Wired to the Kitchen Sink: Studying Weird Claims for Fun and Profit

An evaluation of Dr. John Upledger’s craniosacral therapy illustrates an exercise proposed
for skeptics to develop critical thinking and a better understanding of human psychology
After reading some particularly egregious nonsense, you have probably asked yourself; “How could anyone in his right mind believe that?” There is an answer to your question. In. fact, the person who believes the nonsense will usually provide the answer himself if you give him half a chance. Go to the source. Read the believer’s account of how he came to believe. He will probably give a clear enough description that you can see where he went wrong. It will give you an insight into human. psychology. It will probably ais he very entertaining. Here is an example of how it works.

I recently heard of craniosacral therapy. It is a method some osteopathic physicians use to restore health by adjusting the bones of the skull and sacrum. Anatomists can demonstrate that the skull bones are fused together in adulthood and cannot move. Other fallacies inherent in the therapy are too numerous to list: craniosacral therapy is totally implausible and has been thoroughly debunked elsewhere.

So how could anyone in his right mind believe in it? To find out, I went to the horse’s mouth. My local library had a book entitled Your Inner Physician and You: CranioSacral Therapy and SomatoEmotional Release, by Dr. John E. Upledger, who is a major proponent of craniosacral therapy. I decided to read his account with as open a mind as I could summon, and give him a fair chance to convince me.

He describes his eureka moment. He was assisting a neurosurgeon by holding the dura (membrane surrounding the brain and spinal cord) steady while the surgeon removed a calcified plaque. He wasn’t doing a very good job of holding still. The surgeon complained. Most of us would have thought our own muscles were at fault; however, Upledger observed that the dura was fluctuating up and down at about ten cycles per minute, overcoming his attempts to hold it still. Nobody had ever observed this before.

He hypothesized that this “craniosacral rhythm” was intrin-sic to human health. Since the cerebrospinal fluid within the dura is in a closed space, the skull bones must move in and out to accommodate the rhythmic changes. The nervous system controls the rest of the body, so if the bones are not moving freely, nerve conduction might be abnormal and health might suffer. Perhaps he had found the basic cause of all disease.

He tried mobilizing the cranial bones through hands-on manipulation, and convinced himself he could feel the bones move one-sixteenth of an inch or more. Patients with autism, seizures, cerebral palsy, headaches, dyslexia, colic, asthma, and other diseases reported dramatic improvement. He found that well people treated with monthly adjustments reported more energy, felt happier, and were sick less often.

He felt he had achieved a glimpse into the “core.” He states, “I’m not quite sure as yet what the core is all about, but I do know that at times the craniosacral system feels like the entrée into the deepest region of the patient’s (and my own) total being. I’m not quite sure as yet what the ‘total being’ is all about, but it feels like the craniosacral system is where it all comes together, whatever it is.”

So far, he had failed to convince me. It seems obvious that he had experienced an illusion (ideomotor activity; as experienced by Ouija boarders and water witchers). His false perception was reinforced when patients seemed to respond to treatment (perhaps from placebo effect, suggestion, hypnosis, a wish to agree with the doctor, the natural tendency of symptoms to improve with time, hands-on massage therapy, or whatever). I found his claims implausible and unbelievable.

This was bad enough, but then he really got carried away.

He thought he had found a “cure-all,” but apparently it wasn’t enough to cure all, since he proceeded to add other treatments to his armamentarium. He discovered tissue memory he found his hands “almost moving by themselves” to certain areas of the patient’s body that seemed to contain some sort of memory of an old injury. He could feel heat and pulsations: under his hands these increased, then decreased until the sensations seemed to stop. At that point the patient’s pain would subside. The patient sometimes felt an emotion (fear, anger) and at that time or later might remember a forgotten injury.

He proceeded to discover energy cysts (energy from an injury supposedly forms a ball deep in the tissues and stays there until released), somatoemotional release (touching the patient and giving permission allows old traumatic memories to surface and ventilate), and healing energy (which he transmits from the fingers of one hand to the other hand through the patient’s body). Next he tried hypnosis. He regressed a patient to age two days, where she remembered her grandmother saying she should never have been born; insight caused her symptoms to disappear. He asked to talk to a patient’s Inner Physician, who would explain the cause of the illness. One Inner Physician appeared to the patient in the form of a seagull and asked to be addressed as “Mermaid.” (I am not making this up.)

He found that combinations of therapies worked even better than one at a time. Multiple hands with multiple therapists got results logarithmically faster. He tried therapy in float tanks: it worked wonders. He tried swimming with dolphins: multiple therapists surrounded the patient and were told to silently encourage the dolphins’ freedom of choice, and to think that the dolphins were at least equal to them in knowledge and skill, and probably superior. (Perhaps this was true.) Dolphins spontaneously came up and touched the therapist’s back to relieve the patient’s symptoms. In one case, they reduced a leg-length discrepancy from three inches to one inch. At the same time the therapists’ own skills were enhanced in “some non-conscious way.”

Onward and upward, enthusiasm undaunted, he tried sound therapy for an orchestra conductor. Hearing a cello play a concert “A” tone caused back pain; “G” relieved upper and lower back pain, while “B” worked only for his upper back.

He would try anything his intuition suggested to him. He sensed that a patient had excess energy, so he grounded the patient’s big toe to a drainpipe with copper wire, and-lo and behold-it worked! He successfully applied the same therapy to a woman with sympathetic reflex dystrophy who was in so much pain she would scream when the therapist’s hand came within three inches of her body (!?). He had her husband connect her to the kitchen sink at home with a thirty-foot copper grounding wire so she could get around the house. (My hus-band says this sounds like a reasonable way to control a wife, but he may be prejudiced.)

Upledger never reports a failure. Everything seems to work for him. With that kind of reinforcement, how could he doubt? He is an intelligent and educated man and is admirable in many ways. You have to respect his creativity, imagination, and the courage to try unorthodox things in defiance of traditional medical education. New ideas should be encouraged: eventually some will lead to breakthroughs. It is obvious that he believes he has helped patients and patients believe they have been helped.

If the skull bones really could move as much as one-sixteenth of an inch, it would be easy enough to measure and prove it. Unfortunately, Upledger is so convinced his treatments work that he has no motivation to prove the effect is real. He wants to keep on truckin’ and to “spread the word.” He doesn’t pause to reflect that if his hypotheses were demon-strated to be true, it would be a major scientific discovery worthy of a Nobel Prize. He doesn’t stop to think that he is subjecting his patients’ money, time, health, and perhaps even their lives to unproven treatments.

Evolution has given the human mind a great ability and desire to find patterns everywhere and the motivation to seek explanations. If we can’t find meaning, we will invent it. If something seems to work once, we will repeat it with the expectation that it might work again. We have a tendency to jump to conclusions because there is a survival value to deciding quickly. We rely strongly on personal testimonials, because until recently (in an evolutionary sense) that’s all we had to go by. As any magician knows, our senses are prey to many kinds of illusions. Illusory perceptions allow us to accomplish things we couldn’t otherwise do; for instance, our brains fill in the blind spot in our visual field. All these traits were instrumental in our developmental success as a species.

Every one of us can be fooled, so don’t cast any stones. Be skeptical of weird ideas, but go to the source and listen carefully and sympathetically. Approach it as a case study of self-deception. Try to pinpoint where logic went wrong. You might learn how to better avoid making mistakes yourself, and you just might have a few laughs in the process. Just remember, you’re not laughing at an individual; you’re appreciating the humor in the very human failings we all share.

This article was originally published in Skeptical Inquirer. It later appeared on Quackwatch.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.