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Breatharians...or Believe Anythings?

How normal people can come to hold ridiculous beliefs

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

“Truth is confused with the effects of believing something to be true.” Twilight of the Idols, Friedrich Nietzsche (1889)

“There’s a sucker born every minute” — attributed to P.T. Barnum

On the heels of my recent post about Flat Earthers, I was recently asked what I thought about “Breatharians.” I had to confess I’d never heard of them.

A little research revealed that Breatharianism refers to the belief that human beings can sustain themselves through light and air alone, without need food or water. Earlier this summer, the UK newspaper The Sun ran an article declaring that a “‘Breatharian’ mum-and-dad of two have barely eaten for nine years as they live off ‘the universe’s energy.’” The couple, Akahi Ricardo and Camila Castillo, claimed that “food and water is not necessary and that humans can be sustained solely by the energy of the universe.” Castillo even said that she’d “lived on light and ate nothing” throughout her first pregnancy.

Digging a little deeper, other cases of alleged Breatharianism have previously attracted attention in the popular press. In the 1990s, a woman named Ellen Greve, calling herself “Jasmuheen,” claimed to have survived on tea alone for “months and months” based on the belief that she could absorb nutrients from sunlight. In 2013, the New York Daily News described another such case, running the headline, “Seattle woman stops eating and goes ‘breatharian’ for FIVE WEEKS in attempt to survive on water and light” (somewhat misleadingly, the article went on to describe her plan to do so as opposed to following up with the outcome of that plan).

So that there’s no confusion, let’s be clear. Facts exist. Sometimes discarding facts in favor of unsubstantiated beliefs can have lethal consequences. Human beings can NOT sustain themselves like plants, as some Breatharians claim. We need food and water to survive. For that matter, so do plants. This has been proven time and time again with tens of millions of people across the world dying from starvation and malnutrition each year. Several people have been reported to have specifically died from attempting the Breatharian “diet.”

Purported cases of Breatharians successfully surviving on a diet of sunlight and air alone have been exposed as hoaxes. Subsequent investigative reporting found Ricardo and Castillo admitting, “We do eat, just not with the same frequency or intensity as the average person." Needless to say, Greve also admitted to “drinking orange juice regularly and occasionally nibbling chocolate biscuits” and her attempt to fast completely while being filmed for a documentary failed within days.

With that out of the way, let’s use the example of Breatharianism to discuss how it’s possible for “normal” people, free of significant mental illness, to hold beliefs that are improbable if not outright ridiculous.

Here are four reasons why people can come to believe just about anything:

1. While it’s easy to write off Breatharianism off as stupidity, holding improbable and false beliefs can, without question, be a completely normal phenomenon (for what it’s worth, Michelle Pfeiffer has talked about falling in with a Breatharian “cult” years ago when she was a budding Hollywood actress). False beliefs are usually harmless, but can become problematic when they become so consuming as to detract from other life experiences or when they become such a core part of our identity that we feel the need to risk our lives (or the lives of others) on them. The mentally healthy way to hold beliefs is with “cognitive flexibility,” being respectful of facts and consensus, while also able to tolerate dissenting beliefs from others.

2. Improbable beliefs are sometimes grounded in at least a kernel of truth. Breatharianism is a lie, but time-limited fasting can be a safe and normal part of religious practice when done properly and caloric restriction has been linked to longevity in some studies.1 As the saying goes, people sometimes take great liberties with a little bit of knowledge, turning them into dangerous things.

3. In an age when we get much of our news from online sources, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between reliable information, “fake news,” opinion, and pure fiction (see my previous blogpost "Does the Internet Promote Delusional Thinking?"). While The Sun’s running of Ricardo and Castillo’s story can be dismissed as tabloid hijinks, the story subsequently went viral after it was picked up by a variety of other news and pseudo-news outlets with hundreds of thousands of online “shares” in social media.

Just because there’s an article about something on the internet doesn’t make it true. When searching for information online where clicks are monetized, we should keep in mind that provocative statements are often designed to get our attention, whether as “clickbait” or from trolls. Too often these statements are misleading at best if not just plain false, with authors who may or not believe the claims themselves. As noted earlier, no Breatharian claim has ever passed the test of actual survival without food and water beyond a few days, though some have died trying. We would all benefit from a healthy amount of skepticism (not to be confused with denialism) when consuming online information, regardless of the source. (See my posts “Fake News, Echo Chambers, and Filter Bubbles: A Survival Guide” and "Psychology, Gullibility, and the Business of Fake News.")

4. We all want to believe in things that we wish to be true. We encourage this instinct in children and as adults we sometimes still struggle with “putting aside childish things” in our search for truth. In Freud’s classic work, The Future of an Illusion, he wrote:

“We call a belief an illusion when a wish-fulfillment is a prominent factor in its motivation, and in doing so we disregard its relations to reality... Ignorance is ignorance; no right to believe anything can be derived from it.”

In modern psychological terms, wish fulfillment in the form of confirmation bias is the single most important pitfall when it comes to belief. Faith has its place when it comes to the unknown, but when facts exist, wanting something to be true is one of the worst reasons to believe in myths. Conflating wishes with reality leaves us vulnerable to being duped by frauds and charlatans.

Dr. Joe Pierre and Psych Unseen can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.

References

1. Anderson RM1, Weindruch R. The caloric restriction paradigm: implications for healthy human aging. American Journal of Human Biology 2012;24:101-6.

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