By: Robert O. Becker, M.D.
The Body Electric
Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life
by Robert O. Becker, M.D., and Gary Selden
(Quill, 1985, 366 pages)
Review by Christopher Dow
There are only a few non-movement art books among these reviews, but occasionally, a book is just too significant to Tai Chi Chuanists—and others—to pass up, even if it isn’t directly related to movement. The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life, by Dr. Robert O. Becker and Gary Selden, is one of them. It, along with The Second Brain, by Dr. Michael D. Gershon (review here) were critical in helping me formulate what I consider to be a pretty sound theory of how chi is generated in the tantien and propelled through the meridian system. (I lay out this theory in The Wellspring: An Inquiry into the Nature of Chi.)
Becker is a research physician who was initially interested in the ability to regenerate lost limbs exhibited by salamanders, newts, and starfish, among others. He thought that if he could identify the mechanism of regeneration, it might be applied to higher forms of life, such as humans. He didn’t manage to do that—though who knows what the future might hold—but he did something that might be more important. His book gives a scientific rationale for the structure and functioning of the Governing Vessel, which along with the Conception Vessel, form the principal chi circuit in the body called the Microcosmic Orbit. (The rationale for the Conception Vessel comes from Gershon’s book.)
Like Gershon’s book, The Body Electric isn’t a scientific text but a journey of scientific discovery for the general reader. It encompasses almost the entire history of scientific research into the phenomenon of bioelectricity, from the first detection of the effects of electricity on creature bodies, to the understanding that our bodies produce microcurrents, to the realization that these electrical pulses are part-and-parcel of our physical being. Wow, is this interesting stuff! And engrossingly told by Becker and Selden in this well-illustrated volume.
Becker didn’t start out to discover anything about chi. In fact, when he began, he knew nothing about it. But interestingly, when he first learned about the concept of chi and the meridian system, he did not, as many scientists might, thrust the idea away like an unpalatable meal. Instead, he looked into it and discovered that a great number of specific acupuncture points could be mapped electrically. In fact, among the other vital stuff in this book, he was prescient enough to include a discussion of the potentially negative effects of microwave radiation from walkie-talkies and CB radios on the human body, presaging by twenty years the similar debate about risks posed by cell phones.
This is not just a good and extremely interesting book. It’s an important one and a must-read for the serious Tai Chi enthusiast.