Monthly Archives: June 2013

A brief experiment for Tappers

Yeah, I'm a Stargate fan. What of it? That Sanctuary thing was dreadful though.

Yeah, I’m a Stargate fan. What of it? That Sanctuary thing was dreadful though.

This one’s for all the tappers out there – people who believe in invisible energy meridians that are distributed throughout the body, and that stimulating the end-points of them can lead to positive effects. My contention is that tapping actually has no effect at all on the body’s energy meridians, because the body doesn’t have energy meridians; they don’t exist. My alternative hypothesis is that the simple act of tapping while reciting tapping ‘scripts’ may simple serve to distract you from the issue at hand.

I want to propose a little experiment to test this. The next time you feel the urge to tap, do some ‘sham’ tapping instead. What I mean is, do some tapping that shouldn’t work. I notice that none of these diagrams of tapping points feature any points below the waist*, so tap yourself on the leg instead. While doing that, recite something else, rather than your normal tapping script. Anything you like; a nice poem, your shopping list, whatever. For extra nerd-cred points you could try the Bene Gesserit litany against fear. If I’m right, and it’s the simple act of performing the ritual which is responsible for the (putative) effects, then this routine should be as effective as your normal one.

Of course, this is a highly unscientific experiment in lots of ways. Ideally we’d have a large group of people, subject half of them to a course of ‘real’ tapping and the other half to a course of ‘sham’ tapping, and then look at the different effects. Crucially, the people would be ‘blind’, in that they wouldn’t know anything about tapping or what the hypotheses and aims of the experiment were. If you’re already a committed tapper, you’re probably fairly invested in believing that tapping works, and as a corollary, are perhaps unlikely to be fully invested in my ‘sham’ tapping protocol. Nevertheless, humour me, and give it a go with an open mind. I’d be very interested to hear your impressions.

*Although there’s one obvious bodily end-point to stimulate down there… HUUUURRRRR.

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Paging Susan Greenfield: South Korea has made up a new problem – ‘Digital Dementia’

my-brain-hurtsA slew of bullshit news pieces has hit the interwebz in the last couple of days, driven by a couple of articles in the usual rigour-phobic press sources. They focus on a South Korean report which claims to identify a syndrome known as ‘Digital Dementia’ in some young people. This syndrome, it’s claimed, is characterised by a deterioration in cognitive abilities brought about by over-use of digital devices.

The Telegraph reports on it here, the Daily Fail here, and Fox News have a video report here.

The fact that ‘Digital Dementia’ seems to be a condition that’s just been made-up for the purposes of the report, and no-one actually seems able to describe what it is in any precise terms doesn’t dim the enthusiasm of these news sources at all, naturally.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, a widely-circulated quote from Dr Byun Gi-won, (of the Balance Brain Centre in Seoul), goes:

“Over-use of smartphones and game devices hampers the balanced development of the brain. Heavy users are likely to develop the left side of their brains, leaving the right side untapped or underdeveloped,”

Players of Neurobollocks-bingo can put a big cross on the ‘Left/Right brain neuromyth’ section of their score-card, then.

I can’t find any further mention on the internet of a) Dr Byun Gi-Won, b) this Balance Brain centre in Seoul, or c) the actual report that these news stories are based on. I might be missing something, so if any readers do manage to track down any information related to any of those things, please let me know in the comments. In the meantime, just file this one under ‘bullshit irresponsible scaremongering, with a laughably transparent veneer of made-up neuroscience’ and move on.

Further thoughts on EFT – Tapping as a safety behaviour?

CBT_Anxiety_TreatmentI’ve written before about the Emotional Freedom Technique and Tapping; a pretty ridiculous-looking form of therapy that involves tapping oneself on the face and body in order to stimulate the end-points of ‘energy meridians’. It’s clear that this is essentially bogus, for the blank and uncontroversial reason that such energy meridians in the body simply don’t exist.

However, it’s possible that people derive some benefit from tapping/EFT, even though the mechanism behind it is bunk. The internet is awash with people who claim to have had extremely positive experiences with all kinds of things, including reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture, any of the various kinds of energy healing, and a whole host of other new-age touchy-feely alternative-medicine approaches; all of which have been determined to be basically ineffective in controlled trials. The positive experiences that people have with these things can be fairly safely attributed to some combination of the placebo effect and regression-to-the-mean. Most likely the same is true for those who derive some benefit from EFT/tapping.

So far, so uncontroversial. In this view, tapping is basically harmless and the only people suffering from it are people who willingly pay money for bogus therapies. However, I want to make an alternative suggestion; in people who tap for issues related to anxiety, tapping might actually be harmful, because it might come to be a safety behaviour.

Safety behaviours are well-studied characteristics of anxiety disorders, and the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) literature has many examples. This article explains them pretty well, but briefly, a safety behaviour is something that prevents engagement and exposure to the anxiety-provoking stimulus. For example, imagine someone who experiences panic attacks on trains, but  needs to take a train on their daily commute to work. One way of coping with this issue would be to simply get off the train at the next stop when the anxiety started to increase. A good CBT therapist doing exposure-therapy with this patient would instead recommend that they remain on the train and cope with their anxiety in other ways; this exposure to the feared situation, and the experience of being there and not having a panic attack (or having one, but then feeling the anxiety gradually decrease again) is the cornerstone of exposure therapy, and a very powerful weapon in the CBT therapists arsenal. In short then, safety behaviours are unhelpful in that they prevent exposure to the feared situation; they’re seductive, in that they reduce anxiety in the short term (by getting off the train, the situation is resolved and the panic attack doesn’t happen) but maintain, and perhaps even strengthen the association between a feared-situation and anxiety in the long-term. Some patients require many hours of therapy and exercises in order to reduce their safety behaviours, and this is generally a helpful process.

Tapping appears to be used a lot for anxiety relief, as this video (and many other videos/sites) suggests. My thought about tapping for anxiety then is, what if tapping becomes a safety behaviour? Tapping in an anxiety-provoking situation might serve to reduce the anxiety just because of simple distractibility. In fact it may be the spoken or sub-vocalised ‘scripts’ that accompany tapping that are more effective; something recognised by many previous authors. Unfortunately, this might have the effect of preventing the full exposure to a feared situation that is necessary to  learn that the fear will eventually reduce, and that the situation can be coped with. Just as for other safety behaviours, tapping might well be beneficial and highly reinforcing in the short-term (i.e. it reduces the anxiety) but harmful in the longer term. Some safety behaviours can be highly dysfunctional and, once entrenched, very difficult to eliminate.

Neuroleadership – lots of old-fashioned psychology, very little neuroscience

leadership

Happening right now (19th-21st of June) in Sydney is the 2013 Asia-Pacific Neuroleadership Summit, organised by the Neuroleadership Institute. There are two other summits happening this year, one in London and another in Washington, and the summits have been running annually since 2007. Neuroleadership appears to be a ‘thing’ then, but what is it exactly? The term was apparently first coined by David Rock in this 2006 article in the magazine ‘Strategy+Business’. According to the front page of the institute’s website, neuroleadership is:

“Neuroleadership is an emerging field of study connecting neuroscientific knowledge with the fields of leadership development, management training, change management, consulting and coaching.”

Sounds fairly reasonable. Unfortunately, the amount of genuine applied neuroscience involved appears to be very little, and in fact the focus appears to be more on fairly standard psychology concepts that have been knocking around for years, if not decades. The program for the summit focuses on concepts like cognitive biases, social psychology, stress management, ‘wisdom’, and managing performance. These all strike me as being psychological phenomena, and very amenable to investigation and explanation at a psychological, rather than neuroscientific, level. And in fact, organisational and business psychologists have been doing that for some time. Reading through more detailed highlights of last year’s (2012) summit also reveals little mention of neuroscience, and lots more fairly standard applications of psychological concepts.

I’ve been pretty much unable to find any genuine pieces of research related to neuroleadership either; a Google Scholar search on ‘neuroleadership’ turns up lots of opinion-type pieces, but nothing of any real substance.

There are some serious neuroscientists involved with the neuroleadership institute. One of them is Matt Lieberman, a professor at UCLA, and, by any reasonable measure, an outstanding scientist. I was genuinely a big fan of Matt’s work during my PhD and while my changing research interests mean I haven’t followed his more recent work as closely, I have a great deal of respect for him. Interestingly, I found a draft of a paper by Matt (and Naomi Eisenberger, another faculty member at UCLA) which you can view here (PDF). The paper discusses business scenarios from the point of view of social cognitive neuroscience, but again, the (very simplified) neuroscience in the paper seems to be more of an adjunct, or add-on to the main message, which is that attention needs to be paid to the social and emotional needs of workers, in order to maximise their performance and job satisfaction. This doesn’t seem particularly ground-breaking, and makes me wonder what precisely neuroscience is adding to the issue. Prof. Lieberman’s due to speak at all three neuroleadership summits this year, and is on the advisory board of the institute. Maybe he just likes some free trips around the world every year.*

If one was feeling magnanimous, the field of neuroleadership could be described as an emerging discipline with lofty ambitions, but one that has yet to really define its remit and fully understand its limitations. A more cynical evaluator could characterise it as a gosh-darn whizzo wheeze to re-package some tired old concepts from 1980s organisational psychology textbooks and make them all shiny and new by sticking ‘neuro’ on the front and having lots of pictures of CGI brains in your presentations. Regular readers will know that a surfeit of magnanimity is not something I tend to suffer from.

It’s hard to get too splenetic about neuroleadership. It may be bullshit, but it’s not clinics ripping off parents with therapies that don’t work or people doing unnecessary SPECT scans on kids. Ultimately, it’s one set of business people selling some bollocks to another set; all they’re really doing is wasting their own time and effort.

*And honestly, who can blame him? Academic life has few enough perks. Seriously; good luck to him.

Prism Brain Mapping

286-1Prism Brain Mapping is an online assessment package that promises… Well… it promises all kind of things, from “Enhanced selling skills” to “Developing female leaders” to 360 degree assessments”, whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. It appears to be a pretty big deal, with practitioners all around the world and a certification program for new ‘practitioners’.

So, what is it? It’s basically a re-packaging of some old psychometric tests with a neuroscience-y sounding spin. Or in their words:

“It represents a simple, yet comprehensive, synthesis of research by some of the world’s leading neuroscientists into how the human brain works, and why people, who have similar backgrounds, intelligence, experience, skills, and knowledge, behave in very different ways. The instrument’s graphical representation of the human brain serves, not only to remind people of its biological basis, but also to help demonstrate the equally valuable merits of specific cerebral modes.”

The central idea seems to be to divide the brain up into four colour-coded segments, like so:

brainhemispheres

…and then produce a matching colour-coded report that divides the responses up into several behavioural domains:

prism_report

Quite what those four domains have to do with the colour-coded segments of the brain is never really made clear. Of course, this is just another version of the hoary old left/right brain neuromyth. Needless to say, it also has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘brain mapping’ in any even vaguely-meaningful sense.

Prism also provides an exhaustive 42-page ‘Professional report’ (sample version here) that incorporates all kinds of psychometric-type measures, including emotional intelligence, the ‘Big Five‘ personality traits, and ‘Mental toughness’ as well as their custom (i.e. made-up) colour-coded profiles. The whole site is awash with neurobollocks, particularly their “Science behind Prism” page which basically waffles ‘Because: BRAINS!’ for 1500 words.

I got curious about who was behind this. The ideas behind it are utter drivel, but the implementation is actually fairly sophisticated, and they’ve certainly done their homework on the brain stuff. There are no names at all on the site, and that only made me even more curious; however, one of their promotional leaflets mentions something called the Center for Applied Neuroscience. A quick whois look-up on that domain reveals it was registered by someone called Charles De Garston who (from his LinkedIn profile) is the owner of another business named Team Dynamics International. Also heavily involved in Prism is Lisa De Garston, who runs a Prism-related group on LinkedIn.  Neither of these two seem to have any (higher) academic qualifications at all, let alone any in neuroscience or psychology. The only other name I can identify who’s involved is Andrew Sillitoe, who runs a coaching/leadership/consultancy/pointing-out-the-bleedin’-obvious business called Managing the Mist.

So, a good example of an apparently successful business built on a slippery foundation of the most reekingly odious  effluent. I’m pretty much in awe of their audacity to be honest; they’ve spent a great deal of time researching this stuff and coming up with something that’s just plausible enough for an uninformed audience to swallow, and their implementation is highly professional and very slick. I almost feel like cheering them on, but that doesn’t change the fact that you’d get about as much insight into ‘brain mapping’ from holding an actual glass prism up to your ear than from doing these online psychometric tests.

Prism Brain Mapping was previously the subject of a brief post by NeuroSkeptic, which is (of course) worth a read. Also, many thanks to Amy Brann who brought it to my attention on Twitter.