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The Termites Article

Okay, this article isn't really about termites.It’s about biological systems and how we approach them, but termites are biological systems and, news flash, so are you.

I read a piece in last week’s issue of The New Yorker entitled, “Busy Bodies: What termites are teaching us” by Amia Srinivasan. The author uses termites as a window onto the way the military and biofuel industry use science as a means to achieve their own ends. Her concerns are not moral, but rather intellectual. What happens to our thought processes when they’re directed at discovery and when they’re directed at production? For instance, a group of synthetic biologists at the Department of Energy’s Joint BioEnergy Institute are studying the termite gut microbiome in an effort to make “grassoline,” an alternative fuel source. This would involve taking cellulose-processing microbes from the termite gut, reengineering them to produce more metabolites that we can use for fuel, and then cultivating these microbes outside the gut.

In order to work with the microbes, synthetic biologists need to be able to represent each microbe in an abstracted way. They are engineering, and engineers work with plans. Using models, they are able to calculate predictions rather than waste precious time on trial and error. Thus far, the approach has had its pitfalls and seemingly not much progress has been made towards a “grassoline” anywhere near as efficient as fossil fuels. In 2014, a paper was published in the journal Cell looking at the field of synthetic biology, at its beginnings and at its direction. The authors, one of whom was interviewed for the New Yorker piece, issued a warning:

"Computer hardware can be abstracted to the point where a circuit can be represented simply in terms of its inputs and outputs. Our ability to perform such an abstraction results from our ability to design computer hardware around human cognitive capabilities. Biological systems, in contrast, have been created by evolution and are not necessarily abstractable in ways that the human brain has evolved to handle."

In other words, biological systems defy simplification. In other words, they are not particularly interested in being understood by the human mind, nor in being means to our ends.It is important to note the broadening of scope from microorganisms to all biological systems. It is a scope that includes human systems. This is an important perspective for those of us who work with bodies, and really, all of those of us who have bodies. We must always remember that we are working off of models, and that these models have been created by the human mind to be comprehensible to the human mind. The model that I work with has been formed with things I’ve learned from the Postural Restoration Institute, from Dr. Pat Davidson, Mike Zhao, from IFAST University and Kento Kamiyama. I think about gait patterns, breathing patterns, muscle chains. Having a model allows me to work through algorithms. If A presents, I do B, etc. etc. It allows me, like an engineer, to make predictions about what outputs I will get with when I apply particular inputs. It allows me to work efficiently, because people pay me by the hour. For instance, I might see a client shifting to one side in a squat, and want to correct that. The desired output is a symmetrical[1, strong squat. I reverse engineer through my model to discover exactly which drills and tactile cues I need to achieve that output. My model includes a theory about how bipedal gait patterns determine how we activate certain muscle chains, about how those need to be fired reciprocally, and about how the nervous system calibrates a neutral state of rest during which the person would have their weight evenly distributed between their feet. According to my model, the person who shifts to one side, assuming they are uninjured, has a nervous system that needs to be recalibrated. They are stuck more to one side than the other. So using my model, I determine my inputs: drills that fire up the under-active muscle chains and help their nervous system rediscover where neutral is. So far, my model works fairly well, at least in cases like these.

I have a fantasy of building the ultimate training and rehabilitation model, of having a perfect set of algorithms that solve every problem. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? I could do all the work up front and then just coast downhill for the rest of my career. But this fantasy is dangerous, for when one is obsessed with building, one will be hard-pressed to tear what has already been built down to the foundations. This gives rise to the tendency to cling to what I already have, and if a biological system comes along that doesn’t fit into my model, to try to cram them in anyway, or to simply elaborate on my model, in other words to try to build a little annex in which to accommodate them. This mindset closes me off to experimentation, risk-taking. In the article in Cell, the authors talk about how methods that are conducive to engineering, i.e. black boxes and models, are not always conducive to discovery. The methods that are conducive to discovery are observation and trial and error. If I encounter a problem and my algorithm doesn’t seem to be working, I have a couple of options. I can consult my teachers and see if there’s some relevant part of the model I’m missing or I can go back down the spectrum of methods towards the trial and error end. It is scary to admit that my go-to isn’t working, and it can be even scarier to use session time to try out a new idea that may yield nothing, but these opportunities are what lead to breakthroughs. Ultimately, these are the moments upon which innovation rests.[2]

One final point is that biological systems have a history, hold memories. These memories need not be conscious. Even individual cells have a memory of their own kind, as both articles cited discuss.

“[U]nlike electrons, cells have a history—something like memories of what they have metabolized in the past. These “memories” are encoded not in the cells’ DNA but somewhere else in their chemistry, so it may be misguided to think in terms of swapping genetic programs in and out of cell “bags.”

If cells have memories that affect the way we’re able to work with them, so much the more so do humans.[3] What this means is that each human has a different history, different pain circuits, a different nervous system. Each human responds differently to various stimuli and perceived threats. What this means is that for those of us who work with bodies, although we must indeed develop our models and work according to underlying principles, we must also never be blinded by them. We must always be alert to the human in front of us. Through observation, we are able to stay supple, to adapt to each client. And as we adapt and expand, we continue to look for underlying principles to bring back and integrate into our model. We strike a balance through oscillation, between theory and practice, between the role of the engineer and the role of the experimenter.

If you are a coach, trainer, or bodyworker, and you’d like to offer some thoughts on this, reach out to me here. Or, if you do none of these thing but this holistic approach to training speaks to you, we can set up a complimentary phone consultation to find out if training with me can change your life. (It can.) Let the conversation begin.

[1]In practice everyone is asymmetrical and that’s okay. I’m talking about dysfunction here. [2]For instance, I had one client whose left arm kept lagging on the bench press. His right shoulder would rise up off the bench when it got hard, as though he were twisting to the left. I had heard that upper body strength on a given side can be affected by abdominal support on that side, and I knew that when the torso twists, it facilitates one side of the abdominals and inhibits the other, so I told him I wanted to try something. I had him lie on the floor and reach across his body, using that arm as a weight to pull him over to his stomach. I had him roll several times away from his left side. The idea was to reorient his ribcage and pelvis and facilitate his left abs. It worked. His bench press immediately evened out. I do not have a detailed explanation of why this works. I just built on one piece of information I’d heard, but I have repeated the results with him, with myself, and with a client whose left arm was lagging on overhead press.

[3]And as in the case of cells, awareness is not requisite to memory. As evidence, I offer the sizable percentage of people who experienced symptoms of PTSD after a major operation, even though they were anesthetized.