Systemic paradigms and their repercussions: the athletic phenomenon of “heel-striking,” and its origins in scientific reductionism.

It would be misleading to say that the philosophical currents that drive society affect our behavior and influence events. It’s much more accurate to say that those philosophical currents largely determine our patterns of behavior and generate those events.

The widespread and damaging athletic phenomenon of heel-striking is no exception.

(By “heel-striking” I refer to the global set of gait characteristics which results in the runner putting their weight on the heel of the landing foot ahead of the center of mass).

Systems thinking proposes that our “mental models”—our belief systems about the world—create the very fabric of society, and therefore the patterns of behavior that emerge. The repercussions that our worldview has on our thought, our social structure, and our lives, are vast, and they are powerful.

Because of this, patterns of behavior that seem unrelated often have the same cause. They are often created by society’s worldview. As I’ll argue in this post, I believe that the behavior of heel-striking is rooted in scientific reductionism—the idea that if you understand the parts of a system you can understand the system as a whole, and predict its behavior.

Systems dynamics (and subsequently systems thinking) actually developed when trying to model phenomena that were intractable to the reductionist view, such as weather patterns. Reductionism doesn’t work for a lot of the problems of modern times—problems like the study of anthropogenic global warming … or heel-striking.

You’d think that these are completely unrelated, because one is environmental and the other athletic, but think again. They both come from the same worldview: reductionism. And in line with Einstein’s adage—that “you can’t solve a problem with the kind of thinking that created it”—it’s extraordinarily difficult to understand why anthropogenic global warming and heel-striking happen (and how to predict their effects) with a reductionist view. These problems inherently have to do with the behavior of the whole. They are generated and driven by unexpected interactions. And for that you need systemic thought.

With respect to global warming, reductionism says that it’s okay to dig up all the oil. It’s okay to burn it all. Once the planet starts heating up, just toss some aerosols into the stratosphere. That’s going to bring down the temperature.

But that’s not the extent of the problem: these sorts of solutions wreak havoc on the hydrological cycle. Furthermore, the warming isn’t the problem; the warming is the symptom. The problem is the increase in atmospheric CO2 density and oceanic acidification.

Heel-striking, like global warming, is also a phenomenon of the times. In the 60s, Bill Bowerman introduced the Cortez, the first jogging shoe. He included a slight wedge on the heel because he thought that by raising the heel, it would reduce strain on the achilles. (This is the very first example of “maximalist” shoes; the “fad” of minimalism has been with us possibly since the beginning of the holocene era).

Bowerman’s analysis was strictly reductionist: if you lift the heel, the achilles isn’t taut anymore, so upon landing, it shouldn’t receive any shock. (As I’ve discussed before, that idea is completely wrong). But here’s the kicker: if you look at that individual “part”—the lower-leg system, it should work: all other things being equal, lifting the heel should reduce tension on the achilles. But it doesn’t, because the lower leg mechanism is a part of a much larger system. And that system requires tension on the tendons to function well.

I believe that in an effort to maintain tension on the achilles, the brain lifts the toes throughout the extent of the landing phase, and extends the knee early in order to approximate the leg to the ground—meaning that the heel strikes the ground first, and the leg is largely extended when it does (and therefore forwards of the center of mass). But Bowerman wasn’t counting on the fact that the body—the system—would exhibit a different behavior if he changed something in one of its “parts.” (Even if he did count on the behavior of that part changing, he probably didn’t realize it would affect an “entirely different” part of the body, such as the knee).

Heel-striking, anthropogenic global warming (and its causes), calorie-restriction diets, western-style pedagogy, and many other modern patterns of behavior can be traced back to their origins in the paradigm of scientific reductionism.

One of the biggest problems with reductionism, which systems thinking in particular is built to address, is that reductionism has a huge problem of internal consistency: there is no clear rubric to define what a “part” is—hence the scare quotes. It is built into reductionism that people can define the “part” they are going to study as whatever they want it to be: it can be a language, a species, a race, or a city. But because these things aren’t different—there is no objective, independent measure to say where one city ends, where another language begins, or what makes one race different from another—all of these “differences” are essentially created when the reductionist draws the line between them. In terms of race, this is what the Human Genome Project found out a little while back: the way in which western white males had differentiated races (for the purpose of extracting wealth from the bodies of other “races”), had no basis in reality. To the disappointment of The Few, and to the unsurprised elation of The Many, race was proven to be a social construct—one that, although not necessarily created by reductionism, was certainly driven and reaffirmed by it.

Going back to the athletic example, Bowerman could have theoretically  cut up the pie in a very different way: instead of looking at the lower leg system, Bowerman could have decided that the relevant “part” was the entire neuromuscular apparatus (somatosensory cortex, nerves, and muscles) of the calf muscle. He could have decided that the “part” literally was everything from the middle of the knee to the end of the toes. Each of those positions would have led to a drastically different shoe, and therefore a very different pattern of gait pathology (or lack thereof).

Because defining “part” is largely left up to the individual, experiments and tests that are structured around the principles of reductionism can have hugely different results, even if they seem to be almost identical. Systems thinking gets around this because it is primarily concerned by interactions. A “part” is defined by what interacts with what. Furthermore, because systems thinking lets you work with an abstract, theoretical model, you can ask why those parts came to be that way—perhaps they are influenced by other forces that cause them to coalesce into something seemingly solid. For example, it was taught that the white race was intellectually superior, but the standards and tests of intellect were modeled on the knowledge of privileged whites—an archaic problem that (un)surprisingly continues in this “modern” age. Systems thinking makes it comparatively easy to model western intelligence tests as a “reinforcing loop” that solidifies the social idea that the so-called intellectual differences are evidence of different “races.” Once that reinforcing loop is in place, it essentially drives itself; the ideas and constructs concretized by that imperialist economy (reductionism and the “inferior other”) work by themselves to maintain the socially-created phenomenon of race:

race m

The same reinforcing loop occurs with heel-striking: the imperialist economy drives consumerism and reductionism, which respectively drive the idea that running shoes are for “the feet” only—they affect the part and not the whole—and the idea that more and different products should be created. This reinforcing loop has no stake in the realities that affect the human body:

shoes m

Another problem with reductionism is that the individual, even the scientist, is likely to say that the “part” is what is salient. For example, scientists talk about the musculoskeletal system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, etc. etc. But these systems are tightly integrated, and not in the ways that are apparent from their given names.

In terms of their interactions, the muscular system is much more tied to the peripheral nervous system, than it is to the skeletal system: even though the muscles do move the bones, the muscles and the nervous system influence each other. Stimulate one even slightly and you’ll get a huge response in the other.

The same doesn’t happen with the skeletal system; it is largely passive in its interactions with the muscular system.

But the connection between the muscular system and the nervous system isn’t immediately salient. It’s not that Bowerman had something against our knees. It’s just that it didn’t occur to him that he should’ve been looking at neuromuscular issues like the stretch reflex when designing that first pair of shoes.

In order to become better runners, we need to understand what are the relevant interactions, inside and outside our bodies. For example, I often stress the interaction between opposing muscle groups. The same goes for the interaction between our bodies and gravity. It doesn’t matter what shape or size we are, gravity affects our bodies in exactly the same way.

And the way in which our joints are designed to move, regardless of our race, creed, or hair color, is extremely similar across humans. No human can be the fastest, healthiest, and most athletically consistent version of themselves while heel-striking. Heel-striking is a gait pathology. By taking that pathology upon ourselves as an identity—as in “I am a heel-striker”—we are doing ourselves a disservice.

There is a way to change the behavior of our bodies. Since it is the paradigm of reductionism that generates the pattern of heel-striking, we can change the pattern by changing the paradigm. In fact, that’s the way we should do it.

If instead we zoom in and say “ok, it’s about the angle my foot hits,” we’ll still get injured. Well, guess what: that’s a reductionist analysis. Which again, only illustrates the worldview: the fact that linguistically, we refer to an entirely different motion pattern by its most salient feature, the “foot-strike” not only stands in evidence of how reductionist our worldview is, but also reinforces the corresponding pattern of thought.

On the other hand, by developing a systems-thinking perspective and training our minds to be aware of the most powerful interactions—of our bodies with gravity, and our bodies with the ground—we will slowly but surely come to a much more concrete understanding of the behavior of the whole.

It’s not about how our foot hits the ground. It’s about why it hits the ground that way. Systems thinking allows us to get at that.

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