How the Wonder of Science and the Use of Reductionism Deepens Our Practice of Massage

Many massage therapists are suspect of science. Some reject it outright, believing that somehow it will make massage therapy cold and take the sense of wonder and depth out of it. In fact, when I went to massage school in 1991, many massage therapists objected to learning anatomy and physiology because they thought it would ruin the therapist’s intuition. Today, even the most ardent proponent of energy modalities would probably admit to the need to study anatomy, physiology, pathology, and the science of massage. Still, many cling to the notion that “Western” science somehow debases massage and look to Eastern traditions, pseudoscience, and mysticism as being more “holistic.” To those who think that science robs one’s sense of wonder, I highly recommend the book The Sacred Depths of Nature by Ursula Goodenough.

Ursula Goodenough is a Professor of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis, one of America’s leading cell biologists, and author of a best-selling textbook on genetics. She has also served as President of the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science. In her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, she tells in plain but eloquent language the story of what is known about the beginnings of the universe and the evolution of life, awareness and emotion, all told with a sense of awe and wonder. She demonstrates that our increasing scientific knowledge makes life no less meaningful but can make it even more so. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

One of the epithets hurled against science-based massage therapists is the charge of “reductionism,” as if it were something bad. I have often turned to Goodenough for a beautiful explanation of reductionism and why it is useful. In Chapter 3 she writes about How Life Works:

Even well into this century, even after it was clear that life works through myriads of chemical reactions and that the information needed to organize this chemistry is encoded in DNA molecules, there were scientists who continued to believe that there was “something else” about living systems, an élan vital, a vital force. Although scientists no longer invoke such a force – we are convinced that life emerges from biochemistry – the sense that there is “something else” about life is so widespread, so deeply rooted, that it almost seems instinctive.

The persistence of vitalism doubtless has many explanations, but I have come to believe that it persists as a bulwark to fend off reductionism. We are told that life is so many manifestations of chemistry and we shudder a long, existential shudder. And then we defend. We dig in our heels and say No! That can’t be all it is! That does to life what astrophysics does to the night sky. Life reduced to its component molecules is life demeaned. Stop saying things like that!

For me, a helpful way to think about reductionism is to invoke what can be called the Mozart metaphor. A Mozart piano sonata is a wondrous thing beautiful beyond belief, sonorous, resonant, transporting. But it is also about notes and piano keys. Mozart’s magnificent brain composed the work, to be sure, and then he translated it into black specks on white paper to be translated into strings hit by tiny hammers. We can thrill to a piano sonata without giving a thought to its notes. But we can also open up a score and follow the notes, or play them ourselves, without having the music diminished or demeaned. It is another way of experiencing the whole and, indeed, the only way to have a full understanding of what the sonata entails and what Mozart had in his mind.

So let us go then, to life abstracted, life reduced to its most spare rendering, to the strings and hammers (the working parts) and the notes (the instructions). I can assure you that it is very beautiful where we are going, and not at all hard to understand. And after that we will return to the matter of alienation, and the response of religious naturalism.

We cannot completely grasp complex systems without looking at their individual parts. It is too much for us to take in at once. An automobile is a complex machine, but it is simple compared to a human being. A mechanic cannot just learn how a car works as a total car. He must learn about the engine, each of the engine’s individual parts, exactly how they fit together, what their individual function is, how fuel is introduced into the engine and combustion takes place and is converted into motion. Every single part of the engine is important. If a ring has gone bad, the engine will lose compression. If a piston is worn, it will not work smoothly and will start causing noise and wear. The mechanic must understand every part of the engine in order to diagnose a problem in the engine and then fix it. He must also understand every other working part of the car – the fuel pump, the cooling system, the drive train, the exhaust system. Each has its role to play and the car will not function well if one of its parts or systems is faulty. The mechanic understands the individual parts and their function in the whole. A mechanic can appreciate the complex interactions and the precise engineering of a well-designed, well-crafted, and well-maintained vehicle. His appreciation for the whole is not diminished by his understanding of the individual parts and how they work together.

Any one of us who knows little or nothing about automobiles can approach a car, admire it’s shape, the appearance of its dashboard and seats and its smooth ride, its quiet interior. We can appreciate the safety features and fuel economy. We can just be grateful that it gets us where we want to go. But our understanding of the vehicle is superficial. Looking at the vehicle from the outside tells us little about its complex, interior workings or what is wrong when we start hearing an unusual noise. If we want to go beyond the surface, if we want a deeper understanding, we have to start learning something about its parts.

Like most massage therapists, I was taught to focus on muscles, joints, tendons, ligaments, fascia – all the “mesodermal” tissues. Little attention was paid to the skin and the nervous system even though that is what we touch. In the past few years, I have turned my attention to studying the nervous system, how we access it by our contact with the skin, the role of the brain and the nervous system in our experience of pain, and how the nervous system and the brain turn our touch into the experience of massage. This study of neuroscience has not diminished my appreciation and practice of massage but has, in fact, deepened and enhanced it. I have come to appreciate even more the importance of approaching the body gently and with respect, of making the client feel safe and relaxed, of not causing pain but, instead, making the brain feel safe through gentle handling and caring communication, both verbal and nonverbal. Learning about the brain, the skin, and the nervous system has, at times, blown my mind.

One of the mental images that continues to amaze me is this: the client has a brain and a spinal cord and peripheral nerves going out to their skin. I have a brain and a spinal cord and peripheral nerves going out to my skin. At the point where my hand contacts the client’s skin, my nervous system and their nervous system are interacting with each other. Their brain is receiving the impulses created by my touch and responding. My brain is receiving impulses from my touch and responding. At each and every moment our individual nervous systems and brains are taking in information, processing it, and responding, all of this happening simultaneously - input, process, output, input responding both to constantly changing external input plus the changes created by the changing internal environment . Without us even thinking about it, our nervous systems, our brains, are in conversation with each other.

If that thought is not magical enough, I would respectfully suggest that one is not paying attention.

When we understand how the body works, how nature works, it opens up a world that is amazing beyond our ability to imagine it. Nature tells the best stories.

We can learn these stories and make use of them in our practice. Understanding even the workings of the smallest cell, understanding that trillions of cells in our bodies must work together in order for us to perform even the simplest task, can bring a profound appreciation and deep respect to our work. Understanding accurately how the body works can enhance our ability to ease pain, soothe anxiety, relax unnecessary tension, and connect with the client.

Science is our friend and ally in understanding the true value of our work; reductionism is the key that opens the door to understanding how complex systems work.

I strongly recommend The Sacred Depths of Nature. For the non-science-minded, it will help them understand what is known about how the universe and life works in a way that is inviting, unintimidating, and inspirational. For the science-minded, it will be a beautiful, concise telling of the story of nature. For anyone, it will help feed your sense of wonder. Next time you need a gift for someone who doesn’t need more stuff, give them this book.

Many people approach massage from a purely aesthetic point of view, but understanding the science, how the body works, will deepen and enhance the practice of massage. If one is working with pain problems or other problem-solving aspects, understanding how pain works and what we, as manual therapists, can do for the client in pain is important. However, even when one is doing massage purely for relaxation and enjoyment, understanding how the nervous system responds to our touch and the bio/psycho/social aspects of massage can improve the experience. In massage we can unite both science and art.