Monday, January 18, 2016

Traditional Chinese Medicine - 5 Phases Theory

Graphic from

Graphic from
For more archetypal correspondences, see

The Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) approach to health is based on categories (types, archetypes) and balance. The first thing to note is that stereotypes actually help individualize nutrition and health by putting human differences front and center. One size doesn't fit all when we acknowledge the obvious truth that humans can be more different than similar. Recognizing these differences and similaries is aided by categories. (see danger below).

Secondly, nutrition and health are pretty complicated. Even the simple dictum to "Eat whole foods, mostly plants."(Michael Pollan) hides a huge amount of confusion and contradiction about what is healthy and how to cook it.  Books like "The Perfect Health Diet" are a great place to start and I won't argue with their research showing the optimum ratio of the various macronutrients and amount of micronutrients to consume.  But which spices to eat, what recipes to make, how much exercise to get, and when to wake up in the morning are not covered.  A more intuitive approach is needed to comprehend the human condition.

Third, the importance of balancing constitutions and forces is absent from much of modern nutrition, which acts as if a simple summation of inputs is enough to insure health. Perhaps the most important insight of TCM-based approaches and Hippocratic humours is that health is the sum of harmonious balancing interactions (i.e. homeostasis, for the scientists). There are too many forces and nutrients to consider to balance every input and output analytically. A wholistic approach is needed.

However, one danger of the archetypal approach is the tendency toward simplification and identification. For example, saying that "I am a water-type", or "I am a phlegmatic". Many people resist such limiting classification, rightly so, and with good reason. The trick to using archetypes is to lean on them gently, maintain perspective, and flexibility.  No one is X.  They are themselves, a real, infinitely-complex human system.  But many of us manifest observable types, and recognizing those types gives us the three advantages described above.

 Another danger, perhaps part of the danger listed above, is the hermetic tendency to see all people, phenomena, etc within one system of thought.  No system can be complete. TCM cannot answer all questions, and it is unbalanced to rely on it obsessively. Another closely related danger is the esoteric tendency to compile endlessly complicated tables, enumerations, calculations, and the like, in order to fit all people and phenomena into a system. This is the inevitable result of the hermetic temptation to apply one categorical system to all phenomena.

 Pavlov encountered this when he tried to explain his dogs' behavior using Hippocratic types. He was forced to expand, and then expand again, endlessly redoubling the complexity of the system to attempt to fit a (probably infinite) range of idiosyncratic variation within a comprehensive system. Somewhat the same tendency can be seen in the 16 Type Indicators of Myers Briggs testing, which was an outgrowth of Pavlov's work. The system could easily be expanded to 32, or 64, or.. types, in order to continue to incorporate more degrees of variation. But the cost to understanding and ease of use is progressive.

 As any system becomes more baroquely complicated, it begins to lose the explanatory power of simplicity. In any analytical system, there must be a balance between conceptual simplicity and accuracy.

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