An awesome arena

As bodyworkers we are privileged to work with whole living bodies.  We do not learn our craft on dead dissected tissue or computer simulations but from experiential interaction with living minded bodies; with people. This unique therapeutic arena is poorly researched by scientists, not because it is unworthy of scientific investigation but because it is inherently unsuitable. Complexity, wholeness, aliveness, and consciousness are all barriers to a thorough scientific explanation of bodywork.

Let’s start with complexity. We do not yet fully comprehend the intricate workings of single-celled organisms such as bacteria. Of course, we understand certain details, but we are nowhere near understanding how the organisation of a single cell works.  And so, when it comes to humans, composed of trillions of dynamically interacting specialized cells, we have a level of complexity beyond current comprehension.  

What scientists have been doing up until recently is reducing the complex system (us) to simpler parts, and studying those in detail. This reductionist approach has been undertaken with the assumption (hope?) that our complex selves will one day be understood by knowing everything we can about our simpler components.  But when we look at complex systems, this is unlikely.

According to Nobel prize winning scientist, Klaus Von Klitzing, definitive explanations do not necessarily live at the most basic level and so all levels of scale should be explored. Indeed, according to many scientists, the optimal vantage point for discovery is often posited at the scale of the whole(1). Wholes do not act the same as a collection of parts. For example, a detailed understanding of water molecules did not predict their behaviour together when the strange phenomenon of surface tension emerged. A molecular understanding of water did not predict how it would behave as a system.

Natural selection acts at the level of the organism in its environment and so it is our functional networks that are selected rather than our component parts. This tendency for evolution to form wholes that are greater than the sum of their parts is described as Holism.

Wholeness requires a higher-level organization. While it is whole, a bubble, for example, exists as a self-organizing entity, dynamically maintaining its existence. Once popped, its constituent parts do not predict ‘bubbleness’ or reveal any indication of the system-level organisation of bubbleness.

Aliveness is different yet from complexity and wholeness. Aliveness brings another problem for scientists because no-one has ever succeeded in making aliveness from non-aliveness. Living molecules cannot be made unless first ‘seeded’ with biological enzymes. There is something intangible about aliveness that science has not yet revealed—although many are working on it. The clue may come in this higher-level organisation. All living organisms are autopoietic; they are capable of self-maintenance owing to a process self-generated from within. This is important but, at the same time, weird. Self-organization is an oxymoron.

Not only is life self-organizing but it has goals.  It is self-concerned. Living things are not fixed homeostatic mechanisms like a boiler thermostat. They are constantly adapting to ever-changing external and internal environments and achieving changing goals at the same time.

Do not assume that this self-organization thing is a brain thing. Living organisms show autopoiesis with or without brains or nervous systems.  A single cell exhibits autopoiesis: millions of biochemical reactions adjusting to each other, genes switching on an off, producing or ceasing to produce different proteins when needed; not only responding but adapting to an ever-changing external environment. This continuous self-concerned dynamic is considered by some scientists to be a rudimentary form of cognition. In other words, a simple form of ‘intelligence’ is found in cell metabolism(2). There is a basic equivalence between life and cognition. Hold that thought. Consciousness is still considered the ‘big problem’ of scientific understanding and its role in biology is a constant source of philosophical debate.

We bodyworkers, then, work in an awesome arena in which one complex, self-organizing, living system is mindfully interacting with another complex, self-organizing, living system. We have little chance of a complete explanation from reductionist science BUT luckily we are sitting in the front row for all the newly emerging systems-level explanations just around the corner.   


“If you take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have is a non-working cat.”

Douglas Adams


1.          Conti, F ., Valerio, M.C., Zibilut, JP, Giuliani A. Will systems biology offer new holistic paradigms to life sciences? Syst Synth Biol. 2007;1(4):161–5.

2.          Bitbol M, Luisi PL. Autopoiesis With or Without Cognition: Defining Life at Its Edge. J R Soc Interface [Internet]. 2004;1(1):99–107.

3.          Casadevall A. Reductionist and Holistic Science. Infect Immun. 2011;79(4):1401–4.