Strange Attractors: Chaos, Complexity, and the Art of Family Therapy / Edition 1

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"A realm lies there of forms to explore and harmonies to discover." —David Ruelle, codiscoverer of strange attractors

Strange attractors are hidden islands of stability, subtle patterns of order at the heart of chaos. They are among the handful of breakthrough discoveries that gave rise to what has been called the third great scientific revolution of the twentieth century, chaos theory. Offering a revolutionary new rubric for understanding the natural world, chaos theory arms scientists with a set of powerful tools for studying complex systems in fields as diverse as particle physics, evolutionary biology, and meteorology. Now, behavioral scientists have discovered that chaos theory—which the APA Monitor identified as "an important new paradigm in psychology"—also has profound implications for deciphering human behavior.

Written by three leaders in the field, Strange Attractors explains how the principles of chaos theory can help mental health professionals arrive at a more profound understanding of the dynamics of one of the most complicated nonlinear systems—the family. Both a general introduction to chaos theory and a guide to its clinical applications, Strange Attractors details various chaos-based approaches to the assessment and treatment of families.

Central to all of the approaches outlined in this book is the concept of families as organic systems with boundaries and patterns that grow and change in complicated ways. Unlike a machine, which is a closed system, a family is open-ended, and its survival depends upon its ability to weather periods of extreme turbulence and chaos en route to calmer oases. The job of the family therapist is to identify the strange attractors that promote transformation. Using vivid vignettes and rich metaphors, Strange Attractors demonstrates how readers can apply the science of chaos theory to the art of engendering family change.

Acclaim for Strange Attractors

"Family interaction is one of the most important areas of the application of the dynamics of change. This book does an outstanding job of demystifying a complex science and blending the technical and the metaphoric." —

Anyone who has ever sat through a family holiday dinner knows how multilayered and entangled interactions between relatives can be. Like a collision of billiard balls, the rhythms of day-to-day family interplay are intricate and often appear unpredictable—and the dance of families in crisis is even more complex. Yet, while certain family phenomena may appear to be random, they are actually part of a larger coherent process. This groundbreaking book sheds light on how chaos theory can be used to decipher and promote change in complicated family dynamics.

The book contains black-and-white illustrations.

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Editorial Reviews

Psychologists apply to family therapy the concept of hidden islands of stability and subtle patterns of order embedded in a sea of apparent chaos. Noting that Chaos Theory was developed from and for non-linear systems, and that families are about as complex and non-linear as systems come, they discuss sensitivity to initial conditions, complex terrain, chaos in therapy, and no predictable period. Assumes some background in at least one school of family therapy, but no previous understanding of Chaos Theory.
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Product Details

Meet the Author

MICHAEL R. BUTZ, PhD, is Director of Child, Adolescent and Substance Abuse Services at Cornerstone Behavioral Health in Evanston, Wyoming.

LINDA L. CHAMBERLAIN, PsyD, is a Clinical Psychologist at the Colorado Family Center and a member of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences.

WILLIAM G. McCOWN, PhD, is Associate Professor of Psychology at Northeast Louisiana University and coauthor of Therapy with Treatment Resistant Families.

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Table of Contents

Partial table of contents:


Warning, Objects Behind the Mirror May Be More Complex Than They Appear.


The Eerie Beauty of Strange Attractors.


In the Eye of the Storm.

Fractals and Forks in the Road.

Trying to Unscramble the Eggs.

The Critical Moment.


From Chaos to Order, or...

From Order to Chaos.

Epigram: Measuring Change in Chaotic Systems, Problems with Modeling, and the Need for Case Studies.



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Interviews & Essays

From a Co-Author
This book has been reviewed by several journals as well as other sources. Two journals are, in my opinion, the best resources given the reader we were attempting to reach. First, in April of 1998, Contemporary Psychology reviewed the book, stating initially that, 'The authors disclose the powerful metaphoric and practical uses of the vocabulary of chaos theory.' The review went on to highlight that, 'The authors of Strange Attractors are convincing and clear when applying chaos theory to family therapy,' and, 'Although the authors caution against aggressive interventions in the complex and delicate workings of a family, they also say that there seems to be an optimum area in which there is both randomness and pattern.'

While these comments give a sense of what is to come to those not familiar with nonlinear dynamics, a review that followed in 1998 from the journal Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology and Life Sciences provided the informed reader in this area with an assessment, one that spoke to the challenges inherent in applying these concepts in an interdisciplinary fashion, and our measure of success at doing so. As the lead author, I felt it would be most fair to point prospective readers to reviews that exist that we felt captured our work, and avoid cheerleading from the sideline. Still, we are pleased with this book, and sincerely hope that you will be intrigued, challenged and find it enjoyable.
— Michael R. Butz, Ph.D. (, one of the authors.

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