Biosemiotics: a New Framework for Understanding Medicine

Despite numerous accounts of clinical success, homeopathy remains at the periphery of Western medicine. The expressed reason for its marginalization is that it violates accepted principles within the current biochemical paradigm. Through the process of potentization – – serial dilutions of a substance interspersed with vigorous shaking – – homeopathic remedies are often altered beyond the point of there being a single molecule of the original substance left. Subsequently, the claim that remedies (with potencies higher than a 12c or 12x) can have anything more than a placebo effect violates Avagardo’s number, which stipulates that the dilution at which no molecule of the original substance persists is 10 -24. The prevalent result: the efficacy of homeopathy is either discounted a priori as impossible or readily accepted in blind faith, reinforcing the persistent schism between materialism and mysticism.

Both reactions fall short of the ideal Hahnemann upheld when he developed homeopathy as the foundation of rational medicine. He was critical of close-minded dogmatism as much as he abhorred “blind empiricism.” Originally trained as a chemist, Hahnemann recognized that his use of “dynamized” medicine carried the health sciences beyond the explanatory force of chemistry. Rather than discount his findings or discredit the laws of chemistry, however, he focused his criticism on the over-extension of chemistry, which he found to have “taken upon itself to disclose a source at which the general therapeutic properties of drugs are to be ascertained” [1]. Delimiting the explanatory force of chemistry, he stressed that it may help find the medicinal powers of substances, but it cannot reveal anything about its functions in the human body, which is of a living nature [2]. He recognized that, as a method originally developed to study inorganic material, chemistry was necessarily limited in its capacity to illuminate living processes.

Recently, a new field has developed in the life sciences, which reinforces Hahnemann’s delineation of chemistry, called biosemiotics. One of its central tenets is that living entities do not interact like mechanical bodies, but rather as messages. That is, living systems always exhibit certain organizational characteristics, which enable them to react to differences in their surroundings, and thus to “create” and exchange information. Without this basic difference between life and non-life, evolution as we understand it, would not be possible. In light of this observation, biosemioticians employ methods that follow the model of semiotics – – the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretation- – rather than applying the chemistry and physics of lifeless matter to processes created by life.

As the science of signs in living systems, biosemiotics invites the medical community to reconsider the physicalist terms in which biomedical researchers have traditionally explained the efficacy of medicine. If we endeavor to not only observe (with statistical precision) but to also understand the ways in which medicine informs the operation of the living organisms with which it interacts, then our explanations must extend beyond the physical laws operative in medicine to the information they introduce to living organisms. Within the biosemiotic framework we can legitimately question whether potentized medicines alter the health of organisms by locally controlling the physical laws according to which a diseased body is operating, a consideration that brings us beyond the limitations of physical discourse and into the domain of language.

[1] Samuel Hahnemann, Lesser Writings, ed. and trans. R.E Dudgeon, (New Delhi: B. Jain Publishers Ltd., 2006), 114.

[2] Ibid., 115.


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The Bowen Technique and the Physiology of Freedom

According to Wilhelm Reich, there is a basic contradiction between human longing for freedom and our biophysical incapacity to accept it.[1] In other words, our ability to be entirely self-regulating individuals – – invulnerable to false authority – – is a function of our physiology. Reich observed that our character structure, which determines our capacity for resonant relationships, fulfilling work, and inspiring studies, is rooted in our (oftentimes chronically rigid) musculature.

This clinical insight informed his advice to psychotherapists that “in explaining the reasons for the failure of a particular case, the analyst must avoid statements such as that the patient ‘did not want to get well,’ or he or she was not accessible; for this is precisely what we want to know: why didn’t the patient get well, why wasn’t he or she accessible?”[2]

In view of the most challenging cases, Reich would more readily accept the limitations of his therapeutic technique than conclude that the stubborn individual sitting across from him simply did not want to get better. His clinical success with so-called masochistic patients supported his claim that even those who inflicted pain on themselves were motivated by the pursuit of pleasure: their muscular structure simply could not tolerate the expansiveness that pleasure generates. As such, their self-mutilation was actually a source of relief for them: they were too armored to take up the reins of a healthier, happier, life. But they certainly wanted freedom. The question for Reich was: (how) could this freedom be attained?

A testament to its seeming indelibility, Reich recognized that armoring is a function of civilization: its specific purpose is to hold back and assist individuals to conform and thus reduce anxiety. Rather than yell and threaten to kill his father, for example, Reich observed that an enraged child would rather tighten his throat, which, over time, would develop into a stutter.

By Reich’s account, we are a hobbled, diseased, flock of subservient patrons. And, since armored parents raise armored children, armoring is a self-perpetuating pandemic. Seemingly necessary to preserve the status quo, it enables us to conform to societal expectations. But, in order to do so, we often have to deny what we really want. We literally have to tighten our bodies to prevent the energy mounting in our loins from running amok.

So where does that leave those of us who want to emote freely and have the capacity to surrender to life’s many pleasures? Reich identified the futility of any mass overhaul of societal norms and, towards the end of his career, found most hope in prophylaxis by informed child rearing: “We cannot tell our children what kind of world they will or should build. But we can equip them with the kind of character structure and biological vigor which will enable them to make their own decisions, to find their own ways, to build their own future and that of their children, in a rational manner.” [3] But, along the way, he also developed therapeutic techniques to help his patients soften the chronic armoring that had a clamp down on their character structures. And, while I can appreciate Reich’s eventual emphasis on prevention, right now, it is the de-armoring aspect of his work that I find most relevant. I certainly care about future children, but my immediate interests are in learning techniques to soften my own musculature, break through my own armoring, and transmute my own character structure. This is why I am interested in the Bowen technique primarily as a de-armoring modality.

I was initially captivated by this hands-on technique when it was used on me after I dislocated my shoulder. It was a serious injury (I had left it dislocated overnight after trying to stretch it back into place) and the prognosis was quite bad. Dissatisfied with the options laid out for me, I flew across the country to my trusted Bowen practitioner who restored full mobility to my arm in a single session! While the long list of acute and chronic ailments that Bowen can address continues to amaze me, as I deepen my understanding of this technique, I am increasingly interested in its de-armoring properties.

Bowen’s efficacy is often attributed to its ability to re-balance the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), where the body’s self-healing mechanisms are governed. The ANS controls over 80% of bodily functions and is very susceptible to external stressors. In our fast-paced society, most people we encounter are living in a constant state of high stress and sympathetic dominance. Bowen catalyzes the transition from sympathetic dominance to parasympathetic dominance, which is necessary for healing to take place. Expressed differently: it is also the state our body needs to be in to release chronic armoring.

When Reich questioned what produces chronic muscular contraction, his investigation led to the realm of the vegetative nervous system and the basic antithesis of vegetative functioning. He found that excitation of the sympathetic nervous system causes contraction, which is felt as anxiety. Parasympathetic excitation causes expansion, which is felt as pleasure. It is chronic sympatheticatonia, therefore, which causes and maintains the armor, which in turn maintains the neurosis.

After a Bowen session, when I feel my body shift into parasympathetic dominance, I know that it is in the requisite state to disarm itself. The gentle rolls over my muscles and connective tissue inform my nervous system of the state of tension in the musculotendinous tissue, which then responds to finally break the vicious cycle. I experience profound relaxation and my entire body is restored to a state of grace, no longer chronically compromised by social pressures. It is more flexible and motile and free to arm and disarm itself as appropriate. It is – – or, I should say, I am – – no longer in a constant state of emergency.

True: I will never forget the immediate rehabilitation the Bowen technique granted me after my accident. But it is the overall softening and openness to pleasure that I am most grateful for and most interested in carrying forward.

1. Elsworth Baker, Man in a Trap (Princeton: The American College of Orgonomy Press, 2000), xxvi.

2. Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis, trans. Vincent Carfagno (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972), 9.

3. Wilhelm Reich, Children of the Future, ed. Mary Higgins and Chester Raphael, trans. Derek Jordan et al. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 7.