The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Select Abstracts from the upcoming 36th Midwest Symposium on Bowen Family Systems Theory and Therapy May 3rd & 4th, 2019

During the month of April, we will be sharing the abstracts of presentations that will be given at the Midwest Symposium, May 3 and 4, at the Lakeview Center in Gilson Park in Wilmette, Illinois.  We continue with the abstracts of Robert Noone and Stephanie Ferrera.


Family and Individual Differentiation- Robert Noone

During the course of development cellular differentiation occurs, creating a diverse range of cellular structures and functions as well as tissues and organ systems from a uniform inherited genome. The process includes not only genetic instructions, but epigenetic processes which involve interactional signaling among cell types.

The course of individual development involves not only reciprocal signaling among cell types, but interactional processes occurring in the social environment, principally the family. In this process the family is seen to play a major role in shaping individual development leading to a range of functioning observable in adulthood.

The emerging field of social neuroscience is establishing the significant role the social environment plays in brain development but has largely overlooked the family as a distinct environment. This presentation will discuss development as a process of the differentiation individuals in the context of the family unit. The process is viewed as resulting in both varying degrees of emotional autonomy and the differentiation of the functioning of higher cortical systems and their role in self-regulation.

Robert Noone



The Family as an Economic Unit and an Emotional Unit – Stephanie Ferrera

As an economic unit, the family provides the material resources needed for the survival, care and well-being of its members.  Over the estimated 100,000 years of existence of modern humans, the conditions under which families have found, developed, produced, and distributed resources have changed dramatically.  Ian Morris’ delineation of three major modes of “energy capture”—foraging, farming, and fossil fuels—will be the reference for an overview of the evolution of the family as an economic unit.

As an emotional unit, the family is governed by two key variables:  the level of chronic anxiety and the level of adaptability.  Thus the functioning of the family over time, across generations, varies from relatively cohesive and stable, to more fragmented and more vulnerable to problems.

This presentation will address the interface between the economic and the emotional functioning of the family.  How do varying levels of economic security impact the level of chronic anxiety and adaptability in the family?   From a larger, evolutionary perspective: how have changing ways of making a living impacted the human relationship with the earth?  And with what consequences for levels of chronic anxiety in families and societies?  No simple answers are promised.

Stephanie Ferrera


Bowen Theory in the Study of Physiological Reactions and Family Emotional Systems – Victoria Harrison

The study of how relationships regulate physiological reactions is not peculiar to Bowen theory.  A great deal of research in social mammals and primates describes ways that interaction between kin and kind influences biochemistry and behavior of individuals.   Most of the research, however, looks at dyads (mother/infant or male/female) or a social group as relationships of influence.   Epigenetic research describes the influence of reactivity to stressful experiences, including relationships or lack of them, on future generations in a wide range of species.  The diversity of species and relationships studied, of reactions measured, and in methods of analyzing data produce challenges for fields that have a common goal:  to better understand and improve human health and functioning for now and for future generations.

This presentation will illustrate the use of Bowen theory in generating hypotheses, making decisions about research design, selection of measures, and interpretation of data for the study of how physiological reactions are regulated in the family emotional system.   There will be a brief review of concepts such as the family emotional system in which anxiety is distributed through relationship patterns that occur in triangles and differentiation of self as a fundamental influence over physiology.

Data from the project using physiological measures for Mother and Father and three adult children (2013 & 2014) will be discussed in terms of the contributions research based in Bowen theory can make to understanding how relationships in the family regulate physiological reactions and functioning.  The challenges of relating research based in Bowen theory across disciplines will be discussed.   Directions for future research will be outlined.


The Place of Doubt in Bowen Theory – Robert Williamson, M.Div.

In popular presentations of Bowen theory, “defining a self” is encouraged via clear statements of belief and action stands. In this context, “doubt” can be seen as almost the opposite of defining a self. This presentation will offer a more appreciative view of doubt and its place in Bowen theory.

In describing solid self, Dr. Murray Bowen noted wrote that “each belief and principle is consistent with the others.” Pseudo-self, in his view, “is made up of random and discrepant beliefs and principles.” Thus, “solid self is aware of inconsistency in beliefs, but the pseudo-self is not aware.” (Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, p. 406)

This presentation will suggest that doubt can be understood as the word used to label the initial, uncomfortable coming to awareness of the inconsistencies of pseudo-self. Thus, doubt has the potential to be a transitional point in moving from pseudo-self to solid self. The emotional and intellectual maturity of the individual will determine the time and effort needed to make such a transition (if it is made at all).

In sum, the focus of this twenty-minute presentation will be to place “doubt” – understood in this way – within the context of Dr. Bowen’s descriptions of pseudo-self and solid self.

Robert Williamson


Does Bowen Theory Have/Need an Ethic? – Rev. Robert P. Price

Bowen Family Systems Theory’s (BFST) best recommendation to traditionalist Christian clergy is its formal agnosticism regarding religion and its lack of “baggage” in terms of philosophical underpinnings. Unlike approaches like Freudian theory, Jungian theory, and a host of other psychotherapeutic systems, one does not need to buy into a non- or even anti-Christian mythology in order to “think [Bowen] Theory.” Christians may use Bowen Theory in good conscience because it is stripped of alien mythology and metaphysic. It begins with the attempt to describe, as factually as possible, the discrete behaviors and symptoms that are occurring not just within an individual, but within the network of emotionally significant relationships.

This presentation will highlight how Murray Bowen presented religion in neutral and objective terms in his writings. If one understands “religion” as the articulation, teaching, and enactment of an ethic in the context of a group, how does one go about constructing such an ethic in a way that is consonant with Bowen theory? The presentation will explore the glimpses of Bowen’s ethic that he offers in Family Therapy and Clinical Practice and ask whether an unspoken ethic exists within the community of Bowen therapists. Several sources for such an ethic will be explored as ways of thinking about the value judgements every person brings to the practice of Bowen theory.

This presentation seeks to provoke questions such as the following: is Bowen theory beyond good and evil? How does one wrestle with the perception of wrongdoing in self and others in a thoughtful way? Does a project of self-differentiation require an “ethic”? Can a human function without one? What role does/can Bowen theory play in negotiating and thinking about the rights and wrongs of the human predicament?

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