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RS44 - Fluff that Works

Release date: September 25, 2011

In this episode we tackle the curious case of pseudoscience or mysticism that works, or seems to, at least some of the times. From acupuncture to chiropractic, from yoga to meditation, what do we make of instances where something seems to have the desired effect for the wrong reasons (e.g., acupuncture), or might otherwise be a perfectly acceptable technique which happens to come intricately bundled with mysticism (e.g., yoga)?

Julia's pick:  "Don't Shoot the Dog!: The New Art of Teaching and Training"

Massimo's pick: "Plato, Not Prozac!: Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems"


Reader Comments (10)

What do we do of it? Nothing much, I'm afraid. Things you believe may induce some neurological and indirectly somatic response in your body, in multiple possible ways (enhancing the immune system, or shifting your attention away of some pain or symptom, or suchlike. Suggestion, it used to be called in the late 1800s.
Apparently, religious faith can have such sort of effects, and also give psychological comfort, which led some otherwise skeptical guys (like D. Dennett) to announce that they believe in belief. Evolution, it appears, has caused us to be a bunch of highly suggestible fools.
Not much in it, believe me.

September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHector M.

Somewhat limited view of meditation, Julia. Mine, too, in the beginning. I used to bother the woman who guided me in meditation practice about: how is it done? what does it feel like? how will I know when I'm meditating? am I doing this right? She wisely refused to answer and, instead, guided me in practice and exercises. She knew what I eventually learned: for each, the experience of meditation is both universal and unique.

Meditation is about disciplining your mind to focus sharply--on nothing, on anything, on everything. For many, mediation is about paying attention to what needs attention and not letting the swirl of thoughts and emotions and worries--what the Buddha called "the monkey"--swamp your little boat. Meditation is about finding, enabling and empowering Epictetus' "Stoic Observer." For me, meditation is about what is commonly called today: flow.

Pray is a kind of mediation. As is reading, or crafting, or woodworking, or running, or writing, or coding, or even grooming a dog. It all depends on the person. But generally, anything where a person is in the flow is a kind of meditation. My neighbor meditates sitting on her garden cart carefully, artfully, deliberately grooming her garden. I ended up best at walking meditations.

The kind of meditative experience you described is, in my experience, more a beginners exercise in meditation than mediation, learning not to suppress the chattering, scattered, busy-ness of the monkey, as much as learning to ignore the monkey's distracting antics; bringing your attention back to a simple focus: a breathing exercise or counting or a reciting a mantra. But that's only the beginning of meditation.

A meditative life is an examined life, a purposeful life, a life with the autopilot switched off. That's all. That's everything. No woo, just mind. Writing this note has been a meditative act for me.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrhkennerly

Enjoying the show just now - Julia's comment about the overplayed value of staying in the moment at the end of your talk about meditation amused me, and i agree a lot of the more avid practitioners of mindfulness meditation do seem to exaggerate it's value, to the point of eye rolling fanaticism in my experience.

I'm a very casual but long time mediator. I did it more formally as a kid, mom took me allong to her sessions when she dabbled at it and it stuck with me. It became one of the things i did when playing alone which was fairly often in my case.

Later the mind set i learned from it became a useful too when i work on my art, and i think it would be accurate to say I often engage in active meditation while drawing. The empty mind is a first stage in mindfulness, and it's a good place to start when i begin working on a page. Then there are other kinds of active meditation that supposedly more advanced practitioners engage in, like walking meditation task oriented meditation. In the end it's all about controlling your focus and this comes in handy when i go through the different stages of developing a page [i write and draw graphic novels].

It also has indeed allowed me to distance myself from emotional or physical pain and gain perspective others seem to find hard. Very recently this was put to the test when i was diagnosed with a cancer. I got lucky, surgery seems to have taken care of it, for now at least [fingers crossed] but absolutely the tools acquired from a life long practice allowed me to keep very calm and just ride out the whole experience with a minimum of stress.

But i also would say that being in the moment ironically was not what it let me do there, it let me be out of the moment really, or at least an aspect of it, and focus on work and other life trivia rather than worry about what was happening.

The real gift is greater control, focus. Not being in 'the moment'. Sometimes it's dwelling on the past or future that's not helpful, often the problem when we are depressed. Then mindfulness lets you get back to the moment. The famous freedom from suffering. Other times the moment is the problem and indeed it can let you escape that with greater ease too. Really all it is, is learning to direct your attention the same way you would direct your hand while drawing. Nothing magic about it, the more you learn to flex that control the better it gets is all. You can still have a messy brain, i think i probably do. But it's nice to pick and choose your moments a bit.


September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersalgood

ah typos and missing punctuation, what can you do....:) Useful 'tool' and many others i bet.

September 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commentersalgood

A Chinese-educated friend of mine who believes in acupuncture says the sham needles still work because before the Ancient Chinese used needles to stimulate acupoints, they used bones to put pressure on them

This wouldn't explain why needles stuck in the wrong places would work, though

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAgagooga

I don't question any of the studies on accupuncture, but I did think that Massimo was wrong about the origin it. I looked it up in the Skeptic Encyclopedia (Shermer) and is says that it originated around 200BCE. It was banned in the late 1800s and then brought back in the 40s. I think Massimo just read the last part and since it suited his overall opinion of fluff, he chose to accept it as the full story.

October 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commentermike

I recently learned about a form of meditation called Tummo, whose practitioners are capable of hijacking their autonomic nervous systems to raise their body temperatures in cold environments. Evidently, a couple of studies were performed and found that certain monks could raise the temperature of their fingers up to 8.3 degrees Celsius. Incredible!

Now there's a potentially valuable skill that may be worth the time commitment, depending on the person. I could see professional mountain climbers or Arctic explorers learning this. An unorthodox practitioner of Tummo, Wim Hof, has set many of the world's cold weather endurance records and successfully taught an undergrad student at Penn State his methods.

Here's an article about Tummo from the Harvard Gazette:

December 13, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterstephen

I think that, understandably due to their lack of experience on the subject, the hosts miss the point here. Meditation enhances your sense of unity, of "I am", and what feels detached from the you is the thoughts in which you previously identified. This is not simply due to what Massimo claims to be inactivation of an area of the brain, but to consciously focusing attention on mental processes that are related with signal integration (PMC). Focusing on something, be it your toe or wathever, by definition also implies ignoring what you are not focusing on. By focusing on observing, the observer's perspective is not forced to wander erratically, and only then we can see everything else moving around us. Some parts of the brain will light up, others will shut down. As Massimo said, no wonder they will. I would say it's worth it.

May 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeo

One can't be skeptical about meditation, because the word "meditation" is an umbrella term that covers a lot of territory in the same way that the terms "exercise" and "cooking" do. One can only be skeptical about specific claims made about meditation, such as, "Meditation is a way to verify that reincarnation occurs" or "Meditation is as effective at reducing stress as pharmaceutical xyz."

One can also be skeptical about claims such as, "Meditation enables one to experience indescribable bliss." Blissful meditative states are referred to in Buddhist and Hindu literature as samadhis and jnanas, etc., and there are traditional texts that offer elaborate phenomenological descriptions of these states. There are of course meditators who have never experienced such states, but who have convinced themselves otherwise. It's as if someone were given a placebo instead of a strong dose of LSD, and became convinced that they were given the real thing rather than a placebo.

To continue with that analogy, imagine two people, each of whom takes a strong dose of LSD. One has a powerful psychedelic experience and the other does not (this is a thought experiment so I'm not concerning myself with whether that could actually be possible). Thereafter, the former individual knows that taking LSD can result in powerful non-ordinary states, while the other may be convinced that everyone who says that taking LSD can result in such states is mistaken, or is "imagining" this, or that it is an "illusion." This is how skepticism about the claim that meditation can enable one to attain powerful states of bliss works. It seems reasonable to infer that anyone who is so skeptical has never experienced such powerful meditative states. In many cases such skeptics are people who tried some form of meditation for a certain period of time. Based on their personal experience, they become convinced that since they did not have any extraordinary experiences, it necessarily follows that no one who meditates does, and that anyone who reports otherwise must be mistaken.

One more thought experiment: Imagine an extraterrestrial visitor from a planet that is populated with humanoids similar to us, except that orgasms and orgasmic humanoids are relatively rare on their planet (but they can and do nevertheless reproduce). This visitor hears about Earthlings having orgasms and is skeptical about it. He's never had one, he's never met anyone on his planet who's had one, and so he doubts that there even are such things. Even bright, articulate philosophers such as Massimo and Julia cannot convince him otherwise, because there is nothing in his human-like experience to which he can relate such claims. He says, "I'm sure that people are having some experience that they describe as wonderful, blissful, joyous, ecstatic, etc., but this must all be an illusion."

Meanwhile, almost every single earthling over a certain age will know that the visitor's skepticism is unwarranted. And there may be no way to bridge the gulf between what they know to be true based on their experience, and his skepticism which is based on the lack of orgasmic experience by himself and his kind.

July 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEurydice
Good episode, as always. Just learning how to think rationality, and then doing so, can give you quite an enlightening experience. This probably works much more effective then meditation.
January 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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