Complexity Science and CAM: More Mental Models

Kristen Sparrow • December 29, 2011

I will divide this topic into two posts since this article touches on more than one meaty subjects.
Applying Principles from Complex Systems to Studying the Efficacy of CAM Therapies
This article was published over a year ago, but I missed it. The lead author, Andrew Ahn, is a fellow I had met at the SAR (Society for Acupuncture Research) meeting in North Carolina in 2010, discussed briefly here. The article is available in its entirety. I will point out a few points that are of interest to me in particular. My research has involved HRV (Heart Rate Variability) analysis in conjunction with acupuncture. It makes sense to do this if you recognize that acupuncture cannot be explained in a linear, mechanistic fashion. I discussed some of these dilemmas here and here. So Dr. Ahn grapples with ways to study these nonlinear phenomena in this article, describing a workshop he had attended. He says,

“This discusses possible benefits and challenges associated with applying complexity science to CAM research…
Complexity theory provides a theoretical framework for evaluating and analyzing complex systems. These systems are “complex,” because they exhibit global properties not made obvious from the properties of the individual components, and they are “systems,” because they are composed of interconnected parts. Historically, complexity theory borrows concepts and tools from a range of disciplines, including chaos theory (physics), control theory (engineering), cybernetics (mathematics), and General Systems Theory (biology). More broadly, these disciplines share a common theme of nonlinearity—a concept maintaining that the size of an output is not proportional to the size of an input.
Terms such as adaptability, robustness, or health were previously considered qualitative terms and thus were quantitatively intractable. Yet, complexity science has identified analytical methods that can help assess these features… Finally, complexity science offers a conceptual framework that reflects reality better. In the real world, small inputs can have large effects, processes are dynamic, interactive effects can span across many temporal and spatial scales, and transformations from one state to another can happen gradually or precipitously...

There is a lot here. As I discussed previously in my “argument” with Dr. Longhurst over whether I was actually giving continuous stimulation with manual acupuncture, clinical outcomes attest that I get results without continuous stimulation. This requires that one sees acupuncture as setting a cascade in motion of self healing or self regulation in response to the tiny injury incurred, rather than a nerve stimulation directly to the spinal canal, brain that needs continuous input.
He also echoes one of my favorite ways of describing acupuncture’s effect on the body, that it makes it sturdier, more robust, more resilient (spoke about it in this interview.) As he says “these were qualitative terms and thus were quantitatively intractable.” The search for biomarkers of health, or healthy response can be seen in the testing for telomere length, HRV, galvanic skin response, or electrical impedance at acupoints. My own interest is in HRV as a measure of health and stress level or ability to respond. I will discuss this more in the next post Linkusing Dr. Ahn’s article
More on the practice here.