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The Physics of Social Interaction in Psychotherapy

September 28th, 2012 by Robert DePaolo | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 74 views | Send article | Print this Article |

By Robert DePaolo


This article describes client-counselor interactions in psychotherapy in terms of physical laws. This somewhat unorthodox coupling of two separate fields espouses that like all aspects of nature, social interactions (particularly as pertains to the counseling process) are governed by the same principles that govern the rest of the natural world. This discussion also offers potential insight into how psycho-physical phenomena affect the emotional and cognitive realignments of both client and counselor

The idea that psychotherapeutic intervention has parallels in the laws of physics is really nothing new. It was the foundation of Freud’s description of the psyche, which he defined as an interwoven energy conservation system; one part borrowing from another to suit its purposes and an overall quest for pan stability among ego, id and superego. It was also inherent in the canalization theory proposed by Gardner Murphy’s personality theory (1947) and in the unified biosocial theory of personality discussed by Cloninger (1986).

Each of these theories espoused a concept of personality based on a broadly construed theory of stability. It is the idea that all elements in nature tend toward some degree of stasis (Baldwin (1988), (Lascar 1987) and indeed move, grow, act, approach and avoid in order to resolve states of instability. Just as personality theorists have incorporated physical principles into psychological functions, so have practitioners in the physical sciences done so with regard to human behavior; for example as seen in the work of Ashby (1952), (1957).

In the biological domain stability is considered an axiom, in that homeostatic functions sustain the health and integrity of all organisms. That is particularly important with regard to brain function (Griffith 1963), which in turn affects the functions of emotion, cognition and the personality (Savich 2005) (DeYoung, 2010). While it is perhaps less than accurate to completely equate brain with personality, the latter is obviously some function of the former. While the specific functions of each would be described quite differently; for example the global mechanisms of the ego vs the neuronal, inhibitory regulation of the frontal lobes, all aspects of brain and personality appear to operate according to a stability restoring mechanism. Given the above suppositions it would appear reasonable to say the personality operates to a large extent according to the same principles that govern the laws of physics.

Less clear, is the question of how those principles pertain to social interaction; for example whether stability, osmosis and the energy transfers that occur in the quantum and large scale physical domains are also involved when two more people interact.

It is a question not easily answered. In fact even the staunchest theoretical physicists, ever eager to discover the ultimate GUT (grand unified theory or “theory of everything”) seem unconvinced that finding this ultimate epistemological nugget will enable us to completely predict explain the complexity of social interactions. (Ferris). That might seem to put up a formidable barrier in applying physical laws to the questions of whether, how and why people change as a result of the counseling process.

One possible link between physics and altered emotional and cognitive patterns might be found in two physical phenomena known respectively as symmetry and the phase transition. Symmetry has to do with the fact that many aspects of nature and the universe per se tend toward sameness and unification. For example the speed of light remains the same regardless of one’s own position and rate of acceleration. The number and kind of particles in the cosmos tends to reciprocally cancel out so that all the positive and negative charges add up to zero. In addition it appears quantum particles will tend to remain intact even when split by mechanical devices, and that on a microscopic level waves and particles appear to be both different yet one and the same. It is as though these primal components of nature offer testimony to the fact that in its most natural state the universe – and everything within it – is really one entity; artificially fragmented by post big bang phenomena but nonetheless with singular roots and a tendency to revert to that primal state.


Since we live in a post big bang universe we see asymmetries (i.e. distinctions) all around us. These include a variety of objects, forces, masses, and interactions but much of the research in quantum physics suggests these distinctions are artificial and merely temporary breaks in the essential symmetry of the cosmos to which everything till eventually revert.

It is for that reason that some theoretical physicists ,for example Wheeler (1998) believe that the variant particles, forms of matter forces are really illusory and that the quantum domain, which provides a glimpse of the most natural state of the universe, proves these are all one symmetrical entity

It might seem preposterous to apply that line of reasoning to living things, because it would require saying that, absent some post unicellular fragmentation process (a kind of biotic big bang) all organisms are actually manifestations of a single organic source.

Yet it seems clear that the dispersion of organic traits from a single source over time occurred much like the cosmic transition from symmetry to asymmetry. Interestingly, the existence of genetic mutations, evolution, sexual mating and other trait differentiating mechanisms suggest all organisms initially branched off from a narrow phylogenic tree.

In addition many natural behavior patterns could be described as being symmetrical or incorporative and as moving toward biotic unification. Sexuality, bonding predation, foraging, imitative behavior, patriotism, faith, conformity, tribal affiliations and love itself might be considered incorporative activities serving to convert the many into the few – or the one.

The application of that idea to human behavior is not without snags. One could argue that trends toward nonconformity, creativity, and the search for individual identity contradict the notion of a unified organic trend. That is where the phase transition enters the picture and where a possible connection between physics and social interaction can be found.

Change and Stability in the Natural World…

A phase transition can be loosely described as change without change. A classic example is seen in the relationship between liquid water and ice. Ice cannot be drunk. Water can. Ice is solid, water is liquid. Ice is colder. Water cannot exist in liquid form below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Yet their chemical makeup is precisely the same and will remain so through all temperature transitions until the end of time. There are so many examples of this that physicists have a tendency to de-emphasize variations within the universe. It is partly for that reason that Einstein initially referred to Relativity Theory as Invariance Theory.

The question is whether such phenomena can be applied to human interaction and whether there is some tendency for humans to move toward incorporation via a kind of assimilative instinct. If that were the case, then under certain circumstances one could expect humans to incorporate the values, advice, attitudes and cognitive schemata of others into their own world view. Such a process would provide a nexus between human interaction, psychotherapy and the laws of physics.

As every clinician knows, one of the hardest things to do is change the thought and behavior patterns of another person. It is one reason why progress in therapy can take so long.

On the other hand the idea of a phase transition (the process of undergoing change without completely unraveling the prior state of the organism) can perhaps tell us why that is the case and how and why therapeutic change actually occurs.

The answer might be (at least in physical terms) rather ironic. To wit; the same quality that leads to the perception of distinctions ultimately makes unification possible. In practical/clinical terms; the client and counselor interact. They start off with differences in position (counselor sits in a different chair) in sense of self (each has a separate persona), in language, (each says things that are grammatically distinct from the words of the other). Yet those distinctions actually provide a gauge by which to measure progress toward unification. As the language, percepts, interpretive experiences and geographic proximity (both client and counselor meet in the same place regularly) become more melded through frequent contact and empathic bridge-building the distinctions break down. Having begun as separate entities the client and counselor can gauge how much more congruent they are with one another as counseling unfolds. Just as Einstein proved that any gauge of movement, acceleration or time requires knowledge of one’s previous position and rate of movement, so too must client-counselor differentiation serve as a springboard to greater mutual incorporation. As the interaction proceeds from separation to incorporation the client feels, thinks and acts in ways less distinct from the counselor.

Meanwhile the phase transition allows client and counselor to meld without fear of being totally absorbed by the other. The result is cognitive and emotional unification – thereby setting the stage for what is referred to in some circles as therapeutic persuasion.

This is not an original idea. For example Carl Rogers wrote prolifically about the curative aspects of a congruent relationship between counselor and client (1961).He viewed this as a strictly social/emotional process, rather than an aspect of universal operations. Yet as the distinction between counselor and client evaporates as per the increasing level of trust and isomorphy between client values and non-critical counselor reflection, incorporation modulated by a phase transition can be said to have occurred. At that point there is a fusion (possibly reciprocal, in the form of counter-transference) that creates an incorporative impetus and it is at that point where curative persuasion ensues.

The Drawbacks of Interpersonal Fusion…

There are dangers inherent in this process. Nature can be a very treacherous and explosive entity in both the physical and social-emotional domains. Just as we live in a universe featuring asymmetries i.e. break from the pack distinctions that create all the information inherent in our world, as well as the deterministic roots of human knowledge so too are we used to social distinctions; including the implied difference between “you and me,” the need to compete, stand out from the crowd, resist being controlled by others. The counselor (himself leery of melding with his client) must swim against that tide. In that sense the ultra-natural mechanism by which the universe seems to work poses a threat and possible a barrier to therapeutic progress.

It is a push and pull phenomenon; much like the acceleration/deceleration process that permeates the cosmos; whereby the modern, asymmetrical world pushes us away from one another even as the callings of the distant past compel us toward re-unification. It is a state of tension, albeit quite different from the libidinal conflict discussed by Freud. It is not the id vs. the superego but fusion (symmetry) pitted against separation (asymmetry) and it can be intently manifest in the counseling process.

To revert back to a primal, symmetrical state vis a vis another person can be unsettling on many levels: for example loss of individuation, feelings of submission, lapses into sexual impropriety, fear of unrequited love or approval being just a few. Whether or not the average clinician thinks in terms of such universal, physical laws properties as influencing the course of therapy it does seem that nature has created a dilemma for therapists, clients and all human beings. Just as the theoretical physicist seeks common ground between the symmetrical/primordial and modern/ asymmetrical universes, clinicians and social scientists might one day find themselves caught up in the question of why human beings seek to both unite with and separate from one another. If this grand unified social theory is ever discovered it would have implications well beyond the realm of clinical psychology


Ashby, WR (1957) An Introduction to Cybernetics. Chapman and Hall Ltd)

Ashby, WR (1952) Design for a Brain, Chapman and Hall Ltd

Baldwin,. JT. (1988) Fundamentals of Stability Theory. Springer Books

Cloninger, CR. (1986) A Unified Biosocial Theory of Personality and its Role in the Development of Anxiety States. Psychiatric Development 4 (3) 167-226

DeYoung, C. (2010) Testing Procedures from Personality Neuroscience; Brain Structure and the Big Five. Psychological Science.

Ferris, T. (1998) The Whole Shebang: A Report on the State of the Universe(s).Touchstone

Griffith, JS (1963) On the Stability of Brain-Like Structures. Journal of Biophysiology. 3 (4) 299- 308

Lascar, D (1987) Stability in Model Theory. Wiley

Murphy, G. (1947) Personality; A Biosocial Approach to Origins and Structure. Harper & Bros, Publishing

Rogers, CR, Sanford, R. (1984) Client-Centered Therapy. In Kaplan, H, Sadick, B (Eds). Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry.Baltimore, Williams and Wilkins.

Savich, P/. (2005) Personality and the Brain; A Hacker’s Journey Through the Enneagram and the Emerging Brain Research. Creative Commons

Wheeler reference: In Timothy Ferris’ book The Whole Shebang. John Wheeler is quoted as saying to fellow scientist Richard Feyman; “I know why all the electrons have the same charge and the same mass. It is because they are all the same electron.” (p 287)

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