Simple vs Complex.
Updated: May 1
The quest for knowledge in natural sciences often leads researchers and practitioners to grapple with the delicate balance between simplicity and complexity.
In this series of articles I delve into the various approaches used to study complex phenomena, shedding light on the advantages and limitations of (1) simple–reductionist methods versus (2) more complex–holistic ones.
I also explore the concept of uncertainty, a challenge inherent to understanding complex systems and discuss the pitfalls of 'physics envy' – the desire to achieve the precision and mathematical rigor of physics in other scientific fields than those which solely rely on the language of mathematics.
Together with imagination, I will try to find analogies from the world of sports and health sciences, through which it will be easier to understand the issues discussed. Drawing from the practical insights, I will also do my best to offer guidance for navigating the complications found, among others in behavioural and exercise research, ultimately emphasizing the importance of striking the right balance: embracing diverse perspectives and acknowledging limitations and uncertainties in the pursuit of understanding.
"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler” – Albert Einstein.
The essence of comprehensive thinking depends much on our cognitive abilities. One of them is seeing the world without too rigid fixations on contrasts and tensions between the seemingly opposing views of simple vs complex. It emphasizes the need to simplify our understanding, but in a quite flexible way reaching far beyond oversimplification where important details and nuances are lost.
Sounds like a paradox? Absolutely!
■ Visual of the ranges of (1) simple and (2) complex approaches used to understand the principles that govern the world around us. Developing a well-rounded understanding in fields such as human behaviour and sports science often requires embracing a complex knowledge and a 'blend' of interdisciplinary methods, diverse perspectives and a balance between reductionist insights and holistic understanding.
Striking the Balance.
Focusing only on breaking things down into smaller parts might cause us to miss important connections and how everything works together. On the other hand, if we make our explanations too complex, they can become difficult to understand and apply in real-life situations.
Both approaches have their merits and drawbacks, and the choice between them often depends on the specific question, available resources, and the desired level of understanding. To exemplify this topic, let’s consider sports rehabilitation:
Many clinical guidelines are based on the use of simple and injury-specific exercises that are easy to control and measure. They express a reductionist approach in which ‘the whole’ is broken down into smaller parts, which are a critical aspect of functional improvement. However, if we want the process to become more individualized and sports-specific, it may be worth conducting sporting drills and skill training at the right time of the protocol's timeline.
Example of Strength.
This type of formative reasoning is also found in many other areas of fitness and health, one of such is strength training:
Simple approach might involve a few basic exercises, i.e. squat, deadlift and bench press and a straightforward progression scheme, such as linear periodization. The coach would set a target for the number of set–reps and weight lifted, gradually increasing the load over time. This approach is easy to understand and implement, making it suitable for beginners, injured patients or those with limited resources. However, it may not be optimal for advanced athletes or those with specific needs, as it does not take into account individual differences or different factors that can influence strength development.
Complex approach would involve a more comprehensive assessment of the athlete's needs and also individual strengths and weaknesses. This approach might include a detailed biomechanical analysis, movement screening and performance testing to inform exercise selection and program design. The training program can be periodized, with different phases focusing on various aspects of strength development, such as hypertrophy, maximal strength and power training. Advanced techniques based on motor learning principles, accumulation methods and conditioning could be incorporated to optimize progress and minimize the risk of injury. This approach requires greater resources and expertise, making it more suitable for advanced athletes or those with specific performance goals.
Imagination of wave as an iconic example of entity classified as complex phenomenon.
In building our understanding, it can be helpful to start with a (1) simple–reductionist approach to grasp the fundamental concepts and components of a subject. Once a solid foundation is established, we can then transition to more (2) complex–holistic approaches to explore the interactions, context-dependent factors and emergent properties that are often present in intricate phenomena.
This progressive learning strategy allows for a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of the subject matter, based on current scientific knowledge, but with consideration that in case of beginner physios and coaches it shouldn’t be learned the other way round.
The next part of this series will cover the pros and cons of both ways of gaining understanding, unveiling common biases perpetrated by practitioners in the fields of health- and sport-related subjects.
Mitchell M. Complexity: A Guided Tour. Oxford University Press (2009).
Ladyman J et al. What is a Complex System? European Journal for Philosophy of Science (2013).
Plsek PE et al. Complexity Science: The Challenge of Complexity in Health Care. British Medical Journal (2001).
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