Have you ever had an unexplainable ache or pain that just wouldn’t budge? You went to the doctor, physical therapist, or chiropractor, and they explained to you precisely why you were having this pain from a structural viewpoint. They also explained to you exactly how and why it would get better with their treatments. And it all made perfect sense. Except, it didn’t work. Relief would be short term or non-existent. You experienced frustration, perhaps even anger that your back pain, or neck pain, does not respond to treatments when these treatments theoretically made so much sense. Perhaps you started experiencing anger and frustration at the doctor, or physical therapist, or chiropractor, or worse, anger and frustration at your body.
My aim with this article is to remind you of your extraordinary complexity, and that your biology is only one aspect of you. My hope is to bring awareness to how non-physical influences impact our physical bodies, and how these influences have very physical manifestations. But mostly, I want to remind you that you are so much more than what the eye (or the MRI) can see.
I remember my first high school anatomy class like it was yesterday. I was so awestruck and inspired having just learned the names of the bones and muscles of my arm. I was in love with the human body and the way in which the nerves and muscles and bones all work together to make this amazing body function, and function well. I remember wanting to learn more and more about this remarkable machine. In fact, it led me to pursue a career in studying the workings of the body by becoming a physical therapist. The machine metaphor for the body slowly but surely got solidified in my understanding and in my brain. From pumps and valves to pulleys and hinges, I learned that the body was designed like a machine. My job as a physical therapist was to find the glitch in the mechanism, and to make it function again like the well-oiled machine it was designed to be.
It was only after I had been practicing physical therapy for a few years that things became less obvious, instead of more apparent; more confusing rather than clearer; more complex instead of more simplified. Rather than finding myself with black and white textbook cases I learned about in PT school, more often than not the patients I saw had cases of different shades of gray. I found myself wondering why some people’s machines responded so well to my treatment, and others’ not at all. If the science, the biomechanics, the angles, the pumps, were really all that mattered, everyone should respond in the same way. Yet, this was hardly ever the case.
In our increasingly reductionistic society in which we look for cause and effect, black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, we miss out on so much in between, the both/and, the color between black and white. I get it. Sometimes we need to simplify things to grasp it, we need to eliminate as many variables as we can to understand it, and we need a linear perspective to wrap our heads around concepts, especially when it comes to science. But are we reducing the human body to a fault?
Our bodies can sometimes be likened to a machine, but to reduce it only to the metaphor of machine greatly simplifies its immense complexity. Are we not more like a garden? A garden in which bees and birds, soil, sun, and water, music, love…all of these variables have an impact on the health and wellness of the garden in a very non-linear fashion. Sure, some of it is linear, but the different elements in a garden, interacting and impacting each other is so much more complex, and can sometimes be so frustrating when our gardens aren’t thriving. We ask ourselves, “Which variable needs tweaking?” The same is true for our bodies—some parts function linearly, but to reduce every part to linear function does a great disservice to the miracle of how our bodies actually function. Is it possible to shift our linear thinking into a more emergent paradigm? And what exactly is the difference between linear and emergent patterns?
Think of the following scenarios: the way the engine of a car works, the way your blood gets pumped from your heart to the rest of your body and back, the way a seed sprouts and grows. In all of these scenarios, there’s an initiating event, followed by a sequence of predictable events. It’s cause-and-effect. It’s always predictable. It’s one-dimensional. This is linear understanding. Our well-known biomedical model thrives on this linear thinking—cause-and-effect, one variable will cause a predictable effect on the next variable. This is how pharmacology works, this is how surgery works, and this is how your body, pain or disease is explained to you.
Now think of a city, or a snowflake, or the murmuration of starlings, or your brain. There is no one singular event causing a set sequence of events to follow. Instead, patterns emerge from a multitude of inputs that do not function in a linear, one-dimensional manner. Even though we learn about the function and physiology of our bodies in linear terms, our bodies are everything but linear. We are biopsychosocial beings, and we are emergent. The biology, psychology, and social environments are all variables that constantly interact and influence one another, and in these interactions complex patterns emerge—sometimes healing patterns, other times patterns of disease and pain. One thing is certain; you can never take the psychology or social environment out of your being. So why do we think that these variables don’t have a constant influence on our biology?
In a biomedical model, our bodies are often viewed in a more linear fashion, lacking intelligence and agency. This viewpoint tends to elicit disrespect for the body, power over the body, and a battlefield mentality when it comes to pain and disease.
In a biopsychosocial model, our bodies are understood as emergent, vastly intelligent far beyond our understanding. We respect this intelligence. We strive for balance, we don’t try to overpower it, or overcome it in a nasty battle. We understand that psychological and social factors impact our physical machine as much as food and physical agents do. We are in relationship with our bodies and ourselves. When you find yourself thinking of your body as a machine, look to see how differently it feels to view it as a garden.
Reference: Explain Pain Supercharged (2017) by Butler and Moseley