A Dynamical Systems View of Psychiatric Disorders - Practical Implications: A Review

Marten Scheffer, Claudi L. Bockting, Denny Borsboom, Roshan Cools, Clara Delecroix, Jessica A. Hartmann, Kenneth S. Kendler, Ingrid van de Leemput, Han L. J. van der Maas, Egbert van Nes, Mark Mattson, Pat D. McGorry, Barnaby Nelson

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articleAcademicpeer-review


Importance: Dynamical systems theory is widely used to explain tipping points, cycles, and chaos in complex systems ranging from the climate to ecosystems. It has been suggested that the same theory may be used to explain the nature and dynamics of psychiatric disorders, which may come and go with symptoms changing over a lifetime. Here we review evidence for the practical applicability of this theory and its quantitative tools in psychiatry. Observations: Emerging results suggest that time series of mood and behavior may be used to monitor the resilience of patients using the same generic dynamical indicators that are now employed globally to monitor the risks of collapse of complex systems, such as tropical rainforest and tipping elements of the climate system. Other dynamical systems tools used in ecology and climate science open ways to infer personalized webs of causality for patients that may be used to identify targets for intervention. Meanwhile, experiences in ecological restoration help make sense of the occasional long-term success of short interventions. Conclusions and Relevance: Those observations, while promising, evoke follow-up questions on how best to collect dynamic data, infer informative timescales, construct mechanistic models, and measure the effect of interventions on resilience. Done well, monitoring resilience to inform well-timed interventions may be integrated into approaches that give patients an active role in the lifelong challenge of managing their resilience and knowing when to seek professional help.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)624-630
Number of pages7
JournalJAMA Psychiatry
Issue number6
Early online date2024
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jun 2024

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