Healthcare and Medicine Reference
As well as the type of information carried, the timing
of the communication within these systems differs as
well. The nervous system is widely regarded as the
fastest, working in milliseconds to seconds at speeds of
7-170 miles per hour (10-270 km/h) - not like e-mail at
the speed of light. 7 3 The slowest neural message, throb-
bing pain, runs along tiny nerves at about one meter per
second, and thus might take about two seconds to get
from the stubbed toe of a tall man to his brain. Other
messages pass more quickly but still on the same order
- the reaction time of a trained martial artist is V x of a
second from the reception of a stimulus to the beginning
of a response in movement. This approaches the reac-
tion time for a simple reflex arc like the knee-jerk
The circulatory system works on a slower time scale.
The standard is that most red blood cells return through
the heart every 1.5 minutes. Despite the recurring movie
motif of the instant drug knockout, even injected drugs
will take a few minutes to make it to the brain. Many
chemical levels in the blood (e.g. salt and sugar levels)
fluctuate on several-hour cycles, so we can set this sys-
tem's average responsive rhythm as minutes to hours.
Of course, many fluid rhythms work at slower scales -
from the slow pulse of the 'long tide' in the cranial
system through the 28-day cycle of the menstrual
The nervous system and fluid systems developed in
tandem, both in the individual and in our species, so the
division between them is purely an analytical exercise.
Still, the distinction is useful.
Some years ago I revisited England after several years
Stateside. I was driving several children out to the
country. While daydreaming along one of those narrow
Devon hedgerowed byways, I was suddenly confronted
by an oncoming car. My American driving habits took
over and I pulled to the right, while the other driver
responded to his English instincts and pulled to the left.
We missed each other by millimeters and I fetched up
in a boggy ditch, shaking and white.
This shakiness and blood redistribution was pro-
duced by the sympathetic branch of my autonomic
nervous system, suddenly alerting my entire somatic
nervous system that immediate action was required. My
immediate action, stupid though it was, did not result
in disaster. We all got out, cheerfully cursed the bloody
Yank, reassured each other that we were all right, pushed
my car back onto solid footing, and said goodbye.
But when I got back in the car to drive on, I found
that I was again shaking, that I was white and faint, and
needed a few additional moments to gather myself
before driving on. Among the many messages the sym-
pathetic nervous system sent out in the initial instant of
alarm was one to the adrenal glands that was decoded
into the squeeze of a gland's worth of adrenaline - the
bearer of a similar action-oriented 'fight-or-flight'
message - into the bloodstream. This method of alerting
the body is slower and more ancient than the nervous
system's, but helps to sustain the response, when neces-
sary, over a longer period of time, as in a sporting event.
This hormone took a few minutes to circulate and to
have its way with my body. By this time, the emergency
was over and I was getting ready to drive again, but the
adrenaline was just getting down to business. After a
few minutes of no further emergency, my system calmed
down and I drove on, now chemically and consciously
very alert to where I was; no coffee needed for the
remainder of the drive.
The timing of the fascial system is interesting in that
it has two rhythms; at least, two that have interest to us.
On the one hand, the play of tension and compression
communicates around the body as a mechanical 'vibra-
tion' traveling at the speed of sound. This is roughly
equivalent to 720 mph (1100 kph), which is more than
three times faster than the nervous system. So, contrary
to conventional wisdom, the fibrous net communicates
more quickly than the nervous system. One can feel this
if one steps from one room to another in which there is
an unexpected drop of an inch or more. The nervous
system, setting the springs of responsive muscles to the
expected level of floor, is unprepared for the sharp shock
that does come, which is thus absorbed instead almost
entirely by the fascial system over a fraction of a second.
We will take up the mechanism of this immediate com-
munication in the tensegrity section below; for now we
note that every nuance of changing mechanical forces is
'noticed' and communicated along the fabric of the
On the other hand, the speed at which this system
communicates compensation around the structural
body is much slower. Structural bodyworkers com-
monly find that this year's neck pain was built on last
year's mid-back pain, which derived in turn from a
sacroiliac problem three years earlier, which in fact rests
on a lifelong tendency to sprain that left ankle. A careful
history-taking is always necessary in working with the
fibrous system because even small incidents can have
repercussions removed at some space and time from the
These patterns of compensation, often with a fixation
in the myofascia well away from the site of pain, are
daily bread for Structural Integration practitioners. 'If
your symptoms get better,' said Dr Ida Rolf, 'that's your
tough luck.' Her interest was in resolving patterns of
compensation, not merely eradicating symptoms, which
would then tend to pop up some months or even years
later in another form.
For example, a middle-aged woman came to my
practice a while ago, complaining of pains in the right
side of her neck. An office worker, she was sure that the
pain was related to her computer workstation and
'repetitive strain' from keyboard entry and mouse use.
She had run the gamut of healing, having seen a chiro-
practor, physiotherapist, and a massage therapist. Each
of these methods offered temporary relief, but 'as soon
as I start working again, it comes back.'
When presented with a situation like this, there are
two possible 'causes': the one offered, that work really
is producing the problem, or, conversely, that some
other area of the client's pattern is not supporting the
new position demanded by her workstation. By examin-
ing this woman (using the method of seeing outlined in