Mathematically and philosophically, a spiral is just a circle or a self-similar repeating process that is moving along a perpendicular axis in time or space, but that apparent simplicity obscures some complex symbolism.
A lot of things in life work like spirals. Some are on an upward spiral, like the way money is supposed to grow in an investment account when you reinvest the dividends, and some are on a downward spiral, like an engine that begins to overheat, then the heat causes the oil to break down, which increases the friction, which increases the heat, etc. A lot of these processes have been given spiffy names – my two examples are called ‘the magic of compound interest,’ and ‘thermal runaway,’ respectively.
People often allow themselves to get caught up in spirals, good or bad. A typical downward spiral is when you’re having a bad day and you start keeping a laundry list of all the things that are going wrong and each thing just makes you go, ‘well, there’s another thing.’ It also happens when systems fail catastrophically, like a stock that drops to half its value in one trading session because as soon as the value starts to plummet, everybody and his brother yell ‘SELL!’ to try to cut their losses. I refer to this as the lemming effect, and my personal investment strategy is to buy them up as soon as they hit a low, expecting other bargain-hunters to drive the price up sooner or later.
Upward spirals sound good, and often they are, like a couple who are truly in love, or a pair of friendly competitors who push each other to new heights of experience and acheivement, but they can also go sour, and turn from growing enthusiasm to mass hysteria or crowd mentality, especially as the number of participating individuals reaches a critical mass.