Kaptchuk, OMD, earned his doctorate in Oriental Medicine from the Macau
Institute of Chinese Medicine in 1975. He is now the associate director
of the Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Boston's
Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital, and an Assistant Professor of Medicine
at Harvard Medical School. Author of the book, The Web That Has No
Weaver: Understanding Chinese Medicine, he recently spoke with Body
& Soul senior executive producer Gail Harris. Following are
some excerpts from their conversation.
Harris: How did the Chinese come up with their view of how the human
Kaptchuk: We don't know for sure how China developed its views. It's
speculation. But one could easily say that, what we call Chinese medicine
is based on a philosophic perspective that develops in China in the
third, fourth, fifth century BC -- a perspective that rejects supernatural
healing. A philosophy that said, instead, one could understand illness
and health by using the human mind. One could actually have access to
what's going on in a person's life in terms of what they feel, what
they experience -- by paying attention, and by using normal sensations.
It's based on the Taoist and Confucian philosophies, which emphasized
human knowledge as opposed to supernatural knowledge.
Taoists say that the most important thing is the knowledge within, not
the gods and demon world. They believe that there is nobility in human
So, in the Western tradition, we believe that we can figure things out.
And the Chinese say that doesn't matter -- what matters is what we see?
Well, we have multiple traditions in the West, and actually China has
multiple traditions too. In Western medicine, if we want to find the
cause of an illness, we try to find the invisible agents -- germs and
different kinds of chemicals in the endocrine system, different questions
of the nervous system, things that we can't see. And we look for those
linear cause-and-effect relationships to explain a person's discomfort
China, there's a fundamental belief that one can know another human
being -- that one can understand illness and health by being with them,
listening to them, and observing them. Paying attention. And that one
can finally get a sense that this person's way in the world is too active
here, not active enough here, too hot, too cold. Something is not balanced
right. And getting that gestalt, then, allows the physician or healer
to either make suggestions, give herbs, give acupuncture, whatever the
intervention is. But there's the sense that you can know another human
being…That's a profound belief for people to practice on, and even more
important, it's a profound experience for patients to feel.
Is it too simplistic to say that Western medicine tends to look at problems-or
people- as a collection of body parts? And Chinese medicine looks at
them as being a complete person that needs to be in harmony to be really
You can have bad Chinese doctors. You can have bad Western doctors.
However, it's easier to pay attention to people as a Chinese doctor
because it is your job is to pay attention. Every piece of information
-- how the patient makes an appointment on the telephone, how they shake
your hand, how they introduce themselves -- all that information is
part of what you need to gather. But in fact, all great healers, I think,
use a kind of intuition to pay attention.
What's accounting for the lines in the sand between Eastern and Western
medicine being a little less clearly drawn? Is it because now there's
more scientific evidence that demonstrates, in fact, that some of these
things like acupuncture are valid?
I think scientific evidence is an important contribution to the discussion.
For instance in acupuncture, there's a clear link between endorphins
and acupuncture, and there have been some positive randomized control
trials, the fact that you can produce evidence of say, acupuncture easing
nausea and vomiting, or dental pain, for example. There's something
going on there. It's not just the "imagination."
Ted Kaptchuk, OMD
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