Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Mirror Neurons and Magical EFT Therapy Bears

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a form of alternative therapy that
purports to manipulate the body's energy field by tapping on acupuncture points while a specific traumatic memory is focused on, in order to alleviate a psychological problem. Critics have described the theory behind EFT as pseudoscientific and have suggested that any utility stems from its more traditional cognitive components, such as the placebo effect, distraction from negative thoughts, rather than from manipulation of meridians.
EFT, a form of Thought Field Therapy (TFT), has been thoroughly debunked as pseudoscience by the Skeptical Inquirer:
Can We Really Tap Our Problems Away?

. . .EFT is very similar to TFT, except that it employs one simplified and ubiquitous tapping procedure instead of applying different algorithms to treat different problems. On his Web site, [Gary] Craig1 asserts that Callahan’s reliance on differing algorithms is unnecessary because he has witnessed TFT therapists tap in the wrong order or apply the wrong algorithm to the particular problem and still obtain improvements. Craig’s anecdotal evidence appears to contradict Callahan’s anecdotal evidence. Furthermore, Craig extends his tapping therapy far beyond the realm of mental health, reporting testimonials from individuals who claim to have successfully used EFT to treat everything from autism to warts and various other medical problems with positive results...

A scientifically minded investigator would have then taken Craig’s observations a step further and tested a completely "placebo” algorithm which did not tap on any supposed energy meridians to see if it produced similar results. However, Craig reports that he has never carried out this simple experiment nor does he know of anyone who has. Furthermore, Craig speculates that a placebo algorithm may be impossible because tapping anywhere on the body will affect the body’s energy meridians. This position conveniently renders Craig’s theory unfalsifiable and therefore outside the realm of science.
EFT therapists can act as surrogates, tapping on themselves to cure the problems of others. But even more fun than that, why use yourself as a surrogate when you can tap on a cute magical teddy bear? Really and truly? According to Craig:
It is easily explainable in spiritual terms (we are all connected) and through the findings of quantum physics.
But it would behoove him to read a physics textbook, as well as the Skeptic's Dictionary: "This is the golden rule for New Age quacks: when in doubt, quote Einstein and mention quantum physics... What Gary forgets to tell us is that the so-called subtle energy of acupuncture has nothing in common with the energy in E=mc2. When you unblock that kind of energy you get nuclear weapons or power, not miraculous health cures."

EFT therapists have also resorted to those trendy media favorites -- mirror neurons! -- to explain their quackery:


Perhaps one explanation is Mirror Neurons.

It's been shown in scientific experiments that when one animal is doing something such as eating a banana, another animal who is merely watching will have the same neurons lighting up in their brains as the animal who is doing the activity.

Likewise, in tests done with acupuncture, when needles are being inserted into points on one person, the same points are lighting up on a person who is only observing. In the case of the Magical Bears, we might conclude that when you are tapping on the bear, as you tap, your points would be lighting up as well.

hat tip: AA

Everyone knows what mirror neurons are, those darlings of the pop neuroscience world. First observed in the ventral premotor area F5 of macaque monkeys, mirror neurons increase their rate of firing when the animal performs an action, and when the animal watches someone else perform the action (Rizzolati et al, 1996). These "monkey see, monkey do" neurons have taken on a life far beyond their originally postulated role in imitation. However, not everyone believes that mirror neurons can account for all aspects of human language, culture, and social cognition -- from empathy to altruism to autism to aesthetics to
certain listeners' misattribution of anger in the music of avant garde jazz saxophonists (Gridley & Hoff, 2006)
-- as explained by Alison Gopnik [see also The Neurocritic, Mixing Memory, Neurofuture, et al.]:
The idea that these particular cells might underlie a fundamental human impulse [altruism] reflects the emergence of a new scientific myth. Like a traditional myth, it captures intuitions about the human condition through vivid metaphors.
As long-time readers might know, mirror neurons have been a popular topic of ridicule throughout the entire four year history of this blog. For your celebratory reading pleasure, here's The Neurocritic's mirror neuron œuvre:

Neuromarketing and "the Super Bowl Brain Scans"

Neurofeedback in Autism

Spindle Neurons: The Next New Thing?

An "Endophenotype" For Sexual Orientation?

Mirror Neurons Control The Universe

Mirror Neurons in Primary Motor Cortex?

Mirror Neurons Control Hard-ons?

Waves of Mu

Spanner or Sex Object?

I Feel Your Pain, I REALLY Do: Synaesthesia for Another's Pain


1 "Gary Craig is not a licensed health professional and offers EFT as an ordained minister and as a personal performance coach. Please consult qualified health practitioners regarding your use of EFT."

Twitticism: "Mirror neurons can explain everything. We can all go home now."

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At January 28, 2010 12:02 AM, Anonymous P. Jennings said...


On the one hand, it sounds unlikely.

On the other hand, you posted that article about using an actual mirror to 'fool' an actual hand.

And also, it is well known (and maybe someone could come up with cites, if required) that people who rehearse -- say, tennis or golf -- inside their heads, get benefits similar to actual physical practice.

So it may not be completely ridiculous.

Probably it would have sounded better if they weren't called EFT therapy bears, and if some swell neuro~ word were used instead.

After all, they discovered that using magnets wasn't as foolish as that idea sounded.

Or maybe it is ridiculous. But we won't know until several double-blind crossover studies have been done, will we?

At January 28, 2010 6:35 AM, Blogger Yigal Agam said...

Sadly, such "science" will exist as long as parents are willing to pay for those treatments. Thanks for an excellent (as usual) post.

At January 28, 2010 6:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This really reminds me of the pins and dolls used in Voodoo (Voodoo would be the nocebo version of the placebo therapy, I suppose)! :)

At January 28, 2010 6:18 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

Thanks, Yigal.

P. Jennings - maybe "Mirror Neuron Therapy Bears"?

I'm not sure the EFT folks can fund the enormous number of double-blind crossover studies needed for all the purported indications, including (but not limited to):

- anxiety about going to the dentist
- post traumatic stress disorder (including symptoms such as stress, unreasonable fears, panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks) following automobile accidents
- epileptic seizures in small children
- reducing blood clumping
- improving eyesight
- losing weight
- quitting smoking
- eliminating fear of water
- increasing test scores
- improving sports performance
- overcoming depression
- dealing with memories of abuse
- improving personal relationships
- and much more

At August 01, 2010 9:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Very late to the party here - have only just found your site. I'm an EFT trainer who is not afraid to say that I don't understand why the bears work or indeed fully why EFT works - and of course I would like to know.... but without EFT in my own life I would not know the health, happiness and control that I enjoy, and I'm proud to be able to help others find this too, including parents who find EFT helpful to themselves and their children, with and without bears. And I really don't care that it hasn't been scientifically proven by those who say it should have been or it can't be (they scientifically proved Thalidomide and look where it got them). I'm excited to live in a universe filled with so many unthought of possibilities. So you feel free to limit yourselves to the fully known (that's what you think....!) and continue to imply that those of us who think beyond the ends of our noses are charlatans if that floats your boat. Leave me to my happily uncharted waters and my genuine desire to help others achieve things they felt were impossible in their lives. After all,it's a free world - isn't it? To all our success, Sue Reid

At July 19, 2013 10:50 AM, Anonymous Kathleen Shepard said...

The main point of the bear is to teach children the EFT points and process.

As for EFT, there has been a great influx of research about EFT using the Evidence-based standards defined by the American Psychological Association (APA) Division 12 (Clinical Psychology) Task Force. ("APA standards" for short.)

"A literature search identified 51 peer-reviewed papers that report or investigate clinical outcomes following the tapping of acupuncture points to address psychological issues. The 18 randomized controlled trials in this sample were critically evaluated for design quality, leading to the conclusion that they consistently demonstrated strong effect sizes and other positive statistical results that far exceed chance after relatively few treatment sessions. Criteria for evidence-based treatments proposed by Division 12 of the American Psychological Association were also applied and found to be met for a number of conditions, including PTSD."

Feinstein, D. (2012). Acupoint stimulation in treating psychological disorders: Evidence of efficacy. Review of General Psychology, 16(4), 364-380.


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