Monday, March 2, 2009

Growth by Bifurcation

A little over fifteen years ago, an initially small twinge of shoulder pain launched me into what I eventually came to think of as a bifurcation event and onto the first steps of a journey that was to be an unsettling and, yet, transformational experience. At the time all this was taking place, I was a recently tenured Chemistry professor and busy mother of two young children. I didn’t have time for transformational growth! However, as I was soon to learn, I had no choice: I had been swept up by a process as natural as that which turns a caterpillar into a butterfly. Growth was what I was experiencing, and I gradually came to understand that real growth is not the smooth, gradual, always-under-control experience we all wish for, but growth as it actually occurs—growth by bifurcation.

The word bifurcation is taken from the field of science now known variously as nonlinear science, complexity theory or, most recently, the science of emergence. “Chaos theory” is a part of this science and is probably the most widely popularized aspect of the field; phrases such as “sensitivity to initial conditions” and “the butterfly effect” have entered our vocabulary thanks to books such as James Gleick’s "Chaos: The Making of a New Science," and the “chaostician” character in the movie Jurassic Park. The popularizations of chaos theory seem to me, however, to have missed the most intriguing lessons that can be drawn from the science of chaos, focusing excessively on the unpredictability of chaos and our lack of control over the behavior of a chaotic system. Although all of this is true, of chaos and our lives, it is not necessarily a bad thing that we cannot predict the future and have no control over it. The “doomsday” interpretation of the butterfly effect seems to have distracted us from the positive lessons that can be drawn from this new science–and, hence, completely missed some of the more interesting of these lessons: that chaos is stabilized by an attractor and that significant growth in nature almost always occurs through the sudden, dramatic changes that accompany a bifurcation of that attractor.

A bifurcation is, literally, a “fork in the road” and was initially coined to describe the pitchfork-like shape of a particular graph that signaled its existence in laboratory experiments. The literal meaning of the word is, though, actually appropriate: when a bifurcation occurs, we have reached a point in our journey through life (either our individual life or our life as a group, such as a family, business or even nation) at which a decision must be made: Do we go right or do we turn left?

More often than not, I suspect, we don’t even see the need for a decision. We are often so caught up in the events of the bifurcation, often traumatic ones, that, as we approach the fork in the road, we close our eyes to the fact that the path we are traveling is ending. We are forced to make a choice about which new path to take, but we march right on through, out into the tall grass and weeds, oblivious to the fact that our life must now follow a new course.

Before we know it, our insistence on keeping things the way they were, sticking to the original path (which no longer exists), has left us far from any path at all, unable to find our way back to either the old life, the original path, or to locate our new life—one of the forks in the road we refused to take.

In fact, if we ever were able to find our way back to where the original path used to be, we would see that the old path we were once traveling no longer exists. This can be very confusing, especially if something as unsettling and disturbing as an illness or death has occurred. Now what do we do? What path do we follow?

We can sit at the bifurcation point, forever in confusion, not knowing how to move forward or get unstuck, as long as we refuse to bifurcate and choose one of the new paths opening out in front of us—if we even have a choice in the matter! It is much more likely that life will move us forward through the fork in the road and decisions will be made for us, by others or by life itself. It is our choice whether we allow this to happen -- or whether we fight it, wasting valuable energy which will be needed for the journey yet to come.

Transformational change can be both painful and exhilarating and it can happen to organizations and individuals alike. The characteristics of transformational change are the same whether it is an individual or a family, church, business – even a nation – that is undergoing it. Sometimes precipitated by an unexpected, and typically traumatic, event (but equally as often the result of natural growth), the individual or group undergoing this type of transformation suddenly know that the life they once led, individually or collectively, is now over. Their whole world has changed and the things they say to themselves and others reflect this certain knowledge: something fundamental about their former life, individual or collective, has undergone a transformation and things will never, ever be the same again.

Growth by bifurcation, or transformational change, sometimes occurs in response to a crisis or an unforeseen shattering event such as a serious illness or the death of a close friend or family member. More often, though, I suspect it occurs just because we reach a certain age: 13 or 18—or even 40. Like metamorphosis, bifurcation is wrenching and far-reaching, and not at all pleasant while it is going on. However, the end result of all this disorienting growth is quite literally a new life. The old life, the one that had existed before the bifurcation, is gone, replaced by a new form. What had driven us before is no longer relevant; the former driving force has been replaced by a new purpose. In the language of the science of emergence, the attractor that governed existence prior to the bifurcation has ceased to exist; the old attractor has died and been replaced by a new one.

In my own case, that initial twinge of shoulder pain was the sign of a much deeper, spiritual pain, a hunger for something I could not identify. The attractor that had organized and ordered my life before this happened -- the pursuit of a scientific career, a striving for knowledge, the accumulation of accomplishments -- fell away and was gradually replaced by a new attractor I did not recognize at first. Eventually, I came to understand that what I was hungry for was, quite simply, God.

When have you experienced bifurcation in your life? How did the driving force or organizing principle for your life change when this occurred? How is your life different, now that a new attractor has taken hold?


  1. well,i for one think you've bifurcated nicely!

  2. Awww...aren't you sweet? :) Thanks!

  3. Not sure, but it's quite possible that I, myself, am in the midst of one of these bifurcations… So are you suggesting that, if you have a choice of journey ahead that is clear to you, then pick one and charge ahead; and if not, just allow things to unfold? What are some specific examples of ways that we (as humans) might "fight bifurcation”, wasting that valuable energy which will be needed for the journey yet to come? Just curious... Looking forward to meeting you soon. :)

  4. Hi Stacy! All this is explained more in my book--which isn't out yet, so here's the short version. When a bifurcation happens, the attractor changes in some fundamental way, so what I think we need to do is to pay close attention to what is attracting us, what we desire most, what our heart really wants--this points the way to the new attractor, and that's the thing that's very hard to get a glimpse of when it's so new.

    But we can talk about all this very soon! Looking forward to seeing you, too. xo

  5. Thanks for this. It seems that bifurcation implies there always will be a new attractor, a new path. Is that true? A bifurcation occurred in my life eight years ago, and I am following a new path -- but my heart has never been satisfied. I can't seem to get over the loss. Is it realistic to believe the new attractor will satisfy, especially when the change came not by choice to move from one thing to a better thing, but through a closed door? Is it all a matter of attitude? What is the scientific metaphor here? When I first studied bifurcation the new attractor was presented as a clearly better path, or as a choice between the new path and realizing the old path was still the best.

    1. Thanks for your comment - and sorry that it took me a couple of days to see it. And, yes, there will always be a new path, but the question is whether we can actually locate it. When you say "I am following a new path but my heart has never been satisfied," I wonder if that means you haven't really found the new attractor. If we look inward and honestly answer the question "what does my heart want?" the answer will help us find the direction the attractor is tugging us toward. This is hard to do, though, since it involves fighting a lot of "I SHOULD do this," or "Others think I OUGHT to go this direction." Also, I think your comment that you can't seem to get over the loss (of the old life, I assume) almost sounds like you're still stuck, in some sense, at the bifurcation point, looking back at the old life. And, you know, sometimes the new attractor doesn't differ that much from the original, so maybe you're due for another change. Eight years is a long time! Thanks for stopping by - and best wishes to you in dealing with all this.