Brain Myths

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Can The New Havening Technique Really Cure Trauma and Fear?

Lack of evidence for Havening Therapy leaves me concerned and unconvinced.

I've received an invitation to an event happening in London this coming weekend, fronted by the stage hypnotist turned self-help guru Paul McKenna. The two-day seminar is for healthcare professionals to learn about the Havening (Amygdala Depotentiation) Technique. According to a press release, the technique is a "system of scientific procedures" that involves eye movements and touching people on their arms. Compared with NLP and talking therapies, Havening can apparently "cure people quicker and cure multiple problems in one go", including "trauma, fear, distressing memories and compulsions". McKenna says: "I can now do in minutes what used to take months."

What is it?

The Havening Technique was developed by US neuroscientist* Ronald Ruden (he'll be there at the London workshop). If you go to his website, you find the following description (pdf) of how the technique is used as a form of trauma therapy: "First is activation of the emotional content of the [traumatic] event by imaginal recall ... A gentle and soothing touch is then applied to the upper arms, palms and around the eyes. It produces an extrasensory response of safety that arises from the evolutionary equivalent of what a mother’s touch does at the time of birth. It is innately wired. Concurrently with havening touch the therapist distracts the individual. Since the mind cannot hold two thoughts simultaneously, the use of distraction displaces the recalled event from working memory and prevents it from re-activating the amygdala."

In an article for Dentistry Today, Ruden provides a more elaborate account of the havening process, in which the patient is stroked, rolls and shifts their eyes, takes deep breaths and sings Old McDonald Had a Farm. The eye-movement part is reminiscent of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing), a form of trauma therapy which is controversial but is supported by evidence

Does it work?

Paul McKenna says he's used the Havening technique on "thousands of cases" leading "to the most profound changes". Ruden's website claims "Scientific studies have shown that it is amazingly effective at relieving sadness and reducing stress, trauma and compulsion." But when I conducted a search on Google Scholar for "Havening Technique" or simply "Havening" + "trial", it returned zero trials. I did another search on "thought field therapy" - a related technique that incorporates elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine - and found a Norwegian trial (pdf) that reported moderately positive results. But crucially the control group was stuck on a waiting list so any observed benefits could just have been a placebo effect (an explanation made more likely by the lack of blinding - that is, participants and researchers knew who was in which condition).

I noticed Ruden has a "scientific foundation" page on his website, but there aren't any trials listed there. He does, however, discuss Havening as a form of "psychosensory" therapy alongside other examples including Emotional Freedom Techniques and acupuncture.  

I want to be completely fair. Consistent with Havening, there is evidence that memories are particularly amenable to change just after they've been recalled. There is also evidence that being touched affects emotional processing. However, putting these two broad facts together does not necessarily make a recipe for a breakthrough touchey therapy. If it does, this needs to be demonstrated in properly controlled trials. These could address important issues - such as, what kind of clients does the therapy work for, and for whom should it be avoided; how long do the benefits really last, and how to optimse the process. 

For now, there are other reasons I'm unconvinced by Havening (following my own 5-step self-defence programme against neurononsense). The claims are too good to be true and are subject to hype. The press release, issued by an entertainment-based PR firm, says this weekend is a "rare chance" to learn this "revolutionary technique", which "could change the face of therapy".

There are also gratuitous, embarrasingly simplistic neuroscience references. "Havening (ADT) helps mainly for one reason," the press release says, "the underlying neurobiology is understood". In his Dentistry Today article, Ruden observes that feeling safe increases [the neurotransmitter] serotonin in the brain and that being touched increases serotinin, therefore ... you guessed it.   

Why I'm worried

I would rather our health professionals spent their money (tickets cost £599 plus VAT) undertaking training in a form of therapy, such as CBT, that's been judged as having a robust evidence base by NICE - the UK government's independent heath advisory body. Second, the hype and misinformation around havening could well have a knock-on effect on the reputation of, and public trust in, bona fide therapies. Third, it's naive to assume that untested therapies will, at worst, have no effect. Diverting vulnerable people away from effective treatments is harmful. Fourth, it concerns me the way the promotional materials for this Havening technique misappropriate neuroscientific jargon. There may well be a place for complementary medicine, but I think it's wrong to dress up non-scientific alternative therapies as if they are an evidence-based treatment supported by mainstream science. 

--Further reading: Wendy Cousins reviews (pdf) Ruden's book based on Havening "When the Past Is Always Present: Emotional Traumatization, Causes, and Cures"

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*The promotional materials around this weekend's event describe Ruden as a neuroscientist. He is a medic, but according to the biography published on his own website, his PhD was in organic chemistry. 

Christian Jarrett, Ph.D is the editor of the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and staff writer on their magazine The Psychologist.

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