Why Are Deepak Chopra & EMDR Important for Science and Life?

Pseudoscience wastes time, resources, and leads to public skepticism of science.

Posted Feb 07, 2014

Thanks to a 2012 article by Scott Lilienfeld, I have been thinking about how and why we should battle pseudoscience. Now if Deepak Chopra wants to help people by telling them what the afterlife looks like (because he professes to be one of the few that knows), why should I or anyone else care? After all, people are listening and paying good money and feeling a mood boost in the short-term. Consumers are adults and Deepak Chopra is upfront about his thoughts on the after-life:

There are traditions that say the in-body experience is a socially induced collective hallucination. We do not exist in the body. The body exists in us. We do not exist in the world. The world exists in us.

Do me a favor and read that twice. Think about whether it makes sense or is some fuzzy, close approximation of science. In case you think this is cherrypicking, let me share his most recent comment on his Twitter account, followed by an astounding 1,770,000 people:

"Our body is the recycling of the ecosystem perceived as a material object. Our true self exists in the domain of #CosmicConsciousness"

Again, take a second to ponder this bit of wisdom. Ask yourself whether we are talking about science or pseudoscience. There are a few common features of pseudoscience:

  • Use of obscurantist language (think twice if you rely on jargon such as "positive polarity" and "genomic health"  to describe how you will improve my life)
  • Reversed burden of proof (if your neighbor mentions that at 3am, she saw two Yeti's making out in the backyard, it is not you the skeptic that needs to provide persuasive evidence)
  • Overreliance on testimonial and anecdotal evidence (think twice if this is what your website is filled with to tout your impressive skills)
  • Absence of boundary conditions (anybody can be helped and important contexts such as poverty, traumatic brain injuries, and severe schizophrenia are just bumps in the road)
  • Absence of self-correction (no one is encouraged to ask questions and if they do, they will be prematurely discarded/dismissed)
  • Emphasis on confirmation rather than refutation (there is no attempt to consider the possibility that something might be askew or wrong and challenges will be viewed as threats to be defended)

With this as a backdrop, let's turn to something more important than people mixing quantum physics and consciousness to crack the code of happiness. Instead, let's deal with a very popular variant of therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). In her 1998 book, Francine Shapiro, the founder of EMDR states that this is "hailed as the most important method to emerge in psychotherapy in decades, EMDR has successfully treated psychological problems and illnesses in more than one million sufferers worldwide, with a rapidity that defies belief."

Defies belief is an excellent choice of words! Before we get into what EMDR is, let me share the laundry list of problems that Francine Shapiro claims can be treated with this so-called breakthrough therapy: pain control, grief, delusions, ritual abuse, phobias, generalized anxiety, paranoid schizophrenia, learning disabilities, eating disorders, substance abuse, pathological jealousy, rage, guilt, multiple personality disorder, cancer, AIDS, somatic disorders, couples therapy, and for children as young as two. With such amazing capabilities, you would expect some impressive scientific support. Expect to be disappointed.

So what is EMDR? EMDR has 8 distinct phases. In the first phase, a typical assessment takes place where a therapist collects information on a client's history, establishes a treatment plan, and traumatic triggers are examined. During the second phase or stabilization phase, the therapeutic relationship becomes the center of attention. Clients focus on setting realistic goals, acquiring information about their symptoms, and developing personal resources that will help them through the course of their treatment. Phases three through eight constitute the “EMDR sessions,” during which the therapist encourages the client to recall the physiological and traumatic aspects of a past experience while privately repeating a negative personal statement that the client has come to associate with the traumatic memory. After the memory has been evoked the client will engage in a process of dual stimulation, which entails having the therapist shift a finger left and right for an extended period of time while the client follows the finger with their eyes (other dual stimuli may also be used). After the client has finished following the therapists’ finger with their eyes they are then instructed to blank the traumatic scene from the mind and to take a deep breath. The process is then repeated until significant reductions in anxiety are documented.

If you want a visual of what is being asked of trauma survivors, watch a snippet of this video with the request that you pay careful attention to the unusual neurological explanation provided by the therapist from 3:55 to 5:30: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zBtqWrs2-K0

Why is there a controversy concerning EMDR? For a single reason: what works is not new, and what is new does not work. In EMDR, clients are being exposed to their most feared thoughts, feelings, and memories about their trauma in a slow, systematic manner. This is not new, this is exposure therapy, a central element of cognitive-behavioral therapies for trauma and other anxiety conditions. EMDR works by recalling aversive memories and over time, these memories are no longer as threatening, destabilizing, and disruptive toward daily living and the pursuit of satisfying and meaningful life goals. Eye movements, the new part that EMDR brings, are unnecessary and do not contribute anything to the health and well-being of clients. In a 2001 meta-analysis of 34 studies and a 2013 meta-analysis of 7 studies specific to veterans suffering from combat-related post-traumatic stress disorder, EMDR does not fare better than exposure therapy. This is important because the big controversy about whether EMDR is useful hinges on whether you require a trauma survivor to recall a terrifying memory in detail while simultaneously moving their eyes back and forth while for instance, following a bright light bouncing from one side of the room to the other. If these odd eye movement exercises are not important, then what you have is exposure therapy with a useless add-on.

If I conduct exposure therapy sessions with trauma survivors by having them sit atop a pile of elmo dolls, have I created a new, breakthrough therapy that is deserving of a new name ("Elmo Mood Dysregulation Reorganization" or the latest EMDR)? Should I create a commercial institute where therapists pay hundreds of dollars to receive authorized training in how to position elmo dolls for optimal effects and licensure for Level I, II, and III Elmo proficiency? No. It's just exposure therapy with a funky sitting arrangement that adds zero therapeutic benefit.

Why does any of this matter? Am I being too skeptical? After all, people are being helped somewhat with EMDR. Let me give you two reasons why you should care.

First, the scientific evidence is clear that EMDR is no better and perhaps slightly worse than the best treatment available for trauma survivors - so why ask trauma survivors to invest limited time and effort into eye-movement activities, have them believe in the importance of eye-movement activity in coping with trauma, when they can be spending this valuable currency elsewhere? This is the opportunity cost of pseudoscience. Trauma survivors who come into therapy are suffering and  important areas of life are disrupted from being able to work, being able to show loving and caring feelings to other people, and being able to leave their home and socialize without the desire to hide/conceal/avoid. Their time should be spent on what works and what is important to them - not arbitrary and ineffective ideas concocted by therapists. We should treat clients with the utmost respect and one way of doing this is assuring that moments spent with them have a purpose and will be of value.

Second, there is the downstream effect of pseudoscience. When the public is exposed to quackery, this often generalizes to a lack of confidence and trust in psychologists and science. They no longer turn to psychologists for help. They no longer read articles about the latest insights about the human condition. Bad science is a barrier for people getting help. Bad science prevents the dissemination of knowledge and wisdom. Bad science gets in the way of human evolution because people stop listening.

It's for these reasons that we need to correct misconceptions in the field and combat pseudoscience. To do otherwise is to disrespect the public, whose taxes fund our work, whose kids attend our classes, and whose potential is too precious to squander.

Being able to distinguish "good science" from pseudoscience may be one of the most important skills we need to instill in the current Big Data era where there are no boundaries about information on the web and the ease of publishing.