Part 4 – Past Meets Present: Plasticity in Practice
By Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons, DOM, AP
This is Part 4 in an Alchemist’s Notebook blog series exploring places of resonance, merger and synergy between neuroplasticity and Taoist-inspired Chinese Medicine practice.
Three focal points frame the series: Change, Relationship and Process.
For an introduction and overview, see Part 1 – Parallels & Possibilities. For the first two installments on Change, see Part 2 – On the Edge: Introducing Neuroplasticity and Part 3 – On the Path: Introducing Taoism.
Today, we bring you the final installment on Change. Building on Parts 2 and 3, we will discuss how merging modern findings and ancient insights benefits clinical practice. Here, they offer a more complete way of framing problems and possibilities and another approach for influencing treatment outcomes. One Chinese Medicine modality, acupuncture, will serve as an example.
For all the elusiveness of Taoist philosophy and the complexities of the neuroplastic paradigm, both embrace meaningful, accessible application.
By being conscious of the brain’s plasticity—of the patterns and continuous nature of transformation—the Chinese Medicine practitioner gains an enriched understanding of the therapeutic relationship and the patient’s potential.
This is equally true of the patient, who plays a pivotal part in the healing partnership and, ultimately, determines whether and how his or her potential manifests.
As Greg Johanson and Ronald S. Kurtz write in Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te: “We can participate in the Tao in such a way that we become aware of the changes of life and envision new possibilities for ourselves and the world” (1).
This holds true not only in relation to ancient Taoist principles, but also cutting-edge discoveries in neuroplasticity.
Either offers strong support for health and healing. Together, they are all the more powerful.
As a starting point, water provides a guide for influencing the currents of an embodied, plastic brain.
In the words of Lao-tzu (2):
Under heaven nothing is more soft and yielding than water.
Yet for attacking the solid and strong, nothing is better;
It has no equal. 
Moving mindfully, the practitioner can harness this transformative, natural force. Aligning with the currents of the patient, the practitioner can slowly, subtly redirect their course.
These “currents” include disease states but also much more.
They encompass the totality of the patient’s body-mind, including his or her experience of self and world.
The dance of yin and yang—their continuous, responsive revolutions within the sphere of the whole—serves to focus therapeutic intervention.
Meanwhile, the science of neuroplasticity broadens our understanding of what, exactly, we are affecting as well as the mechanisms of influence.
And as both Taoism and neuroplasticity assert, change is already happening—is in fact the essence of existence.
Its motion, its momentum, is already there. Our work is to guide and, where necessary, redirect. At stake: brain maps, neural firing patterns, the structure and function of body-mind.
In sum, Taoists offer a sage approach to Chinese Medicine practice while neuroplasticians offer an edgy understanding of how that approach alters a malleable brain.
And, as both recognize, the brain is embodied within the totality of being. As such, it offers a point of access—a way to affect the entire body-mind experience.
In turn, other parts of the whole (bodily structures or processes) offer ways to affect the physical brain and psycho-emotional mind.
Shading in one corner of this vague sketch, we will take the example of acupuncture.
Acupuncture, as typically practiced today, involves inserting filiform needles into sites of access on the body to affect any or all of the body-mind.
Notably, one ancient name for these sites is xue dao (穴道), or “hole pathway,” where the character for dao is the same as that used for the all-encompassing Tao, or Way.
Most regular “acupoints,” with specific names and locations, lie on the pathways of 14 vessels, or jing mai (经脉) (3). The jing mai, in turn, are part of a holistic, interconnected system through which qi and blood (气血) cycles (4).
This system includes 12 regular jing mai (large, deep, longitudinal vessels—each with a corresponding internal organ and a branch that plunges deeply, into the visceral cavity) and their collateral luo mai (络脉) (superficial, netlike, branching vessels), jing jin (经筋) (contractile tissues) and pi bu (皮部) (skin zones).
These 12 vessels are designated either yin or yang, and they are grouped in complementary, internal-external yin-yang pairs (comprising the vessels and corresponding internal organs). The system also includes eight “extraordinary” vessels, two of which have their own pathways, luo mai and acupoints.
Defined from a “structive,” or yin, perspective, jing-luo include all tissues of the body except for the internal organs. Defined in terms of their yang “function,” they are the subunits of qi transformation in the body. In brief, this means they connect the internal organs and “self” with the external environment; in so doing, they are subunits of all life processes.
As this dual definition suggests, jing-luo may be considered separately, as individual components with particular patterns of organization and flow relative to self and surroundings.
And yet, like the body-mind from a neuroscience or Taoist perspective, they comprise a single, interconnected, synergistic system.
Through this system, living beings manifest all life’s structures and processes and pattern their organization of self and orientation toward other.
According to Chinese Medicine therapeutics, using needles to influence this network serves three main effects: 1. Harmonizing yin-yang, 2. Supporting the body’s ability to retain or restore balanced physiological function in the presence of pathological influences, as well as expelling pathological influences, and 3. Dredging and allowing clear passage through the jing-luo (5).
Towards this end, the practitioner can employ the following methods singly or in combination: tonifying, draining, clearing, warming or regulating (补泻清温调).
From a neurobiological angle, this system has undergone rigorous investigation (6).
Extensive studies have indicated that the peripheral nervous system “forms the basis” of jing-luo and acupoints, while the central nervous system “processes the acupuncture signal” (7).
Meanwhile, other experiments have revealed “immensely complicated activation patterns of the brain areas by acupuncture” (8).
Further, “the nerves distributed at the acupoints and their correlative organs have been observed to belong to the same spinal segment, or within the range of the nerve segments belonging to the correlative organs” (9).
“Considerable data” also suggests that acupuncture can “activate or strengthen” endogenous opioids within the central nervous system, greatly influencing “neuronal and other physiological functions” (10).
It likewise indicates that acupuncture “can activate or strengthen the activity of certain central neurotransmitters/neuromodulators” (e.g., endogenous opioids, serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine and inhibitory amino acids) while inhibiting other neurotransmitters (e.g., noradrenaline and excitatory amino acids) (11).
Thus, while the specific neurobiological mechanisms of acupuncture remain largely unknown, its impact on the brain and entire body-mind is well substantiated.
Regardless of the therapeutic method or intended effect (whether from the perspective of Chinese Medicine, neurobiology or both), the aim of needling is to achieve influence, or de qi (得气) (12).
Used to affect a plastic, embodied brain, this can manifest on myriad levels, influencing the physical brain as well as the body-mind totality.
These levels (like subunits of the brain, the body-mind system or the jing-luo network) may be considered separately—and doing so often proves useful diagnostically and therapeutically.
In the end, however, they are all part of the same interconnected system.
This makes sense within the framework of Taoism and within the emergent neuroplasticity paradigm; the practitioner need not choose between them. Awareness of both offers a more inclusive understanding of what, exactly, acupuncture influences.
As a way to “hold” and leverage this more complex understanding, water again offers a poignant metaphor.
The powerful, whole simplicity of Taoism’s “Watercourse Way” naturally lends itself to the jing-luo cycling of information (whether such “information” is conceived as qi, blood, hormones, neurochemicals, electrical signals, etc.).
Indeed, the Nei Jing embraces this very image, describing the flow of qi and blood through the vessels in terms of yin and yang “pouring into each other like a circle without end” (13).
Tellingly, the Nei Jing also states: “In all needling, is essential to be primarily rooted in the shen (神) and to treat the shen” (14).
Here, shen denotes the “heart-mind” of patient and practitioner, encompassing its conscious and subconscious entirety.
As the passage suggests, using needles to connect in therapeutic relationship—and thereby affect currents moving through the human microcosm—influences the form and function of an embodied, ever-changing mind.
Ultimately, acupuncture is just one site of synergistic possibility in this Taoism-neuroscience story.
More crucially, awareness of the nature of change, responsiveness and plasticity from both perspectives shifts how we view a patient’s present condition and future potential.
Merging modern findings and ancient insights offers a more complete way of framing Chinese Medicine practice as a whole and its parts within the whole.
The result: heightened capacity—on the part of practitioner and patient—to guide body-mind movements toward balance, wellness and healing.
And so ends our installments on Change.
The next posts, beginning with Part 5, will address the second focal point within our neuroplasticity-meets-Taoism discussion: Relationship.
1. Greg Johanson and Ronald S. Kurtz, Grace Unfolding: Psychotherapy in the Spirit of the Tao-te Ching (Bell Tower, 1991), 24.
2. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations from the Tao Te Ching or attributed to Lao-tzu are from the translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English (Vintage Books, 1972). The chapter number follows in brackets.
3. A survey of ancient Chinese classics suggests that the mapping of vessels predated the identification of acupoints. Today, however, acupuncture therapy typically involves selecting specific, named acupoints, many of which are distributed among the 12 regular vessels and the Du and Ren extraordinary vessels (督脉任脉). Others, known as “extraordinary points,” have regular names and locations but are not located on these 14 vessels. Finally, a-shi points lack specific names and locations but are positive points of response upon palpation.
4. This description of the jing-luo system is based on course lectures by Dr. Warren Fischer at the Academy of Classical Oriental Sciences (ACOS) in Nelson, British Columbia.
5. This translation paraphrases that of Dr. Fischer, who also provided the original Chinese during ACOS course lectures: 1. 协调阴阳, 2. 扶正祛邪, 3. 疏通经络.
6. For an exhaustive volume of neurobiological research on the mechanisms of acupuncture and its use in treating neurological disease, see Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases: A Neurological View, by Ying Xia, Xiaoding Cao, Gencheng Wu and Jieshi Cheng (eds.) (Tsinghua University Press, 2010). Findings included here are representative, offering glimpses from the volume’s extensive collection of research-based articles.
7. Fei Zhou, Dengkai Huang and Ying Xia, “Neuroanatomic Basis of Acupuncture Points,” in Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases: A Neurological View, Ed. Ying Xia, et al. (Tsinghua University Press, 2010), 73.
8. Jinmin Zhu, David Kennedy and Xiaoding Cao, “Neural Transmission of Acupuncture Signal,” in Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases: A Neurological View, Ed. Ying Xia, et al. (Tsinghua University Press, 2010), 100.
9. Zhou, Huang and Xia, 73.
10. Guoqiang Wen, et al., “Acupuncture-Induced Activation of Endogenous Opioid System,” in Acupuncture Therapy for Neurological Diseases: A Neurological View, Ed. Ying Xia, et al. (Tsinghua University Press, 2010),114.
11. Ibid, 135.
12. Dr. Fischer provided this translation of de qi during ACOS course lectures.
13. This quote is from another ancient Chinese text—the Tai Su (Zang Fu Qi Ye chapter). The Tai Su is the oldest annotation of the Su Wen (Simple Questions) book of the Nei Jing. Here, it explains a passage from the Su Wen (Taiyin Yangming Lun). Dr. Fischer provided the translation during ACOS course lectures.
14. This quote appears in the Huangdi Nei Jing, Su Wen (Bao Ming Quan Xing Lun). Dr. Fischer provided the translation during ACOS course lectures.