It seems like my plan to write a single post that connected all the readings I did into systemic therapy with Chinese medicine has become something of a several part opus and I am glad it has because a single post would either have been so long it might be better compiled into a book, or so short it could not have done any of the subjects much justice. I seem to have finished just in time too as I have been accepted to begin a Master’s degree in herbal medicine this September so I expect all my essays to be coursework from then on. To go with that I hope to start a database of herbs, similar to my database of points, where I can keep notes on studies done into the compositions, combinations and known trials. I think that is more relevant to herbs for which safety testing and randomised control trials are more applicable than to acupuncture for which context plays a more defining role. The result of that will probably mean going back to shorter posts of brief updates for at least the next year, although I might use this to thrash out ideas for assignments or post drafts of my work.

To finish my writings inspired by systemic therapy I have left the concept I found most difficult to understand until last. I admit that I was not entirely sure I understood the concept of strange loops when explained to me in the short articles of the course. I seemed to get what they were talking about at the time but it would quickly fade, so over the last month I have been reading Douglas Hofstadter’s (2008) “I am a Strange Loop” in order to grasp the concept at its source. Hofstadter is a professor of cognitive science who developed the concept to explain the sense of “I” as a self-referential, recursive, fractal loop, derived from a lifelong passion for the mathematics of Gödel, the art of Escher and the music of Bach. As I progressed through his book and its numerous pictures of recursive loops I could not help but think that many of the classics of Chinese medicine had similar diagrams where time was conceived as a series of loops within loops. We often call this “cyclical time” as opposed to “linear” but they do not simply repeat themselves as the image of a circle implies. Rather each time a cycle is completed the result of it is fed back into the loop and a new result is generated. Also each cycle, such as a year, is made up of smaller ones like days. The dynamics of disease was seen as a disruption in the pathway of these patterns leading to ever decreasing health due to a poorer result being constantly being fed back into a harmful equation. The restoration of health was an attempt reverse this process and make small changes in the formula that would lead to positive results, with each cycle building on the last.

The key difference between Hofstadter’s strange loops and those of Chinese medicine is one of scale. Hofstadter starts where western science typically starts, at the microscopic level of brain activity that was unattainable to ancient peoples and has only recently become available to neuroscientists with the development of fMRI scanners. He finishes at an attempt to explain the individual moments of conscious apprehension we all experience as our self. The Chinese system concerns itself with phenomena measurable without instruments and so begins where Hofstadter leaves off: the cycles of each beat of our heart and repetitive motion of our breath, then expanding upwards to the natural cycles of days and years.

The Strange Loop
Before I go any further I feel I should try to explain the concept of the strange loop in such a way that the concept can be grasped without having read all 400-odd pages of Hofstadter’s book. A basic feedback loop, like when a microphone makes a terrible howl as it gets too close to the speaker, is produced because the output from the speaker is going into the microphone, being amplified and coming out of the speaker, then back into the microphone, being amplified and out again until it reaches the maximum limit of noise the speaker can produce. The way we interact with the world could also be depicted using this simple idea of a feedback loop, with our actions affecting the environment and our senses perceiving the changes.

Basic Feedback Loop

Our brains do not quite act like a simple feedback loop though, or else we would at best be simple machines, incapable of introspection and at worst the level of electrical activity would simply increase until it was firing everywhere and we were out of control. In fact, something like this does happen in cases of epilepsy or a panic attack but in a normal functioning brain some parts become activated and others reduce in activity, always keeping within a healthy range. Such feedback loops are possible and are mathematically known as attractors. These loops are continually attracted towards a certain variable but never reach a finite end or extend beyond the limits of the system it is contained within making them continue to weave a path on a graph forever. Often they do not appear to have any discernible pattern to them when seen as a set of numbers, but their pattern becomes obvious when plotted as a visual image on a graph. One particular form that is a popular image is the Lorenz Strange Attractor that takes on the shape of an infinity symbol or butterfly when plotted on a graph.

Lorenz Strange Attractor

The “Strange” part about this loop is that it contains a fractal structure: it repeats itself at many different scales. It continuously reveals ever smaller patterns the more we magnify any individual bit until it ends up repeating itself. Lorenz used this to explain weather patterns, a metaphor that Hofstadter also uses: If we want to predict the course of a tornado then attempting to understand the behaviour of every individual molecule will need so much computing power it is useless to us. Instead we understand that the behaviour of the molecules follows trends which gives rise to certain predictable patterns and then looks for trends in those patterns. The most famous example of a fractal is probably the Mandelbrot Set, named after the mathematician who first coined the term “fractal”:

Hofstadter’s theory of the Strange Loop says that this presents a potential mechanism for consciousness to arise out of a brain. Rather than consciousness being a thing or substance that is located within our brains, it is the patterns of feedback loops which are capable of looping back onto themselves to create their own internal feedback, our “trains of thought” which are themselves made up of smaller fractal feedback loops consisting of patterns of neurological activity.

A Strange Loop

Something similar to this has been set up by some students who have built an artificial intelligence based on this idea, called a neural network that is capable of “dreaming” by stringing these loops together. WordPress will not allow me to embed the live stream but it can be found at These dreams are an imitation of what a neurological system like the brain does when asleep and devoid of constant input from the outside world, constantly drilling down only to find another complete object or image arising from the shapes as a new loop is entered.

The “self”, argues Hofstadter, is a kind of emergent illusion generated by these loops. He uses the metaphor of a large box of envelopes. When grasped all together we can feel something like a marble at the point where all the glue and paper is thickest, but if we look for that solid object there is nothing there, just individual envelopes. Our sense of self is where the various loops taking place in our brain converge at any given moment in time.

He poses various philosophical questions to support this idea, such as regarding thoughts and behaviours which have not entered our heads in many years or been forgotten entirely: are these no longer part of “us”, or has that “I” for which that old thought was so important now disappeared to be replaced with another “I” entirely? He suggests that that loop has faded or even gone and that the mythology of our “self” is now being composed using different loops. Does this make us a different person to the one were 20 years ago? Quite possibly. We certainly have about as little chance of actually being that person again as we do of being someone else. We are by necessity who we are in the now.

Another hypothetical situation he uses to vividly illustrate the point is Derek Parfit’s teleporter situation: A teleporter is supposed to work by scanning the exact state of every cell in our bodies and destroying the original, beaming the information to a receiver which recreates an exact copy of ourselves. Is continuity of self broken and the original dead, a new “I” being created that just believes itself to have a continuous link to the original? Most of us are familiar enough with science fiction to assume the teleported person is still the same person and take the word of everyone around them saying so but there may be flaws in our assumption. What happens if the machine breaks and the original is not destroyed immediately? Are two selves in existence at the same time, or is the copy a fake and only the original “real”? If so, why is the copy now an imitation when it was not in the first instance? And if they are both the same person, for how long do they remain the same person before the changes in environment and circumstances makes them different people? He does not provide definitive answers to these questions but leaves them as challenges to the conventional notions of a ghostly self, or “Cartesian Ego”, that lives in our shell and the instinctive assumptions we have about continuity of self.

The next question is where do these loops come from? The simple answer is that they are acquired. We are not as closed off individuals as we often like to think. From the moment we are born we are inheriting the loops of people around us. We soon adopt the language of people around us, which is itself a series of loops, symbols that we identify when our ears are stimulated with certain sounds and send the signals to our brain. This will be evident to anyone who has ever been around people talking in a foreign language they do not understand. The feeling that the other speakers share a connection we do not is unmistakeable as they do literally share a large proportion of the same components of conscious that we do not. Thoughts are then complex arrangement of those word-symbols, each with their own connection to other symbols which enable us to string thoughts together and make associations. Culture is another example of a social set of loops that we absorb from the outside world, shaping us and our thought processes. When two people become close they may begin to adopt the unique sets of loops the other has responding to things in the same way, such as sharing a private joke or finishing each others’ sentences. In this way Hofstadter suggests that our consciousness may more distributed than the illusion our body creates. As long as we are part of something larger than ourselves and our actions have an influence on those around us, some diluted aspect of our consciousness may be reasonably considered to be living on in others before and after the death of our individual bodies.

Strange Loop-3

This model is the most useful for a therapeutic tool, bringing us back from the lofty world of philosophy and asking how our self may have become stuck in a pathological loop. We can begin to see how our interactions with others may produce feedback within ourselves, become processed through the concepts we hold and alter our behaviour. This then changes the environment and creates the conditions we inhabit. If that sounds confusing then an example in the process of labelling may help to clarify: A child with behavioural problems is given a diagnosis by a medical professional, using their concepts to interpret the behaviour they see in a medical paradigm. The child and the parents, upon hearing the diagnosis, start to have certain expectations as to how the child should behave which may cause the behaviour to become worse. The parents may become more accepting of behaviour that fits with the diagnosis now that it is “official” and out of their control, while the child may exploit the situation to justify other behaviour that falls within the remit of their diagnosis. In fact, all that has changed is a word has been added to their loop by a figure in authority. It is often the role of therapists and social workers to challenge the assumptions behind these medical labels and get people thinking about what actions may produce feedback loops with more positive outcomes. This can involve challenges at any number of levels, from the environment or external world, to concepts they hold, like their powerlessness to influence their own lives in the face of a medical diagnosis, or the belief that everyone with a specific diagnosis is doomed manifest all the symptoms.

This is also a major role of Chinese medicine. Coming from a pre-modern system that looked at how different systems interact with each other it is often our role in modern times to challenge the powerlessness a patient feels in the face of a medical diagnosis. By approaching the individual issues from a perspective that was helping people with real conditions before modern medicine developed its categories we can often approach their problems from a different angle, trying to help them realise what power they still have over their symptoms and lessen the effect it has on their lives. It is an area that is still very hard for many people to accept, who think of a Chinese diagnosis as a description of disruptions in an subtle anatomical system and expect an acupuncturist to ‘fix’ something with their special technique but the real power of the system is to explain why certain areas of a person’s life are blocked and facilitate reflexive thinking on those areas. This begins with the consultation and ends long after the session has finished, the needles being an axis or fulcrum around which to focus. Perhaps it is not surprising that I found many parallels between Hofstadter’s ideas of strange loops as the basis of consciousness and many aspects of ancient Chinese philosophy.

Similarities to Asian Philosophy
The basic idea that our self is an illusion composed in the moment, made up of a feedback loop whereby our actions affect the environment and our environment then shapes us sounds very close to Buddhist ideas regarding the illusion of reality and selfhood, being in the present and the idea of karma before the western Christian notions of divine justice are added to it. Karma is traditionally a model of cause and effect, going around in a cycle known as the wheel of becoming. The point at which it begins is the moment we are born into a set of circumstances that have been created by the actions of our ancestors, the “karma of past lives”. Notions of guilt are the internal feedback loops created from actions we have done and the morality we have inherited from our surroundings.

The place where it departs from the Buddhist worldview is at the notion of an individual conscious soul that is reincarnated to live these lives again. In Hofstadter’s view consciousness is a social and transactional phenomenon that emerges from our interactions. He does give a passing acknowledgement to Zen and Taoist philosophies for their “noble goal” of dismantling the ego, but ultimately believes the quest “doomed to failure” as the self is a necessity for being in the world. It seems that his familiarity, with Taoism at least, to be largely in passing as I would argue that complete annihilation of the ego is spoken of relatively rarely in the books I have read and usually as a passing state during meditation to be returned from. In fact, ancient Chinese philosophy seems to agree with him as both Confucianism and Taoism, the two strains of philosophy that influenced early Chinese medicine and philosophy before Buddhism entered China, saw the individual as an unit of society first and our selves as stemming from our relations to others and our environment. The main goal was to live with our inner and outer worlds operating in harmony. The attempts to deconstruct the ego in meditation are to understand its operations and how acquired conditioning has affected us so as to balance it better with our essential needs. Both philosophies are remarkably quiet on the issue of reincarnation before the arrival of Buddhism and the closest Taoism comes a permanent ego-less state is the status of an Immortal, which literally means your consciousness living on in the minds of others after the death of your body as a figure of legend. This sounds almost identical to Hofstadter’s idea of living on in the minds of others and begins with the religious tradition of ancestor worship.

Kristofer Schipper (1993), in his book The Taoist Body, writes how the gods of Taoist religion are often legendary figures who lived and died exemplifying a certain principle. Their stories have been retold for so many generations that they have eventually become part of the culture and traditions that everyone grows up with and are referred to as Immortals because in some sense they have never truly died. This is especially true in a culture that views the self as constructed from the networks of society and environment, since the values most important to the legendary person is still being constructed on a daily basis and never really laid to rest. The process begins at home, where departed ancestors are often invoked and asked advice. If they prove to be helpful then they may be worshipped for several generations, being indoctrinated into the young as ancestors. There is also the reverse belief that people can pick up the traits of those who lived consumed by greed or lust and met unnatural ends if they linger for too long around the places that attract those sorts of people such as gambling dens or brothels. Sometimes the division between a good and bad spirit is less than clear as while only people who die a natural death are allowed to become ancestors, the most legendary Immortals often died in tragic ways, from suicides to treacherous murder, while upholding their values. Their continued existence is a kind of purgatory, forced by their passion to continue trying to resolve the problems in society that led to their death. As such may be responsible for as much bad luck as good if their ideals were not maintained and their memory not invoked in worship at their shrines.

Although these often take on quite superstitious overtones in the folk religions, Hofstadter presents much the same idea that our consciousness may not be entirely our own and can be passed onto others or picked up from our environment, both for better and for worse. He even contends that our memory of a deceased loved one, when we recall how they would have acted in a particular situation, can be seen as a reflection of their loops. The closer we were to them, the more accurate that reflection is likely to be and if consciousness is not a thing but a pattern of neurological activity, then there is no reason why the same pattern firing inside one cranium should be any different to it firing inside another. In this case love, or at the very least familiarity, is the sharing of the same loops and literally of each other’s consciousness. If our contribution to society is significant enough, then aspects of our consciousness may become a new norm for society and live on for generations, as Copernicus’ realisation that the earth revolved around the sun has spread from a single individual to being common knowledge today. Likewise, being exposed to places where people have a lot of harmful loops may cause us to inherit them and exert a negative influence, especially when young and we are acquiring all the loops around us that we can.

There are also similarities to Dawkins’ (1989) notion of the meme: an idea or concept that is passed between individuals, becoming subject to a kind of evolution, not of biology but within society and culture. If it is able to reproduce effectively (i.e. be transmitted to other minds) then it lives on and may even become a cultural norm, but if it turns out to be incapable of reproduction, either by destroying its host population or failing to transmit to others quickly enough, then it will eventually die out. Dawkins asserts that this evolutionary struggle of abstract entities is what inhabits our minds, although it lacks the details of how our brains may acquire and hold them that Hofstadter’s model contains. I doubt either of them would appreciate the irony in their rationalistic views being surprisingly close to the most ancient religious practices on the planet, seeing how far both of them go to distance themselves from from religion, but I certainly do!

If the structure of these strange loops is truly fractal in nature it should continue to repeat itself at larger and larger levels (and also at smaller and smaller ones). While it has been always been the way of western science to look at the microscopic, Chinese philosophy has usually tried to look at the larger picture. So while Hofstadter concerns himself mainly with things happening in the milliseconds that it takes for a series of nerves to fire in the brain, Chinese philosophy has suggested that recursive fractal loops are happening on the larger scales of time, that the product of each year feeds into and determines the next, as each season generates and determines another. Each day is a smaller loop that generate the next, going right down to the smallest unit they could practically use, each cycle of breath, itself made of several beats of the heart. It is through these larger cycles that the process of learning is really noticeable as we repeat certain formulas of loops over and over again, gradually reinforcing them to become dominant thoughts, behaviours or habits.

The Cycle of Respiration and the Microcosmic Orbit
Every beat of our heart and every breath we take is a cycle of absorption and expulsion, Yin and Yang, moving through time and feeding the result of one breath into our body in preparation for the next. This is the basis of meditation, to calm the heart-mind (Shen) through controlling the breath, going deeper into oneself with each inhalation and exhalation, building on the depth you have achieved with the last. The Chinese literature on meditation describes a circuit being created with each breath, descending along the Ren meridian from the mouth, along the front of the body to the perineum and lower Dan Tian with the inhale, and up the Du meridian, along the spine and across the head to the nose and mouth on the exhale.


There has become quite a tradition around visualising this circuit while meditating and is one of the most famous foundational practices of Neidan or Internal Transformation. I want to pick it apart a little bit more in light of the Strange Loop concept and see if we can spot any similarities beyond a simple visualisation to settle our mind.

The inhalation aspect of the breathing cycle is where we absorb the outside world into our bodies and so is the receptive Yin aspect of the circuit, represented by the pathway down from the mouth along the Ren meridian. Ren mai is often translated as the Conception Vessel due to its role in TCM for treating fertility disorders, especially in women. It is more than this, it is the most Yin of the Extraordinary Vessels, encompassing all aspects of our ability to receive and conceive by mingling that which is outside of us with that which is within us. In this sense it is as much a metaphor for our ability to conceive ourselves by merging with the outside world as it is a metaphor for our ability to conceive a new life by merging with the egg or sperm of another. In the circuit the outside world enters us and descends to our lowest Dan Tian, where our Jing, Essence, is stored. In the breath from the outside world mingling with the Jing within us it generates new potential to become something that is the cross-fertilisation of our essential self and the new input from the world.

The exhalation sees the breath travel up the Du meridian, along the spine and through the head where we project it back out into the world. The standard translation of Du mai is the Governing Vessel and in medical usage is usually indicated in problems of the spine, brain and immune system, all Yang aspects of ourselves, our ability to stand tall, defend against the unwanted and impose our will onto the world around us. So once the outside world has merged with our Jing Essence, the result is then used to create the world around us before we begin a second breath in.

Taken together Jeffrey Yuen (2005) explains how they stand in a complementary opposition to each other. The Ren is our ability to socialise and accept the demands of society, while the Du is our ability to be individuals and walk our own path in life. This cycle is starting to sound a lot like the basic model of the Strange Loop where we are, with each breath, drawing in the world around us and being changed by it, then projecting ourselves onto the world, changing it.

Daily Cycles and the Chinese Clock
As we expand to the daily cycle, the more familiar meridians take centre stage. The principle is still the same: a recursive loop in which there is no beginning or end, no hour on the absolute top or beginning but each following the last until it returns the product of the previous day to the following one, each one composed of smaller cycles of breaths and being a component of the larger yearly cycle of seasons.


With this level of interaction the idea of charting the origin of a disruption in the cycle becomes more possible. Since the day follows particular patterns of activity, it becomes possible to see which areas of life are producing the negative output by when the trouble is occurring. As each day will bring its fruits into the next day to be exacerbated and increased with each recurrence of the troublesome time period, so will any positive change mitigate a problem and see its gains improve with each passing of the sun. Which meridian controls which period is based largely on pre-industrial cultures’ use of the day. They would rise between 5-7am and having the first bowel movement of the day (Large Intestine), then enjoying a large breakfast between 7-9am (Stomach) in order to provide energy for the days work ahead, starting around 9. The whole period from 9am-7pm makes up the working day with meridians relating to energy expenditure (Spleen and Kidneys), interaction with others (Heart) and hard labour (Taiyang, Bladder and Small Intestine, related to extending the back and arms). From 7 one can engage in personal pursuits relating to the differentiation and individuation meridians of Pericardium and Sanjiao in the evening. For people unfamiliar with this division of the meridian cycles my last post talked about these these three groupings of the meridians into survival, interaction and differentiation. These could in themselves be seen as another example of how the day is comprised of three smaller loops, of morning, afternoon and evening/night time. The trajectories of each group of meridians does comprise a miniature circuit of its own. Finally at night the Liver, associated with the place where the Hun rests at night takes precedence and our breathing slows before returning full circle as we wake again.

These hours are also supposed to be related to which hours disease of that system is likely to strike. 3-5am is when people suffering from breathing difficulties often wake up due to the fact that lying down allows gravity to move any fluid in their lungs higher up causing them to feel short of breath. Digestive problems are more likely after the main meal of the day which was traditionally early and so likely to develop between 7-11am. Issues with interaction are likely to be most pronounced during the middle of the day when we are interacting with colleagues and customers (Heart, 11am-1pm) and back pains are most likely to happen in the afternoon when work has exhausted us (Bladder and Kidney, 3-7pm). Issues of personal identity (Pericardium and Sanjiao, 7-11pm) are most likely to be apparent in the evening, when we have spare time to think about such things which may extend into the night, creating disorders where the spirit (Hun) seems unable to rest and keeps us awake by lingering in our head (Liver and Gall Bladder, 11pm-3am). In a modern industrial culture where we eat late and stay up all night due to electric lighting this has become permanently disrupted but many argue that our bodies still run on this rhythm and all we do by ignoring it is harm ourselves in subtle ways that accumulate over time.

Five Phases and the Cycle of the Seasons
Perhaps the most well known example of a recursive loop (or two) in Chinese medicine is in the theory of the five elements. The diagram we are used to seeing goes something like this:

Wuxing Seasons

The aim of this diagram is to show the phases of natural phenomena such as the succession of the seasons. In the outer circle, called the Sheng, creative or generative cycle, spring turns to summer, summer becomes autumn, autumn becomes winter and winter becomes spring again. The fifth ‘late summer’ is added to make it up to five, perhaps because harvest time was important enough to warrant its own season. Some early diagrams placed the fifth phase at the centre with four satellites at the solstice and equinox points. If we make this into a chart and shade the hours of daylight and darkness, or the length of the shadows cast by a pole in the ground, we get this even more familiar diagram:

Taiji Seasons

Time always marches forward though, and the seasons do not literally repeat themselves or each year would be an exact replica of the last. Once again we have a recursive loop where the product of each cycle is put through the same seasonal ‘equation’, itself composed of many smaller loops, to produce a new result that is then passed into the next phase until the sum of all the seasons goes back into a new year. If one is upset then it has potential repercussions across the whole cycle, affecting the one following and the one after that.

The outer cycle is not the only one we find in the diagram of the five phases. Another recursive loop arises along the inner part of the diagram, known as the Ko, controlling or restraining cycle and represented by a pentagram in the middle, where each season exerts an influence over another. In autumn the plants that bloomed in spring dry up, wither and die, while their rebirth in spring determines the harvest in late summer. This harvest then determines the ability to survive winter based the stores we have collected. The cold of winter prevents plants and creatures that like the hot season taking over, something we have seen disrupted in England as tropical spiders have survived and spread due to mild winters. Meanwhile the heat of summer will determine how dry the plants are as they enter the autumn season, determining how long the natural seasonal process of them drying up and losing their leaves will take.

Disruptions occurring at any particular season are given great importance in the Su Wen. Each season has its most exogenous factor and so the season when a disease occurs is likely to reflect the nature of the problem: Wind is most prevalent in spring, heat in summer, dampness in late summer, dryness in autumn and cold in winter. The basic principle of treatment is not that complicated: simply reverse the factor to restore the body to balance. If they are cold then warm them with moxa, if they hot you cool them, usually by bringing the heat out rather than adding coldness which may become a cold pathology itself if used extensively. Dampness was also usually drained using diuretic herbs but may be dried through a long, gradual heat such as needle moxa. Wind conditions, marked by movement or lack of it such as muscle spasms and paralysis, would be treated with acupuncture aimed to induce a twitch and release it. In modern times this reliance on the seasons is also distorted by our use of electric lighting and heating but we still do see seasonal spikes in particular illnesses. The Chinese system would assert that if we do not address the causes of those illnesses in one year then next is likely to be worse. Some also suggest that even if we can defy the seasons our internal clock may not be set for a 365 day summer and it may be advisable to draw in during winter, retiring earlier and working less so we have greater resources when the opening of spring comes around as the Su Wen suggests.

These are not the only cycles presented in the Chinese classics. There are also cycles of 7 and 8 years that are seen as the phases of life, cycles of lunar months, of vital importance in gynaecology, all enshrined in a whole calendar system that is explored more completely in the system of acupuncture known as Stems and Branches. The name is probably an allusion to the fractal nature of a trees growth and the Su Wen devotes more chapters to discussing this topic than any other but it is believed they were added at a later date by Wang Bing and not true chapters of the original classic (Buck, 2015: 169). My aim has not been to examine them all in depth, just as it has not been my intention to go too deeply into the mathematics of strange attractors and fractal sets. I have sought only to provide a few significant examples that demonstrate how time was conceived as a strange loop in ancient China and it was through this recursive passage of time and our actions in it that we are constructed in relation to our environment. The method that lies behind all Chinese treatments is a gradual improvement in the formulas that make up any particular loop, making each repetition of the cycle slightly better than the one before. This is true of both acupuncture, massage and herbs in which the most powerful treatments are believed to be the ones that are continued over a longer period allowing the benefits to accumulate, in stark contrast to western medicine’s approach which classically seeks a quick change with a single round of surgery or a short course of medication (although profit motives have led drug companies to focus on medications that require long and even permanent courses as they are infinitely more lucrative).

I think that the existence of ever decreasing smaller loops inside ourselves, as Hofstadter suggests, is implied within the literature as there has always been a tradition of questioning our concepts and what constructs the self within oriental philosophy. The exact descriptions of the cycles became necessarily more vague as they became more internalised because they occupy such small time scales. A culture that measured time by biological activities, such as breaths and heartbeats or sleeping and waking, can only go so fine. Hofstadter himself agrees that often the strict scientific viewpoint can be hopelessly useless at coming to any practical decisions about complex phenomena because the data required to analyse every participating molecule may be so large as to be unwieldy. This becomes even more evident as we drill down ever further into the subatomic world. He admits that while we understand that quantum level reality does not abide by the laws of Newtonian physics, it is perfectly reasonable to use Newtonian calculations in the everyday macroscopic world as somehow they do always work on that level. In a similar way the writers of the Su Wen and other Chinese medical classics were pragmatists and so did not concern themselves with a world that they could not see, or time frames they could not measure. Instead they concerned themselves with the levels of reality they could analyse with the naked eye and change with nothing more than personal effort. Like the comparison of quantum and Newtonian physics, they presented different systems that governed the larger and smaller cycles, seeing a basic pattern of self-contained loops in each one that combined to give rise to a new set of laws with each stage as they zoomed out.

I hope that modern technology does enable us to develop some more refined methods of employing systems theory, using the vast levels of computing power available to us today to develop “omics” tools that can make our interventions more successful and better targeted. I suspect the old system will still be with us for a long time though as there is something about interacting on the level we humans can understand automatically that speaks to us in a way an esoteric data set does not. It is this level that we exist on, the level of thoughts and concepts, the passage of time as we perceive it, that ancient medicine had to work on. The survival of these systems has been largely due to the stubborn refusal of its practitioners to accept that just because something may be too complex to understand on a microscopic level that it necessarily means it is wrong. It seems that systems theories are finally starting to bridge the gap between eastern and western, ancient and modern thought systems, enabling them to start a dialogue which can surely only benefit us all.

Buck, C. (2015): Acupuncture and Chinese Medicine: Roots of Modern Practice, Singing Dragon.

Dawkins, R. (1989): The Selfish Gene, Oxford Paperbacks.

Hern, A. (2015): Watch an android dream of electric sheep (and other weird things) – live in the Guardian at accessed 25th June 2015.

Hofstadter, D. (2008): I am a Strange Loop, Basic Books.

Schipper, K. (1993): The Taoist Body, University of California Press.

Unschuld, P. & Tessenow, H. (2011): Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Annotated Translation of Huang Di’s Inner Classic – Basic Questions, University of California Press.

Wang Bing (Tang Dynasty): The Yellow Emperor’s Cannon of Internal Medicine, trans. Wu L. & Wu Q. (1999) China Science and Technology Press.

Wang Mu (1990): Foundations of Internal Alchemy: The Taoist Practice of Internal Alchemy translated by Pregadio, F. (2011), Golden Elixir Press.

Yuen, J. (2005): The Eight Extraordinary Vessels, New England School of Acupuncture.