For the last 40 years, Eve Marder’s lab at Brandeis University has studied one small system of 5 neurons from the 30 neuron stomatogastric ganglion in the stomach of crustaceans ( This ganglion produces three rhythmic oscillations needed for operation of that stomach.  The lab has extensive information about the parameters of connection among these 5 neurons that drive the triphasic oscillations produced by the 5 neurons.  But Marder says that while the connection diagram of the 5 neurons is necessary for understanding important dynamics of that little system of neurons, it is absolutely insufficient for understanding the full range of dynamics.  Why?

The connection diagram clearly shows how the three oscillations could be produced.  However, she has discovered a host of substances which modulate or alter the triphasic oscillation output of the ganglion.  These neuromodulators are produced at various places throughout the body of the crustacean.  The alterations created by them are differences that make a difference.  Her list of neuromodulators includes all the neurotransmitters plus many peptides.  The modulations caused by each are well documented.  Parenthetically, I suspect that the “emotional molecules” like cortisol, oxytocin, vasopressin, the catecholamines, etc. would also probably act as neuromodulators of this stomatogastric ganglion and of other ganglia of the nervous system.

What’s the point?  Marder asserts that ganglia like this exist throughout the nervous system.  And that similarly understanding the organization of a ganglion is necessary but insufficient by itself for understanding the dynamics of the ganglion.

I think that this is a principle that applies in systems generally, particularly living systems.  In any system of highly interdependent influences, it is useful to understand how an isolated small group of the interconnected influences operate together and produce effects.  Eve Marder did this by discovering the patterns of interaction of the five neurons from the crustacean stomatogastric ganglion and found systemic substances which modulate the output of that small system of five neurons.

This principle applies as well to the mechanisms Bowen described in the family emotional system.  Family projection, reciprocal functioning in couples, triangles, primary triangles.  It is necessary to understand thoroughly how these “molecules” of systems operate but insufficient without also understanding the various system influences that can modulate the functioning of the molecules.

What might these modulators be for family projection process, triangles, etc. of family emotional process?  A few would include intensity of anxiety, level of differentiation, the functioning of the system around any one of these molecules, the system of interlocking triangles within which the molecule operates.  This is just a beginning.  I’m sure there are many more.

The takeaway of all this for emotional functioning in family systems is this: understand very thoroughly how the ‘molecules’ of emotional process work and then begin to learn what other factors can influence and alter the operation of that emotional process molecule of the system.