What whales shit can teach us about biomechanics and pain.

So I got my virtual buddy Paul Lagerman AKA the naked physio to come in and contribute to this post and below is our bastard lovechild offspring of a blog post : )

The video above on whales and their contribution to our planet is not only informative and enlightening but also serves as a great metaphor for our understanding of the human body.

Confused? Read on.

An argument for the continuation of whale hunting is that whales are predators that sit at the top of the food chain and consume fish. One school of thought would be if we reduce the number of predators then there will be more fish for the smart Humans to eat. Sounds simple right?

Well, actually….not so much!

The video nicely highlights the complex interaction between the whales and other inhabitants of the sea such as fish, krill and plankton. In fact what has been found is that as we reduce the number of whales so has the number of fish reduced, disturbing the homeostatic balance of the ecosystem. Interestingly, causation is not a simple correlation of reducing numbers of one thing will increase the numbers of the other.


Well as usual what seems like a simple relationship turns out to not be so simple, and the reasoning model used to come to this conclusion is well….. simply wrong.

Surprise surprise.

The whales as it turns out have a much more complex interaction with the environment so there are things that have simply NOT been considered in the simplistic model.

The whales actually bring nutrients up to the surface in the form of whale poo that are much scarcer in the upper waters and in turn help to fertilise plant plankton. They also create changes in the vertical water flow by moving up and down the water column that also has an effect on the plank plankton and enables them to thrive.

The animal plankton feed on the plant plankton that in turn feeds the smaller fish and krill and so the food chain flourishes, it moves and it flows.

So simply put more whales equals MORE fish and krill, not LESS.

Thinking about the impact of just one system in the biological world where more than one system interacts is just well plain STUPID even if it is simple and makes sense to some people. The aquatic ecosystem is multidimensional, approaching it with a unidimensional reasoning model will always have trade offs.

Remind you of another model?


The parallels with the human body are quite stark. The body is a complex system made up of many systems that interact such as the mechanical, biological and psychological. We can break it down further into the cardio vascular, muscular endocrine etc etc and all of these systems interact. The body depends on a homeostatic balance and interaction between systems similar to that of the aquatic ecosystem.

When we view the body simply as a mechanical system operating in a linear fashion, it makes complete sense that if we keep moving in a specific or repetitive way we will produce increase stress to muscles and bones that eventually will fail and cause pain, or that the knock on effect of excessive or decrease movement will cause a problem somewhere else.

Is this a bit like thinking less whales equals more fish?

Well here’s the problem, maybe we have applied the wrong model that does not consider other factors involved with being a human just like the whale guys.

Firstly, human beings are not simply a mechanical system, they are a biological system that displays both variance and adaptability.

This means that one part does not have a simple knock on effect to another. The body DOES display interdependence but also independence and it does this in a very individual way that simple all encompassing models do not really reflect.

  • Humans are adaptable. If we load the body in a variety of dimensions (physical, psychological, social, environmental) it has the ability to get stronger and adapt rather than just wear out like a piece of metal would. How do we know this? Going to the gym and weight training is a great example, or exposing yourself gradually to stimuli such as temperature or a bed of nails.


  • It has redundancy and variability. This simply means the body has a whole bunch of ways of achieving the same task that can reduce repetitive loads that might have a detrimental effect. This is a key defining feature of a biological system.


  • The human body has individual tolerances. Some people can compete in iron men triathlons whilst others struggle to run 5K. Just because you apply a load to a tissue does not mean it will be beyond its tolerance, especially if it has successfully adapted to the load.


We also have to consider the impact on other co existing systems such as the psychological or social.

If you tell a person moving is bad then they may form a belief that moving is bad and stop moving, or perhaps your workplace has specific rules about lifting technique and this influences the way you protect your back. We are very impressionable creatures after all.

Stopping people from flexing their spines is a great example of a simple mechanical view having an effect on the psychosocial perception of movement or activity and a potential detrimental outcome.

If I do not flex my spine due to the belief that this is BAD, its tolerance to moving and flexing might actually DECREASE as it is not being loaded. Astronauts do not load their bodies as much due to decreased gravity. Their bodies and bone mass adapt negatively, a process of atrophy (remember adaptation happens both ways). This can also happen after immobilisation of a limb following a fracture or a sprain, consider the long term effects of complex regional pain syndrome.

So in essence one system, the psychological or social has had an effect on another system - the biological, all of this originating from a mechanical viewpoint. A familiar image of categorical thinking and reductionism is depicted in this image.

Elephant 1



So even though things seem simple and make sense, consider that simple may not always explain the cause.

Be more WHALE and less HUMAN.







0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.