Musings on the Tensegrity Structure

Welcome, brave soul.

By coming here, you’ve already set yourself apart from so many of my readers.

Why is this?

Because you’re curious. Actually curious.

Curious enough that you’re willing to come here and find out why I’m so enamored with funny looking clusters of dowel rods and rubber bands.

I wasn’t lying when I said my tensegrity structures follow me around. My family loves to make fun of me for leaving them laying around the house. My son likes to call them “dad’s toys” when friends ask about them. I even brought one to my Ted Talk (plus an extra, just in case).

The tensegrity structure got to enjoy the spotlight in Nashville at my TEDx Talk about reversing Alzheimers. Click here to watch.

As a physician, I generally talk about the tensegrity structure in relation to medicine. After all, it’s what people expect to hear from a doctor, and the comparison is apt. But my fascination with the tensegrity structure as a model for understanding systems extends far beyond my medical profession, holding for me a significance ranging from practical to downright spiritual.

Understanding its significance at every level of analysis is key to understanding any one aspect of the tensegrity structure.

Yes, let that last sentence be a sign of just how delightfully convoluted this whole thing is about to get, so if you’re not in the mood for a wild ride, I encourage you to head back to the book you were just reading. Otherwise, hold on to your seat, because when I get started, I’m not sure where this will end up.


“The fibers of all living things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

-Henry David Thoreau
Author of Walden and Civil Disobedience

“A process cannot be understood by stopping it. Understanding must move with the flow of the process, must join it and flow with it.”

-Frank Herbert
Award Winning Author of the
Dune Chronicles

“The vector equilibrium is the true zero reference of the energetic mathematics. Zero pulsation in the vector equilibrium is the nearest approach we will ever know to eternity and god: the zero phase of conceptual integrity inherent in the positive and negative asymmetries that propagate the differentials of consciousness.”

-Buckminster Fuller
Inventor, Futurist, Architect of the Geodesic Dome

 

A tensegrity structure is just two things:

Tension and Integrity.

Those two things combine to do two things: Absorb Stress and Maintain Equilibrium.

While simple, the implications of this model are profound. The tensegrity structure is made durable not because of, but despite the fact that it’s always struggling against itself.

Buckminster Fuller, who coined the term “tensegrity” and invented the Geodesic Dome, understood this well.

As did the founding fathers of the United States.

As do all great musicians.

As do teachers of every major religion and philosophy.

As should the professionals charged with overseeing one of the most dynamic and complex systems ever made: the human body.

To make sense of these seemingly disparate connections, let’s take a closer look at the individual situation for one single rubber band in one of these tensegrity structures, then, likewise, that of a single dowel rod.

A stretched rubber band represents a force for change, something with energy. Most importantly, it is something which is not in the state that it would prefer to be in. A stretched rubber band will resist anything that keeps it from collapsing into its most relaxed state.

A dowel rod, on the other hand, is the opposite. It represents a force against change. It will resist the movement that a rubber band craves. It is exactly the length and shape that it wants to be, and anything that tries to make it otherwise will have to be strong enough to break it.

Rubber bands and dowel rods have some more differentiating properties. For instance, rubber bands exist on a continuum. They can be stretched to infinite different lengths in just the same way that there are infinite decimal values between 0 and 1. This is unlike a rod, which is binary by nature. It is either intact, or broken. For this reason, it resists change with all it’s might.

But so what? What does this have to do with anything?

Let’s look at two of the examples mentioned earlier.

The Founding Fathers

It’s difficult to study the founding of America without recognizing the talent of its founders. From a rag-tag bunch of colonies, these men managed to organize what would become one of the most powerful unions of free individuals ever seenFor those of us living today, checks and balances may seem like an obvious part of any functioning government. After all, it’s taught in elementary schools. But America was created in a world of monarchs and despots. To limit the power of the central ruler, in many people’s eyes, was to weaken the country he ruled.

The founding fathers knew differently. The government they set up was one which could morph while staying whole.

I believe they were able to do this because they understood tensegrity. Sure, that word may not have existed yet, but the concept is as old as the universe itself.

Think about the three branch system: it’s the most apt and simple demonstration of a tensegrity structure within politics one can find. Consider the following as though it were a simple tensegrity structure with three rods, like the one below.

 

Tensegrity In American Government

All Institutions hold the qualities of a rod. They will resist pressure until they are broken.

The Legislative branch pulls on the Executive branch with its power to impeach the president and pulls on the Judicial branch by confirming judges.

The Executive branch pulls on the Judicial branch by appointing judges and pulls on the Legislative branch by vetoing bills.

The Judicial branch pulls on both the Legislative and Executive branches by declaring laws and executive orders unconstitutional.

Take a moment to consider how brilliant this really is: the whole thing holds together not because the branches cooperate, but because they don’t. Our founding fathers knew there would always be tension, so instead of trying to alleviate it, they placed three rigid struts, each pulling taught against the others.

But that’s only one of countless tensegrity structures within politics. One sees the same sort of arrangement in a robust economy, an effective military, and prudent foreign relations. In all of these, a hit to any one segment of the structure is compensated for by every other part, to avoid complete collapse.

One could write many books explaining all the tensegrity structures present within statecraft, but I’m going to move on to another example, different at face value, but beautifully similar at its root.

Music

Now, I’m no expert on music theory, but I wanted to use music as an example because it was the first thing my son thought of when I described tensegrity to him. Most good musician know, whether consciously or unconsciously, the importance of striking a balance between predictability and tension. Listeners have a set of expectations for what a song will sound like, both ingrained — from listening to thousands of other songs — and learned — from hearing multiple iterations of a musical phrase within that same song. Denying the listener that which they’ve come to expect, and replacing it with a different, but equally fitting element, whether melodic, rhythmic, or chord based, gives the brain a hit of dopamine. But music is better described as the product of a system, not a system itself. To bring this connection full circle, we should consider a free jazz band.

Improvisation is the perfect example of a dynamic system at work:

The individual musicians’ inspirations and preferences are the rubber bands,

The established rules of music theory are the wooden dowels,

And the song in its entirety makes up an ever-morphing tensegrity structure.

Without rubber bands, the structure would be brittle and unchanging. Without individual musicians, all with separate ideas, the song would be boring, predictable, and repetitive.

On the other hand, without the rods, the structure would ball up into a spaghetti-like heap with no form, pattern, or shape. Without the rules of music theory and the established preferences of the audience, every musician would be playing random, unrelated strings of notes and beats.

Hopefully, this is all starting to come together, because dynamic systems are everywhere, often without a clear start or end. Who can say where politics end and economics begin? Who can identify the point where religion and philosophy separate? Who can say exactly where your environment ends, and where you begin?

And this brings us to the real clincher. You, of course, are also a dynamic system. You are also a tensegrity structure.

The Human Tensegrity Structure

We’ll start with the most obvious tensegrity structure in your body: the musculoskeletal system. After all, it’s a nearly perfect representation of my little “toys”. Your bones act as dowel rods and your muscles act as rubber bands. When the two combine, you have stability and the potential for movement.

When a bone is broken, or a muscle is torn, what happens? Instead of being completely incapacitated, everything shifts to compensate for the change. If someone sprains an ankle, it will change the tension of their muscles all the way up to their necks, as everything is connected. But this just scratches the surface. Remember, the bands and dowels are only one expression of tension and integrity. As we have already found, these forces and resistances exist in dynamic systems on every level of analysis: the physical, the social, the theoretical, the spiritual, and everything in between.

So let’s go deeper.

The Human Body

There are countless tensegrity structures in the human body. From the musculo-skeletal system to the gas tension of the bloodstream to the flexible shapeliness of individual cells, tensegrity reveals itself as a nearly universal principle in the way life is structured.

Choosing specific systems in the body to focus on is difficult, for much the same reason that finding them is so easy: every one of them opens up into countless others.

If you’d like to learn more about how seeing human function as an example of tensegrity can drastically improve your health, along with a host of other topics, be sure to check out my videos on the Creating Health Youtube channel. I’ll get more specific — much more specific — about individual systems such as the metabolome and the brain in upcoming videos.

Now we know that human bodies are made up of tensegrity structures which overlap at seemingly every angle. But what if we look outward? What parts of the human tensegrity structure lay outside the confines of our bodies?

One layer out might take us to the realm of ideas. One could argue that these are contained in our brain, which is indeed a part of our bodies, but the line is blurry. (Blurry lines are a common side effect of complex systems, in case you haven’t noticed).

Beliefs

One very important kind of idea is a belief. Beliefs define the way we navigate nearly every situation in life. It should come as little surprise by now that your belief system is also a tensegrity structure.

Assumptions are the dowels.

Challenges to that assumptions are the rubber bands.

When an assumption — ice cream is good, my neighbor doesn’t like me, falling in love only ends up in disaster — is reenforced, that assumption becomes stronger. The dowel becomes harder to break.

When an assumption is challenged — that ice cream gave me a belly ache, my neighbor smiled and waved at me, a relationship brought value to my life even though it ended — then more strain is put on your beliefs. This is akin to the tightening of a rubber band.

The good news is that because your beliefs work this way, your worldview won’t do a complete tailspin every time something doesn’t quite add up. The rubber bands can become tighter so long as the dowels become stronger.

The bad news is that when something does finally snap, the whole system feels it.

If a dowel snaps — if we are forced to change what we believe is true — we are left without structure, caught up in a jumble of painful confusion. The more firmly held the belief, the stronger the dowel, and the more dramatic of an implosion when it snaps down the middle. If a band snaps — if we decide to ignore evidence altogether — we risk spiraling into delusion as our belief system becomes rigid and uncompromising.

But fear not! In both of these situations, our worldview craves to be healed, and with the right resources, will return to a comfortable state of balance.

Cultures

How about we go even farther out now? How about we look at not just your beliefs, but the beliefs of the people that surround you? In other words, your culture. After all, your culture is a significant part of who you are.

Can you see how this same structure of give and take applies to the beliefs of entire societies as well as individuals? There are countless examples throughout history of cultures adapting to avoid total annihilation. To get specific would warrant a whole new book, and one which I would not be qualified to write. But one need not be a historian to see the pattern here.

Too much flexibility, and a culture loses its form, vulnerable to change beyond recognition. 

Too much rigidity, and a culture’s entire existence becomes a “win or die” situation. 

Neither sort of culture can survive in a dynamic world. The only way some cultures have managed to survive for centuries is with their ability to bend without breaking, expand without bursting, and morph without unraveling.

But you as a human being are affected from the outside by much more than culture. The physical systems you exist within are beautifully and mind bendingly complex.

And yes, they are also tensegrity structures.

Planet Earth

Earth’s ecology was one of Buckminster Fuller’s favorite examples of a tensegrity structure. To pick out any one piece of such a vast, interconnected set of forces would be to neglect infinitely more of them, for every cubic centimeter of dirt could be analyzed for as long as all of earth’s surface: forever. But to make sure I haven’t lost you yet, yee who has made it this far, I ask that you take some time to think of a few tensegrity structures present in the great web of nature. A few examples include:

Predation:

An excess of prey animals will create and excess of predators. The excess of predators will reduce the amount of prey animals. Less prey animals will reduce the amount of predators. The closer both populations remain to equilibrium, the more efficiently both can reproduce, with less drastic swings from one imbalance to another.

Natural Selection:

Mutations within a species occur to act as rubber bands and give flexibility to a population. When a selection pressure is introduced to that population — disease, changing climate, loss of a food source — then the less suited die out. This leaves the population brittle until future mutations bring back its flexibility, hopefully in time to weather the next big change.

Weather:

While nearly every interaction between weather events could exemplify tensegrity, the same can be said for the atmosphere they happen within. The very fact that we can have weather on earth at all is due to the tensegrity of our little gas bubble. Air pressure keeps it suspended in the sky, and gravity keeps it tightly bound to Earth’s crust. Anything that happens within that sphere of gas, be it currents, monsoons, or hurricanes, will be doing so within the boundaries set by the atmosphere’s tensegrity.

You’ve probably noticed that all of these examples are oversimplified. That’s because at every level of analysis, more tensegrity appears. Set your focus in or out as much as you want — from the smallest things yet discovered to the full diameter of the known universe — and you’ll find more dowel rods and more rubber bands.

Every dowel rod and every rubber band is made out of other tensegrity structures.

If that isn’t enough to send an awestruck chill up your spine, I don’t know what is. But we’re not done yet. The universe doesn’t end at the edge of our atmosphere.

The Cosmos

Step just beyond the boundaries of earth and you will see that our solar system is a beautifully simple expression of tensegrity. A perfect orbit is perfect tensegrity, centrifugal force resting in equilibrium with gravity, suspending heavenly bodies in precise circulation around a neighbor. But the orbit of the earth around the sun is not perfect — nor is any other orbit, for that matter. Why is this? There are a few reasons for this, but we will focus on one. And you’ve probably already guessed it.

Tensegrity.

Because nothing happens in a vacuum.

The earth and the sun it orbits are being affected by countless outside forces. This is the case for every galaxy, star, planet, asteroid — any chunk of matter in the universe. This is why orbits must come to an end. Either the two bodies will be drawn violently into one another, or pulled apart until the orbit is broken and they separate forever. It’s difficult to say which seems more tragic. But the universe goes on. Because, of course, tensegrity.

To pull our scope any further out is where observation begins to blend with speculation. The origin and destination of all the matter and energy in the universe is a topic saturated with mystery. Still I invite you to go there. I encourage you it. I don’t know what parts of time and space we will have the means to observe in the future, but I do know one thing: I will be very surprised if they don’t look like a tensegrity structure.

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