lived in the atmosphere. I remembered the way we used to open the curtains each morning to let the sun shine into the bedroom. I remembered the struggle to keep the house warm of an evening and I remember the way that warmth, when it was secured, bound us together through winter.

    The intensity of the critical conditions of the narrator (related both to the death of his father and the breakdown of his relationships with Louisa) makes his emotional experience complex, unpredictable and open for dramatic changes.

    There is a powerful connection between the loss the narrator feels in the sudden separation from Louisa and the grief that surfaces in relation to his father. One opens the way for the other, or so it seems. It is as if in the strength of the emotional response individual emotional experiences ran together somehow. The narrator is flooded by emotions, yet like driftwood, individual emotions emerge every so often and demanded attention only to, almost as rapidly, disappear from view, under the pressure of the onrushing stream. The emotional experience is similar with what Jeffrey Kohler says: "...anything you are crying for at one moment can so easily change to something quite different a moment later... much of the time you donít really know exactly what you are feeling" [2].

    Points of attention and comprehension shift and change. What remains constant is the immersion in the emotion. The rationality of one or another event is overtaken by the power of the emergent emotion. This in itself can be a revelation - a sudden jump, a bifurcation to entirely different kind of experience, which is demonstrated in the second story of the narrator.

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    3.2. Second Narrative

    After loss, many people have told me, healing takes time. At that time and at times since I have watched the clock, I have cried, tested my pulse, monitored my heartbeat, cried still more and watched myself, sporadically, as I became engulfed by emotions, then some time later emerged once more. And I have tried to find names for the emotions as they threatened to, in fact every so often did, totally overwhelm me, in wave after wave after wave. All the time I have carried on conversations with myself (and others willing to do so), on the nature of the emotions that arose in this time. I have felt "hollowed out", I have felt "emptied", "cold", "in need" and very much "on my own" despite the consoling words of friends and allies. In my gut I have felt the effect of loss echo. Through the muscles of my face I have felt it reveal itself, at first to me, then to anyone capable of seeing it in me....Loss is both an emotional and a physical thing. The body yearns for the other, it aches with the absence and physically suffers the recognition that what is lost will not return. At our peril we devalue the experience in our attempts to ëovercome ití and ëput it in the pastí and ëmove oní. It continues. Poet John Foulcher offers this fragment of advice.

    I think the way... in which I have learnt to cope with it (and it has been a gradual process) is to learn that the phrase "Time heals all" is a lie. Time heals nothing. When somebody dies they take a part of you with them and you can never get it back. When love dies that also takes a part of you and youíll never get that back. It fans out. It can make personal sustainability a genuine concern. It is, in this respect, both a sensual experience and a knowledge form. Foulcher continues,  
    ... when you are in pain, if you are suffering most of us tend to think, "Well, Iíll grit my teeth and bear it" and wait for the light at the end of the tunnel, and what we miss (with this approach) is experiencing the suffering and pain that is there. I think to actually experience it by saying ëThis is it. Iím going through it and this is how it is affecting meí is the best way to cope with it. Your natural tendency is to avoid, to pull back, define, compensate. But I think the considered response is to avoid those sorts of cheap answers and go for the hard one [3].

    And once again I remembered sitting alongside my father in the bed he died in, and holding his hand as the sun streamed in through the window. Why, I ask, did it take seven years, and a ëmarriageí breakdown to allow me to weep uncontrollably for him. It seems as if the embodied processes of loss and grief, having been triggered, unfold in unexpected ways. The mind finds meaning in incidental things. Immersed in the loss triggered by Louisaís declaration I was opened to the distress of my fatherís death and much, much more. I cried listening to items on the 7 oíclock news, I cried listening to music, I cried looking at photos in magazines, I cried seeing children playing and couples drinking coffee and traffic flowing and trees growing. These tears were not indiscriminate, nor were they altogether unwelcome. They stirred me hugely. My body and mind were massively engaged by them. I wept, truly, and my weeping was sufficiently overwhelming to make me stop, rest and turn my attention in on myself.

    The emotion was the thing: and this thing churned and bubbled and surfaced and reverberated in my body as I moved through the minutes that comprised the day. Nestled deep within, my sensitivities aligned themselves and empathised with others they found in their vicinity. My vulnerability brought down the barriers that allowed me to claim competence in the everyday world. Suddenly I was incompetent, I was irrational, I was in tears, I was inconsolable, I was beyond help, I was emotional. My good sense was overcome by the strength of my feelings. My body was overwhelming ëmeí. Within my distress I was celebrating. Never had my emotions been revealed to me so powerfully.

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    4. Emotions and Language

    Responses to emotional experience swing wildly. Language is one of the vehicles through which responses become manifest. The dynamics of language are such that it ëfeeds backí into consciousness and contribute to the way in which the loss is both experienced and understood in the future.

    Evidence can be found in a multiplicity of references and artifacts. The mythologies that support and embrace cultural life offer a tantalizing collection of keys to the richness of the variety of emotional experience. These have been plumbed to great depth in Jungian theory and archetypal psychology.

    Emotions might ëtouch us deeplyí, they might ëlook uglyí, they might ëcome too closeí, they might ëhit us where it hurtsí or ërelease a huge burdení. In these phrases senses overflow and overlap. There is a revelatory quality to them. They might ëmake us feel blueí or ësee redí or ëtip us off the straight and narrowí. They are both emotions and meaning-full emotions. One can speak about the inescapable "aroma of loss" and the way it pervades the body, the mind and the environment. One can see emotions in people: that there are patterns in the way the body is held. One can plunge into the relief accompanying strong emotional experience ("finally, the fear and expectation is over"). One can share the fear of emotion ("there is a wildness to it, a beastliness that is best avoided").

    Because emotional experience is known in no small way through culture, that knowing is influenced by the way we explain it to ourselves. Again, language - the social voice both of understanding and delusion - can contain the emotion. It can lock it down, make it manageable or keep it under control. Equally, it can place it in the context of an unfolding life - "I donít understand whatís happening" - or expand it beyond the border lands of understanding.

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    5. Inspirational Power of Emotions

    Inspiration is an explosion of positive emotions; it acts as a powerful energizer of the human experiential space (HES).

    The crucial impact of inspiration is that it can bring forth emergence of new attractors of meaning in HES. In this sense, inspiration is a powerful stimulator of human creativity.

    Similarly to creativity, inspiration occurs spontaneously in HES. 'Trying to be inspired' or 'to impose inspiration' is like 'trying to be spontaneous' - it does not work. On the contrary, it creates obstacles for the 'flash of inspiration' to be ignited.

    And yet, there are powerful catalysts of inspiration - external (like beautiful scenery, human body, work of arts) or internal (related to individual self-realization, experience of love, spiritual experience). Different catalysts can have different inspiring effects on different individuals.

    The dynamics of the ego-centred attractors in HES (even those related to personal knowledge-accumulation) can hardly be inspired. According to the Buddhist thinkers, attachment cannot be inspired - its reinforcement can only hasten the exhaustion of the energy supporting the attachment.

    Being saturated with positive emotions, the genuine acts of inspiration may help in transcending the pulling force even of a very strong attachments (Alcoholic Anonymous is an example of spiritual inspiration helping people to deal with the detrimental consequences of the alcoholic addiction.)

    Spiritual endeavors always need flashes of inspiration, otherwise they lose sincerity and wilt quickly. Inspiration is needed to energize the human search for authenticity, for self-realization, enlightenment and wisdom.

    Inspiration is not a 'logocentric' phenomenon, that is, it is not based on any logically consistent 'system of thought' that claims legitimacy by reference to external, accepted as truthful propositions. Often it is grounded in paradoxes; from the encounter of polarities (opposite ideas) contained in a paradox, a powerful fountain of inspiring emotions may merge.

    Being a stimulator of creativity, inspiration needs intermittence (discontinuity) of causality: the chains of cause-effect easily melt under lucidity of inspiration.

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    6. Emotional Resonance

    Through the prism of Complexity and Chaos, emotional resonance can be seen as an attractor-merging phenomenon: two or more attractors in HES, each representing a dynamical emotional pattern, suddenly merge into one common attractor.

    In the chaotic dynamics of HES, the 'strange' attractors of emotions are never static, they constantly vibrate - expand and shrink, depending on the changes in one's experience. Therefore, the act of merging of two vibrating attractors into one can be described as an act of resonance: two or more attractors synchronize their vibrations so that they stop to be separated from one another and coalesce into one and the same new attractor, representing an enriched emotional pattern.

    If the merging emotions are positive, the resonance can trigger an arousal of waves of inspiration. In the experience of love, the emotional resonance represents a gigantic source of inspiration able to entirely transform one's personality.

    The resonance in negative emotions is also possible; when two groups of people are in conflict, all the members of one of the groups can 'resonate' with the same intensive animosity (enmity, hostility, hatred) to those belonging to the other group. Extremely competitive nature of today's society facilitates the emergence of this kind of resonance. It reaches its destructive culmination in the wars, which have a constant presence in human society.

    Emotional resonance can be not only interpersonal (as in the case of mutual empathy, compassion, sympathy, love), it can happen with the emotions experienced by one single person. A specific emotion can become so overwhelming that all other emotional patterns either dissolve or start to resonate with the prevailing emotion. Examples of such kind of intrapersonal resonance can be found in one's spiritual experience; the 'oceanic' emotion of unity with the whole universe experienced by a person in a state of deep meditation seems to absorb the energy of all other 'worldly' emotions and explode into a blissful inspirational climax.

    . . .

    Much as it may seem otherwise, emotion is not something we experience alone. It, and the understanding arising from it, occurs within chaotic dynamics of social complexity...

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    1. Dimitrov, V. and R. Ebsary 2000 A Busca da Identidade, Thot, 74 (pp. 51-60) - in portuguese (English version available at http://www.pnc.com.au/~lfell/vlad2.html)

    2. Kohler, J. (1996) The Language of Tears, Jossey-Bass (p.89)

    3. Jones, C. 1989 Interview with John Foulcher, in The Search for Meaning, ABC Books: Crows Nest, NSW (p.95).

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