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The Sugar Test: Demonstrating Interdependence
Thomas G. Endres, Ph.D., University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN
Presented as part of the GIFTS program, NCA Convention, November 1998, New York, NY
General Systems theory uses the analogy of living organisms, such as the human body, to demonstrate the
dynamic transformation of inputs into outputs. We use a systems approach in many of our courses, e.g. Small
Group, Organizational, Intercultural, Business, and Family Communication. Generally, students understand the
use of "human body" analogies when defining many of a system’s characteristics. For example, using the
analogy of disconnected body parts to convey the meaning of synergy (i.e. the whole cannot exist without the
interaction of its parts, and the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts). They understand the notion of
equafinality (a goal state is achievable via multiple starting points and paths) when you ask them various ways
they reach the goal state of "health" for their bodies (e.g. sleep, diet, exercise). And all of them know that
entropy (natural disorganization and decay) eventually kills the human body, and that human systems like
groups run similar risks.
A concept that is crucial to systems theory, but not always easy to explain, is interdependence, defined by
Brilhart and Galanes (1998, Effective Group Discussion) as follows: "the parts of a system do not operate in
isolation but continuously affect each other, as well as the system as a whole" (p. 27). Students often think that
their individual behaviors as a group, committee, department, or family member have little impact on the other
members. The notion of being mutually connected to others does not always sit well with our individualistic,
westernized thought. What follows is a little exercise that provides a fascinating visual demonstration of how
seemingly insignificant changes to a system can wreak havoc on the whole.
A volunteer is selected. Forewarn them that they must be able to tolerate the taste of sugar. Ask them to come to
the front of the class and stand with their feet evenly spread apart. Have the volunteer extend one arm, making a
fist, and "locking" their shoulder. Push down on their fist. They should be able to resist quite a bit of pressure;
you may be unable to lower their arm. Explain to the class that this is an example of a healthy system in
Now have the student take the stance again, but this time have them consume the contents of a regular packet of
white sugar. Once they’ve finished the sugar, tell them to once again raise their arm, make a fist, lock their
shoulder, and resist the push. They will be unable to resist. Regardless of the volunteer’s size, the teacher should
easily be able to push the student’s arm down. Generally, the shocked look on the student’s face will be enough
to convince the class that this was not set up.
This is a muscle test used by homeopathic practitioners to determine patients’ allergic responses to various
substances. Everybody has a weakened response to white sugar. As Balch and Balch argue, in their holistic
Prescription for Cooking, "When you consume as little as two teaspoons of sugar a change occurs in the blood
chemistry and the body is no longer in homeostasis, or in the balanced state where our body functions best" (p.
142). Explain how the body is an interdependently connected systemic whole, and by exposing one portion of
the system (in this case the digestive system) to a debilitating variable, the whole of the system is weakened.
The demonstration continues. Acquire two new volunteers. Have Student A take the balanced stance, and push
down on their arm to make sure they have the shoulder locked and can resist. With their non-extended arm, have
Student A now hold Student B’s hand. Give a sugar packet to Student B to consume. Once Student B has
swallowed the sugar, push down on Student A’s arm. Once again, they will not be able to resist, despite the
fact that they did not consume the sugar themselves.
The explanation offered by holistic practitioners for this phenomenon is through the analogy of an electric fence.
If an individual touches an electric fence, they get a shock. However, if that person grabs the fence with one
hand and touches someone else with the other, the second person receives the shock. The imbalance caused by
the sugar seems to be equally transferable between two bodies.
After thanking the volunteers and sending them back to their seats, discuss the notion of interdependence as it
relates to human target systems. The point for them to ponder is, "If Student A’s strength is decreased simply
because the person next to them ate a small amount of sugar, how much more will a group be weakened by a
member who introduces other kinds of poisons - apathy, hostility, withdrawal, lack of attendance, blocking
behaviors, or sabotage?" Urge students to consider the impact that their behaviors -large and small, positive or
negative - have on fellow interdependent group members.