“Mind Over Illness”: What Doctors Don’t Tell You (for a good reason)

I happened to stumble upon an article called “Mind Over Illness” in a magazine called What Doctors Don’t Tell You (Oct 2017 issue), written by Lynne McTaggart (author of The Intention Experiment and The Power of Eight. By the way she’s also a self-acclaimed “Intention Guru”).

It had a nice big stock-photo of hands you see, and the reason I saved it to read (for two years) was because I thought it was about psychoneuroimmunology (the mind’s effect on the body’s immune system) which interests me.

Sadly, I was very mistaken. It was about bullshit, as usual dressing up a more universally accepted and applicable finding with enough hype and glitz that another self-appointed ‘guru’ is able to get rich at the expense of others’ desperation. Ugh. You won’t believe how she does it.

It’s yet another example of mis-information to contribute to the already appalling signal-to-noise ratio in the world of self-help. I thought it would be interesting to break down how this stuff can be so misleading and dangerous.

The idea of this magazine is to provide information about “alternative” remedies and suchlike. There’s a whole host of useful bits and bobs within that realm – things like nutrition and super-foods, innovative exercises, healthy psychological responses to various stimuli (like massages, or heat) and such like. But any of the useful stuff could easily be mentioned by a doctor. It’s not like doctor’s aren’t caring, or willing to offer advice outside of prescriptions. (In fact once, when I saw a local doctor for stress symptoms, he gave me his daughter’s phone number and said I should meet her. True story! Regrettably I was too embarrassed to follow it up, for fears of hearing “what has dad bloody done now”).

But the very title of the magazine implies something else – “hey, this is the TRUTH that Doctors wouldn’t tell you because it’s too good! It would harm the pharmaceutical industry! They don’t want to lose their jobs by you being too healthy!” What else could it imply?

I can’t imagine it would sell many copies if there was a subheading of “…because it’s ridiculous, untested junk that doesn’t belong in any realm of science and certainly not medicine”. The ambiguity of the title could justify them writing an article about teaching your bed pillows to talk to you while you sleep. “Hey, a doctor wouldn’t tell you this…” (because its fucking crazy).

But it’s written to appeal to certain mindsets and is successful at doing so. On one side, the anti-authority, “people doing it for themselves” sorts who revel in feeling independent and “in control”. Who needs recognised education when you can learn some woo-woo ideas and treatments to peddle onto friends and neighbors for a sense of purpose and usefulness. On the other side though are the true targets of such ideas, the more vulnerable group who might be desperate for solutions to debilitating or terminal illnesses.

Now, you might be thinking “but some people enjoy reading about health and self-help, what does it matter? It’s harmless”.

That sounds fair, and mostly you’re probably right. But I disagree on it always being harmless. The problem with this niche of ‘information’ (and the self-help industry generally) is that it’s rarely about the reader’s health and well-being. It’s almost always about the writer’s well-being… via sales and income. There is always something be sold, and even the sales lead to more sales and more targeted products.

It’s essentially an age-old industry built around selling something that doesn’t really exist, so can be dressed up in all sorts of different ways. Here the product is hope, which is unlimited and doesn’t require an actual end-point. It can just be sold forever.

Why is this mis-information business harmful? It drains vulnerable people of money which can lead to more problems. It can also mislead them from more proven, reliable courses of action, effectively delaying solutions. More crucially though, growing awareness of the poor money-spent-to-poor-results ratio can easily lead to hopelessness, a precursor for depression and anxiety which can make matters (and any natural healing) a lot worse.

The self-help industry doesn’t want that of course, that would be no good at all… for them. So hope isn’t sold in mega-quantities, just small drip-feeds, a book or subscription here, some herbal pills there. Every one can have a little bit of your money! Which is why such authors and peddlers often team up into partnerships and syndicates, knowing that they can hit you from more angles and with more weight. I’ve seen it time and time again.

You should hopefully, like any good critical thinker, now be thinking “but you’re no different! You only made this site to sell your wares and are only writing this article to increase your content!” Well yes, you’re right, except I’m less interested in selling things these days (really, I’m not that popular), and you’ll notice I rarely have the inclination to write. I mean this stuff! It should hopefully speak for itself as well in terms of rationality.

Anyway, back to the article I’m about to argue against.

I was so shocked by how unbelievably unscientific it was that I wondered how the hell something like that gets published. Well, I later noticed that the author was also guest-editing the issue, peddling the same bullshit on the editorial page as well.

Oh, that’s how.

Here’s the pre-amble of the article: “Lynne McTaggart set out to test whether thoughts can affect scientific targets in lab experiments, but then discovered that many of the effects were rubbing off on the participants as well”.

The idea of thoughts affecting scientific targets in lab experiments sounded very interesting – particularly as she was testing this. Testing. Test. Lab. Experiment. It sounds almost empirical doesn’t it? If only.

Here’s the opening paragraph. You’ll notice a few things.

“It was April 2008, a year after I’d launched the big global Intention Experiments, testing the power of thoughts to affect the physical world. I’d invited readers from around the world to send a designated, collective thought to a well-controlled target set up in the laboratory of one of the scientists who’d agreed to work with me”.

In these first sentences, she bigs up her imagined reputation with a few heavy implications: she launched something, it was big, global, physical world, around the world, had its own capitalised name to imply an important series, she has devoted readers, there was a laboratory, a scientist, who also wanted to work with her. Sheesh!

This is heavy stuff. Heck, it’s almost like she’s trying to sell you something! Oh, surprise, she is! At the end of her self-written article is a huge image of her just-published book from which the article was adapted. A few pages later is a well placed whole-side advert for the same book. I see. Hmm, what a coincidence that this issue’s editor has the front cover, editorial and main feature devoted to publicising her newly published book.

Gardening tip: throw away your watering can and think about your seeds

She goes on to mention a study by Gary Schwartz, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, who with Lynne ran six experiments testing whether people can make seeds grow faster with their thoughts.

Surprise, they found they could!

To a significant degree. Groups of people around the world (in “healing seminars” mostly) concentrated on the seeds in some lab somewhere. I have no idea how they were able to locate those specific seeds using their thoughts from across the other side of the planet (there are quite a few seeds in the world), but they seemingly managed to (well done, thinkers!)

Also, it’s terrific that no other thoughts akin to Ray’s Stay Puft Marshmallow Man just “popped in there”. I know I wouldn’t be able to stop an intrusive thought like that. I’d think “grow seed, grow, groooow, then CATCH FIRE! No, I mean groooow…”

Being that this study was the basis of a book of its own (The Intention Experiments) and then this article and another off-shoot for the book being publicised, you might be thinking:

“Holy fuck!”

“They actually managed to grow seeds using thoughts! This is literally proof of telekinesis. This is a game-changer. Surely this was replicated by other researchers?”

No, sadly not.

“Oh. Well where was it published?”

Well, it wasn’t. It was presented as part of “Emerging Paradigms at the Frontiers of Consciousness and UFO Research” (I kid you not), at the Society of Scientific Exploration’s 27th General Meeting in Colorado, 2008. The video is on YouTube, it has 92 hits at present. If I had proved anything like telekinesis, I’d sure want to get it out there a little bit more than that. But strangely, these studies always seem to prefer to funnel their promise into niche book sales instead of world-wide applications and the greater good etc.

But, don’t fear, because more tests were carried out by Lynne, this time on people.

Isn’t that exciting?

Forget seeds, lets think intensely about people, like in that movie ‘Scanners’, right?

She divided a workshop group of 100 into groups of 8, then asked someone with some sort of physical or emotional condition to nominate themselves to be the object of their group’s intention (meaning, the rest of the group would ‘think positive intentions’ towards this person, for 10 minutes).

She shows them how to “construct a highly specific intention, since being specific seemed to work best in laboratory studies”. Curious that the seeds responded better to specificity, rather than just vague “grow, seed!” thoughts. I wonder just how specific those thoughts had to be.

Also, “all members of each group were to hold hands in a circle because it seemed important to maintain an unbroken physical connection”. Seemed important, is that a scientific term? Was this aspect tested? Surely Lynne’s personal expectations and hunches aren’t going to have anything to do with the potential results here.

Let’s look at the experiment so far.

Has Lynne made an effort to prevent bias, like using a blind or double-blind method?

No – not only does the person in question know they’re the target of the group’s intentional thoughts, they also nominated themselves, and know they’re expected to show positive results.

They also of course wouldn’t have had any chronic ailments, and more than likely would have been told “nothing too serious, just something physical or emotional that’s been troubling you of late”. Basically, things that are very, very receptive to good ol’ positive suggestion.

Also of course, the ‘experiment’ relies purely on the self-reporting of the ‘participant’. A person who has already chosen to attend Lynne’s ‘first weekend seminar’ off the back of the seed study, has paid money for it, will clearly be looking up to Lynne with the same kind of sycophancy that these seminars bring out in people, has nominated themselves, has a mild emotional or physical issue, who is then going to hold hands with seven strangers for ten minutes while imagining those people thinking positive well-wishes.

It was the next morning, that the ten people in question were invited onto the stage, given microphones and asked in turn to describe their results, to an audience of well-wishers wanting a return on their investment. Bear in mind also, that these people would have socialised with their new friends over dinner and drinks into the night, gone back to their hotel rooms and enjoyed all the novelty and fresh-thoughts of being out of their usual environment.

Also, being that they’re asked to talk in turn with one following the other, each positive, gushing report is going to hold a clear influence on the next one. Asch’s famous conformity study showed that people don’t even like to disagree about the obvious length of a line if others give a wrong response first. The ‘experiment’ couldn’t have been more unscientific if it tried.

Hmm, I wonder what happened?

Really, what are the chances of someone saying “well I thought it was bollocks, I didn’t feel any different to be honest”? That would have been a scientific phenomenon of its own, with the person being worthy of study. How on earth would such a person have been motivated to attend her workshop in the first place?

No, of course Lynne heard exactly what she wanted to, exactly what she had carefully engineered the situation to conjure.

“One of the target women, who had suffered from insomnia with night sweats, had enjoyed her first good night’s sleep in years”. (Wow! These novel situations, a day’s worth of stimulation, new encounters and sleeping in a hotel with fresh sheets sure can work wonders. It’s a miracle!) Some ‘leg pain’ is relieved, a chronic migraine sufferer (who still attended a busy weekend seminar away from home) had no headache (wow!), a stomach ache and irritable bowel syndrome vanished (amazing!). “A woman who suffered from depression felt it had lifted”. Felt it had lifted. Incredible.

Don’t worry though, they were being honest, because Lynne had taken great care to make sure this was a bona-fide, honest and true scientific experiment.

How?

She had told them “Don’t invent any improvement that isn’t there”.

Ah, OK then.

“The lame may as well have been walking”

Here is Lynne’s own response to the reports:

“I was completely shocked. What on earth had I done to them? The lame may as well have been walking.”

She repeats the ‘thing’ at other workshops, each time of course more and more excited and expectant of positive results. Someone with multiple sclerosis who needs crutches to walk, appears on the Sunday without her crutches.

Let’s just think about that for a moment. In MS, the body’s immune system has attacked the myelin cells that wraparound nerves (which help propagate the fast electrical signal). Is Lynne seriously suggesting that someone else’s intentions could help those myelin cells regrow overnight? If the body could do that so quickly and easily, why wouldn’t the person’s own thoughts have the same effect? What does it say about the countless well-wishes, prayers and thoughts of her friends and family? Were they not good enough? Or… Could it be that the woman’s crutches weren’t for neurological impairment but perhaps just associated pain, and it was the pain that was naturally and predictably affected by all the adrenalin, novelty, distraction and positive expectancy?

Being that its the far more likely scenario, it’s very disingenuous of Lynne to even vaguely imply that thoughts can cure MS as some hype for her book.

“And there continued to be miraculous effects: healed bodies, healed relationships, healed lives”.

You might think that the effect of this would be to do actual scientific studies instead of these hopelessly biased ones – you know, to see if thoughts really can influence others. But strangely Lynne didn’t care so much for things like causality, and took the route of charging for more and more weekend seminars and workshops, signing people up to be in a “Power Of Eight” group, so that she can make more and more money instead. Toward this cause, she also drops in the words ‘Power of Eight’ over and over, because it’s the name of her book and she wants you to buy it.

Wouldn’t it have been terrific, if someone (not Lynne, because she doesn’t seem to understand the concept of influence, suggestion or bias whatsoever) could have taken the ‘thinkers’ aside and said “ok, what we’d like you to actually do is think of what you’re going to buy your families for Christmas instead, for ten minutes, ok?” to create a sort-of control group. Then, if the person appears on stage the next day saying “oh ma Gaahd, mah pain has gawwwn!” we could all know that the group intentions had nothing to with it.

But no, I’m not sure Lynne would appreciate that.

What Lynne has done, unwittingly or not, is perfectly recreate the dynamics of faith-healing, in a different context. It’s the exact same thing – a leader that desperate, searching people look up to and believe in, a vested interest, a financial investment, a mild ailment responsive to natural effects of adrenalin, oxytocin and endorphins, human contact, the validation/approval/perceived-love of strangers, copious amounts of attention, and bucket loads of positive expectancy. If you can successfully recreate those conditions (and Lynne was certainly good at that), you too can have people fainting, convulsing, bulldozing through aches and pains, walking better, often even seeing or hearing better (more acute attention), and believing almost anything. Just don’t forget to take their money.

It’s also a curious thing, as to why Lynne is so attached to the idea of intentional thoughts having some kind of power being a good thing. Sure, its good for Lynne to need groups of people all paying her instead of individuals, but outside of her manipulative business-model it’s a terrifying idea.

What happens if someone is falsely accused of a crime, and the town all hate them? Are they liable to develop a spontaneous disease? Could this happen? Did Beckham develop mysterious headaches and pains, maybe MS or fibromyalgia when he missed that World Cup penalty? Because a whole nation was moaning at their TVs at that point, pretty specifically focusing on poor Beckham and probably trying to break his leg with their minds.

Lynne goes on to talk about the ‘Woodstock effect’, whereby according to psychologist Jonathan Haidt “people reach the highest level of human flourishing by losing themselves in a larger group”. Yes, Woodstock was a nice example of a group getting on well, because they were on drugs Lynne, but you’ll find another side of the coin called “mob psychology” where the results aren’t quite so pretty or flourishing.

A nugget of wisdom, buried in all the shit

Lynne goes on to mention that the group of eight themselves report positive effects too.

She mentions a study by Sean O’Laoire, an Irish Catholic priest with a PhD in transpersonal psychology, on the effect of prayer on anxiety or depression and mood using 406 volunteers.

Here’s an interesting bit:

“.. although the amount of prayer hadn’t made a difference to those being prayed for, it did impact those doing the praying”.

By choosing this study to expand on the idea of the thinkers being helped, she also directly contradicts her ideas of intentional thought. Perhaps she doesn’t really believe in the effects after all.

Lynne presents this as some curious after-thought, like “bizarrely enough, thoughts maybe don’t travel through space to have some specific, supernatural effect on someone else’s physical body – but WOW! They can affect the person who is doing the thinking!” What a revelation.

Of course, ten minutes of thinking intensely positive intentions towards someone else will have effects on you.

When you think of others in this way, you are by definition practicing empathy and compassion. It’s like meditation. You’re not thinking of yourself, so any anxiety or depression thoughts spun out from routine self-thoughts are going to alleviate. You’re releasing certain hormones and neurotransmitters that can go on to have positive effects elsewhere in the body. The consequences can be huge and compounding. This is nothing new, but still a worthy thing to be reminded of.

It’s a similar situation to the self-helpy ‘attitude of gratitude’, or gratitude diaries, which have shown to have positive effects.

It’s understandable that fMRI scans of minds in this context will show differences, in the same way that concentrating intensely on sex for ten minutes would also show differences. But Lynne unfortunately is out of her element there, writing things like “the purpose of the parietal lobe is to figure out where you end and the rest of the universe begins”. Also, “this shutting down of frontal and parietal lobe activity particularly occurred on the right side of the brain, which would make it easier to access creative imagination”. Does such a simple message really need to be bogged down in her continual need to spout terminology for the sake of sounding credible?

Lynne goes on to make correlations between the groups practicing ten minutes of positive intentions, with feelings of happiness, bliss, relaxation and even ecstasy, again clumsily and mistakenly tying other correlations like vagus nerve activation or sharp decreases of frontal and parietal lobe activity as causes.

But of course, a universal gem of wisdom based on something you can do yourself, in your head, any time you want, doesn’t require groups, workshops or buying books. There is no money in it.

So it has to be buried under a giant mound of bullshit first, which sadly means most people won’t even get to the nugget of wisdom.

Are people like Lynne McTaggart self-deceiving, or just deceiving?

This is something I’m genuinely curious about, and find it impossible to solve.

There are many ways to milk the age-old snake-oil teet for hoodwinking people into believing in something. Using the powerful placebo effect and positive suggestion (which equates to a process of hypnosis in terms of installing unconscious beliefs), people will convince themselves of its worth. Mostly though, they could have achieved the same result themselves without paying megabucks on bullshit seminars, workshops, books etc.

When people find a way of exploiting this dynamic (e.g. faith-healers, many NLP practitioners and soft-psychology ‘gurus’), cash is readily available because there are unfortunately lots of people who are responsive to such marketing and suggestions. They don’t know any better, and the ‘gurus’ know this.

The thing is – with the allure of income, do these ‘gurus’ unwittingly hypnotise themselves into believing their own bullshit? Or, at the back of their minds, are they thinking “wow, a sucker sure is born every minute!”

I’m guessing they manage to convince themselves of their value and worth, and justify their product/information at whatever lengths they need to go to. Somehow, she thinks its ok to sell an online power of intention masterclass for £468 for example, when the only real ‘truth’ is that being grateful or thinking about someone else for ten minutes a day has some psychological benefits. By the way, yes, the online course encourages groups to meet up on Skype, so the “holding hands in a circle” was conveniently not as important as it first ‘felt’ to Lynne. I’m really not sure the positive intent will be able to find its way through ethernet cables and wifi to the right IP address to affect the relevant target – but Lynne seems to think it will work just fine.

As an example of this (potential) self-deception phenomenon elsewhere, I once knew a woman (she paid me to fix some website problems) whose main income was being an online/phone “psychic”. People would call premium rate numbers to have readings. Without being there in person to have a ‘cold’ reading based on clothes/body language/clues etc, I can’t imagine how much she pushed the ‘Barnum effect’ in being vague and ambiguous, allowing callers to fill in their own blanks.

But she seemed to genuinely believe she was psychic, a gifted clairvoyant, chosen by circumstance (or the cosmos or whatever) to have this ability that circumvents all known laws of physics. Perhaps she was psychic! But if she was, wouldn’t it have been more helpful and useful to mankind to offer herself to research or something, rather than create a tacky website “for entertainment purposes” (a legal requirement) to make £1 a minute on one-to-one calls here and there?

The self-appointed gurus like Lynne McTaggart though can go much further, developing more and more bullshit ways to spin their deception for the sake of publicity, income, attention and whatever else. While everyone else gets slightly poorer – for learning a basic, simple, psychological principle that is freely available.

I wouldn’t mind so much if McTaggart was more humble about it, or honest, or respectful of people in not charging ridiculous amounts. But that’s human nature for you I guess.

Before I leave, here are some of the ways Lynne claims her ‘intentional thinking’ program has helped clients (from her website):

  • SHARON’s tax debt problem was sorted so she didn’t have to sell their home — and she received two out-of-the-blue windfalls totaling $6,000
  • SAM’s hole in his heart spontaneously healed
  • JOHN’s epilepsy was cured
  • JOANNE healed her esophagitis
  • ANNE’s tenants suddenly moved out – just when she needed a place to live
  • EILEEN had a completely new business opportunity arise
  • ADRIANA found her family dream home
  • KAREN’s friend was cured of cardiac arrythmia and high blood pressure after Karen’s group intended for her
  • TIM was able to heal his grief over his wife’s passing with the help of his group
  • EILEEN satisfied her life’s goal – to write a book
  • After losing her job, PATRICIA’s septuagenarian sister was offered a director’s job for more money than the old job, thanks to the intentions of Patricia’s group
  • CESAR is working less and earning more, as a result of his group’s intention
  • DARICE resolved her insomnia
  • HELMET effortlessly found the perfect apartment for short-term rent
  • Three people in LAUREL’s group resolved shoulder pain, thanks to the mirror effect
  • MARK is experiencing success with his new work, executive coaching.

I’m pleased for Helmet, who found a new apartment after spending >£450 on a course where strangers hoped for him via Skype.

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