Chaos and Disorder: Why We Need Them by Larry Dossey, MD

Suppose someone gave you a choice – a life lived in perfect harmony and order, or an existence marked by chaos and disorder. Which would you pick? For most people, the choice is simple: Go for the harmony. Who in their right mind would choose anything else?

Harmony and order are suggested by the image of someone sitting in quiet meditation, unmoved by the chaos swirling everywhere in today’s hectic world. The benefits of such practices are numerous, including claims of lower perceived stress, anxiety and pain, and heightened immune function.1 An army of experts exists to show the way toward emotional balance and tranquility. A Google search for “happiness workshops” yields nearly three million hits. Harmony is important not just in physical health but in the interpersonal domain as well, suggests eHarmony, one of the most popular Internet dating sites in the world.2

“Coherence” is a term used to describe this idealized, harmonious state. It comes from a Latin word meaning “sticking together.” “Harmony” is derived from a Greek term meaning “joint.” Both coherence and harmony, therefore, imply that elements are stuck or joined together in a unified, smoothly functioning whole.

At the annual conference in June 2010 of the International Society for the Study of Subtle Energy and Energy Medicine (ISSSEEM) in Westminster, Colorado, I heard an inspiring address by physiologist Rollin McCraty on coherence.3 McCraty is the director of research at the Institute of HeartMath in Boulder Creek, California, where he and his colleagues have done splendid work on the virtues of coherence. The HeartMath researchers believe coherence applies to every possible domain, from the invisible, subatomic quantum level to the farthest galaxies and everything in between. As McCraty says, “Coherence implies order, structure, harmony, and alignment within and amongst systems – whether in atoms, organisms, social groups, planets, or galaxies. Thus, every whole has a relationship with and is part of a greater whole, which is part of something greater again.”4

HeartMath has developed effective programs to help people achieve harmony and better health.5 Behind harmony, they maintain, lies coherence. As McCraty puts it, “[H]armonious order signifies a coherent system whose efficient or optimal function is directly related to the ease and flow in life processes. By contrast, an erratic, discordant pattern of activity denotes an incoherent system whose function reflects stress and inefficient utilization of energy in life processes. Interestingly, we have found that positive emotions, such as appreciation and compassion, as opposed to negative emotions, such as anxiety, anger, and fear, are reflected in a heart rhythm pattern that is more coherent.”6

When Order Is Disorder

Coherence, therefore, matters – so much that many individuals now believe that regularity, order, periodicity, and coherence are always required for healthy physical and psychological function and that wherever you see health you can be sure that coherent function underlies it. To discover that this is not always the case can come as a surprise. But, in fact, evidence suggests that coherence – harmony, order, regularity, periodicity – in human function can sometimes be pathological, that chaos can be necessary for health and longevity, and that the loss of chaos is involved in aging.7

Ary L. Goldberger, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, is also director of the Rey Institute for Nonlinear Dynamics in Medicine at Boston’s Deaconess Medical Center and program director of the NIH-sponsored Research Resource for Complex Physiologic Signals. Goldberger helped pioneer the study of chaos in human function. In the early 1980s, as a young cardiologist at the University of California-San Diego, he expected healthy hearts to beat in steady, metronomic patterns. But his data showed that diseased hearts beat this way, while healthy hearts produced unpredictable EKG patterns. “This makes sense when you consider that healthy physiology needs to be nimble and adaptive,” he says. “It’s only sick, aging, or premature systems that get locked into overly rigid patterns.”8After three decades of research, he and his colleagues say, “Chaos in bodily functioning signals health. Periodic [regular, rhythmic, coherent] behavior can foreshadow disease.9 Transitions to strongly periodic dynamics are observed in many pathologies, including Parkinson’s disease (tremor), obstructive sleep apnea, sudden cardiac death, epilepsy, and fetal distress syndromes, to name but a few.”10

In a review of the role of chaos in health, journalist Kathleen McAuliffe states,

[T]he latest findings show that in many instances, the brain functions normally – and even optimally – in a chaotic state . . . Moreover, when we are mentally challenged, the interval between the electrical waves becomes even more variable – or chaotic.

. . . [C]haos may actually be highly beneficial during problem solving . . . [T]he greater the mental challenge, the more chaotic the activity of the subject’s brain . . . The notion that chaos might have a constructive side has also carried over into medicine, where it has prompted fresh insights into the causes of several neurological conditions . . . [M]any so-called “disorders” turned out to be exactly the opposite. The problem was too much order.

The complex rhythms of the nervous system had been replaced by a regimented beat or even drowned out altogether . . . Patients with normal motor control had nerves that pulsed in a chaotic fashion . . . “Contrary to intuition,” says [UCLA’s Alan] Garfinkel, “you need desynchronized firing of nerve cells in order to achieve smooth movement.” . . . [A] loss of “healthy variability” in neural activity has been implicated in [depression], too. According to Cindy Ehlers, a neuroscientist at the Scripps Clinic in La Jolla, California, a normal person will undergo erratic and relatively mild fluctuations in mood on an almost daily basis. “But in the depressed patient,” says Ehlers, “there is a loss of some kind of control mechanism, so that over time their behavior starts to look extremely periodic or rhythmic.“11

Recent analysis of human balance and gait reveals the importance of irregularity. The step-to-step (stride interval) fluctuations in human walking rhythm have been thought to be quite regular under healthy conditions, but detailed analysis reveals that subtle but complex fluctuations are present in healthy gait dynamics. As people age, this variation is lost in favor of a non-varying gait rhythm.12, 13

Moreover, the widespread belief that meditation practices always lead to increased coherence in heart rate and breathing is an exaggeration. C. K. Peng , codirector of the Rey Institute, and his colleagues have shown that coherence in these systems may increase or decrease during meditation, depending on the technique that is employed.14

The emerging picture of healthy function involves what Goldberger calls a “clinical paradox: namely, that a wide range of illnesses are associated with markedly periodic (regular) behavior even though the disease states themselves are commonly termed ‘dis-orders.’”15 In other words, in some conditions, it’s the order that is the disorder. All that is healthy is not coherent, and all that is coherent is not healthy.


As we age, there is often a loss of chaos and disorder not just in physiological processes, as Goldberger and others have shown, but also at the psychosocial level. Aging can become an exercise in locked-in repetition, order, and unremitting boredom, as the elderly individual settles into a mind-numbing, unvarying pattern of existence – “set in his ways.” Everyday experiences such as diet, dress, diversions, the friends one sees, and even one’s beliefs can become rigid, fixed, and unvarying – coherence writ large. Neophobia, the fear of new things, dominates the elder’s existence.

These ruts can be deepened by the regimentation that often occurs in eldercare facilities. The aging individual may become increasingly apathetic – the thousand-yard stare that is all too common among the residents of these institutions. The solution is to interrupt the coherence by the gradual and gentle insertion of newness, novelty, and variety into the daily round. Simple measures can often make a major difference, such as the introduction of a pet or music into the elder’s schedule.16

Injecting choice and responsibility can be especially helpful. Consider a famous 1976 study by psychologists Ellen Langer and Judith Rodin. They gave one group of nursing-home residents potted plants to take care of, while offering suggestions on doing more for themselves rather than letting the staff take all the responsibility. A second group, matched with the first for degree of ill health and disability, received the usual nursing-home care, along with assurances that the staff would handle all decisions and responsibilities. After only three weeks, the potted-plant group showed significant improvements in health and the amount of activity engaged in. The results were even more dramatic after eighteen months, at which point the death rate of the potted-plant group was only 50 percent that of the other group.17

Studies suggest that individuals who engage in novel, mentally challenging experiences, such as doing crossword puzzles or learning a new language, preserve their mental faculties as they age to a greater degree than do people who resist such experiences.18, 19, 20 These novelty-loving neophiles are living proof that variety – chaos at the experiential level – can help make life worth living.

The Larger View

These observations are likely to be misunderstood. By making a case for chaos, it may appear that I am extolling dysfunction and illness. Not so. It’s just that the evidence suggests that while order, harmony, and coherence may be more appealing conceptually and aesthetically, they are sometimes unhealthy. This situation need not be mystifying; we see evidence of the value of chaos on every hand. We know that without early challenges to our immune system we’d wind up as “bubble babies,” with immune systems so incompetent we could not survive in a pathogen-packed world. As Thoreau observed, “’Tis healthy to be sick sometimes.”21 And without the disharmonious upsets of adolescence, we would turn out to be such psychologically immature adults we could not function well in a friendship, marriage, family, or society.

A one-sided emphasis on coherence will not serve us well. We need to acknowledge the evidence that healthy function requires the coexistence of the oppositional factors of coherence and chaos. Coherence and chaos are in cahoots with each other, each one neither wholly good nor wholly bad, both important in different situations. Context matters. When we exclusively reify one over the other, we pay a price. Nature is not black or white; she adores ambiguity and paradox – which, G. K. Chesterton said, is “truth standing on her head to get attention.”22

The value of chaos and disorder in human life and the paradoxical unity of opposites have been repeatedly affirmed by an impressive array of individuals from various walks of life – scientists, mathematicians, physicians, nurses, psychologists, philosophers, poets, writers, musicians, artists, theologians, saints, and sinners. They tell us that chaos and disorder are as essential as harmony and coherence in a fulfilled life, and in emerging science as well.

Sir Laurens van der Post wrote in his biography of psychologist Carl G. Jung, “No wonder Jung was later to tell me with a laugh that he could not imagine a fate more awful, a fate worse than death, than a life lived in perfect balance and harmony.”23 And as mathematician Ralph Abraham, of University of California-Santa Cruz, puts it, “We are learning that chaos is essential to the survival of life. Our challenge now is to restore goodness to chaos and disorder . . . In our current paradigm, order is to chaos as good is to evil, and this had been the status quo for the past few millennia. Meanwhile, while culture says disorder is Bad, chaos is obviously the favorite state of nature, where it is truly Good. But this truth has been banished to the collective unconscious for all these centuries. From the shadows of the unconscious it pushes forth into our consciousness and literature in poetry and song, romance and struggle.”24

This excerpt is taken from the editorial “Coherence, Chaos, and the Coincidentia Oppositorum,” which originally appeared in the November–December 2010 issue of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing. (

Dr. Dossey is a distinguished physician, author, and advocate for the role of spirituality in healthcare.

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