What does Romanesco Broccoli, a French hand surgeon, and your body have in common?
The answer to this bizarre question, is fascia. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. A slightly more accurate answer would be to say, Fractals and Icosahedrons. Bear with me.
The Romanesco Broccoli is one of natures many examples of Fractal arrangements. Fractals are complex geometrical shapes that look almost the same at every scale factor. If you were to break off a floret from the main head, it appears as a mini-version of the whole with its own mini florets. This pattern reproduces itself no matter how much you zoom-in to investigate.
‘A fractal organisation is any pattern that is reproduced in a regular or irregular fashion at different scales, which can vary from small to large’ (1)
There are many examples of fractalisation in human biology. Examples are the cerebral cortex, the pulmonary alveoli of the lungs and the skin. Each of these fractal arrangements serve to increase surface area of the tissues to improve exchange between two different environments. The fractal organisation of fascia, (which couldn’t look any more different than you expect if it tried), not only increases surface area but also increases the volumes contained within its geometry.
Our cruciferous vegetable friend is an example of static fractilisation. It doesn’t have to constantly adapt to mechanical stress as fascia does. Fascia is a dynamic fractal system, composed of multiple strings known as collagen fibrils. This fibrillar network constantly divides to distribute stress on the body but always maintains its unique and repeating geometric arrangement, creating order out of what looks like chaos.
A Icosahedron is one of five ‘hedron’ shapes which provides solution to the problem of occupying space in all three dimensions. The Icosahedron is a regular polyhedron with 20 identical equilateral triangular faces. Fascia isn’t flat, so Imagine the fibrillar 3D framework forming a series of shapes that are kind of like irregular, permeable footballs (soccer balls) made of triangles which can be squeezed and squashed in any direction in response to mechanical stress.
When you squeeze an inflated balloon at one end, the air inside is forced towards the opposite end. As the air is constrained, the skin of the ballon distends as its internal volume shifts position. Granted, a balloon is not like a icosahedron but it does give you a visual representation of a force altering the shape of a structure. In fact, when we squeeze a balloon the pressure will be greatly increased upon the surfaces containing the largest volume of air. A tensegrity icosahedron works to distribute force throughout the fascial network in a much more efficient and clever way.
The ancient Greeks believed in five archetypal forms which were part of natural law and could describe the form of everything in the universe. Three thousand years on, modern research once again suggests that the physical laws which determine form are the basis of biological complexity at multiple levels of scale in the human body.
Tensegrity structures are continuous connective tensioned networks supported by discontinuous compression struts. That means the support struts are free floating within a tensional web and do not touch. If we consider the body as a tensegrity structure, the bones would be the discontinuous compression struts and the ligaments tendons and other fascial elements: the tensional web.
Within this concept, the structure of fascia works to distribute tension between millions of fibrils and the shapes created in between them. A perfectly coherent, local and global response to the challenges of movement in such a dynamic system as the body.
These icosahedron shapes have been termed micro vacuoles and their structure provides a permanent, pre existing tension which allows the body to maintain its form against gravity while at rest and in motion. (2)
A tensegrity model composed of free floating support struts within a tensional web
A French Surgeon
The investigations, thoughts, and discoveries of Dr Jean-Claude Guimberteau cannot be understated. He is a masterful French hand surgeon who utilised progress in digital endoscopic video photography to reveal the bizarre and true nature of fascia in living tissue to us all.
As with many impactful revelations about the human body, when it comes to fascia things don’t work or look quite as we thought. The uniform white sheets of connective tissue material which we see on cadavers in anatomy books are an extremely misleading representation of this continuous, chaotic, electrical, and highly hydrated tissue.
Through intra-tissular endoscopy studies with sufficient magnification, Dr Guimberteau allows us to observe fascia as a dynamic, fractal entity which reacts and adapts to mechanical constraint in three dimensions. In living tissue, the only linear arrangement of collagen which looks anything like the images we are used to is in the tendons and ligaments. Everywhere else, this alien world of opaque, stringlike structures which lengthen, morph and divide whilst always maintaining a continuous overall form, distribute tension perfectly through the entire body.
What exactly is Fascia?
Up until this point, all previous descriptions of fascia have been woefully inadequate. The term ‘Fascia’ suggests a specific tissue that can be classified as separate from other Connective Tissues.
Even thinking about Connective tissue itself is an outdated and inaccurate concept. Connective Tissue would be better described as Constitutive Tissue. It is the frame in which the parts of the body are developed, providing form, communication and electrical tone to the entire organism.
Dr Guimberteau reclassifies fascia as follows;
‘Fascia is a tensional, continuous fibrillar network within the body, extending from the surface of the skin to the nucleus of the cell. This global network is mobile, adaptable, fractal, and irregular; it constitutes the basic structural architecture of the human body’
The CTM includes the Dermis, Hypodermis, Superficial fascia, Deep Fascia, Tendons, Ligaments, Periosteum, Bursae, Epineurium and Perineurium (collagenous fibres surrounding peripheral nerves). (4)
The primary constituents of the connective tissue matrix are collagen, elastin, glycosaminoglycans, fibronectin and ground substance. Collagen molecules are dipolar, triple helical structures surrounded by a hydration cell. (5)
The collagen triple helix
Helical structures are perfectly designed for balancing tensile and compressive forces. It would appear that hydroxyproline, a major component of collagen plays a key role for collagen stability by permitting the twisting of the collagen helix. It achieves this through a complex concept known as the stereoelectronic effect, which utilises electronegative charge to help in stabilising form. (6) (7)
Dipolar describes the organisation of one end of a collagen molecule holding a positive electrical charge and the other a negative charge. When collagen is healthy and uninjured, it holds a net negative electrical potential, meaning that it has a predominance of electrons. When injured or dysfunctional, and certainly if the structure of collagen is destabilised, it looses electrons and takes on a more positive electrical potential.
Fascinating! But what does that mean?
Well, as any AMN practitioner will tell you it means a whole lot. As Guimberteau points out the fascial – connective tissue matrix reaches from the surface of the skin to the nucleus of the cell. Electrical charge can be measured from multiple locations on the body surface. For example; EEG recordings are measurements of the electrical activity of the brain which proliferate through to the surface of the scalp. Surface EMG recordings indicate the electrical activity of muscles and other deeper structures.
With collagen being the most abundant protein in the body, which is basically connecting everything, our touch can be utilised to source areas, tissues and systems of altered electrical potential.
If you have followed our articles over the last year or so (thank you if you have!) we have explained the rationale behind bioelectric phenomena and health. Overall, a negative electrical potential is more closely associated with health and normal function. A predominance of electrons is important to normal function.
In our AMN Level two practitioner certification and onwards, we teach students a way to work with these physiological understandings to uncover tissues and systems which may have some level of dysfunction. We utilise a feedback marker such as a muscle test to indicate when our touch as practitioners has been part of another electrical phenomenon known as charge transfer.
This leads on to finding associations and correlations to problems in the body, which allow us to map out information relative to a particular ‘reference point’ such as a painful arc in shoulder abduction, painful knee, or any number of other common complaints.
An understanding of bioelectrical physiology also allows us to apply specific directions, pressures, and qualities to our touch with a view to improving the function of our clients. It’s a fascinating process which often throws up unexpected associations between areas and systems of the body.
Fascia and emotions
Fascia – constitutive tissue – the connective tissue matrix – is tissue derived from the inner, middle germ layer known as the mesoderm. In a phenomenological sense, the mesoderm represents the inside of the body, as Jaap van der wal MD PhD puts it, the fascia represents the ‘innerness’ of the body.
The two outer germ layers, or limiting borders of the germ layers, are phylogenetically a most recent development; the Ectoderm from which the skin, muscles, brain, and nervous system develop and the phylogenetically most ancient layer, the endoderm, from which the digestive, respiratory and reproductive systems, develop. (8)
As any myofascial therapist will tell you, when working through gentle myofascial work, the clients will often spontaneously experience emotional responses. As tissues, electrical charge, interstitial fluid, and chemicals are moved and released people may:
- feel sad
- or even experience a memory of something in their past which is of particular significance but maybe has been forgotten or repressed.
It would be easy to say that fascia stores emotions. As ever that is most likely an over simplistic interpretation of the phenomena. The incredible work of Dr Hamer who produced the Germanic New Medicine showed through twenty years of research, thirty one thousand patients, as well as documented reproducible anatomical observations, that there exists common conflicts of the psyche which effect the biology of human kind in such a way that underlies all disease. (9)
For example, conflicts that impact tissues associated with the mesoderm. In this instance, let’s refer to the connective tissues which have to include everything we’ve discussed in this article so far, are based around various levels of self devaluation and attack.
In the Germanic New Medicine, Endodermal tissues are effected through conflicts relative to basic survival and Ectodermal conflicts are those which are based around territory and separation.
We can think of the connective tissue matrix, in an emotional sense as the mechanical equivalent to the knee. The knee sits in between two other joints which drastically influence its function. The CTM sits in between nuances of survival, territory and separation. Ultimately, the representation of the self, ones own worth in life. I’m sure we have all experienced moments of some level of self devaluation, a sense of not being good enough. It would appear that this specific concept can directly impact the CTM. Emotions get shaken up, released, or made relevant if you will, through hands-on-work, such as myofascial release.
There are also molecular and electrical explanations which can be brought-in to help describe mechanisms of emotions effecting the tissues, which i shall cover in a separate article.
Proprioception – Receptors and Form
When one decides to focus on a particular aspect of the body, be it biomechanics or even functional neurology, but remain to work with a generalised client base, we are inevitably lead back towards trying to understand the interaction of the body, brain, and mind as a whole.
It is common to pick up a text book on the peripheral nervous system and learn about the qualities of each of the receptors which carry specific subsets of information to the central nervous system. We learn of their locations in areas such as the muscle tissues, joints, skin and so on but rarely is the fascia discussed.
The truth is that fascia most likely plays an extremely important role not only in proprioceptive control of our movement, but also in the experience of our movement.
“It is now recognized that fascial network is one of our richest sensory organs. The surface area of this network is endowed with millions of endomysial sacs and other membranous pockets with a total surface area that by far surpasses that of the skin or any other body tissues. A myriad of tiny unmyelinated ‘free’ nerve endings are found almost everywhere in fascial tissues, but particularly in periosteum, in endomysial and perimysial layers, and in visceral connective tissues. If we include these smaller fascial nerve endings in our calculation, then the amount of fascial receptors may possibly be equal or even superior to that of the retina, so far considered as the richest sensory human organ. However, for the sensorial relationship with our own body – whether it consists of pure proprioception, nociception or the more visceral interoception – fascia provides definitely our most important perceptual organ.” Dr. Robert Schleip, from Fascia as an Organ of Communication
The more we get down in to the nitty gritty of the wonderfully accurate, left-brain details of the parts of a system, the easier it is to forget to zoom out to the more right-brain interpretations of the whole.
“There really is a sixth sense: it’s called proprioception. It is the sense of position and movement. It is produced by nerves in our connective tissues (ligaments, bone, fascia) and our 300-or-so muscles. Without proprioception, you couldn’t stand up (standing up is actually shockingly complicated). You couldn’t so much as scratch your nose, because you wouldn’t be able to find it.” Paul Ingraham from his article, Proprioception, The True Sixth Sense. (I included Ingraham’s article because he was a previous editor of Gorski & Novella’s SCIENCE-BASED MEDICINE and has written a large article decrying fascia as being an important target of manual therapies.)
But it’s not just the receptors which afford fascia a potentially influential role in movement control. It’s actual structure and adaptability, it’s form, is also suggested as part of the equation. The geometry of fascia helps us to resist the forces of gravity and to maintain and resist the immense pressures which act upon the human structure.
Biotensegrity is a term coined by the brilliant Stephen M Levin MD. It is used to describe the application of tensegrity principles to biological structures. As pointed out earlier in the article, icosahedrons are pre-stressed, semirigid structures constructed of tensile and compressive parts. (10)
It is the form itself which also serves to provide the body with its incredible adaptable and explorative capacity for coupled mobility and stability in multiple directions and orientations.
Fascia, therefore is the geometry, communication, and connection of the body with itself. It also serves as the primary site of communication between practitioner and client in the AMN methodology.
Written by David Fleming, Director of Education at AMN Academy
To learn more about the concepts and approaches introduced in this article, please visit www.amnacademy.com for information on AMN Academy’s professional certification programmes
(1)Mandelbrot BB. The racial Geometry of Nature. New York: WH Freeman; 1982
(2) Architecture of Human Living Fascia. The extracellular matrix and cells revealed through endoscopy. By Jean-Claude Guimberteau.
(3) From “Architecture of Human Living Fascia” by Jean-Claude Guimberteau. The extracellular matrix and cells revealed through endoscopy. page 173.
(4) Fascial manipulation. Practical part. By Luigi Stecco.
(5) Extracellular Matrix and Ground Regulation: Basis for a Holistic Biological Medicine: Basics for a Holistic Biological Medicine. Alfred Pischinger
(6) https://www.chem.msu.ru/rus/events/wsoc-2015/Krasnovidovo_2015_AI.pdf Stereoelectronic effects on stability and reactivity of organic molecules: from control of molecular conformations to faster cycloadditions and cyclizations
(7) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2846778/ COLLAGEN STRUCTURE AND STABILITY Matthew D. Shoulders1 and Ronald T. Raines1,2
(9) Summary Of The New Medicine. by Dr. Ryke Geerd Hamer
(10) Levin SM. The icosahedron as the three-dimensional finite element in biomechanical support. Proceedings of the Society of General System Research Symposium on Mental Images, Values and Reality pp G14-G26. Philadelphia. 1986