Are Woo Non-Responders Defective?
Seen on Twitter:
I answered that I’d tried plenty of woo, I think persistently enough to count as a good-faith effort, and gotten zero results.
(here “woo” means various more-or-less-alternative wellness and spirituality practices. Typical examples would be yoga, “bodywork”, tai chi, Alexander Technique, chakra meditation, Wim Hof, Internal Family Systems, somatic experiencing, some trauma therapies, etc.)
People then switched from the original claim to a claim that woo nonresponders must be bad at something:
Before we accept this at face value, let’s take it as one of several competing possibilities:
Possibility 1: Woo Is Universally Great, But Harder For Some Than Others
As in the pictures above. Some people are good and normal. They process emotions in their bodies. Other people are “dissociated from bodily experiences”, a non-normative and defective state. Maybe they got this way because they were traumatized as children and learned never to show any emotion, even to themselves.
Everyone can potentially benefit from woo; it is the one mental health technique which works 100% of the time. But the defective people who are out of touch with their bodies will need to solve that before they can get the full benefit.
Some evidence for this: Bessel van der Kolk writes about a population of trauma patients who have surprisingly low bodily awareness - in one case, he describes someone who cannot tell when they are being massaged. This is a stronger situation than just “there’s no problem so their body isn’t demanding attention”. He suggests that these people have gotten so used to negative feelings in their bodies that they’ve unconsciously “learned” to repress all bodily sensations. But this repression denies you the feedback you need to keep your body more comfortable and prevents you from updating back to believing your body might be okay. If the most unhealthy people are very out of touch with their bodies, maybe the healthiest people are very in touch with their bodies?
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering, and some Buddhist practitioners say that at sufficiently advanced levels of meditation, they realize they were suffering in hard-to-notice ways all their life, which they can then correct. This is a pretty crazy claim, but I take it seriously enough not to find “I feel fine so there’s no room for improvement” a complete knockdown argument against this.
Possibility 2: I’m Okay, You’re Okay
Some people process their emotions in their bodies. Other people process their emotions some other way, maybe in their minds. Both methods have advantages and disadvantages, but neither is better or worse than the other. Neither one is “more natural” - maybe it’s genetic or something.
People who process their emotions in their bodies can benefit from woo. People who process them some other way might benefit from something else, like cognitive therapy. Everyone should do whatever therapy works best for them.
Some evidence for this: In the old days, psychotherapists used to talk about building “psychological-mindedness” in their more “primitive” patients - the laborious process of convincing them to perceive and verbalize their emotions. When they succeeded, the patient would go from having vague psychosomatic complaints to having some normal “mature” mental illness like depression, which could then (theoretically) be treated. This seems like the opposite complaint as the woo people - their patients were too much in their bodies, and needed to be brought back into their minds!
The cross-cultural psychologists sometimes claim that other cultures verbalize their emotions less than Westerners (and correspondingly have more psychosomatic complaints), whereas Westerners verbalize them more and have depression. Cf. Jaynes, Watters, Foulks.
Maybe these are just two different ways of processing things, with old-timey psychotherapists considering their treatment a success when they shift people towards more mental processing, and woo practitioners considering their treatment a success when they shift people back towards more bodily processing.
Possibility 3: Woo Treats A Specific Defect
Some people are good and normal. They process emotions in their minds, where emotions belong. Other people can’t do this, shunt the emotions into their bodies, become hyper-aware of every bodily sensation, and constantly tie their internal organs into knots every time something goes wrong in their life. This is a non-normative and defective state. Maybe they got this way because they were traumatized as children and had to offload the extra emotions somewhere.
People who don’t store emotions in their bodies are already pretty mentally healthy and don’t have to worry. People who do store emotions in their body will keep having rogue emotions and psychosomatic illnesses until they learn to store them more efficiently. Woo teaches this skill and they can benefit from it.
Some evidence for this: Something like half of your nervous system is made of various lobes and centers that gate bodily sensation. Surely if evolution had wanted you to be fully “in touch with your body”, it wouldn’t have given you quite so many of these regions. So rather than talk about bodily sensation as an unalloyed good, I think it makes more sense to discuss how well these systems are doing their job of giving you true/useful information and blocking useless/misleading information.
A correctly-running body part usually feels like nothing. Most people rarely think about their intestines or get that much feedback about their intestines existing, and that means their intestines are working great. If you’re acutely aware of the state of your intestines at any given moment, this doesn’t mean you’re “extra in touch with your intestines”, it means something is wrong and maybe you should go to the hospital.
Van der Kolk did find that the most traumatized people repress bodily sensation. But maybe there’s a U-shaped curve. Very healthy people aren’t getting much bodily sensation, because their bodies are well-functioning. Very unhealthy people aren’t getting much bodily sensation, because their body throws off so many alarms that they have to repress them just to keep functioning. People in the middle get lots of bodily sensation. Then very unhealthy or middle people encounter woo, learn to recognize and deal with their bodily sensation, and when they encounter a healthy person who doesn’t need to manage their bodily sensations all the time, assumes they must just be repressing it.
And it does seem like it’s always the really traumatized people who go for woo. Sure, mentally unhealthy people will be the first person to try any mental health treatment. But somehow depressed borderlines with five past suicide attempts never need to “learn the prerequisite skills”. It always comes naturally to them!
Possibility 4: Woo Correlates With A Specific Defect
As in (3), except woo doesn’t teach any useful skill. It just lets practitioners feel fun whooshes of energy as the stored emotions move from one part of their body to another. Sometimes all of the whooshes of energy will happen in an exciting pattern, and they’ll assume that probably this is good in some way. But it isn’t: they’ll continue to have as many rogue emotions and psychosomatic illnesses as ever. Maybe they’ll even have more, since hyperfocus on bodily sensations is a likely risk factor for psychosomatic disease.
Some evidence for this: again, just the observation that the sickest and most traumatized people seem interested in woo the most. And although this is fully explained by sicker people wanting treatment more, it doesn’t seem like woo “experts” have cured themselves and become unusually mentally healthy (this claim is mostly just anecdotal personal observation, although do see the long and storied history of advanced meditators having sex scandals)
One of the hardest things in psychiatry is to look at a group of extremely unhealthy people doing some weird thing, and figure out whether the weird thing is causing their problems vs. a useful coping strategy. Schizophrenics smoke much more often than other people; is this because nicotine causes schizophrenia, or because it controls the symptoms schizophrenia (studies suggest the latter). What about marijuana? (here the studies are unclear, a lot of people think it might contribute). This is hard because you see schizophrenic people using lots of drugs, and you naturally think “man, every schizophrenic I know is a druggie, probably drugs are bad”. This is fair enough if you go on to avoid drugs yourself. But it’s less innocuous if you use it to justify taking the drugs away from the schizophrenic people, on the grounds that it’s perpetuating their condition.
The most messed-up, traumatized people I know tend to get lots of tattoos, dye their hair, do drugs, break off contact with their families, cut themselves, and massively over-psychologize everything they do. Which of these are coping strategies and which are risk factors? Which are both at once, vicious cycles that convert present suffering into future suffering, and so need to be compassionately discouraged? A lot hinges on the answer!
All of these people also “do bodywork”. Is this a coping strategy? A risk factor? An innocent diversion? I don’t know. But overall it’s left me feeling grateful that whatever “skills” predispose one to bodywork seem to have passed me by