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Thoughts on Neuroplasticity

I recently read a fascinating book, The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge. He describes case histories and research indicating that the brain is far more malleable than we once thought. We used to think each function was localized to a small area of the brain and if you lost that area of brain tissue the function was gone forever. We once thought you couldn’t teach an old dog new tricks. Now we know better. 

Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain, even into old age. If you exercise one finger, the area of the brain devoted to that finger enlarges. The old concept of dedicated brain areas for specific functions no longer holds. Areas of the cortex that normally process vision can learn to process totally different inputs such as hearing. This is what happens with blind people: their hearing skills are enhanced when new neural connections for hearing invade the disused visual cortex. They may not actually have better hearing acuity, but they have learned to pay more attention to auditory input and to use it to build up a representation of the world around them.

One of the more intriguing experiments he describes was in monkeys. When sensory input nerves to one arm were severed, the monkey stopped using the arm, even though the motor nerves were intact. When the good arm was put in a sling, the monkey started using the impaired arm again.  When both arms were deprived of sensory input, the monkey used both arms. 

Researchers hypothesized that the monkeys had “learned” that one arm didn’t work in the period right after the surgery when the spinal cord was still in spinal shock, and then never re-learned that they could use it when the shock passed. When both arms were impaired, the monkeys had to use them to survive, so they were motivated to keep trying. This has implications for treatment of stroke patients, who seem to recover much faster if their good arm is restrained.

He describes the case history of a stroke patient who recovered very little function and was dismissed from conventional rehabilitation as having reached his maximum improvement. His son worked intensively with him as if he were a small child having to learn skills for the first time. He taught him to crawl and to play simple games that one might play with an uncoordinated infant. Eventually the patient made a complete recovery. On autopsy, the stroke area was “dead” with no signs of local recovery; he had co-opted neurons from other parts of the brain to take over the lost functions. Stroke victims may not try very hard to use their affected limbs because they have learned that they don’t work, but when they are prevented from using their good limbs, they may regain more function than we ever imagined.

Patients with phantom limb pain often have the illusion that the phantom limb is unable to move. Ramachandran has cured phantom pain by producing the illusion that the limb is moving using a mirror box so that the intact limb is perceived as being where the phantom limb would be. Doidge says there was a brain map of an unmoving limb that could not be modified because there was no sensory input to modify it, but the mirror box treatment was able to create a new brain map of a moving limb.

He describes new therapies for stroke patients, autism, learning disorders, OCD and other problems. Simple exercises based on knowledge gained from research seem to be able to re-map the brain in ways that are therapeutic, and that coincidentally lead to progress in other areas. Doidge is a bit overenthusiastic, and he is a psychoanalyst who claims that psychoanalysis is another way of changing brain maps.  But this is certainly an exciting area of research with potentially far-reaching implications. 

Much of chronic pain is learned behavior. In his book The Anatomy of Hope Jerome Groopman, MD, describes how he was disabled for years by back pain following two unsuccessful surgeries. He eventually found a rehabilitation therapist who persuaded him to re-frame his thinking about his pain. Instead of considering it a warning that activity would hurt his body, he began to think of it as a sign that his body had become so de-conditioned that it was mistakenly protesting at normal use. He exercised despite the pain, and eventually became pain-free and fully active again.

Much of chronic illness is learned behavior. Would sufferers from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia recover faster if they could somehow re-map their neurons into healthy patterns?  What if whiplash injuries were treated to prevent the learning of illness behaviors instead of having the ”sick” role fostered by prolonged compensation litigation? Maybe instead of being sympathetic and permissive with sick people we should be providing a kind of tough-love environment and encouraging them to push the limits of their abilities.

 A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine described the effects of mild traumatic brain injury in soldiers returning from Iraq. These soldiers had a high incidence of associated health problems, but when they controlled for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression, there was no longer any significant association with adverse health outcome. 

They discuss the implications of telling a patient he has a traumatic brain injury versus telling him he has recovered from a concussion and his symptoms are due to treatable, transient depression and/or stress reactions. They say, “…the most compelling efficacy data highlight the importance of education to normalize symptoms and provide expectation of rapid recovery.”

They pointed out that, “Screening for mild traumatic brain injury months after the injury is likely to result in the referral of a large number of persons for evaluation and treatment of nonspecific health symptoms attributed to brain injuries, with potential unintended iatrogenic consequences.”

In psychotherapy, when we delve into childhood traumas, are we reinforcing brain maps for the sick role and the victim label? Wouldn’t it be more effective to concentrate on the current life situation and reinforce what coping skills the patient already has? Instead of “Poor you, you can’t get along with your boss because your Mommy didn’t love you” what if we said, “Good for you, you’ve overcome a bad start in life and have finished school, you have a girlfriend,  you have become good at making friends, and you coped with the recent death of your dog by playing sports to keep your mind off your grief. You’ve done well, so let’s look at how you can use some of those strengths and coping skills to help you solve this current problem.” What if we helped consolidate the positive brain maps and helped prevent negative brain maps from wiring together? If nothing else, the concepts of neuroplasticity can contribute to a brain-based understanding of what various psychotherapies can accomplish.

Could we prevent some illnesses from developing in the first place? I read the transcript of a psychotherapy session where the patient started talking about feeling like a little boy, and talking in a childish voice. The psychiatrist nipped it in the bud by telling her to cut the crap. If he had said, “What’s your name, little boy? How old are you? Is there anyone else there?” he could have easily persuaded his very imaginative patient that she had multiple personality disorder. 

The principle is that “nerves that fire together wire together.” And of course, nerves that fire apart wire apart. Could we some day learn to use this knowledge to change addictions, food likes and dislikes, antisocial behavior patterns, sexual perversions? Could we apply the concepts of brain plasticity to enhance the placebo response? Could we reduce side effects from pharmaceuticals by building pleasant associations? The possibilities seem endless: the quacks will magnify those possibilities and scientific doctors will find that there are limits to what we can accomplish. There is potential for a lot of good, and of course there is potential for evil  (mind control by sinister agencies?).

And of course, there is great potential for financial gain. Quacks will jump on the neuroplasticity bandwagon and offer their own untested treatments. Programs like The Brain Gym and the Brain Fitness Program are already out there, promising far more than they have any right to.

Recent discoveries about neuroplasticity give a whole new meaning to the phrase “mind over matter.” By encouraging repeated thoughts and repeated motor actions, we can actually re-wire the physical brain to some extent. We can monitor some of these changes with neuroimaging studies.  It will be fascinating to follow this developing field in the years to come.

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, General, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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63 thoughts on “Thoughts on Neuroplasticity

  1. daedalus2u says:

    The mechanisms that foster brain plasticity are of enormous interest to me because they involve NO at many levels. Of course experimental work is extremely challenging because the NO concentrations that are important are transient and on the order of nM/L.

    For two nerves that are not connected to become connected with a synapse requires they to communicate with each other in the absence of a synapse. NO is one of the few molecules that can pass through myelin and have effects, and incidentally is one of the things that triggers synaptogenesis.

    The Blood Oxygen Level Dependant signal (BOLD) observed on fMRI derives from changes in the oxy and deoxyhemoglobin levels brought upon by acute increases in local vasodilation. That vasodilation is caused by NO. I suspect that the brain growth associated with increased use of a certain brain element derives in part from more NO at those specific sites from greater use. Many growth factors have effects mediated through NO, and an increased level of NO is going to affect all NO mediated pathways (because all of them only “measure” the sum of NO from all NO sources).

    The recent paper on the resolution of autism symptoms during acute fever is something I discuss at length in one of my blog posts. I am quite sure the effect is mediated through increased NO from iNOS.

    http://daedalus2u.blogspot.com/2008/01/resolution-of-asd-symptoms-with-fever.html

    75 years ago, the “standard of care” for neurosyphilis was “fever therapy” (inoculating the patient with malaria and waiting for ~10 cycles of fever before curing it with quinine). A number of neurological disorders did resolve with fever therapy. Today those disorders are all characterized by white matter hyperintensities, which I suspect are due to pathological continuation of ischemic preconditioning due to neuroinflammation (or other causes) which prevents the increase in NO necessary to end the ischemic preconditioned state.

    I have a few anecdotes of symptom resolution with increased basal NO (some of them enormously compelling), and a lot of theory (which fits with everything in the literature).

  2. pec says:

    Harriet,

    I agree with most of what you said here. “Mind over matter” has always been known in holistic medicine, and it’s nice to have scientific confirmation.

    There is no materialist explanation for neuroplasticity, and in my opinion there never will be. The non-materialist explanation is that the mind uses and controls the brain. The mind is made of higher-order substances not yet understood by science.

    For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Penrose

  3. Antono says:

    I find this information, about the brain having far more neuroplasticity that we suspected, fascinating.

    That said, neuroplasticity doesn’t bring any validity to alt-med claims about “mind over matter” nor does it require of us to bring in higher-order substances to explain the mind.

    There is no “mind over matter” triumph for stroke victims. The damaged brain is pushed beyond its limit and tries to accommodate by whipping whatever neurons remain into hard work. Slowly and painfully it builds new synapses to generate new working clusters and get the job done. It’s never as good as the intact brain but it often is surprisingly adequate for the task.

    There’s nothing unconventional about that. We’re not talking about minds that move limbs whose kinetic neurons have been severed beyond repair. We’re just observing that the brain, just like e.g. any muscle, has a capacity to self-repair and tries to make do with whatever infrastructure remains.

  4. Harriet Hall says:

    pec said “There is no materialist explanation for neuroplasticity”

    That’s nonsense. Neuroplasticity IS material changes so it MUST have a materialist explanation! That’s why the new discoveries about neuroplasticity are so exciting – they contribute to our understanding of the material basis of what we used to call “mind over matter.”

    There is no scientific evidence for an immaterial “mind.” What we used to call “mind” is now understood to be a metaphor for how the material brain functions.

  5. mufi says:

    pec,

    Here’s one way to interpret Harriet’s essay:

    Neuroplasticity is one of the many characteristics of Matter (viz. when it takes the form of a human or animal brain). Does my saying that make me a “materialist”? If so, then what’s left for me to explain?

    To put it another ways, let’s say I define reality in monistic terms as a substance called “Matter” (although I might qualify this dated philosophical term with respect to modern physics and chemistry, so as to include energy). Why is its partial or occasional manifestation of neuroplastic behavior any more wanting of an explanation than such a manifestation if/when it occurs in “higher-order substances” (whatever those are)?

    It seems plausible (if not commonsensical) enough to me that the mind is just the brain (or nervous system as a whole) in action. If so, then your claim that the “mind uses or controls the brain” is no truer than the claim that the breath “uses or controls” the lungs, or the heartbeat “uses or controls” the heart (or, for that matter, that the tail wags the dog).

    IOW, neuroplasticity is just another description of the brain in action. (Now I’ll let the neuroscientists determine the extent to which it is an accurate description.)

    mufi

  6. I’m sure the ‘positive thinking’ gurus will jump all over this. Will NLP change to NPP. I can just hear Tony Robbins ranting on about “Neuro Plastic Programming”

  7. rnewson says:

    on seeing the Penrose reference, I remember slogging through the Emperor’s New Mind to discover how Penrose had concluded that AI was impossible, that the mind is somehow more than just the brain.

    Pec reminds me that there are other readers of this book who were not utterly disappointed and unconvinced after they’d read it. Yes, Penrose knows a lot of math and physics. His argument boiled to “things are really complex therefore no AI”.

    Neuroplasticity is a fascinating topic and provides yet more evidence than the mind is entirely physical. As Einstein put it, the biggest miracle is that there are no miracles.

  8. sashen says:

    Neuroplasticity is already being misused, both by the self-help gang *AND* doctors/scientists.

    The self-help gang says that this proves that if you think good thoughts, that changes your brain (and, therefore, you’ll get what you want).

    The medical gang says things like: Look, some guy who has been sitting in a cave meditating for 10 hours a day has really unusual synaptic activity! (forgetting that the kind of person who would have any INTEREST in, let alone ability to, sit in a cave meditating for 10 hours a day is, well, unusual).

    There is a lot of research (much of it not well controlled) trying to find how/if specific thoughts affect brain structure (again, ignoring the ability to measure whether someone is/isn’t having the requisite thought for the required time).

    Anyway… this article made me think of Feldenkrais bodywork where, instead of trying to move or change the “bad” side (or limb), you work with the GOOD side … and then when you go back to the other side, it’s much improved. So, if you have trouble turning to the left, rather than fix the left side you’ll explore how easily you can turn to the RIGHT… and then when you try turning to the left again, it’ll often be as easy as turning to the right. That’s an oversimplification, but you get the point.

    Fun with brains and bodies.

  9. pec says:

    “That’s nonsense. Neuroplasticity IS material changes so it MUST have a materialist explanation! ”

    THAT is nonsense. When a first substance acts on a second substance, do we conclude the second substance was the cause?

    When the brain re-organizes itself in response to injury, that shows purposefulness, a desire to exist and act in the material world. A passive material object merely reacts to external forces.

    When an area of the cortex takes over functions from an adjacent damaged area, something has to be guiding and motivating the process. The damaged area is gone, its function is lost. So how can the brain itself remember and reconstruct that function?

    Don’t tell me I’m confused because I don’t understand neuroscience. I understand it well enough to know that NO ONE understands much about the brain. And I have known about neuroplasticity since graduate school, by the way.

  10. Harriet Hall says:

    I’ve given up trying to talk to pec, but for the rest of you, I’ll say that pec is confused. When a wound heals, it is not because the body has a desire to heal or because the wound responds to any immaterial force or motivation or life energy. The wound heals through natural biological processes, through the natural behavior of cells and chemicals. The same kind of biological processes operate in the brain to prune and add synapses and reinforce neural pathways that are frequently used.

    The fact that “no one” understands much about the brain doesn’t mean that we can’t ever understand it. We are understanding more every day. There is no indication that further understanding will require any vitalistic additions to the material paradigm.

    pec’s thinking is stuck in the same groove as when our ancestors thought Zeus was throwing thunderbolts because they couldn’t conceive of any purely natural explanation for weather phenomena. I think the logical fallacy is called argumentum ad ignorantiam.

  11. sashen says:

    HH,

    Are you suggesting that Zeus *ISN’T* hurling thunderbolts?!

    If so, I’ll bet that you’ll try to convince us that the sun rises from behind the earth every morning for some reason OTHER than that we sacrifice one of our young women each night!

    Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go examine the leaves in the bottom of my tea cup so I can determine why I have this runny nose.

  12. daedalus2u says:

    pec, that is just compete nonsense. There is nothing about the brain that is “passive”. Nervous tissue is only “passive” when it is dead. Otherwise it is acting and reacting in response to its environment and generating signals that other nerve cells can react to. Its environment includes all the cells it is in contact with. Those cells release chemicals into their vicinity which other cells in the vicinity can detect and even home in on. Nitric oxide happens to be one of them. It has a range of many cell diameters.

  13. qetzal says:

    I have to say, pec, you’re an interesting case.

    You think of yourself as a skeptic, rejecting various scientific conclusions about cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc., because the evidence doesn’t meet your standard.

    At the same time, you have full faith that there exists some mystical force called “life energy” and that the mind is made of “higher-order substances.” All with hardly a shred of objective evidence.

    I’m curious how you reconcile such beliefs with your self-image as a skeptic. Or if you even recognize the incongruity.

    Also, I’m still waiting for a link on a machine that measures life energy.

  14. daedalus2u says:

    Dr Novella has an interesting post on depth perception. Many sensory functions only work because there is neuronal plasticity that modifies the neural network. He uses the example of binocular vision, I put up an example of how you can “trick” your brain into thinking a pendulum is moving in an ellipse rather than in a plane by placing a filter over one eye. The reduced light intensity delays the firing of cells in the visual pathway tricking your brain into “thinking” the object is actually someplace different and interpreting that difference as a distorted movement.

    Similarly when your two ears detect a sound, they measure the arrival time difference and impute a direction. The speed of sound is much faster than the time for neural transmission, the only way the brain could accurately calculate differences much smaller than the propagation delay due to neural transmission is via active feedback and modification of the neural pathways.

    The only way that sensory input between different sensors, that includes different eyes, but also different cells in the same eye, can be productively integrated is for the propagation delay to be actively controlled. That can only occur through neuronal plasticity. That may be part of why the visual cortex is in the back of the brain, so that the nerves transmitting the visual information are longer and so there is more time (and more nerve length) for the propagation delay to be actively accounted for.

    This can’t occur through some immaterial mind knowing physical reality without sensory input. If the mind did know that, it would have to know it before the sensory input arrived, and then sensory input would not be needed.

  15. No magic need be invoked to explain neuroplasticity. Along with recent discoveries that show there is more plasticity than we had previously recognized, is research showing what at least part of the basis for that plasticity is. We have also recently learned that there are neuro-stem cells in the brain – cells waiting to become new neurons, to make new pathways and connections.

    We also already have a great deal of information about the cellular mechanisms underlying plasticity. We know that neurons grow and make synapses in response to neurotrophic hormones secreted by other neurons.

    When cells are injured they release chemicals into the local environment, and those chemical act as signals to other cells to repair the injury.

    Of course, this is a complex system and we have a long way to go before we understand it fully. But so far we are finding good old-fashioned biological causes (cells, chemical signals, hormones) producing all of the brain effects that we see.

    There is no need for woo, nor is there any evidence for woo. The dualists are simply making a “woo of the gaps” argument, and they are exaggerating the gaps based largely on their own personal ignorance.

  16. Fredeliot2 says:

    I am curious about what anyone knows about drugs that might enhance neuroplasticity. I have seen a couple of references to Prozac and neurogenesis and neuroprotection.

  17. pec says:

    “pec’s thinking is stuck in the same groove as when our ancestors thought Zeus was throwing thunderbolts”

    And Harriet, you and your friends are stuck in the obsolete philosophy of materialism. If you can’t see, hear or touch it, or measure it with an existing device, it cannot possibly exist.

    “I’m still waiting for a link on a machine that measures life energy.”

    quetzel: There are all kinds of biofield meters all over the internet. I haven’t tried any of them, and I do not assume they all work. I imagine some of them might. Non-materialist science is no more perfect or finished than mainstream materialist science. But there are many scientists at work in various “new science” fields. You assume these things do not exist because they aren’t usually mentioned in our universities.

    Yes, we know that pre-modern people believed all sorts of crazy and silly things. That doesn’t mean all their beliefs were crazy or silly, and it doesn’t mean all our beliefs are any better.

    Human beings — whether they are scientists or not, whether ancient or modern — know and understand very little about the world. It doesn’t matter if you learn more everyday — our ignorance remains infinite.

    I am not saying we should stop trying to understand nature. I am just saying we need some humility and some perspective. We should try to go beyond close-minded materialism.

  18. daedalus2u says:

    pec, I am sure that every single so called “materialist” is absolutely ready to go “beyond materialism”, exactly and precisely when there is evidence that we need to do so. Not one second before.

    What is “close minded” about that?

  19. qetzal says:

    pec wrote:

    quetzel: There are all kinds of biofield meters all over the internet. I haven’t tried any of them, and I do not assume they all work. I imagine some of them might.

    Interesting. Because here you said:

    Energy medicine/science is a very big field, and they have machines that measure life energy. They have their own journals because mainstream journals will not publish anything non-mainstream.

    And when challenged to back that up, you said:

    As for life energy research — it’s all over the internet. Unfortunately, when looking for serious alternative science you have to sort through a lot of non-serious and commercial stuff, which takes time. I will try to find something that would convince skeptics.

    Now you merely imagine that some might work? What happened to your former confidence?

    I guess it’s sort of a step towards skepticism.

  20. pec says:

    There might be various components to life energy, or biofields, or whatever you want to call them. My personal observations and experiences, in addition to what I know about alternative science, have convinced me that there are subtle energies and fields that have not yet been discovered by mainstream science. If someone claims to have built a biofield meter I think it’s possible that it responds to some aspect of certain life energies or fields. That doesn’t mean every gadget that claims to measure life energy actually does.

    I am working on finding hard data in favor of life energy. Unfortunately I can’t make the search a full-time job. I might buy one of the gadgets and try it out. I will certainly let you know the results.

  21. Harriet Hall says:

    pec is straw-manning away. He thinks we are saying “If you can’t see, hear or touch it, or measure it with an existing device, it cannot possibly exist.”

    What we are actually saying is that if we can’t see, hear, touch or measure something, we have no way of knowing whether it exists – whether it is any more real than the Tooth Fairy.

    We wouldn’t even have to measure pec’s immaterial “life energy” directly. If we could measure its effect on something material, that would be enough. And we are not claiming we “can’t” measure it; we are saying it “hasn’t” ever been measured.

    Note pec’s backpedalling from “machines measure life energy” to “I imagine some of them might.”

    Gee, I can imagine that a machine might be able to detect the Tooth Fairy, too. Maybe pec is right that “we need some humility and some perspective. We should try to go beyond close-minded materialism” about the Tooth Fairy, too. Anyone up for submittiing a grant proposal for Tooth Fairy research?

  22. pec says:

    “if we can’t see, hear, touch or measure something, we have no way of knowing whether it exists – whether it is any more real than the Tooth Fairy.”

    There is a great difference between my belief in life energy and a child’s belief in the tooth fairy. Life energy is experienced directly by many millions of individuals who practice yoga, or some other oriental exercise system. Life energy has been believed in by many millions of adults in all civilizations and subcultures, and the only real exception is contemporary materialist science.

    Harriet, did you know that science and materialism and not inseparable? Some of the greatest scientists, such as Einstein, were not materialists. And even currently, there are well-known Nobel prize-winners who don’t go along with the materialism fad.

    Fads come and go. Materialism reached its height and now we can see it beginning to decline. Not that materialism has been a failure — it is just incomplete and science will continue to evolve.

    We can easily discount the tooth fairy. None of us have actually seen her, and there are simpler explanations for the quarter we find in the morning.

    The idea of biological fields, on the other hand, can help us greatly in our effort to understand life. We can see evidence of its probable existence. And many researchers do claim to be able to detect it.

    So we have theoretical and experiential reasons for having an open mind about life energy. It is not an absurd, arbitrary superstition, but a genuinely scientific hypothesis.

  23. Why says:

    Pec: “I am working on finding hard data in favor of life energy. Unfortunately I can’t make the search a full-time job. I might buy one of the gadgets and try it out. I will certainly let you know the results.”

    The problem with people like you, Pec, is that to you research is not a means of learning the truth about the world, but merely a means of vindicating what you’ve already chosen to believe about it. You are the idealogue. In fact, you’re a text book example of one.

  24. Harriet Hall says:

    As usual, pec is not listening. Science will gladly accept an immaterial “life energy” as soon as there is convincing evidence for it. Immaterial forces either have effects on material things or they don’t. If they don’t have any effect on the material world, they might just as well not exist – how could you ever know whether they did or not? If they have an effect on the material world, we ought to be able to measure that effect.

    People who claim to have “evidence” for “life energy” may be as self-deluded as the children who think the money under the pillow is “evidence” for the Tooth Fairy. We have a materialist explanation for the Tooth Fairy money, and we have a materialist explanation for the experiences people like pec misinterpret as evidence for life energy.

    As good scientists, we should keep an open mind about life energy, but we’re waiting for evidence, and the longer we go without that evidence, the less likely it seems. To be consistent, pec should keep an open mind about the Tooth Fairy. After all, you can’t prove that the parents are always responsible, and thousands of children have experienced Her largess and have believed in Her. :-)

  25. mufi says:

    I would characterize much of what pec has said so far in this thread as unfounded assertions (partly because of the dogmatic style in which s/he words them). But when s/he states the following, I actually feel some sympathy for his/her argument:

    “When the brain re-organizes itself in response to injury, that shows purposefulness, a desire to exist and act in the material world.”

    At least on the surface (or from a layperson’s perspective), neuroplasticity does sound purposeful, and perhaps in some sense it is; e.g. that of having an aim or goal.

    But, if so, whose aims or goals are we talking about? God’s? the immortal soul’s? the ghost-in-the-machine’s? As Harriet has suggested, these hypotheses haven’t faired well in the history of scientific inquiry (not that that’s stopped their devotees from trying to keep them alive under the banner of ‘alternative science’).

    Normally, one speaks of one’s fellow humans or other conscious agents (both real and imagined) as having aims or goals, and these are to some extent valid scientific subjects (i.e. for biologists and social scientists).

    But then I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’ metaphor of the ‘selfish gene’, and think: hmm, if a model scientific skeptic like Dawkins can speak of unconscious agents like genes as if they were conscious agents, pursuing aims and goals (albeit, selfish ones), then why not speak of neurons, or the skill sets they provide us with, in this way, as well? Given all of the controversy that Dawkins sparked with that term (which continues over 30 years later), I think the answer is: because it will confuse people (e.g. they’ll interpret the metaphor literally).

    But the fact that unconscious agents do at times appear to behave in ways that resemble purposefulness (not to mention the fact that they are the building blocks of conscious agents like ourselves) will be a source of confusion and controversy for a long time to come, if only due to the pedagogic challenge of teaching a complex subject like neuroscience to the lay masses.

    mufi

  26. pec says:

    Yeah mufi, it will be hard to convince the general public that everything that seems purposeful and conscious is in reality mindless and pointless. Dawkins may not succeed in converting everyone to his beloved atheism.

  27. pec says:

    “As good scientists, we should keep an open mind about life energy”

    Harriet,

    Then I am having trouble understanding why you have not read any of the alternative science literature, which claims to find clear evidence (as well as supporting theory) for something that could be called life energy.

    Are you ignoring this evidence because it is not in your favorite journals? But your favorite journals will never accept this kind of research, so you will never hear of it.

    I think that most devote materialists have only heard one side of a very complex story. If you had some familiarity with alternative ideas, you might begin to see that many questions are still open.

  28. Harriet Hall says:

    Pec is strawmanning away, as usual. He strawmans better than anyone I have ever encountered.

    What gives him the right to assume I haven’t read any of the “alternative science” literature? I have. I’ve read a great deal of it, and I haven’t been impressed.

    I’ve read a lot, and I’ve written about some of what I have read. I wrote a review of Oschman’s book “Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis” that is available online at http://quackfiles.blogspot.com/2006/01/review-of-energy-medicine-scientific.html. The current issue of Skeptical Inquirer has an article I wrote about Gary Schwartz’s energy medicine experiments. And I wrote a book review of “Hands of Life” for the Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine.

    There is no “alternative” science. There is only one science. There are scientists who apply the scientific method rigorously and those who prefer to speculate and fool themselves. What pec apparently thinks is “evidence” is no more rigorous than the “evidence” of Tooth Fairy money under the pillow. True believers have not taken precautions to rule out other explanations for their observations.

  29. mufi says:

    pec said:

    ‘it will be hard to convince the general public that everything that seems purposeful and conscious is in reality mindless and pointless’

    Given conventional definitions of ‘purposeful’ and ‘conscious’, I would agree with you there. In other words, it would be hard to convince a population of purposeful and conscious agents that they are neither purposeful nor conscious.

    But does that mean that the general public is so gullible as to believe that everthing is always as it initially appears? that appearances can never fool? that if they see a rock rolling down a hill, that the rock must have a conscious aim or goal to reach the bottom of the hill?

    I trust not, but the more complex the subject matter, the less confident I am that everyone will get the message (especially if folks are emotionally invested in *not* getting the message, as seems to be the case with certain religious ideologues, both old & new).

    mufi

  30. pec says:

    mufi,

    It appears that we are conscious and purposeful, and we are. It is you who are being fooled, by emotionally dogmatic extremists like Dawkins.

  31. pec says:

    Harriet,

    I am glad you have at least been looking at some of the alternatives, even if it’s only to discredit them. You are not ignoring evidence you just because you don’t like it, and I admire that.

    I will the book review you linked. I would also like to read your article about Gary Schwartz. I find it very hard to believe that he has been consistently fooling himself, after such a long career as a mainstream researcher.

    Schwartz is one example, and there are many others, of formerly mainstream scientists who decided to give alternative science a skeptical try, and got hooked. I don’t think they wanted to believe any of that “superstitious nonsense,” but became fascinated after seeing the data. They are driven primarily by scientific curiosity, in my opinion. They have no motive to deceive themselves, experiment after experiment, year after year.

    How do you explain this? And can you give us a link to your article about Schwartz?

  32. Harriet Hall says:

    The Schwartz article can be read at: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m2843/is_2_32/ai_n24379890 but you’ll miss out on the great cartoon showing Gary Schwartz as the Emperor wearing no clothes.

    Schwartz is one of a large and puzzling group of gifted and accomplished scientists who have made fools of themselves. Psychologist Ray Hyman tells me he has made a lifelong study of this phenomenon and has been “devising a model of human reasoning that helps account for such paradoxes.”

    I think the simple answer is that they are human and subject to the many foibles of human psychology. Some of us are able to overcome human psychology with rigorous science, but it doesn’t come easy. Our brains are far more impressed by personal experiences than by double-blind studies. We observe something, draw a false conclusion, and fall into a belief system that is practically impossible to overcome. Once a belief has been accepted, the more intelligent the believer the more rationalizations he can invent to make everything fit his paradigm.

    We all have blind spots. You can draw an analogy with religion: a scientist can be rigorous about demanding solid proof for everything else, but can apply a different standard to accept a religious belief on faith alone. And politics is another field where we make up our minds and then interpret new data in the context of our beliefs.

    Humans are very good at fooling themselves, and the only corrective is the scientific method properly applied, and that’s what this blog is all about.

  33. Fifi says:

    Harriet – “Humans are very good at fooling themselves, and the only corrective is the scientific method properly applied, and that’s what this blog is all about.”

    Very nicely said and perhaps the main thing that many people (who subscribe to woo or not) don’t understand about science and its methods.

  34. Michelle B says:

    Harriet writes: “Humans are very good at fooling themselves, and the only corrective is the scientific method properly applied, and that’s what this blog is all about.”
    _____

    Wonderfully lucid and fascinating (will check out Hyman, thanks) comment in general, but the last sentence is especially superb.

    @Mufi, Yet there are people who can intuitively grasp that the universe or life (except to pass on genes to the next generation) is without purpose in an absolute sense. There is such a mass of evidence that shows that there is no absolute purpose/meaning. Of course, we can choose to/make purpose in our lives.

    Apparently, Pec’s raison d’etre is to wistfully and woefully wobble with woo. I suppose such daily activity leaves Pec a bit dizzy, unable to grasp that his/her beloved ‘life energy’ is DOA (Dead on Arrival) as it has no explanatory or predicting ability.

  35. mufi says:

    Michelle,

    I suspect that the main fallacy in Pec’s argument is over-generalization; in his case, taking human consciousness and purposiveness (which we all agree exists, according to conventional definitions) and extending it to anything and everything that strikes his fancy.

    I don’t find this personified caricature of nature particularly appealing, but clearly some people do.

    I don’t think they’re bad people for it (albeit, perhaps a little immature), but I agree that modern science tends to offer much better (i.e. more plausible) explanations than they do, and when it comes to political battles over controversial issues (e.g. global warming & evolution), may the better explanation win!

    mufi

  36. daedalus2u says:

    I think you are right, that pec is simply over anthropomorphizing. This is a very easy thing for (some) humans to do, and is the basis of attributing human-like characteristics to inanimate objects, to plants and animals. I think that attributing human-like characteristics to non-human objects is a general human trait, and it allows humans to use their social skills, their social “theory of mind” (ToM) to figure out physical reality. If that is the only “theory of mind” that you have, it makes sense that you will use it even when it isn’t the most appropriate model of reality.

    This is something I get into a lot in trying to understand the autism ToM and the neurotypical ToM. My perspective is that the diagnostic traits of the autism spectrum disorders are actually “features”, and I will go into that more on my blog (but not so much yet).

    I recently looked at a paper by Uta Frith, where she looked at mentalizing by people with ASDs, where she found a “deficit” in the ability to attribute human-type emotions and motivations to animated shapes.

    http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/125/8/1839

    She characterizes this as “impairment in the attribution of mental states” and that ASD individuals “gave fewer and less accurate interpretations of animations that elicited mentalizing” and were “were impaired in making correct mental state attributions”.

    Even though these inanimate shapes were being moved in anthropomorphically provocative ways, they are still inanimate shapes and it is fundamentally incorrect (in an abstract sense) to attribute human-type emotions and motivations to them.

    I think that Dr Frith makes the error of substituting her interpretation as to what is the correct and/or preferred, and/or normal, and/or non-pathological interpretation.

  37. pec says:

    “Once a belief has been accepted, the more intelligent the believer the more rationalizations he can invent to make everything fit his paradigm.”

    Harriet,

    Yes that is true. The most intelligent people are sometimes the least self-critical. And it’s made worse by the fact that their admirers are constantly reinforcing their delusions. Freud is one of my favorite examples of this.

    However the scientific method doesn’t really solve the dilemma. Schwartz, and many other smart researchers who strayed from the current mainstream, get real results. It would not be possible for all of these people to analyze that much data and ignore defects easily seen by Hyman, Randi, etc.

    I admit that research involving anything “supernatural” might be problematic, because mental influences cannot be screened out. I really don’t know. But I have followed the science – alternative science controversy my whole life and am familiar with evidence and arguments from both sides. I do not believe Schwartz and others are fooling themselves. It is not possible for a person with genuine scientific curiosity — which I’m sure he, and others of that type, have plenty of — to ignore and deny undeniable facts over long periods of time.

    I consider myself to be scientifically curious and skeptical, even though I have long been convinced there is much more to this world than materialist science even begins to imagine. I am more interested in reading things that oppose my belief than that support it. I like to have my beliefs challenged, and I don’t consider them carved in stone.

    So I am going to read your articles, and see if I agree with any of it.

  38. mufi says:

    Pec,

    A quality post on your part. Really.

    Putting our differences aside, I’ll state my understanding of the scientific method: it’s communal and it’s cross-generational. In other words, if other scientists can’t replicate your results (over and over), your results are barely worth speaking of.

    With that said, take this as a tip: If you need to appeal to a single personality — in this case, Gary Schwartz — chances are that your arguments will not move minds in a scientifically minded crowd.

    Best,
    mufi

  39. pec says:

    “The only thing of substance in the book is the experiments, which lose credibility because they were not accepted for publication in mainstream peer-reviewed journals.”

    That’s the usual catch-22 again. The evidence is of no value because it is not published in mainstream journals, and it isn’t published in mainstream journals because it defies materialism.

    Emily Rosa’s experiment is always cited by skeptics, since hers was published in a mainstream journal, while most successful energy healing experiments are not. You should not reject a theory based on one experiment — what if those particular 21 healers were not very talented?

    However I agree with Harriet that some of Schwartz’s objections are silly. But he is probably truly baffled as to why his results are positive while Rosa’s were not.

    “The JREF challenge is admittedly not a definitive scientific test”

    That’s right, it isn’t. Randi can reject any applicant if he decides they are crazy, or their claims are impossible. So if Randi suspects someone might be genuine, he can easily find an excuse to reject them.

    “if there is no convincing science or plausible mechanism to support them, let’s stop wasting our time chasing moonbeams”

    If you define “convincing science” as research published in mainstream journals, then of course you aren’t convinced. It’s the same old catch-22.

  40. weing says:

    I prefer to use Popper’s approach. Knowledge in science increases when we can disprove a hypothesis. You may have a thousand experiments confirming your hypothesis but if only one disproves it, your hypothesis must change and progress is made. Confirmation can get you into trouble as mentioned in Taleb’s book. A turkey is convinced the farmer has his best interests at heart by feeding him and protecting him and every day his hypothesis is confirmed until the day before Thanksgiving.

  41. pec says:

    “you may have a thousand experiments confirming your hypothesis but if only one disproves it, your hypothesis must change and progress is made.”

    That is utterly untrue. One experiment cannot disprove a hypothesis that has been supported by thousands of other experiments. It’s a common trick of “skeptics” — they “try” to replicate with an under-powered experiment, and fool everyone who doesn’t understand experimental research.

    It’s very easy to design an experiment that is practically guaranteed to fail, but the results of that experiment are meaningless. Researchers who want their experiment to succeed (to get a meaningful answer, rather than trying to debunk a hypothesis), estimate the power needed to find the effect they are investigating. This can only be estimated, based on previous similar experiments or pilot studies.

    So if you want to do the opposite, if you want your experiment to fail, you simply design a bad experiment with inadequate power. There are various tricks you can use, such as having a small number of subjects or trails.

    It would be interesting to find out how many experiments “disproved” alternative science hypotheses by using this kind of trickery.

    weing may be referring to the idea that one negative observation can disprove a hypothesis, but no number of positive observations can prove it. But that is an entirely different idea.

  42. mufi says:

    pec, whether your assertion regarding “higher-order substances” controlling the brain has scientific evidence behind it or not (I really doubt it, and you seemed to suggest earlier that you would believe the claim regardless, but I’ll leave that aside), let’s not forget your other claim:

    “There is no materialist explanation for neuroplasticity, and in my opinion there never will be.”

    Again, I suppose it depends on how you define “materialist”, but there is an alternative explanation to yours which requires no ghostly “higher-order substances.” I would phrase it this way (although others may phrase it differently):

    Mind is an emergent property of matter/energy, given a particular configuration thereof.

    Is that what you mean by “materialist”? If so (although I would tend to call it “monistic” or “physicalist”), then I assure you that the explanation not only exists, but has alot of scientific evidence to support it. (Steven Pinker gives a nice introduction to this body of evidence in his book, “The Blank Slate.” See his references to “The Ghost in the Machine” therein to see how well a variety of your hypothesis has held up.)

    What’s more, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) suggest that mind can emerge from more than one configuration of matter/energy, although the human one fashioned by natural selection will, in some sense, probably always remain unique.

    Again, no ghosts required.

    mufi

  43. pec says:

    mufi,

    There are lots of gray areas. We simply don’t understand enough to have a strong opinion on the nature of mind. Yes it does seem that order emerges in material systems, I agree with that. But I believe it’s because the material systems are expressions of higher order systems. A “materialist” might say it’s because evolving towards higher levels of complexity is a “natural” tendency of “matter.”

    So many of the words and concepts are poorly or incompletely defined. My own frame of reference is systems theory or complexity theory, and I do think that order “emerges,” in some way, but I also think “matter” IS “mind.”

    Anyway, this all goes way beyond science and into philosophy, and a lot of stuff we could argue about forever but do not have the evidence to decide right now.

    But AI research does not help us understand or explain mind.

  44. qetzal says:

    That’s the usual catch-22 again. The evidence is of no value because it is not published in mainstream journals, and it isn’t published in mainstream journals because it defies materialism.

    The bigger reason most aren’t published is that they’re poor studies. A well designed, well controlled, and well executed study that gives an apparently supernatural outcome would get published somewhere.

    Plus, this is not much of an excuse these days. Nothing prevents them from publishing their studies on the internet.

    So if you want to do the opposite, if you want your experiment to fail, you simply design a bad experiment with inadequate power. There are various tricks you can use, such as having a small number of subjects or trails.

    That’s true, but in practice it’s generally the opposite. The small studies with inadequate power are generally the ones that claim to show scientifically unlikely results. The larger, better powered and better controlled studies generally do not.

    I’m guessing your next objection will be that CAM ‘scientists’ can’t get funding to run larger studies, because of all the bias against them. But NCCAM belies that as well.

    However the scientific method doesn’t really solve the dilemma. Schwartz, and many other smart researchers who strayed from the current mainstream, get real results. It would not be possible for all of these people to analyze that much data and ignore defects easily seen by Hyman, Randi, etc.

    Yes it would, because they want to believe they’ve discovered something revolutionary. They get committed to their idea. It happens all the time. Especially when experts in one field decide they can be experts in a completely different field.

  45. daedalus2u says:

    pec, no self-respecting “materialist” that I know of would ever “say it’s because evolving towards higher levels of complexity is a “natural” tendency of “matter.”

    The emergent complex properties associated with complex assemblies of matter are not due to any “natural” tendency of matter, they are due to the complex structure of that matter. There is nothing “natural” abut the tendency of matter to form a mind, unless that matter is associated in a structure that supports that emergent property, such as a brain.

    You have the idea that when carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and some other material elements are assembled into the complex structure that is a human brain that somehow something else is magically created, a non-material “mind”. I use the term “magic” because the processes that you say are involved are non-physical and non-material. The only assertions about these processes that you make are that they exist and are non-material.

    If the concepts you are using are poorly defined, then you should use different concepts that are better defined. If the concept cannot be expressed in unambiguous terms, then maybe the fault lies with the concept being ambiguous. If you can’t define the concept in unambiguous terms, then you can’t assert that it is correct.

  46. pec says:

    “The small studies with inadequate power are generally the ones that claim to show scientifically unlikely results.”

    That is a misconception. A low-power experiment is less likely to find an effect, if the effect exists. It is NOT more likely to find an apparent effect that does not exist.

    If the hypothesis is wrong, you are unlikely to get results regardless of the number of subjects, trials, quality of design, etc. But if the hypothesis is correct, you are ONLY likely to get results if the experiment has adequate power and is well designed.

    Emily Rosa’s experiment, for example, has several problems that could prevent it from finding a real effect. We would expect energy healing, if it exists, to vary greatly between individuals, and also to vary within an individual, depending on their state of mind and surroundings.

    When variance is expected to be high, a very large number of subjects and trials may be needed. But this experiment had only 21 subjects (and I guess only one trial per subject, not sure). 21 subjects might be enough when the hypothesized effect is quite stable within and among individuals.

    Another problem with the experiment is that it is not ecologically valid. That is, the subjects were not doing what they would do while practicing energy healing — moving their hands over a patients’ body, making eye contact with the patient, getting into a meditative state of rapport, whatever the real situation normally involves.

    Yet this one little experiment, with all its shortcomings, is always cited by “skeptics” as discrediting energy healing.

  47. Harriet Hall says:

    pec,

    Make all the excuses you want for therapeutic touch. The fact is, the practitioners Emily tested all believed they could sense the energy field under the circumstances of the experiment, and that belief was shown to be false.

  48. pec says:

    Ok, the experiment showed this particular group of healers were not aware of their limitations. What does that say about energy healing in general? Not very much — but the “skeptics” consider the experiment important anyway. They think it shows that energy healing is bogus, but it is unscientific to draw that conclusion.

  49. qetzal says:

    That is a misconception. A low-power experiment is less likely to find an effect, if the effect exists. It is NOT more likely to find an apparent effect that does not exist.

    True, a small study is no more likely to find an apparent effect than a large one. Each has a 1:20 chance of achieving p = 0.05. However, 20 different people can do 20 different small studies. If there is no effect, 19 will get p > 0.05, but one will find p < 0.05. The 19 are unlikely to publish, but the one will.

    The same publication bias happens in ‘conventional’ science as well.

    If it’s a real effect, it will show up again in larger studies. But if it fails to show in larger studies, that suggests the original observation was probably a fluke (assuming it wasn’t lousy science to begin with).

    Thus, we can predict a pattern. Real effects will show up in small initial studies and in larger confirmatory studies. False effects will only appear in small studies (due to publication bias, poor study design, confirmation bias on the part of the investigators, etc.), but will not be replicated in larger, better controlled studies.

    Ok, the experiment showed this particular group of healers were not aware of their limitations. What does that say about energy healing in general?

    Depends. Got any good studies that show that energy healing DOES work?

  50. daedalus2u says:

    The Rosa paper is available online

    http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/full/279/13/1005

    A test of a limited number of healing touch practitioners doesn’t prove that all are frauds or deluded, but it does show that those tested were.

    This wasn’t even a test of healing per se, it was a test of whether these people who said they could both detect and modify some sort of energy field couldn’t even detect it. Presumably modifying such a field is much more difficult.

  51. pec says:

    daedalus2u,

    I said this in a previous comment:

    “Another problem with the experiment is that it is not ecologically valid. That is, the subjects were not doing what they would do while practicing energy healing — moving their hands over a patients’ body, making eye contact with the patient, getting into a meditative state of rapport, whatever the real situation normally involves.”

    “This wasn’t even a test of healing per se, it was a test of whether these people who said they could both detect and modify some sort of energy field couldn’t even detect it. Presumably modifying such a field is much more difficult.”

    Not necessarily true at all.

  52. pec says:

    “Got any good studies that show that energy healing DOES work?”

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16893670

    There is a lot of Chinese research on QiQong, over 2,000 in Pub Med, for example.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18080802?ordinalpos=11&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_RVDocSum

  53. pec says:

    Actually I should not have said that alternative science is never published in mainstream journals. I just thought that might explain why Harriet Hall, and other “skeptics” don’t know about it.

  54. daedalus2u says:

    pec, if you require any test to be “ecologically valid”, then there is no way for it to be ethically tested. If only people in need of actual healing can be used as subjects and if the only end point is if they get better. If that experiment were to be attempted, then only the patients the “healer” had a rapport with would get “healed”. Conveniently those would just happen to be (by chance no doubt ;)) the ones who were not as sick.

    You are missing a huge point, the practitioners thought the experimental protocol was valid and something that they would be able to demonstrate their abilities under. If the conditions were such that they couldn’t, but were unable to tell that while the test was going on, what basis is there for believing they can do these things under any circumstances. If they were unable to perform under these conditions, they were not able to tell that while the tests were going on.

    When they are doing the things that they consider their actual healing stuff, the only “feedback” they have that they are doing it right is what they self-generate. They don’t use Dr McCoy’s medical tricorder to monitor the patients’ vital signs and modify their treatments accordingly. If that feedback is unreliable (as the Rosa study does show), then they have no way of knowing when what they are doing is working or isn’t working, so as to modify what they are doing to make it work.

    During the whole history of “therapeutic touch”, the only feedback that practitioners have had was that which they generated. If that feedback doesn’t work, then there is no basis for the entire field. A patient getting better days later doesn’t provide the immediate feedback that would be needed to modify a technique if that technique isn’t working.

    If “eye contact” is important, did the practitioner make “eye contact” with the cells in the tissue culture in the article you just linked to?

  55. qetzal says:

    Thanks for the link, pec.

    I can’t access full text from home, so I can’t evaluate it until Monday. But I’m really looking forward to the methods section where they describe how they applied External Qi to cultured cells.

    As for searching qigong in Pubmed, I agree there are >2000 hits. Glancing over a few, they seem to mostly look at health and biochemical effects of qigong training in humans. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if regular exercise, meditation, breathing exercises, etc., had measurable effects.

    Unfortunately, such studies don’t demonstrate any role for “energy healing.” Physiotherapy, stretching, and other conventional treatments can do the same thing.

    I don’t have the time or inclination to search through all 2000+ refs that include the word qigong. (Note that qiqong returns no hits in PubMed.) So if you know of some specific ones that show effects that appear specific to healing via ‘life energy’ please let me know.

    Otherwise, I’ll pull up your first link on Monday and see if their conclusions are reasonable.

  56. pec says:

    qetzal,

    I linked to articles that described experiments having nothing to do with QiQong exercises. I would like to know what you think of the methods. It is not easy for “skeptics” to dismiss controlled studies published in mainstream journals.

  57. Harriet Hall says:

    I refuse to believe any research coming out of China until it is replicated in a more scientifically rigorous country. China produces overwhelming positive results. Negative studies are simply not acceptable there – researchers would lose face and lose their jobs. When researchers believe in the effect they are looking for, there are any number of ways they can fool themselves. Reading the reports they wrote themselves is often not sufficient for the reader to figure out whether they did something wrong. Good science requires replication in another lab, preferably by researchers who do not have ideological biases.

    The book I reviewed by Oschman (see above) represented the best case by a true believer of the state of the evidence for “energy medicine” at the time it was published, and there was nothing of substance there. The few studies Oschman relied on have still not been replicated.

  58. daedalus2u says:

    Searching on PubMed for “external qigong”, there seemed to be only one hit that was relevant and downloadable.

    http://www.biomedcentral.com/1472-6882/4/5

    It showed a small effect in small pilot studies but as the studies got bigger the effects got smaller and became non-significant in the largest retest. There is the possibility of bias because the sham treatments always occurred before the Qigong treatments and the cultures were sensitive to temperature variations.

  59. qetzal says:

    pec,

    Regarding the citations you linked in your comment on 23 Mar 2008 at 7:40 am: in both papers, the authors say they treated the cells with Qi essentially as follows:

    Briefly, cells were transferred from the incubator to
    the treatment room where they were treated by YXQG-EQ
    for 5 min. The cells were then returned to the incubator and
    kept there until further treatment or analysis was performed.

    There’s no indication that control cells were sham treated by transferring them to the treatment room, holding for 5 min (without Qi treatment), and then returning to the incubator. The authors refer to two earlier papers on their methods. I could only find one on line, but it doesn’t indicate a proper sham treatment of control cells either.

    I’m no expert in cultured cells, but I know that taking cells out of an incubator for 5-10 minutes can easily have effects due to temperature changes, CO2 level changes, etc. The authors don’t seem to be controlling for that. Thus, it’s unreasonable to conclude that Qi treatment had any effect. All observed effects in their papers could be simply due to the differences in handling between ‘treated’ and control cells.

    I’ll give the authors some credit for doing and publishing their studies. Their intentions seem to be good. But their study designs are inadequate.

  60. qetzal says:

    OK, having looked at the rest of pec’s links, I take back my comment on the authors’ good intentions. Excerpts from pec’s last link, an article listing Yan Xin as first author:

    Dr. Yan Xin is a chief physician recognized by the academic department of Ministry of Health of China. He is also hailed as a ‘‘miracle doctor’’ by the thousands who have benefited from his healing.1–3 Starting in 1985, his numerous healing cases, often involving difficult-to-cure diseases have been reported in a number of books and newspaper reports.1–3 As his reputation spread, more and more patients from all over the world sought his help. To satisfy the growing demands, Dr. Yan invented healing lectures for a large number of audiences. Since his first public healing lecture in early 1987, he has been invited by various government authorities and academic organizations to conduct hundreds of such lectures with large audiences.1–3 A number of cases on the health benefits of attending his lectures have been reported.1–3 These phenomena have been named Yan Xin Life Science Technology phenomena,4 which have also been known as Yan Xin phenomena2 or Yan Xin Qigong phenomena.3

    The strong responses from physical detectors such as thermoluminescent dosimeters (TLD)22 and liquid crystals23 to the presence of external qi from Dr. Yan have been repeatedly measured. Although the responses from such detectors by no means capture the entire nature of external qi from Dr. Yan, they nevertheless firmly establish the physical nature of external qi from Dr. Yan. The seminal studies conducted by Dr. Yan and his collaborators in several critical areas of life science such as genetic engineering, cancer research, and anti-aging research have produced breakthroughs long sought by the research community.9–14,20,21,26 These breakthroughs at the molecular and cellular levels correlate well with Yan Xin Life Science Technology healing cases of various diseases.1–3 Important new facts in physical sciences have also been discovered which may provide new insights on the fundamental laws of physics.27–31 On a more practical side, Yan Xin Life Science Technology has demonstrated the capability of changing reaction conditions of certain chemical reactions and thereby controlling these reactions.32,33 The application of Yan Xin Life Science Technology in improving large-scale industrial productions of antibiotics has also been reported to be successful.21

    In all these experiments, a ‘‘human-matter’’ system (i.e., Dr. Yan emits his external qi to non-living substances) was adopted. In these human-matter experiments, the selected experimental samples were very stable under normal conditions and could only be affected by Dr. Yan. Therefore he is the most important participant in the design and execution of these experiments. Because qi emission is governed by its own set of rules internally as well as by a number of factors externally, Dr. Yan has to be consulted in deciding whether the experiment can proceed and how and when the emission of external qi should start.

    It goes on to claim Dr. Yan’s Qi can affect the structure of water, change the half-life of radioisotopes, and expose radiation dosimeters, besides healing thousands of their difficult-to-cure diseases.

    Let’s see: cult-like leader? Check. Self-aggrandizement? Check. Claims of miracle cures? Check. Other outrageous claims? Check. Disclaimer about special rules and veto power for the mystic when it comes to any testing? Check.

    I could go on, but there’s little point. We’ve seen this pattern all too often.

  61. Fifi says:

    China and Chinese culture’s relationship to technology, science and religion is quite unique and interesting. It’s not surprising that the science coming out of a totalitarian regime, that’s still in the process of becoming an industrial giant from very agrarian roots, is influenced by many other things than truth seeking.

    These linked articles took a skeptical look at this back in 1996 and the main points seem to hold true today too. It’s an interesting read on the science/pseudoscience conflict as played out in another cultural arena.

    http://www.csicop.org/si/9607/china.html
    http://www.csicop.org/si/9609/china.html

  62. mufi says:

    pec wrote:

    “Yes it does seem that order emerges in material systems, I agree with that. But I believe it’s because the material systems are expressions of higher order systems.”

    For all I know, that’s true, but then we’re back to the empirical question: how does one test for “higher orders systems”?

    After all, it seems likely to me that the observable characteristics of a single-order system (whether we agree to call it “material”, “physical”, or something else) and a hierarchically-ordered system would be the same. If so, how would a science-based medical researcher (or a New Age guru, for that matter) recognize the difference? Would it even matter, so long as s/he produces effective treatments for human ailments?

    And AI is relevant here, not only because computers and robots can already reproduce (or, in some cases, out-perform) certain mental faculties of the human brain. It’s also relevant because of the epistemic (and ethical) problems that related thought experiments raise (see the sci-fi movie of the same name for some examples).

    You’re right that we’re treading more in the domain of philosophy than science or medicine here, but there’s certainly overlap, as well. (Indeed I tend to think of scientists as “experimental philosophers.”)

    mufi

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