The thermodynamics of bipolarity: a bifurcation model of bipolar illness and bipolar character and its psychotherapeutic applications

Psychiatry. 1990 Nov;53(4):346-68. doi: 10.1080/00332747.1990.11024519.


Two models dominate current formulations of bipolar illness: the homeostatic model implicit in Freud's psychodynamics and most neuroamine deficit/excess theories; and the oscillatory model of exaggerated biological rhythms. The homeostatic model is based on the closed systems approach of classic thermodynamics, while the oscillatory model requires the open systems approach of modern thermodynamics. Here we present a thermodynamic model of bipolarity that includes both homeostatic and oscillatory features and adds the most important feature of open systems thermodynamics: the creation of novel structures in bifurcation processes. According to the proposed model, bipolarity is the result of exaggerated biological energy that augments homeostatic, oscillatory and creative psychological processes. Only low-energy closed systems tend to rest ("point attractor") and entropic disorder. Open processes containing and exchanging energy fluctuate between opposite states ("periodic attractors"); they are characteristic of most physiological rhythms and are exaggerated in bipolar subjects. At higher energies, their strong fluctuations destroy pre-existing patterns and structures, produce turbulence ("chaotic attractors"), which sudden switches between opposite states, and create new and more complex structures. Likewise, high-energy bipolars develop high spontaneity, great fluctuations between opposite moods, internal and interpersonal chaos, and enhanced creativity (personal, artistic, professional) as well as psychopathology (personality deviations, psychotic delusions). Offered here is a theoretical explanation of the dual--creative and destructive--nature of bipolarity in terms of the new enantiodromic concept of entropy generalized by process theory. Clinically, this article offers an integrative model of bipolarity that accounts for many clinical features and contributes to a definition of the bipolar personality.

Publication types

  • Case Reports
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Arousal / physiology
  • Bipolar Disorder / physiopathology
  • Bipolar Disorder / psychology*
  • Brain / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Marriage
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / physiology
  • Phenylacetates / urine
  • Psychoanalytic Theory*
  • Psychoanalytic Therapy*
  • Thermodynamics*


  • Neurotransmitter Agents
  • Phenylacetates
  • phenylacetic acid