Primed in the Fractal Tree of Life:  A Review of ‘The Spark in the Machine’

By Jennifer Kapraun, LAc

Have you ever tried to talk a friend or loved one into getting acupuncture, someone who you know really needs it, only to hear something like:  “Oh, I don’t think that would work for me, I don’t believe in it.” or “Oh, I believe in acupuncture, but I’m afraid it won’t work for me.” Well, this book review may provide some answers to sway such folks.

Well-organized, well-paced, and pleasurable to read, The Spark in the Machine by Daniel Keown proves a profound biological validity to Traditional Chinese Medicine.  Using research in embryological development, surgical anatomy of the fascia and fascial planes, and the special conductive properties of collagen and the fluid spaces in the body, the author shows that there is littlecontradiction if any between TCM and biology.  He claims this information has been “under surgeons’ fingers the whole time.”  

Daniel Keown is a medical doctor with a deeper knowledge of anatomy and embryology than your average physician, what’s more he’s an acupuncturist well trained in the traditional theories and practices of Chinese medicine.  If you read no further here are the 5 main ideas I hope you’ll take away from his expertise:

1. The acupuncture channels are real, exist when we are still an embryo, and precede development of all other body structures except the cell.

2. The channels (and points) are invisible but can be found in the fasciae or connective tissue and create more complexity as it develops.  

3. Collagen conducts and creates micro currents or qi, and the presence of collagen throughout the body is key in how acupuncture produces it’s healing effect. 

4. The Chinese were eerily accurate in their understanding of organ function, and our current understanding of endocrine function bears this out.

5. Patients of all types benefit from increased communication between the two medical traditions. If there has been a contradiction between the two, it’s because we haven’t been looking in the right places.

Keown doggedly goes through all of the twelve primary acupuncture meridians, describing the course of each and showing how they correspond exactly to either a structure at a particular embryological stage and/or the fascial compartments in the fully formed human body (the same structures surgeons must be extremely mindful of when they cut into your body.)

After finding the channels, Keown moves on to how they function.  Why are the so useful for healing the body?  How does acupuncture work?  His answer: via the remarkable semi-crystalline properties of collagen.

​“Collagen ….has electrical properties that are all but ignored by Western science.  (including) piezoelectricity, the ability to generate tiny electrical currents when an object is deformed.  The sparks in cigarettes lighters produce their magic by deforming tiny quartz crystals in the same process. That means that every time we move any part of our body we are creating tiny electrical currents.” 

We know from recent research that the twirling of the needles deforms the connective tissue not just where the needle is placed, but along the acupuncture channel on which that point located.  This is why you often feel a surge of energy move through your body when an acupuncture point is needled.  Your cells are making more electricity!  Based on what we know about micro currents and bone-healing in all animals and limb regeneration in reptiles, we can presume it is the regenerative properties of these tiny currents that give acupuncture it’s healing power. 

Keown has a lot to say about collagen. Much like DNA, and for that matter the structure of every living thing in the natural world is based on a spiraling double helix structure.  There are certain patterns and proportions repeating through all forms of life, at every level of organization.  We are “primed in the fractal tree of life”.  How did western medicine “miss” the existence of acupuncture meridians for so long?  Easily: we didn’t zoom out far enough, or go back far enough in time the development of the individual human.  When we do, we find what we are looking for:  information that reconciles western and eastern medicine.​

Next, Chinese concept of jing.  Usually translated as “essence”, jing is genetic in nature:  you are born with it and degrades slowly over the course of your life.  It can be safeguarded but not replenished.  We see evidence of the quality of a persons jing in facial structure, teeth, sexual and reproductive health, bone health, and mental acuity.  Keown draws a parallel between these characteristics, and the somewhat miraculous migration of neural crest cells in early embryological development.

“They form the dentine of the teeth, the layer that is critical for enamel formation, but not the rest of the tooth. They form the cartilage, and only the cartilage, of the head that will form our facial structure.  They form the cells that make adrenalin in the kidney (adrenal gland), and they make conduction pathways and brain of the heart.  They make the parathyroid glands [which regulate calcium metabolism and therefore bone health], hidden deep in the thyroid… The form the support cells of the entire brain and nervous systems.”

The overlap here is remarkable!  Keown explains that it’s not so much that neural crests cells are jing, but that abundance and proper and timely migration of these cells to their appropriate place in the body are evidence of the quality of jing a human being is endowed with.  Jing in his definition is “innate organizational energy”.  Keown reminds us that a mind-numbing level of organization and differentiation occurs in a developing embryo long before the brain and nerves are formed.  Although DNA can explain a lot about how our bodies form, we still don’t remotely have an explanation for how this organization occurs.  The Chinese did though.  Jing and Qi organize the body as the acupuncture channels form.   

​“DNA is statistics.  Jing is real.”

The Spark in the Machine doesn’t blow any myths out of the water.  On the contrary, it shows that many ideas alleged to be mere superstition or tradition actually stand up to medical scrutiny once all the information and all the anatomy is taken into account.  A great example: the Chinese organ known as the “Triple Burner”.  Often dismissed as merely a concept without physical reality, Keown shows that when you look at how the thorax is organized into compartments  by the fascia, you see that the San Jiao is structural.  It corresponds exactly to the pleuropericardial, intraperitoneal, and retroperitioneal compartments.

Keown covers the organs’ traditional functions in depths well, exploring the overlap between traditional Chinese organ descriptions and our modern understanding of endocrinology:  The Spleen Qi and serotonin, Liver Heat and histamine, Kidney Yin and cortisol, Kidney Yang and adrenaline.  What the Chinese understood centuries ago without the aid of blood tests and microscopy is uncanny!

After reading The Spark in the Machine, I’m more optimistic than ever that medicine can evolve and integrate for a better understanding of the whole person in the complete context of nature.  This is an author who clearly knows anatomy, and really understands Chinese Medicine.  Sometimes he drills down, sometimes he zooms out, but in each chapter he includes real-life examples from his own clinical experience as an ER doc, demonstrating how he’s been able to use Chinese Medicine theory and practice to improve patient outcomes even in the rigid (yet chaotic!) setting of the modern Emergency Room.  In my opinion, The Spark in the Machine brightens the future of medicine.

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