Oriental Medicine and The Woozle effect: A case of Mistaken Identity

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, Im sure you’re familiar with the basic concepts of Oriental Medicine by now. Its become the latest topic of media coverage in health and medicine and is often a topic that sparks controversy and debate – which is pretty funny really since at this rate an Acupuncturist has a good deal more evidence than most other practitioner based medical practices. (Irony, huh?)

Yin and Yang, Qi (or Chi), and Meridians (or channels) have become modern parlance and many people use these terms quite casually – often with no idea what they actually mean or where they come from. The standard translations of these words – Yin, Yang and Qi – are usually so simplistic and one dimensional that they don’t really make very much sense. Many of us, myself included prior to my studies in Chinese Medicine, have heard that Yin = light, Yang = dark, and Qi = energy, so often, that its a given and assumed knowledge.

Interestingly, this kind of assumed knowledge without actual accurate evidence is so common is actually has a name: its called…. wait for it…. the Woozle effect.

The Woozle Effect – sometimes referred to as a woozle – is a type of cognitive bias. (named after the Woozle hunt in Winnie the Pooh) Generally speaking, as human beings with previously held, dearly loved opinions, we tend to only notice information that confirms that already held opinion, and ignore information that contradicts it. We use the evidence available to say what we’d like it to say. Essentially: we like to be right, and will reject information that proves us wrong and we don’t want to hear…. Until it becomes overwhelming. (the most recent issue that comes to mind is climate change. How many people still deny this?)

Research on cognitive bias demonstrates broad ranging and various impacts on decision making, behaviour and conceptual frameworks, and affects everything from policy decisions to the brand of cereal you buy.

In regard to Oriental Medicine, the majority of people are making emotional decisions based on an opinion that Acupuncture isn’t research or scientifically based – A perception which is, in case you were wondering, completely erroneous. The Woozle affect is a perfect way of explaining most people’s perception of Acupuncture and Oriental Medicine: that pain or ill health is a blockage of qi (energy) in meridians (pathways) caused by in imbalance in Yin (light) or yang (dark). Its not that this basic explanation isn’t actually true in its own way: it is. But because those foundations and terms just don’t mean what you think they mean, have evidence you haven’t read and don’t understand, the conclusion – that Acupuncture has no scientific validity or evidence that it works – is then incorrect as well.

The most significant problem with this mistaken identity in the Woozle hunt is, of course, that most vaguely scientifically literate people are going to hear these words in a Medical context and make an instantaneous, assumed judgement that these things don’t actually exist, can’t possibly be medical terms or appropriate techniques for the 21st century and think Chinese Medicine is pre scientific woo woo superstition and throw the baby out (splash!) with the bathwater. The same way the Piglet and Pooh finally discover what the Woozle is.

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But here’s the problem, and its a really big one: these vastly simplified, nonsensical terms have consistently been translations from western visitors to China, often with poor to very average language skills in Chinese. And of course its not like Chinese is easy to learn as a second language in the first place. Neither are the concepts themselves, for that matter. Its probably not surprising that there were more than a few mistranslations and misunderstandings. This default explanation of Chinese Medicine and some of the most significant terms in the medicine is pretty much… wrong. Or so simple they were misleading, at any rate. The idea of Qi as a vague description of ‘energy’ is so far removed from what Qi actually is in Oriental Medical thought, that there’s really not much comparison.

What this misrepresentation of Acupuncture has meant that until recently, it was presumed to be ephemeral Energy Medicine. White light hippies and fairy dust, not the kind of thing that ‘normal’ people do to get well (or not the kind they admit to doing, more accurately).

Now, however, because we have technology sensitive enough to catch the impacts of acupuncture in hormonal, circulatory, metabolic and other physiological trackable, real terms, Acupuncture is starting to become understood a little better. Oriental Medicine practitioners have been waiting a long, long time for this evidence to catch up!

And the evidence is consistently confirming and validating what the practice of Acupuncture has been doing for hundreds of years.

Acupuncture is actually one of the most thoroughly proven, evidence based medicines. Probably because the idea of needles in skin doing anything – other than hurting like hell – seemed so ridiculous, there is now such a huge body of evidence on what a needle in the right place can do that we now have practitioners without any acupuncture training attempting it! Usually very poorly – I daresay thats obvious. (more on Dry needling in another post). Its clear from this imitation game that the debate on the efficiency of Acupuncture is pretty much over, bar the shouting. I often think one of the major issues with Eastern medicine is that most people have just no idea what it can do, so here it is: an Acupuncturist can regulate and stimulate hormones, brain chemistry, the nervous system, red and white blood cell reproduction and repair.

What that means is that we are able to treat, and more to the point, we can legally say that we can treat reproductive, gynaecological, neurological, musculoskeletal, psychological, respiratory, urogenital, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal and dermatological conditions. (See here for a more complete list on what the World Health organisation has recognised Acupuncture treatment for.) Which means we can do something with pretty much everything. That, dear reader, makes us completely and totally unique. Theres no other hands on, practitioner based profession who can make those kinds of claims and not get themselves sued. Its why theres so little information on some modalities websites: legally they simply cant say they can do much. (Its also why you should make sure you’re seeing a trained, registered Acupuncturist and getting the real deal. Its a registered title in Australia and you can check here to make sure the person putting needles in you has more than a weekend course backing them up).

Unfortunately though, the standard time it takes real world, new evidence to become accepted and integrated into standard Medical practice is, on average, ten to fifteen years. Thats right, it takes more than a decade for proven, research based evidence to become standard practice. Some sources suggest twenty years might be closer (I’m leaning towards that myself) which means your average person out in the real world is a long, long way behind the eight ball on what is best for their health and healing. And unfortunately, because many people have no idea what treatments are appropriate and who they should see for their condition, often people turn up months, even years after struggling with a condition… sometimes after spending time and money seeing a practitioner in a modality who has absolutely no evidence that they can assist. Sad and frustrating for people on the other end of the line of ill health: and frustrating for your Acupuncturist too, be assured!

More and more western medical professionals are learning what we can do and referring ‘normal’ people to an Acupuncturist to get treatment. I hope you’ll be one of them – sooner than 10 years time!

About Jade

Jade is a Registered Acupuncturist with a Bachelor of Health Science in Acupuncture, currently completing a Masters in Applied Science in Chinese Herbal Medicine. She has passion for mental health and recovery, having recovered from Post Traumatic Stress herself, and has a clinic space in West End, Brisbane with a focus on chronic health, pain and mental health disorders. Jade loves good food (cooking and especially eating), tea, and thinks you are never running too late to greet a cute furry animal. She does not believe in Magic Bullets.

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