Aug 27, 2012

Chaos of the Needle Man

My friend and mentor Dr. Sung S. Kim died two years ago this month at age 80. I helped Dr. Kim with his website and with a couple of publications. He was a great acupuncture doctor, and a genuine character. In his youth, he managed to serve on both sides of the Korean War (he always was hush-hush about this).  He completed medical school, moved to America, became a heart surgeon, then an acupuncturist after he and his wife visited China in the early 1970s. Dr. Kim’s passions were day-trading, left-wing politics, golf, and writing. He approached all of these from a mixed Buddhist-Taoist perspective. He loved his wife, but was annoyed by her little dog. He bought gadget after gadget that he never really learned to operate.

Dr. Kim wanted everyone to know how acupuncture worked. He tried to explain Eastern medicine in a way that was compatible with a Western medical perspective. Over the years I learned quite a bit about acupuncture, but the first important lesson he taught me was about the power-and-control strategies of experts. In ancient times, Chinese court acupuncturists described what they did in extremely complicated terms in order to build up their status as experts, and retain their jobs with the Emperor. Meanwhile, throughout the countryside, traveling doctors practiced a much simpler style of acupuncture. People could pay a lot of money to see the Emperor’s acupuncturist or instead, as Dr. Kim phrased it, visit the “needle man under bridge,” and get acupuncture on the cheap, without the fancy ritual. Both styles of acupuncture worked. The fancy explanations and mystifying rituals were extraneous. They made no difference. Everyone got better.

Dr. Kim’s method of acupuncture was radically simplified. He focused on a couple dozen, not hundreds, of acupuncture points. Other acupuncturists used many more needles, and inevitably placed some needles exactly where Dr. Kim did. These points are located in ganglia (bunches of neurons) connected with the parasympathetic nervous system (the set of nerves that control the body’s involuntary functions). Slight effects from the needles induce an adjustment process in the whole body. This changes the production and processing of neurotransmitters and hormones, which delivers the intended result. 

As Dr. Kim explained it, acupuncture’s needles are a direct physical intervention into a complex system. Healing emerges from the complexity of the many feedback loops and processes of the body’s systems. The ancient Chinese authors used Taoist concepts to explain all this. Dr. Kim’s insight was that Taoism is the same as modern systems theory. Both involve tuning in to chaos and complexity. Taoism is modern chaos theory, quantum physics without the troublesome math. 

I have been coming to realize how systems theory and chaos theory might offer solutions to the problems of mental illness. The human brain’s extreme complexity is a given. We also know that our mental distress connects with our whole bodies. On top of that, we must deal with our families and other social structures, and cope with physical conditions that are mostly beyond our control. We clearly need some tool that helps us grapple with the complexity of all of this. 

A systems approach begins with identifying the relevant system. We must think big enough to encompass all the relevant factors. We must include our brains, our bodies, our emotions, our talents, our genetics, our families, our culture, our faiths, our neighborhoods, our governments, our schools, our prisons, our economies and more. Focusing too narrowly creates issues elsewhere. We need to be constantly aware, and tune in as best we can to signals from the whole thing.

The “whole thing” is certainly not a closed system. Closed systems use up whatever fuel they have and stop. People are open systems. We take in fuel, and expel waste, while our body’s processes, if working optimally, keep us going at a state that is close to equilibrium. (Equilibrium is a false goal. Once you reach equilibrium, you’re dead.) The farther from equilibrium a system gets, the more chaotic. 

Yet even chaos has patterns. We can develop a sense of perspective, try various things, and see the changes that emerge. With a little nudging in the right places, we might even make some progress with the whole thing.

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