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Chapter 21

Case study - Psychology

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We end this section of the book, on case studies, with an area in which
some of the applications of nonlinear dynamical approaches must be
regarded as speculative. We begin with an overview of the appeal of
nonlinear dynamics for psychology, and then discuss in more depth the
dynamics of mood swings and schizophrenia symptoms, and the ability
of humans to predict future values of chaotic sequences. Readers
interested in pursuing this general area further might want to peruse
some recent copies of the journal Nonlinear Dynamics, Psychology, and
Life Sciences, published by the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology
and Life Sciences.

21.1 General concepts

The ideas of nonlinear dynamics and chaos have great appeal for
those attempting to place psychological constructs on a mathematical
foundation. The idea that seemingly complex behavior can be exhibited
by a rather simple system, following deterministic and therefore
explicable rules, provides hope that often convoluted and inexplicable
human behavior might also follow some comprehensible rules. The
dynamical notions of stability, complexity, and especially chaos, are
appealing metaphors for the constant change and apparent self-
organization that are frequently seen in the behavior of individuals and
groups. These behaviors exhibit many of the qualities that we have seen
in chaotic systems: changes in response that are not proportional to
changes in a control variable, uncertainty and unpredictability, and
sensitivity to initial conditions such that repetition of identical stimuli

Case Study Psychology 303

does not lead to identical responses. In clinical settings especially, there

is a strong desire for testable quantitative models, in order to aid in the
design of effective strategies for patient treatment.
Guastello (2001) has outlined in general form some of the ways in
which nonlinear dynamical concepts might come into play in the various
subfields of psychology. Among these ideas is the generation of creative
solutions to a given problem through chaotic dynamics - what might
otherwise appear to be randomly generated candidate solutions may
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instead be thought of as chaotic (and therefore unpredictable) outcomes

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of a deterministic system (human thought processes or group dynamics).

It is as yet unclear as to how reliable many of the studies in this area
are, especially those in patients which are necessarily limited in data
quality and quantity. To quote from a published abstract: "A review of
how chaos theory is used in psychology reveals two relatively distinct
efforts: chaos as a mathematical model of psychological phenomena and
chaos as a metaphor for psychological phenomena. A discussion of
recent articles reveals that most chaotic analysis fails to respect the
minimum qualifications for data subjected to such analysis. Further, uses
of chaos as an analogy for psychological phenomena are rife with.
misunderstandings of chaos" (Kincanon & Powel 1995).
With this sobering thought in mind, we now discuss two areas in
which nonlinear dynamical approaches have been applied with at least
some semblance of rigor, where the dynamical approach can provide
possibly useful new interpretations of a psychological phenomenon, and
where these interpretations might lead to testable hypotheses.

21.2 Psychiatric disorders

It is potentially important to understand the dynamics and causes of

the time course of different psychological and psychiatric symptoms, so
that appropriate treatments can be based on the underlying causes. Two
prevalent models for mood swings in bipolar disorder suggest either an
inherent periodicity, or a steadily increasing frequency as abnormal
episodes become more spontaneously triggered with disease progression.
304 Nonlinear Dynamics in Physiology

Gottschalk et al. (1995) designed a study to examine the dynamics of

bipolar disorder, to see if chaos or other dynamical models would
provide a better explanation for observed mood variations than would
these two existing models. Time series in this study consisted of average
daily mood reports, on a scale of 1 to 100, from seven patients and 28
control subjects. Qualitative observation of these self-report data
suggests that there is neither a dominant periodicity nor a steadily
increasing rate of occurrence of mood swings, although the patients do
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show intermittent episodes of periodicity. There are obvious differences

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between the patients and the normal control subjects, with more changes
in pattern in the patients. Visual examination of two-dimensional state
space (time-delay plots) also show a difference between normals and
patients. /
There are broadband frequency spectra from the data in both groups,
although the spectra are flatter in normals, indicating long-term
correlations, which might be either chaotic or random (see Chapter 13).
Correlation dimension estimates converged only for six of the seven
patients; that is, the dimension estimate reached a plateau as embedding
dimension increased. This was true for none of the normal control
subjects. Patient dimensions ranged from 1.1 to 4.8. Although this is a
troublingly large range if attempts to model the underlying dynamics are
to be made, at least dimension estimates could be found for the patients.
This is the main result of the study, the implications of which are
discussed below.
A number of procedures were used to validate these findings. The
authors checked for variation in the dimension as a function of the time
delay (L) used in the attractor reconstruction. Although relatively
constant, the dimension in most patients spanned an integer value, which
the authors rightly interpreted to mean that the dynamics are not
necessarily chaotic but might instead reflect noisy periodicities or quasi-
periodicities (see Chapter 1). They also checked the data for stationarity,
visually with recurrence plots, to ascertain that there was not significant
change due to patient treatment over the course of the examined time
series. Three types of surrogates were also tested (see Chapter 6):
random-shuffle, phase-randomization, and amplitude-adjusted Fourier
transform (AAFT). In all cases the surrogates did not yield dimension
Case Study - Psychology 305

estimates: there was no convergence with increasing embedding

While the exact dimension values may be questionable due to the data
acquisition methodology (daily self-reporting) and the small data sets
(several hundred points), there nevertheless appears to be a clear
difference between the patients and the control subjects in this study. In
particular, there is a more organized temporal structure in the bipolar
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patients. The meaning of this is unclear, but it could reflect altered

coupling between internal oscillators, or between internal processes
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(such as circadian rhythms) and external stressors. The possible existence

of chaotic dynamics in this disorder raises the enticing prospect that
nonlinear forecasting and chaos control strategies could be useful as
assessment and treatment strategies.
This appealing result was later called into question by Krystal and
Greenside (1998), who cited a theoretical study that suggests that a truly
chaotic system should exhibit a region of exponential (rather than power-
law) spectral decay. The original authors' response was that variability in
the spectral estimates did not allow the acceptance or rejection of either
spectral model.
Roughly similar results have been found in schizophrenia patients
(Tschacher et al. 1997). In this study of 14 patients, the data consist of
daily staff ratings of symptom levels on a 7-pont scale. Each time series
is 200 to 770 points. Since the data are limited in amount and resolution,
the authors purposefully avoided dimension estimation and instead used
nonlinear forecasting methods (modified versions of the methods
presented in Chapter 7). They also forecast randomized surrogate data,
phase-shuffled surrogate data, and data from a linear autoregressive
model fit to each time series. Of the 14 patients, eight had evidence of
nonlinear dynamics, four of linear dynamics (ability to forecast data from
the corresponding linear model), and two of randomness (near-constant
poor forecasting). Nonlinearity, when present, was suggestive of chaotic
dynamics: short-term forecasting ability that decayed rapidly. In
supporting work, the authors showed that forecasting could indeed be
carried out on such small discretized data sets. They did not, however,
examine the decay rate of forecasting quality as a means to distinguish
between chaos and randomness (section 7.6 in Chapter 7), nor
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demonstrate that such a distinction could be made with limited data of

the type that they analyzed.
In apparent contrast with this result, which suggests a lower
"complexity" (better forecasting), and hence possibly lower dimensions,
in schizophrenics relative to normals, Koukkou et al. (1993) found
increased dimensionality of the EEG in schizophrenics. This lower-level
phenomenon (recording of neural activity) may reflect activation and
separation of different neuronal assemblies, leading to difficulty in
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establishing a cohesive mental picture. This could then lead to a

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decreased dimension of higher-level processes which would reflect a

consequent inability to respond coherently to stress or other external
stimuli (Tschacher et al. 1997).
Other studies have noted impaired temporal processing in
schizophrenia (see Paulus & Braff 2003), which might reflect either
chaotic or random dynamics, but nevertheless indicates impaired
temporal structure as a feature of the disease process.

21.3 Perception and action

Human behavior is rife with unpredictability. Even so, it is well

known that humans cannot generate random sequences reliably
(Wagenaar 1972). This apparent reluctance to deal with true randomness
is also evidenced by the well-known "gambler's fallacy": humans expect
that a long losing series "should be" shortly followed by a win in order to
maintain randomness, while in fact for a truly random game of chance
the past history has no effect on the outcome of subsequent trials (Ward
& West 1998). This raises the question of whether or not apparently
unpredictable human behavior might arise from chaotic dynamics in
neural and psychological processes. This in turn leads to the question: are
humans "sensitive to chaos"? Specifically, can they reproduce or forecast
a chaotic sequence, better than an appropriate random control sequence?
A number of recent studies have examined the ability of humans to
forecast or generate chaotic sequences. As we will see, even if subjects
do not always match the desired chaotic process, they often produce a
sequence that has nonlinear deterministic structure. A low-dimensional
Case Study Psychology 307

chaotic mechanism might be one way for the brain to generate

unpredictable behavior, which can have such advantages as engendering
creativity, aiding in problem-solving by generating non-obvious
solutions, and avoiding enemies through evasive actions (Neuringer &
Voss 1993).
In one of the first studies in this area (Neuringer & Voss 1993),
subjects were asked to predict the future locations of a point along a line
segment; the locations were governed by the chaotic logistic map
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(Chapter 1), so that although the sequence of positions might appear

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random, it was in fact completely deterministic. Error feedback (the

difference between predicted and actual locations) was provided on each
trial. Subject performance in this task was improved in a second set of
trials, evincing a possible learning of the chaotic dynamics during the
first set. Furthermore, the one-step-ahead predictions made by the
subjects matched the general form of the logistic equation or map (see
Fig. 12.2.1 for a depiction of this equation, which maps values from one
time step to the next). The simplest interpretation of this result is that
subjects could learn simple chaotic dynamics.
Metzger (1994) questioned this interpretation, suggesting instead that
the results could be due to paired-associate learning, in which subjects
learned approximate stimulus-response pairs, without any need to
approximate or detect an underlying set of dynamics. Could the human
prediction results, in other words, simply reflect a heuristic learning
To address this question, in a subsequent study (Ward & West 1998),
subjects were again asked to forecast position along a line, controlled by
the one-step-ahead logistic map, with errdY feedback on each trial. After
a set of learning trials, subjects were given a starting value and asked to
iterate several steps ahead without feedback, in an attempt to reproduce
the learned map. Delay-time plots show that subjects could produce
maps that resembled the logistic function, but not exactly. Equations fit
to the reproduced maps yielded values for the logistic equation parameter
/u that correspond to a limit cycle (periodic behavior), rather than to the
actual chaotic dynamics asked for in the learning sessions. A
computational forecasting method due to Casdagli (1992), and described
in section 11.5, was applied to the subjects' iterated predictions, and
308 Nonlinear Dynamics in Physiology

showed that their predictive behavior likely has a nonlinear deterministic

component and is not completely random. Although a noisy logistic
model reproduced some of the subject results, a fuzzy memory-pair
model was even better. In this latter model, learned memory pairs (a
given value and the subsequent predicted value) were modified by
adding noise, in effect suggesting that subjects learned fuzzy groupings
of sets of data rather than precise pairs. Thus, the learning of chaotic
dynamics per se was likely not an explanation for the results, given the
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good performance of this alternative model. However, the presence of

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nonlinear determinism, as revealed by nonlinear forecasting, does

suggest that there is a nonlinear deterministic process operating during
the task, and that this process might be chaotic and could even be the
source of the noise terms. Overall, the results suggest that the learning of
a chaotic map can be accomplished at least in part with a heuristic
More recently, Heath (2002) showed subjects eight values from a
Henon system, and had them predict the subsequent four values, with no
error feedback. (These data were, however, heavily processed: rescaled
and truncated.) Prediction ability was compared to that from an AAFT
surrogate (Chapter 6), to see if human prediction ability is based on
linear stochastic correlations in the data. Prediction of the chaotic data
was better than that of the surrogate, indicating that the human prediction
is "sensitive to chaos," although a heuristic learning pattern could not be
ruled out.
A similar study by Smithson (1997) is interesting because of its
implications for human decision making. Subjects were asked to
forecast, one step ahead, both persistent and anti-persistent (see Chapter
13) nonlinear deterministic processes (chaotic), and random processes
with the same distributions (created by shuffling the order of the values
in each sequence). Prediction performance with the chaotic sequences
was better, with greater accuracy and less under-dispersion. "Less under-
dispersion is important because it indicates that subjects are less likely to
under-estimate the extreme fluctuations in a chaotic process than they are
in a random one, thereby rendering them better prepared for extreme
outcomes.... these results suggest that our judgmental heuristics may
have been shaped by nonlinear dynamical processes rather than
Case Study - Psychology 309

stochastic ones, and evolved accordingly." In other words, the problem

that humans have in generating random sequences, and in erroneously
believing the gambler's fallacy, may result from inexperience with truly
random processes, which have independent trials. Rather, heuristic rules
may have developed through exposure to natural processes that do
exhibit correlations, either persistent or anti-persistent, and possibly
deterministic and chaotic.
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Finally, Gilden et al. (1995) demonstrated that the error sequence in

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estimating spatial or temporal intervals has a 1// form. This does not
necessarily indicate the presence of chaos but is related to concepts in
Chapter 13 on temporal structure and long-term correlations.
In closing, recall from Chapter 4 that an attractor can be reconstructed
from discrete-event spike-train data, which will reflect the underlying
continuous dynamics that trigger the spikes (with some reasonable
assumptions on the integrate-to-fire mechanism). Thus it might be better
to examine patient and other psychological data, which has been highly
discretized (into a small number of categories), as discrete events, the
times of which coincide with the rating exceeding a certain critical value.

References for Chapter 21

M Casdagli (1992) Chaos and deterministic versus stochastic non-linear

modeling. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society B 54:303-328.
DL Gilden, T Thornton, MW Mallon (1995) \lf noise in human
cognition. Science 267:1837-1839.
A Gottschalk, MS Bauer, PC Whybrow (1995) Evidence of chaotic
mood variation in bipolar disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry
SJ Guastello (2001) Nonlinear dynamics in psychology. Discrete
Dynamics in Nature and Society 6:11-29.
RA Heath (2000). Nonlinear Dynamics: Techniques and Applications in
Psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
RA Heath (2002) Can people predict chaotic sequences? Nonlinear
Dynamics, Psychology, and Life Sciences 6:37-54.
E Kincanon, W Powel (1995) Chaotic analysis in psychology and
psychoanalysis. Journal of Psychology 129:495-505.
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M Koukkou, D Lehmann, J Wackermann, I Dvorak, B Henggeler (1993)

Dimensional complexity of EEG brain mechanisms in untreated
schizophrenia. Biological Psychiatry 33:397-407.
AD Krystal, HS Greenside (1998) Low-dimensional chaos in bipolar
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MA Metzger (1994) Have subjects been shown to generate chaotic
numbers? Commentary on Neuringer and Voss. Psychological
Science 5:111-114.
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A Neuringer, C Voss (1993) Approximating chaotic behavior.

Psychological Science 4:113-119.
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MP Paulus, DL Braff (2003) Chaos and schizophrenia: does the method

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W Tschacher, C Scheier, Y Hashimoto (1997) Dynamical analysis of
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