James L Oschman Butterworth Heinemann (Elsevier Science), 2003 Paperback, 359 pages, price £19.99
(Reviewed by David Mayor, EJOM Vol. 4 No. 5)
‘Models are just models … ‘Truth’ is actually a relative matter.’ (Prologue)
Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis (Churchill Livingstone 2000) may be familiar to many readers. The first major book by Jim Oschman, a former cellular biologist turned multidisciplinary researcher, it provided an introduction to current scientific thinking on the concept of ‘energy’ in energy medicine.
This new book is not so much a sequel as an enlarged restatement of much of what Oschman has written before, in particular of his position that living energetics have a scientific basis and can be pictured without reference to ‘mysterious or unknown forces.’ As such, it is a book of ideas, hypotheses, speculations, drawn from many sources (mostly scientific, but many not), a huge and sometimes indigestible bricolage of juxtaposed headings, slogans and jostling quotations, a ‘stamp collection’ from which Oschman redistils his vision of the ‘tensegruous’ living matrix, the ‘continuum consciousness’ that he believes underlies bodymind function and healing.
Despite its title, the book is not so much about therapeutics and human performance in practice as ‘multiple working hypotheses’ for understanding this practice. Thus it is designed not so much to convince as to inquire and stimulate creative thought. As such, it is admirable as a piece of experimental writing, even if, after the intellectual excitement (and sometimes confusion) of reading it, you may well be left somewhat unsure what to actually do with the ferment of ideas it stirs.
The book is divided into 25 chapters, together with a lengthy prologue and introduction, and followed by an afterword and appendices. Two of the chapters are ostensibly about acupuncture - ‘The living matrix and acupuncture’ and ‘More clues from acupuncture’ (chapters 10 and 11) - although, as Oschman says, all of the material presented before these ‘may relate to acupuncture theory.’ In chapter 10, he sketches how the meridian network can be considered as a high-speed communication system, a signal processing network built up of bioelectronic components (this is material he has written about elsewhere). In chapter 11, he looks at Stephen Birch’s ‘splinter hypothesis’ of acupuncture, more recent research on needle grasp and the winding of conductive tissue fibres around the needle, meridians as fascial linkages throughout the body, and the electrical and other characteristics of wound healing. He concludes, as he has before, that ‘we now recognise’ the living matrix as ‘the origin, conductor and interpreter of qi,' giving rise to and maintaining the form of the organism. I am not quite sure who ‘we’ is.
Succeeding chapters are loosely organised around concepts such as ‘the continuum in natural systems,’ biological coherence, limitations of the neuron doctrine, ‘sensation and movement’ (in which, however, somatosensory perception, so central to acupuncture, is barely mentioned), solitons, soft tissue memory, holography. As in his earlier book, it is easy to be carried along by Oschman’s scientific optimism that all, eventually, can be explained by science, but again as in his earlier book the fine details of what is testable and usable in practice are glossed over. For example, in a brief appendix on the application of ‘magnetobiology and electro-dynamic fields in therapeutics and human performance,’ only a very perfunctory sketch is given of how energy medicine could be applied to injuries on the football field. The appendix concludes with exhortatory words about ‘transcendent performance’ as ‘the basic stuff of human evolutionary progress.’
For me, these phrases somehow summarise what I feel is disquieting about Oschman’s writing. As an acupuncturist, I believe the key to the ‘evolution’ of both patient and practitioner lies in their interaction on many levels. Spiritual growth, the deepening of our connection with what is other than our small selves, happens not just through ‘transcendence,’ but through an acceptance that sometimes suffering is necessary. Healing cannot occur if there are no discontinuities in the living matrix of our lives. Mind’s models can never do justice to the richness and mystery of life (although of course they are part of it). Having said this, in the very readable afterword to this book, Oschman not only summarises some of the key themes he has explored but also reaches, tentatively, towards an understanding of unconsciousness, consciousness and meaning. As he says, ultimately healing transcends method (and models).
In conclusion, this book, sometimes dry, confusing, exciting, exhausting, in parts a very readable homage to Jim Oschman’s teacher-guru, Nobel laureate Albert Szent-Györgyi, is useful if you want to think about acupuncture practice in biological/biophysical terms. It encourages focus on the patient-practitioner interaction and, paradoxically, stilling the mind to listen and observe. However, a lot of it is scientific, even pseudoscientific froth, best left on the beach after the tide recedes. Readers will have to decide for themselves what to take back with them into the depths of their practice, what to discard as so much flotsam and jetsam.
David Mayor David Mayor is an acupuncturist practising in Hertfordshire. Currently he is preparing a textbook on electroacupuncture for the publishers Churchill Livingstone (Elsevier). For an earlier critique of Jim Oschman’s writing, readers are referred to his review of Energy Medicine, published in EJOM Winter 2000; 3 (4): 52-3.