Strengths and weaknesses of analytic and synthetic thought, explained through tacos: The real “about this blog.”

About a year ago, Craig Payne from Running Research Junkie leveled a (fair) criticism at my blog in the comment section of another article: that I don’t do “analysis.”

Craig is right: I don’t (and I don’t claim to). Judged as analysis, much of my thought process on this blog is indeed poor. One of the reasons I don’t is because too many people in the run-o-blogosphere already offer excellent analytic thought—of which the highest expression might be Craig’s own blog.

But another reason I don’t offer analysis is because of an emerging field that is very dear to my heart: systems science (and specifically systems thinking).

So what is it that I offer here?

I offer synthesis.

Systems thinking—and other emerging fields that depend on its tenets (such as psychoneuroimmunoendocrinology, or PNIE)—are synthetic sciences. What they do is best is tell a coherent story about a system or supersystem by making sense of all of its features and bugs, strengths and weaknesses, to postulate an argument about its functional purpose: why it does what it does.

Run PNIE through tests that establish whether a particular form of analysis has value, and it will be found wanting.

It joins seemingly unrelated domains—the mind and the immune system, society and hormones—by telling a story about why it makes sense that they interact.

It factors in phenomena that create turbulence in the system (but by themselves have no lasting impact on the system at large) by suggesting how they could conceivably be interconnected through a  long line of effects on parts and properties of the system—some, like thoughts, emergent; others, like killer T cells, not.

(I imagine analytic sciences staring with incredulity at PNIE, thinking: “Are you insane?!”)

While a field like PNIE can produce a consistent narrative, what it cannot do is reconcile every specific variable with every other specific variable. Evolution, for example, is imperfect at best. It gerrymanders structures that performed one function at some point into structures meant to perform a different one.

Modern accounts of biology observe this basic evolutionary reality: human physiology, for example, is far from the physical consummation of the divine form, or the expression of cherry-picked mathematical constants (as alleged by the Classical paradigm). The human body is best described as a hodgepodge of systems and parts, twisted and tweaked by evolution to perform a specific function (or series of functions) at the expense of countless others.

We can’t rely on analysis of specific strengths and weaknesses to come to conclusions about what structures do. It just isn’t possible for the (decidedly imperfect) tales told by PNIE, systems thinking, and other synthetic sciences to have fewer imperfections than the gerrymandered biological structures they examine.

What analytic sciences ask for, synthetic sciences simply cannot give. For analysis, the devil is in the details (but so is everything else). For synthesis, while the details must be addressed, imperfections in the story do not always mean that the story is imperfect in and of itself. Instead, as long as the gestalt remains intact (in the face of newly discovered details), imperfections in the story may speak to corresponding imperfections in the structure it describes. 

Here’s a great example: tacos. As most of us know, the filling falls out of tacos all the time. Sometimes it falls out the ends. Sometimes the tortilla gets soggy and breaks apart. Even then, the general consensus is that the purpose of a taco is to hold stuff in (despite the fact that it can only do so imperfectly).

The story we tell about the taco—that its functional purpose is to hold stuff in—is imperfect: in just about every instance of eating a taco, stuff falls out of one. (To analysis, this seems paradoxical: these two realities about the taco seem to be contradicting the idea that the taco is meant to hold stuff in.) But synthesis shows us that the reason the story is imperfect is not because the purpose of a taco isn’t to hold something in. It’s imperfect because the taco is only imperfectly capable of performing its functional purpose.

This tells us something very important: just because a structure is meant for a particular function does not mean that it can (or should be able to) produce it perfectly. Trade-offs and inefficiencies do not mean that the structure was meant to produce a different function.

In other words, there are better ways to hold in the filling. For example, we can fold in the edges of a taco, but doing so alters its essential nature: we’ve turned it into a burrito. But it also isn’t the case that the burrito is the better taco, and that as such, taco vendors are just behind the curve. There are (at least) 2 specific advantages to preserving a food’s “taco-ness”:

  1. Versatility: By tolerating the disadvantage that a taco has a hole at either end, you gain the advantage of being able to stuff it with more veggies and sauce from end to end and still being able to pick it up without getting dirty. (Try re-folding a burrito that is already filled to capacity.)
  1. Modularity: By putting up with the fact that your basic taco shop will give you nothing but meat on a tortilla, you are able to go to the veggie and salsa bar and build it however you like. Depending on how good you are harnessing the (imperfect) modularity of the taco, you’re also able to (imperfectly) swap out any ingredients you may not like.

Similarly, the fact that an imperfect structure produces any given function with some degree of difficulty does not entail that the structure is not meant to produce some particular function in some particular way: A taco isn’t completely versatile, excellently modular, or perfect at holding stuff in.

Furthermore, the advantages that the taco holds over the burrito—versatility and modularity—were bought at a steep price: it’s ability to effectively contain cheap meats and vegetables pales in comparison to that of a burrito. But all those disadvantages and compromises don’t mean that those aren’t intended features of the taco, or that there aren’t gastronomical situations to which the taco is better suited than the burrito.

For the taco (like for the human body), convenience and function—instead of the pursuit of efficiency in a few arbitrary parameters—drive evolution. As Noam Chomsky said about human communication, “languages do best what people do most.”

(What they don’t do is what’s most efficient.)

In order to explain the cobbled-together, evolutionary Frankenstein monster that is the human body, we need to rely on a mode of thought that is not allergic to paradox—and attempts to reconcile it instead of simply describing it. (While plenty of paradoxes have been reconciled successfully within analytic sciences, doing so has always been the result of synthetic thinking.)

We need to become storytellers of physiology and bards of biomechanics. To describe what human bodies have been observed to do is as dour as it is noble. To spin a story of what this depressingly imperfect, infinitely complex machine is attempting to do—in all its flawed glory—is the endeavor I want to be a part of.



A much-needed disclaimer:  I recognize that Craig does not need (and probably doesn’t want) my opinion that his blog is the “highest expression of analysis.”

A second, much-needed disclaimer: I embark on this post sequence only because (1) I deeply care for these themes, (2) I believe that there exists a functional, coherent story to be told about running, (3) that’s what synthetic thought is built for, and therefore (4) it is my opinion that analysis par excellence is simply is not enough in our collective attempt to give a complete, functional account of the running human body.

The fact that most of what I do here is synthesis (and not analysis) is an issue aside from whether my attempts at synthesizing information—or anyone else’s—make any sort of sense. (But that’s a different issue.) But if, having read this post, you still tell me you believe that synthetic thought (or science) should play no part in explaining the human body’s function, I bid you a good day.

Speaking the body’s language: simplifying training stimulus.

As your understanding of athletic training becomes more sophisticated, one of the first concepts you come across is that of training stimulus. In simple English, training stimulus refers to what the body gets out of a particular workout.

Discussion of training stimulus abounds in circles that use MAF (Maximum Aerobic Function)—also known as the Maffetone Method—as their main framework for training.

The overarching mandate of the MAF Method is to protect the body. That is the best way for it to tolerate stresses, grow from training, and produce a great race performance. The party responsible for these functions is the body’s aerobic system, which oxidizes fats (burning them in the presence of oxygen) to provide a stable and long-lasting energy supply.

In endurance events, “protecting the body” means that the aerobic system must provide almost all the energy utilized during exercise. In power events, the aerobic system should be buttressing the function of the anaerobic system—which provides vast amounts of quick energy by burning sugars without oxygen—and still be strong enough to take charge for the duration of the recovery period.

For those who have already committed to developing their aerobic systems (by training at a low relative intensity), an issue inevitably arises: in long workouts that should occur theoretically at a low intensity, people accidentally (and often) end up rising above the desired intensity for a few seconds.

This brings up a crucial question: does this change the training stimulus?

There are several ways of answering this question. We can observe whether our speed at the aerobic threshold decreases after a month of training. We can go out and get a heart rate variability app that tracks our body’s autonomic readiness. We can even go get lab tested to see if our VO2 Max has decreased.

(If these terms mean nothing to you, don’t worry. Unless you’re an elite athlete who redlines for a living, they don’t need to. That’s the point.)

The body isn’t a black box. Action and circumstance affect it in ways that we can readily experience (when we know what to look for). A critical caveat: In this post, I’m only discussing the interpretation of experience before and after a workout. Using our subjective experience to measure and manage training stimulus in real time brings a whole other level of complexity.

Let’s abstract away from training for a second, and leave all that exercise terminology behind. Suppose you are on a long, leisurely birdwatching hike. You stop every few minutes to take notes, and you loiter every now and then with your binoculars as you try to make out the species of a bird in the distance. But 4 times over the course of this hike, you saw a novel bird just around the bend. Excited, you raced to take a picture.

How do you return from that hike? You are energized, renewed, invigorated. In spite of those few short sprints, the hike was a “low-intensity” experience.

Here’s another example: you’re back in your hometown after 5 years on a family visit. There’s been parties and get-togethers every day, and you’ve had ample time to catch up with all your friends.

But two things happened: the second day, you had the great misfortune of being mugged. And then the day after that, a former business partner caught up to you at a stop sign. He’s had a spell of bad luck—and in that short encounter, saw fit to threaten you and your family (over what you had thought was water under the bridge).

99% of the time, everything was pleasant and relaxing. But, for 10 minutes, the ground shook. That was enough for you to leave town with a new and unexpected wariness. Even the language—“two things happened”—tells you what the primary experience was.

This is also the case in athletic training. Put another way, the same body that has to glean meaning from that unexpectedly stressful visit (in order to be able to adapt to the next threat) is the same one that you take to the gym or out on the trails. That same body has to figure out whether it makes more sense to treat a particular training event as an “endurance workout” or a “strength workout.”

When a run feels “rejuvenating”—it’s very likely that’s exactly what it’s doing for your body. (The opposite holds true as well.)

You can break down the experience of being mugged in ever finer detail, and identify sensory and psychological stressors, and observe their physiological and neurological effects . . . but you don’t really have to.

Don’t get me wrong—you’ll get far more data about the effects of a divorce or a family vacation if you go get an fMRI every time something happens. That is a fact. (You can probably make better lifestyle choices when you know for sure whether your amygdala lights up when you see pictures of your former spouse.) But you don’t need an fMRI to be spot on—in a general sense—when asked what either experience did for your mental and physical health.

You can say the same about phenomena such as autonomic readiness (of the nervous system), which contributes to produce our subjective feelings of readiness for a wide variety of tasks.

Our experience of readiness doesn’t just happen to co-occur with our physiological readiness. Look at it from an evolutionary point of view: we didn’t have heart rate variability apps or monitors “waaay back when.” Our experience of readiness has to emerge from the fact that our nervous system, metabolism, hormonal system, and motor capabilities are actually ready for whatever it is we feel ready for. This is essentially the same line of argument that Tim Noakes (in his immortal book Waterlogged) uses to argue that the best measure of physiologically relevant dehydration is the subjective experience of thirst.

(In the same book, Noakes also argues that the fact that this even needs to be argued shows just how disconnected from the obvious we’ve become.)

If the subjective and the physiological weren’t part and parcel of the same system (to say that they’re “linked” is a gross misrepresentation), we’d all be dead. In other words, our heart rate variability monitor isn’t really going to change until we feel ready—and if it does change but we still don’t feel ready, we can be quite sure that there’s some other measurable physiological parameter out there that explains why.

The biggest mistake we can make is to listen to our pet parameter while disregarding the conclusion of a built-in measuring device capable enough to have outcompeted every other life form on the savannah—a device without which Neil Armstrong would have made it to the orbit but not the surface of the moon.