In Defense of Alternative Medicine — A Systems Perspective
29 Jan 2012
By trying to eliminate the placebo effect, orthodox medicine ends up throwing out the very core of healing and wholeness. Doctors of the future, however, will not only accept the presence of the placebo effect, but will positively encourage it.
THE BODY IS A COMPLEX SYSTEM. By this, I don't just mean that it is complex, but that it is an actual complex system as defined mathematically, a term that came out of non-linear dynamics (including chaos theory). A complex system is any system that has a level of complexity that makes it impossible to accurately predict its behaviour. The best we can generally do is approximate complex systems with simple mathematical models (linear or simple non-linear equations), or with computer simulations (cyber-models).
A familiar example of a complex system is the weather. With all the technology we have, including detailed satellite data, with all our knowledge of fluid mechanics and how specific weather patterns develop and dissipate, we still get it wrong and can only give statistical predictions (weighted guesses) a short time into the future. This is because the mathematical equations that model even simple fluid dynamics are non-linear and so the model is actually non-deterministic — we cannot determine the future, only guess at it.
Mathematics is basically the language of logic, of rationality, so that if mathematical models of systems cannot be solved, then those systems can be said to be fundamentally illogical. It is not a question of getting more data; it is not a question of refining the mathematics; and it is not a question of finding truer laws of physics. Complex systems are inherently non-deterministic, although that does not mean that they are chaotic. (If complex systems were totally chaotic, there would be little point in even trying to model them and we would not even attempt forecasting weather.) Complex systems can still be quasi-rational systems and certain aspects of complex systems can be somewhat predictable. (Weather trends and cycles can be spotted, but there will always be a lot of guess work involved and the art of weather prediction will never be an exact science.)
Another well-known example of a complex system is the economy. This financial system is notoriously unpredictable, and even the very best minds have tried and failed to make a killing on the stock exchange by developing mathematical and computer models that try to predict market behaviour. Yet the economy does still have some level of stability and predictability — if it didn't, society could not function — and some investors do fairly consistently make good money on the markets because some features of the system can be predicted. Crashes and spikes can still arise when we least expect, and only a fool would retain the use of a previously successful model or investment habit during exceptional circumstances.
Living organisms are also complex systems. Each cell in our bodies is carrying out approximately ten million chemical reactions per second, along countless chemical pathways, new ones which are being continually discovered — and we have 60 trillion of them in our bodies. [Just a glace at the complexity of systems biology is breathtaking - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Systems_biology] These trillions of cells are able to coordinate their overall specific functions to make up an entire human body. 20 - 50 billion of these cells are neurons focused on information processing, both from internal and external sources. As each neuron is connected to 2000 to 5000 other neurons, the total number of connections or synapses (a bit like a transistors on a computer chip) is up at the 100 trillion mark. In addition, there is information input from 6 billion base pairs in our genetic code, which selectively express themselves depending on environmental information. So environmental complexity is also part of the overall biological equation. [Statistics source https://vadim.oversigma.com/MAS862/Project.html]
Given this staggering level of complexity of our bodies, what is surprising is our perceived stability. We seem to be a consistent person, and apart from the odd health hiccup (and sometimes calamity) and the gradual ageing process, most of us have a strong sense of staticness. But this is an illusion because we are actually very far from being static systems, both materially and psychologically — and our bodies are not machines whose functioning can be accurately predicted.
The misconception of complex systems is that they exist in a state of some sort balance or equilibrium, when in fact such systems can be thought of as dancing around points of balance and equilibrium — an unbalanced setup that supplies them with energy and novelty. Nobel Laureate, Illya Prigozhin, terms these systems as dissipative structures because they are able to maintain a quasi-stable structure in the process of dissipating the energy flowing through the system. A classic example of a dissipative structure is the great red spot on Jupiter, a storm that has managed to retain its look since telescopes first spotted it in the late 1600s.
Our bodies, being complex systems, also operate away from equilibrium — we are in a constant state of flux — our cells energetically and chemically dance. And yet our experience of our bodies is one of relative stability, and this perceived stability giving rise to identity — most of us identify with our bodies. And being complex systems, it is very difficult for us to identify the causes of different changes in those systems because, as we have seen, these systems are non-linear or unpredictable. This non-linear response has been popularly dubbed as the butterfly effect, meaning that seemingly insignificant causes can have massive overall effects — a butterfly flapping its wings could theoretically cause an effect as massive as a tornado on the other side of the world. Of course, we would never be able to identify that it was the butterfly because an unimaginably large number of other factors, including other butterflies, could have been involved. But such images do give a feel for the difficulty in identifying causality in horrendously complex systems.
Sometimes, however, causality is obvious. If we are hit by a car or drink cyanide, the cause for our death or injury will be clear-cut, just as clear-cut as if the complex Earth ecosystem was devastated by a large meteorite. These sorts of stimuli are so overpowering that their causal role in subsequent system failure is obvious, even in complex systems. (Although it is undeniable that the car accident or the cyanide were the prime agents of system failure, they are not necessarily the prime cause, which could be psychological — why did we cross the road so carelessly in the first place or how did we end up taking cyanide in the first place?)
However, many of the deadly diseases and medical problems we experience do not have an obvious single cause or agent — especially chronic diseases. Arthritis, vascular diseases and cancer, for example, can have a multitude of causes from genetics and infections to diet and environment, and deciding the primary cause is almost always a guessing game. This makes causal treatment (treatment to eliminate the cause) largely hit-and-miss, and time-consuming; it is so much easier to focus on symptomatic relief. So if we have pain somewhere in our bodies, for example, rather than becoming a detective and spending the time trying to uncover the root cause, it is usually more pragmatic to just take some painkillers and get on with our lives. By doing this, however, we will be masking the symptoms of our problem, a problem which could well be worsening for all we know, and therefore one that will probably require ever stronger symptomatic relief over time up to a possible crisis point (perhaps a heart attack) where symptoms can no longer be masked. Obviously, long-term, focusing on symptomatic relief allows disease conditions to develop under the radar of our senses, allowing us to defer investigating what is actually causing our illness in the first place.
However, if the cause of disease or other problems in the body is difficult to identify because of the complexity of our biological systems, then symptomatic relief must equally be a challenge. We may pragmatically take a painkiller for joint pain for example, but the painkiller itself has side-effects because our biological system is too complex for a single-chemical drug to affect it totally one dimensionally and predictably. So in addition to masking a deeper problem (which is okay in some circumstances provided we know we are doing that), painkillers can cause bleeding in the stomach and gut, cardiovascular problems, worsening asthma, high blood pressure, heart failure and kidney problems, and a host of other side effects that include nausea, diarrhoea, rashes, headache, dizziness, nervousness, depression, drowsiness, insomnia, vertigo and tinnitus. Long term use of certain painkillers has also been implicated in Alzheimer's.
Often, further drugs have to be taken to try to deal with the side-effects of primary drugs, creating other side-effects. Trick is to do the best you can without killing the patient, although this approach does not work long term which is why adverse drug reactions (ADRs) are now the fourth leading cause of death in the US after heart disease, cancer and strokes. The situation is dire, but because the pharmaceutical companies keep the medical profession in their pockets (their drug pushers), and control legislation through political influence (with enough money you can buy lobbyists, politicians and even some judges), the number of drugs that are being dispensed per person is rapidly increasing. In addition, there are calls for many medications to become mandatory for all individuals over a certain age (for their own good of course). But side-effects are the elephant sitting in the middle of the room that most doctors and patients ignore because it is either not in their financial interests to see it, or they do not want to take responsibility for their own health and prefer to defer to medical authority.
Why so many side-effects? Because we are trying to manipulate a complex system with a single molecule active ingredient — a recipe for both hit-and-miss. Complex systems are so sensitive and unpredictable that you just cannot reliably and consistently tweak them with a single stimulus or group of stimuli. Unexpected outcomes will always come up to some degree or other because of the non-linear aspects of those systems. Yet the medical establishment is quite happy to promote drugs or combinations of drugs as the solution to tweaking our biological systems because this earns them money, status and control. And as causes in complex systems can be too time-consuming to investigate (and doctors these days spend so little time with patients that they are hardly going to want to dig deeper than a basic description of symptoms), the best conventional medicine can do is to try to maximize symptomatic relief with the implicate understanding (not usually made clear to the patient) that this will always come at the cost of certain side-effects — side-effects which researchers and doctors are always looking to minimize — and that eventually a crisis point could well be reached which will require major medical intervention (intervention that is also very profitable to the medical establishment).
This is compounded by the fact that half of orthodox medicine drugs are analogues (unnatural variants) of natural molecules to make them patentable and therefore highly profitable. These chemicals have similar activity, but not exactly. This means that the body is being exposed to chemicals that are foreign to it, chemicals that it has not been exposed to before during its entire evolution. This further increases the risk of unexpected side-effects.
The reason modern orthodox medicine does not appreciate the complexity of biological systems is because it is in its interest to fixate on reductionism — the belief that the complexity of the world can be fully explained by the behaviour of component parts. In other words, there is no room for the novelty of emergent properties that we actually see in complex systems. Reductionism is a unscientific dogma that has been used to discredit any property of complex systems that cannot be explained by the behaviour of perceived components. And how we break up complex systems into components can be quite arbitrary, and the very act of conceptually isolating aspects of complex systems, and calling them "components", throws up even more unknowns and therefore potential side-effects.
Reductionism gives the illusion of clear causality by disregarding or eliminating non-linear (butterfly effect) causes. One such non-linear cause is the placebo effect, a term that covers a whole array of mind-generated biological effects. By trying to eliminate the placebo effect, which is effectively the reduction of the complex system of human health to a more basic cause-effect traceable model, the medical establishment and pharmaceutical industry are able to justify the validity of drug trials and of drugs as predictable agents of biological change. However, complex systems cannot just be "de-complexed" in this manner without significant distortion in their modelling, which is why the results from drug trials can be so variable, despite every attempt at normalizing the results.
These distorted "de-complexed" models work best for acute diseases, because they often involve clearer causes like infection, injury or poisoning. This is therefore the area in which modern orthodox medicine is effective, at least in the short term, because its "de-complexed" biological model is an adequate fit (but still far from perfect). In such acute health crises, the most important concern is to quickly fight the infection, mend the injury and reduce the acute poisoning — and side-effects of such radical interventions can be can be ignored so long as they are less of an issue than the primary problem — acute medicine intervention is short-term and usually worth the risk of side-effects. This is a bit like a stock market emergency where cash is injected into the economy to try to stop a crash — although it would have dangerous long-term effects like hyper-inflation, short term it could be used to save an economy.
Chronic disease, however, is a very different story because it involves the slow progression of disease over time, and that means the cause is not as apparent and the treatments tend to be longer term. Here the complexity (nonlinear aspects) of the model becomes an important factor and so that any system of medicine (including orthodox medicine) which tries to disregard the complex non-linear effects will have a poor record with such diseases. In our economic analogy above, it is like lowering interest rates to speed up an economy — it disregards the complexity of the economic system, encouraging all businesses, including inefficient ones, to expand, as well as increasing speculation in other assets, like property. Long-term, such simplistic tinkering of a complex system can lead to financial disasters (medical crises), as it did with the current financial crisis.
Orthodox medicine, therefore, has a dismally poor success rate with chronic diseases because it is trying to ignore or eliminate these non-linear effects in its model, instead using simplified medical models that are, quite frankly, not appropriate for long term disease development and treatment. And the unfortunate outcome of using these inappropriate models is that people are not only not getting well, but are being injured and killed by the drug treatments, usually by doctors with the best of intentions.
But what is the alternative? If complex biological systems are so complex, can we ever produce systems of medicine that are genuinely healing long-term? Can our interaction with a complex biological system become more predictable?
The complex biological/metabolic systems that make up our bodies developed over billions of years. Humans have been around millions of years. And over this time, these biological systems have been an integral part of the larger biological systems of other living species and the environment (the ecosystem). This means that there is a certain stability between the different living species because they have been interacting with each other for an extended period of time.
For example, humans have developed eating plants and animals, and so our biological systems are adapted, over eons of time, to process unadulterated natural diets. However, that diet has changed radically in the past few generations. Today we eat processed and genetically altered foods that have very different compositions and chemicals in them that the foods our grandparents once ate, foods that have significantly less nutritive value due to modern intense farming methods used that deplete the soil. (Obviously, depleted soils produce crops with lower nutritive profiles.)
The upshot of these modern unnatural foods is an exponential rise in chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Modern foods may be fine in the short term if you are about to die of starvation, but just like orthodox medicine is also fine only in short term or acute situations, long-term ingestion of these unnatural foods can and do cause serious health problems on a massive global scale, because of their side-effects.
So the problem with our modern processed foods is similar to the problem with medical drugs. Both are created on the back of biological models that ignore the complexity of biological systems. Food manufacturers think of diet in terms of protein, carbohydrate and saturated/unsaturated fat content (and perhaps a few token vitamins/minerals added for marketing purposes), and focus on taste and profit rather than overall nutritive content and complexity, and this commercial over-simplification of food production, which justifies the blasé creation of new genetically modified foods without the long-term testing so desperately needed, is creating massive profits at the expense of our health, in the same way that the pharmaceutical industry is creating massive profits with its commercial over-simplification of human health. Both profit by disregarding the non-linearity of complex systems.
The solution to the danger of modern diets is obviously to eat an unadulterated and natural diet, to consume foods that our biological systems have evolved on (or were created for). And these natural wholefood diets have extremely complex nutritional profiles, which makes them very difficult to appreciate by those with "active-ingredient" mentality — i.e. most scientists, medical doctors and corporate directors. Active-ingredient mentality is extremely profitable to biotechnology companies, which are quite happy to poke a stick into the complex system of genetic systems in order to force a profitable modification, despite the risk of long-term gene pool contamination. (In a society where business interests call the shots, money today is always going to be worth more than safety tomorrow.)
Parallel to dietary considerations, the solution to our health crises is to use healing modalities that also embrace the complexities of our biological systems, ideally modalities that our system has been able to harmonized with over a considerable period of time.
Such effective healing modalities for chronic diseases can either be through equally complex biological systems (foods, superfoods & medicinal herbs), dietary changes (cutting out unnatural components and increasing natural foods), and/or through mind/nervous system interactions, energy interactions and, perhaps, spiritual interactions. These approaches to healing tend to be more holistic, treating the whole person rather than just the condition or part of the body which has a problem. For example, a dietary approach to illness obviously affects more than just the illness, so that those who eat natural diets not only usually recover from chronic diseases, but often exude a level of health and vitality far greater than that they experienced before they became ill.
However, it is this very aspect of holism of many alternative systems of healing that is also their Achilles' heel. Holistic therapies usually function on complexity — holistic therapies are basically non-linear therapies — and so any system of assessment that ignores the non-linear aspect of complex systems will end up rejecting those therapies. So, as reductionism is the worldview of the present medical model, holistic healing systems do not stand up to reductionist scrutiny. Surprise, surprise! This is how orthodox medicine dismisses much of alternative medicine.
Even alternative practitioners will often try to explain how holistic therapies work by reference to active ingredients and linear cause-and-effect explanation, in the mistaken belief that to do so will give those therapies legitimacy. Holistic treatments, however, often don't work if assessed through a reductionist model, because such assessments throw out the very non-linear aspects of those therapies that are principal in their success. (This is why one is better seeking alternative treatments from dedicated alternative therapists who live, work and breath the holistic paradigm rather than from more conventional therapists like a medical doctors and wannabe medical doctors who operate from the reductionist paradigm and who offer alternative treatments merely as an extension to a reductionist treatment repertoire.)
And so many of the healing systems that are more effective than orthodox medicine are insultingly relegated to the category of "complementary treatments", a term which subordinates them to the ineffective and often deadly orthodox treatments on offer. And these systems described as "complementary" are just the lucky ones: most are dismissed as "crackpot medicine", "snake oil" and "placebo pills", by the educated dimwits control our medical systems, dimwits that are stuck in the reductionist model. (I am being somewhat charitable here using the term "dimwits" because many of those who peddle reductionism are not ignorant of its limitations but do so deliberately because it is in their financial interest to do so.)
Whilst treatment assessment is in the hands of those organisations and individuals stuck in the reductionist model, alternative therapies, which are regarded as a serious threat to orthodox medicine, will never been seen in a favourable light. And yet, despite the concerted effort to over-regulate (stamp out) alternative therapies, their popularity is rapidly rising as people experience both the destructive and often lethal effects of conventional drug therapies, and the successful healing ("wholing") effects of holistic alternative and complementary treatments.
The enormous profits from the reductionist model, which are being used to brainwash society into a reductionist perspective of health and fund PR for the current orthodox medical model, are fortunately not enough to cover up the fact that modern medicine is failing spectacularly. We just have to see how the medical costs for each member of our society is spirally out of control, whilst at the same time the nation's health is deteriorating, to realize that something is seriously amiss. The sad fact is that when medicine is run on a profit model, curing patients becomes a way to lose customers, and so symptomatic relief becomes the mainstay of modern treatment. However, the fly in the ointment for these profiteers is the insurance companies that often have to pick up the healthcare bill. It is they that are starting to insist, as money becomes short, on effective treatments not profitable treatments.
And the irony is that people using free national healthcare systems often campaign for expensive pharmaceutical treatments because, in their eyes, people must come before profit, but they fail to see that they are mostly falling for pharmaceutical PR promoting its latest and greatest products. And as governments don't like being seen putting people before profit, they fund these latest treatments, diverting even more public funds into the coffers of the pharmaceutical industry. In this way, national healthcare, despite being more civilized than insurance company-led healthcare, is becoming a major contributor to the economic collapse of nations as the doctors and bureaucrats that run it receive ever greater rewards for their sycophancy to the pharmaceutical industry and their profligation of public money. Outside of emergency care, orthodox medicine has become a cancer to society, sucking away its resources in a slow and agonizing death, as it parades around in self-important white coats and titles.
And, as has been touched upon, any system of healthcare that tries to compete with the "services" offered by the orthodox medical establishment and the pharmaceutical industries is immediately derided, and an army of political lobbyists is constantly skewing the democratic process to get laws pushed through that strengthen their medical monopoly.
Recently, for example, homeopathy in the United Kingdom has come under attack from an influential health committee which condemned it as "medically unproven". What they actually mean is that they cannot understand how it works and therefore it cannot be working — so any positive results in clinical trials are dismissed as the placebo effect. How could it be otherwise, when the dilutions used in the treatments are so tiny that there are often statistically no atoms or just a few atoms of the active substance in the remedy? Whilst this is undeniably true, such considerations are entirely material-centric, and disregard the possibility that substances can leave a vibrational or energetic trace.
But rather than actually investigating this possibility, most medical "experts" would rather toe the party line and defend not just ideology, but the handouts they usually receive in one form or another from the pharmaceutical industry (either directly or indirectly), handouts that support them and their families. Much better to dismiss a system of medicine that they do not understand than take financial and ideological risks. These doctors and researchers are on the whole probably good people who think they are just fighting superstition, when in fact they are defending their paymasters — a natural human trait. It is human nature for security to come before other matters, which is why money can so easily alter perception even in those who regard themselves as scientifically objective.
This is illustrated by the position of a former professor of complementary medicine in the UK who is vociferously opposed to alternative systems of medicine (quite how he was ever elected to be a professor of complementary medicine is a little hard to follow). This physician dismisses the positive effects of homeopathy as the workings of the placebo effect, despite admitting, in a recent New Scientist interview, that it could also be due to the action of a new law in nature. So he effectively admitted that the workings of the placebo effect and the workings of potential new laws of nature may be indistinguishable, and yet is quite happy, in the next breath, to categorically dismiss homeopathy because... well he knows it is "just" the placebo effect and not some working of nature that we do not understand. Some might call this Occam's Razor — the idea that the simplest explanation for observation is favoured — but when science does not even know much about the placebo effect in the first place (and always tries to eliminate it when it finds it) the placebo effect is hardly the "simpler" choice here. Something strange appears to be going on and it needs proper and unbiased investigation, but how will that ever be possible in a system that is ideologically geared to upholding a profitable monopoly? It may well turn out, with unbiased research, that homeopathy is not effective, but how can we ever really know if we measure it against a scientific model that dismisses it out of hand, "by definition"?
And there is little point in dismissing a treatment such as homeopathy because it involves the placebo effect, as all the most effective treatments do involve it. What do we think heals those who visit the doctor — the tablets they are prescribed or the fact that a many in a white coat prescribed them? Probably a combination, but without the white coat those tablets would be a lot less effective. In fact, most people would be quite shocked to know just how ineffective a drug treatment can be for it to be labelled as effective. It only needs to be a few percentage points above what is considered to be the placebo effect, and as the placebo effect is not static over time, drugs labelled effective are often reassessed in time as non-effective. (This has happened recently with some of the well-known antidepressants and anti-psychotics.)
Those on the inside of medical research know that different trails for the same drug will throw up different results — different placebo levels and different drug effects — which is why so much of medical research is actually a PR exercise, one in which obscene amounts of money are spent to maintain an air of scientific objectivity. Medical researchers are well acquainted with the frustration of variable results, which is why they themselves or their sponsors will often select only those trials which overall give a positive result. And they will select only those trials which overall give a negative result for any system of healthcare that threatens their monopoly. Modern medicine is a PR job, and if you have almost infinite marketing resources, you can dismiss competing healthcare systems with a barrage of legislation that either bans it outright or strangles it under legal red tape (which is why natural and holistic healthcare is finding it increasingly hard to survive).
The irony is that the very thing that orthodox medicine tries to eliminate in its double-blind gold-standard research protocols is the very effect that is the natural interface to our biological systems — our nervous system.
The nervous system is one of the natural holistic control system for the body; it is a higher level system that can efficiently modulate every aspect of the complex system of our myriad of cells, all without the dangerous side-effects of outside chemical stimuli. It can do this because it is organically integrated with the body — the so called body-mind. Even orthodox medicine now acknowledges a direct correlation between physiology and psychology.
Obviously, engaging high-level natural controls like the nervous system to heal the body and mind is going to be the most efficient method and with the least side-effects: indeed, the nervous system has been shown repeatedly to be able to accurately control many aspects of our biological systems, including hormonal and immune systems, as well as gene expression. And it is also able to somewhat control the body's response to external healing modalities. This is one reason (along with biological system complexity) that two similar people with the same health condition can respond differently to identical prescription drugs.
Given the primal role of the nervous system in healing — including in external modalities like orthodox medicine — it is farcical that so much time and resources are spent on trying to eliminate its influence. If medical doctors were serious about healing patients, they would be looking at every opportunity not to eliminate the placebo effect but to maximize it. Instead, it is systematically and relentlessly removed from every equation in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt at sanitizing objectivity. This sanitization creates a Micky Mouse science, one that is sadly all that most medical doctors know, and it is a pseudo-science promoted by the pharmaceutical industry because pseudo-objectivity in medicine rakes in a trillion dollars annually, a figure that will rise to $1,100,000,000 by 2014.)
If we wish to heal, we have to look at chronic disease as something that affects the whole person, not just in terms of arteries, joints or tumours. For only by taking a holistic perspective can we maximize the placebo effect, an effect that powerfully complements any healing strategy. Many alternative therapies take a holistic perspective, which is why they are often more effective than orthodox treatments for many chronic disease conditions. However, because the medical establishment is fixated on the elimination of the placebo effect, these effective therapies are derided and dismissed.
Those who criticise alternative medicine would do well to understand the futility of their own pseudo-objective stance, a stance that costs millions of lives every year. This insanity will only stop when doctors become educated in understanding the limitations of modelling biological complex systems, and how the reductionism they so highly value has been indoctrinated into their medical training as a means to make them good pharmaceutical salesmen and women.
The future of medicine is alternative holistic medicine — not an updated orthodox medicine. Doctors of the future will not be in the pockets of the pharmaceutical companies, but will genuinely be trying to make you and I well and whole again, by whatever means necessary, regardless of how profitable those means are, or whether they conform to this or that medical dogma. And the dogma of pseudo-objectivity and reductionism, whilst having a place (especially in acute and emergency medicine), will not be allowed to repudiate medical systems that have a strong subjective component.
Until then, we have to put up with the farce of the orthodox medicine virtual monopoly, run by a medical mafia, who are always looking for new ways to make maximum profit from every aspect of our disease and misery. They are even resorting to defining normal/healthy biological and psychological conditions and parameters as problematic in order to justify ever-increasing mass-medication.
But this legalized extortion has been, in many ways, too successful: the public coffers are running dry and our private medical insurance is becoming unaffordable, so that we are reaching a stage where we can no longer afford the current medical protection racket, and as a consequence will be forced to explore lower-cost systems of healing that are more effective, systems currently classed as alternative, holistic and hocus-pocus. When the money runs out, we will be collectively forced to step outside the narrow medical model that is bleeding us dry, and when that happens we will witness a revitalization of society — a return to true health and wholeness.
There are other possible higher level control systems for biological systems, but I focused on the nervous system here to keep things grounded for most readers.
Update 8 Nov 2012: Recently started reading a book called Tarnished Gold: The Sickness of Evidence-based Medicine by Steve Hickey and Hilary Roberts. What an education! This book has really opened my eyes to the problems with today's conventional medical research.