Famed conceptual change researcher, Michelene Chi has proposed that we tend to think of systems as if they acted in a linear cause-and-effect way. And this gets us into conceptual trouble, because systems don’t act in this simple way. Rather than one thing causing the next thing, causing the next thing, systems work through the simultaneous action of all the pieces interacting with each other at the same time. Chi calls the cause-and-effect thinking “sequential” and the systems thinking “emergent”. When we think about systems as if they were sequential, misconceptions can arise.
First, a familiar example and then I’ll move to how this applies to our health. In the world of misconception research this sequential thinking translates as someone seeing a drop of dye diffusing in a cup of water and explaining what happened as dye molecules wanting to go to areas of lesser concentration. At a molecular level, what is actually happening is that all the molecules are bouncing around and this random juggling results in, on average, the dye and water molecules mixing so that it seems the dye is spreading out.
So, you may ask, how does this related to health? Your body is a system – a very complex system composed of zillions of biochemical reactions, and the a myriad of impact of mechanical forces on our joints and skeleton. Our body is also host to untold numbers of microorganisms at live on and in our bodies. For example, the organisms in your gut – called your gut microbiome – has a huge effect on how you digest your food (or don’t). Using a zoological example – termites can’t really “eat wood” – the organisms in their gut eat the wood. Without them, termites would starve.
When we think about our health, we often only concentrate on two parts of the system – what we put into our bodies as food [and we obsess about one small characteristic of that food, namely how many calories it has] and how we ‘burn off’ those calories through something we call exercise. So when we want to change our health we focus on food and exercise and think that is the whole story. But researchers are discovering many other aspects of our health that are at play – for example, the amount of stress in our lives and the amount and type of sleep we get can have a significant impact on our health. And the make up and functioning of our microbiome is also crucial in how we process food. For example, jet lag has been shown to result in weight gain because the time change upsets the processing cycle of our microbiome.
The functioning of our microbiome is just one of the parts of our health system that we can’t directly control. But there are many others: brain-gut connections, brain wiring for food preferences and even food addictions to name a few.
What’s the harm of having this too-simple view of our health? Why does this misconception matter? Well it matters for two reasons. First, by focusing only on food and exercise we may well be ignoring a huge part of the system. Many of us are far too stressed and get much too little sleep and our health suffers – and for some of us the excess pounds accumulate – even if we are diligent (perhaps even fanatical) about our food and exercise. When we think about our health, we need to think about more of the system.
The second reason this misconception matters is that there are parts, important, even crucial parts, of the system we can’t directly control. And yet we think that all that matters is the food we put in our mouths and the ways we move our bodies through exercise. We think we have direct control. And so if something goes awry we beat ourselves up. What is wrong with me?! we shout to ourselves. This shouting gets louder if we put on weight and it becomes a scream if we put on – to our minds – a lot of weight. Now the shout becomes: “what the &#@* is wrong with me!” And we start doing crazy things with food – and sometimes with exercise – to get ourselves under control. And sometimes it works for – a while. And then the system called our body takes over again.
The punchline of this all is two-fold – (1) think of your body as system and (2) forgive yourself. Take the action you can take, and don’t endlessly beat yourself for the things you can’t control.