Collecting Butterflies

Barrett L. Dorko, P.T.

Science is not about control. It is about cultivating a perpetual condition of wonder in the face of something that forever grows one step richer and subtler than our latest theory about it. It is about reverence, not mastery.

Richard Powers in The Gold Bug Variations

In 1960, using newly developed computer technology, a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz proved that remarkably small shifts in air current could massively alter weather systems. These were currents literally no greater than those produced by a single butterfly.

This was the advent of what has been called "the nonlinear revolution," characterized by a greater understanding of systems that were unpredictable but contained behaviors that were confined within known parameters. These systems have in common the tendency to respond to stimuli in ways that were unexpected and essentially uncontrollable; the "butterfly effect," for instance.

As I travel about teaching I often hear of other courses offered our profession proposing that chronically recurrent problems of pain remain so because we have missed something. It's often something esoteric or virtually invisible. I've heard of a variety of nutritional deficiencies or toxicities, airborne substances, minute muscle weaknesses, electrical irritation from watch batteries and shades of color in our surroundings to name a few.

If the human body contains a system as dynamic and unpredictable as the weather, we might take for granted the fact that very small events might lead to large changes. It is also true that large events might not produce any significant affect and that neither of these things is predictable.

Within the body lurks the manifestations and expressions of chaos. Like the weather, our health both physical and mental responds to countless stimuli in a fashion that reveals no direct correlation to the intensity of the provocation. This is the essence of nonlinearity and it accounts for the unexpected effects of care that would otherwise seem unrelated to the patient's complaint.

The problem with esoteric or odd forms of care lies not in their effectiveness but in their mistaken notion that tiny alterations will lead to the state of health they desire. People who practice in this way often begin to accumulate techniques and ideas in an effort to control the uncontrollable. Their patients endure wave after wave of advice, admonitions to eliminate various stimuli and include others, while all the while keeping a journal of their perceptions and sensations.

When I was young I spent a couple of summers in the fields near my home chasing butterflies with a net. It was fun, but like a lot of my youthful pursuits it required persistent work and was not especially productive. I didn't study what I caught and I soon learned that butterflies were far more interesting to observe while they were alive. Now I know what kind of effect they might have.

Sometimes therapists forget that their ability to control problems has more to do with their knowledge and presence than their pursuit and capture of the tiny stimuli flitting through the lives of their patients. Understanding this makes a big difference when dealing with a chaotic system.