Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Brain Gym, The New Age and Alternative Medicine...

When I was a Jehovah's Witness, I also got myself into the New Age/Alternative Medicine (which I will herein call the NA/AM) movement. And after leaving the JW's, finally having the freedom to do whatever I liked, I got more involved in it. Until I realized that much of the beliefs and philosophy of that movement were not that different from the faulty beliefs of the cult I was raised in.

When J, the then-boyfriend who I left the Jehovah's Witnesses with, prompted me to question my beliefs about the JW movement back in 2005, it wasn't long before he also began questioning my NA/AM beliefs (which I was definitely not ready for). You see, at the time, I was working in the Alternative Medicine field. I had a private practice in a Naturopathic clinic practicing a technique called Brain Gym. I was also deeply involved in homeopathy (practising it both for myself and recommending it to my clients). I believed in "energy" and chakras. I was even on my way to getting my Touch for Health certification, a form of Applied Kinesiology. And I was firmly convinced that thoughts could magically change reality (as in "The Law of Attraction"). 

There are many reasons why I left the NA/AM world. I stumbled on this article by Karla McLaren for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry that echoes some of them. McLaren was a leader in the New Age culture. She wrote books on auras, chakras and "energy", toured for those books and gave lectures. In her article, she details how she'd like to be able to communicate scientific and critical thinking to New Age believers, but it's her personal journey from NA/AM believer to skeptic that I want to direct your attention to here. Since McLaren was a prominent figure in the movement it was not so easy for her to disappear from the scene without alienating the community she'd once belonged to:

"The cultural rift is so extreme that anything I say will prove that I have gone to the other side, the wrong side—the side of the enemy."

When you leave a faith system, any faith system, which has a very rigid and defined way of seeing the world, it is difficult for those you are leaving to understand how you could ever question what you once held dear. But as McLaren goes on to say, once the evidence for your beliefs is questioned, you can't turn back:

"I have just seen enough to know that the skeptics and the critical thinkers have some extremely pertinent and meaningful things to say. I've now studied enough skeptical and scientific information about paranormal abilities and events to question many of the precepts upon which my work was based. More important, I've seen enough to understand firsthand the real costs of the New Age."

Like McLaren, I struggled when first realizing my NA/AM beliefs were faulty. For many reasons. One was that I was in the field myself. I wasn't just using these ideas for my own health decisions but I was openly advocating them to my clients, which were mostly school children and educators, although I did have some adult clients as well. It was hard to accept that I'd been profiting from people practicing something that was based on faulty premises. Sure, I was sincere in my beliefs at the time, just as I was sincere as a Jehovah's Witness knocking on people's doors trying to save them from an impending Armageddon. But sincerity does not preclude someone from being wrong.

When I first started questioning my NA/AM beliefs, I came across what I felt at the time were derogatory terms, like SCAM (Supplements, Complementary and Alternative Medicine). This bothered me because I felt the implication was that everyone involved in the movement was a charlatan. And that hadn't been my experience. Sure, there were definitely some unscrupulous characters in the movement, just as there were in the Jehovah's Witnesses. But I saw mostly sincere folks who really wanted to help people. Again, wrong, but sincere. And I was one of them. As McLaren says, "I worked in the field because I have a deep and abiding concern for people, and an honest wish to be helpful in my own culture."

I was never in it for the money. As it was, as a new practitioner, I was barely making enough money to live on although many of my colleagues in the NA/AM field were doing quite well after practicing for a number of years. I often did my work without charge or on a sliding scale, because I sincerely wanted and believed I could help people. As McLaren states:

"If I were in this business for the money, I would have never seriously questioned what I was doing. I would have turned back as soon as my research challenged or threatened me. But I wasn't in it for the money. I was there to help people, often very disturbed people who were trammeling after this cure, that device, these gurus, or those miracle supplements. I tried to help people in my culture make sense of all the ideas and gadgets that were coming at them with such rapidity, but I was unable to make even a dent. When I understood fully that, no matter how good my intentions, the mere mention of things like auras, chakras, and “energy” brought with them a host of truly unsafe and untested assumptions—and that I was leading people into an arena where skepticism and critical thinking were forbidden—I knew that it was time to stop, and stop completely. It was a wrenching, isolating, and despair-filled decision, but since my focus is to help others, it was the only ethical or moral shift for me to make."

This was inevitably the decision I ended up making a few years into my practice. But before I get to that, you may wonder how it was that I got into the NA/AM movement at all. It might seem contradictory, but the Jehovah's Witnesses religion seems to be a breeding ground for alternative medicine. Although the official dogma advises members to steer clear of its many forms, because they deem it as having roots in spiritism, unofficially JW's flock to alt med in large numbers. It's not much of a leap when you've adopted one set of bad premises to accept another set of bad premises. 

So, I got involved in the NA/AM movement back when I was in my late teens, as a JW. I had a variety of health problems (the diagnoses at the time were Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia) and "mainstream medicine" (as it is derisively called in the movement) wasn't of much help to me at that time. So my mother sought out alternative treatments, many of which were being practiced by Jehovah's Witnesses in my local congregation. It wasn't long before I was being treated with homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, reflexology, and various forms of "energy work". And then, when I was about 17, my mother stumbled on a Brain Gym practitioner. 

Brain Gym doesn't sound all that terrible at first. It's a series of physical exercises. In and of itself, exercise is a good thing. Science shows this. But Brain Gym doesn't just claim to be an exercise program; it claims that its 26 movements "integrate body and mind to bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in: concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination, and more." (See the official Brain Gym website for more info on their claims.) Those are some pretty strong claims for a program that isn't based on scientific studies. On their site, they openly acknowledge: "Our primary evidence comes from the countless anecdotal stories reported to us since 1986." (Italics mine.) If you don't know why using anecdotes as data is an unreliable, and possibly dangerous, means of assessing the efficacy of a program or intervention of any sort, see this excellent article over at the Science-Based Medicine blog.

If you're interested, you can read an excellent critique of Brain Gym on the Neurologica blog. Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, also devotes a whole chapter on why Brain Gym is considered pseudoscience.

Speaking of which, I remember my first encounter with the term pseudoscience. I was teaching a Brain Gym workshop to a group of High School teachers. It was a 3-hour workshop which I really enjoyed teaching and taught to educators at all levels. I took people through a Brain Gym stress assessment process and then taught them Brain Gym exercises to help them de-stress. But, for the first time, in the post-workshop feedback form I had every workshop attendee fill out, I was hit with dissenters. The Science teachers tore into Brain Gym. I'd never seen the word pseudoscience used before, nor so often. I was mortified. I didn't know what the word meant but I knew from the context that it couldn't be good. When I got home I was afraid to look it up. I calmed myself with the thought that these Science teachers were just naysaying "unbelievers". But I was unsettled enough by their response to begin doubting what I was teaching. I respected educators and I respected science; ironically, it was my love for science that lead me into wanting to teach Brain Gym in the first place.

But I wasn't ready to go the distance with my doubts at that point. Instead, after the workshop, I called my Brain Gym teacher, and mentor in the movement, and asked her about what these teachers were saying. She just told me to go back and read my books on Brain Gym, "integrate" the material, and do more Brain Gym to figure out how to teach the work better. Sound familiar? In hindsight, it wasn't that different from what I was told as a Jehovah's Witness when I had doubts: read your Bible, pray more and ask God to show you the way. There was no real conversation about the criticisms these teachers were levelling against Brain Gym. There were no scientific studies that I was directed to to validate the work as being legitimate. Just a lot of "feel good" language that didn't make me feel so good.

From those initial doubts, to the doubts that lead me to leave the Jehovah's Witnesses, to the reading and educating I did to become a more rational thinker, I was able to leave Brain Gym and the NA/AM world behind. I may blog on my journey out of the NA/AM movement, but for now, suffice it to say that it was a difficult one; in some ways more difficult than leaving the JW's. Having realized I'd been duped by the religion of my upbringing, it was quite a blow for me to acknowledge that I'd also been duped in this other area of my life, and had built a career on those beliefs, thus bringing others into my ignorance. The NA/AM philosophy, much like the JW dogma, is all-pervasive. The foundation premise of the philosophy is vitalism, which is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as
  1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions
  2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining. 
And when you adopt faith in that concept, much like accepting the concept of God, it shades your most basic decision-making abilities and thought processes. I am still finding remnants of its effects on my everyday judgements.

In 2005, the same year I left the Jehovah's Witnesses, I closed my Brain Gym practice, which had, after 4 years, actually just begun to take off and make me a basic living. My main reason at the time for closing up shop wasn't yet because I fully saw the error of my beliefs, but because I was an emotional mess from my JW exit and didn't have the capacity to help my patients. I felt it was unfair to me and to them to continue to offer my services. I still saw clients on a limited basis and taught the occasional workshop and had fully intended to go back into the Brain Gym work once I regained my health and stability. 

I only gave my last Brain Gym workshop a few years ago. I have now let my official membership lapse and my instructor/practitioners licence has expired.  

Confronting reality has cost me a lot over the years. I lost my community. I lost my career. I've had to start my life over more times than I care to think about. But now that I've been living with a skeptical mindset for a few years now, I can say that it has greatly improved my quality of life overall. While the adjustments to my psyche took a considerable amount of time and energy, not to mention bruises to my strongly entrenched sense of self, I feel more grounded in reality than I ever have before. Having developed basic critical thinking skills, I am now better prepared to make informed and healthy decisions for my life. I also find that a basic understanding of scientific principles, probability and logic has helped me in my relationships with others and with myself.

In a nutshell, I've never felt saner. And sane is a really great place to be.

tall penguin