What a machine!
Food is fuel!
The heart is a pump.
The brain is a computer. Inputs. Outputs. Processing.
Analogies likening the body to a machine have been around for centuries, if not longer.
They exist in almost every culture.
They shape the way people think about their bodies.
They are wrong.
Your body is not a machine, and that is an extremely good thing.
Your body is a biological entity, which adapts over time to the stimuli it is exposed to.
Moreover, your body is part of you and you are part of your body – the separation is an illusion of the mind.
Let’s look at this a little more deeply.
Why Do We Use Machine Analogies?
In a word: simplicity (even I succumbed to computer based analogies in this post – my understanding is better now).
Even the most complex machines are computers are created by, and hence can be understood by humans.
When it comes to our body, our brain, our mind – we really don’t know that much.
We are learning at an astounding rate, but almost all research in human biology and psychology ends with the dreaded statement more research is needed.
So, to simplify things, we use analogies of machines. To the non-technical minded person, machines are complex, but we have an idea about them because of our interaction with them in daily life.
But, in the process of simplifying, we have made things too simplistic, and as a result, our explanations lead to incorrect ideas.
Incorrect Ideas Lead To Poor Health Behaviours
Many people are afraid of activity due to a fear that they will “wear out” their body.
You hear doctors described arthritis as “wear and tear” all the time.
This leads people to stop doing the very things that would improve their condition – exercise.
We see similar problems with the “hardware/software” analogies used (I have been guilty of this in the past).
When people are told their brain is like a computer, it is very limiting.
Computers cannot create.
Computers cannot feel.
Computers cannot express themselves.
At this point in time, computers can only do what they are programmed to do.
If we think our brain is like a computer, then it is becomes a tool for processing information, rather than the core of our experience.
Additionally, a computer can be reset. While we all love the idea of a clean slate (new diet on Monday, new year’s resolutions etc), in reality, everything we have experienced in our lives shapes us in ways seen and unseen, which affects what we do, think and feel going forward, which shapes us further, in a big, ever expanding circular fashion.
What Kind Of Analogies Should We Use Instead?
When it comes to adaptation, which is the hallmark of living organisms, I like to use examples from nature, like this tree from a Facebook post I made a couple of years ago.
I love how, despite the challenges of an unfamiliar, urban environment presented to this tree, it manages to adapt and thrive. This is true across all of biology. Species, both plant and animal, will do whatever they can to adapt to their environment in order to survive and reproduce.
From an evolutionary biology perspective, this is what our primary purpose of life is.
Now, as humans, we have higher aims – creation, expression, fulfilment, enlightment etc – but deep down, these biological imperatives are still there.
Instead of saying “the body is a car that needs servicing and alignment”, why not say the body is like a tree, it grows until maturity, then it endures good seasons and bad throughout its lifespan, but it adapts and survives?
Instead of saying “the heart is like a pump”, why not describe it as a river that keeps flowing to maintain it’s own health – sometimes it flows faster, sometimes it flows slower, but it still flows?
Instead of saying “what a machine”, why not say what an amazing person?
Why It’s So Important To Get This Right
Imagine if, instead of being told that her sore knee is because of wear and tear, a doctor tells her patient that her knee pain is because her nervous system is being protective of it.
Imagine this doctor then tells her patient that to deal with the pain she needs to become more adaptable and resilient, and that she can do this by improving her flexibility, strength and endurance with exercise and activity.
Imagine if this doctor also told her patient that stress and fear makes her pain worse, and that she not only needs to become more physically adaptable and resilient, but more mentally as well, and that this is possible because even into older age, the brain and nervous system can learn and change for the better!
Medical and allied health practitioners need to lead the charge towards healthier attitudes towards bodies, pain, injury and ageing.
More needs to be done to build confidence in people’s health, especially in the face of pain and ageing – two big drivers of fear.
This can be achieved by stopping the use of machine based analogies and encouraging people to build strength and resilience in the face of pain, rather than retreat and avoid aggravation.
The evidence is clear: while short term rest in the case of tissue injury and post surgery is sometimes warranted, the sooner people resume activity, the better their outcomes.
We also know that expectations drive outcomes. This means more positive messages about recovery and less fear based mechanical analogies.
It’s time practice started reflecting the evidence, it’s been around for a while now.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.