474 Comments
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

I thought you were going to answer to this objection ^_^

https://twitter.com/chaosprime/status/1658998399436218369

Expand full comment

Betteridge’s law of headlines says no

Expand full comment

Woo is obviously a result of quantum ancestor simulations retrocausally testing these hypotheses for woo. If you don't try woo or claim it didn't work, of course you won't have experienced anything from it. But the people who plausibly claim it worked will naturally be simulated in the future according to tests that assign real quale states in correspondence to woo practices, and these retrocausally interact with the "original" timeline. It's like a pared down version of a Greg Egan novel.

And while I don't actually believe this I am going to keep saying it indefinitely until someone steelmans it with a lot of math and then refutes it with even more math.

Expand full comment

To varying degrees, the things you mention are forms of physical exercise as well as "spiritual" practises. Are you saying here you've tried a regular yoga practise and it's done nothing for you physically in terms of strength, mobility, balance, calm? Or just that the parts of it less related to physical well-being didn't connect with you?

Expand full comment

Sometimes I'm annoyed by your willingness to take nonsense seriously, but mostly (like here) I admire your style. It's refreshing to see your reasoned openness to alternate facts.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

> Some evidence for this: again, just the observation that the sickest and most traumatized people seem interested in woo the most.

I think this is because the more perilous/treatment-resistant one’s condition becomes, the epistemic threshold for what one considers a viable treatment path plummets as desperation skyrockets, and the type of woo they become a attracted to is often a reflection of their biases/worldview. Stereotypical middle aged women flock to crystals, chakras, and bodywork, nerdy young men flock to obscure research chemicals, podcast host supplements, and wim hof, etc.

Once mainstream knowledge has failed to help (or they distrust it/reject it), they turn to their respective “cultic mileus” to find “the answers.” Because of a mix of placebo/delusion/regression to the mean, those cultic mileus will never be short of people gushing positive anecdotes and how they were once just as lost and hopeless as them, until they found the super secret hidden knowledge that saved them.

Expand full comment

It appears to me that by considering the "woo" practices you are missing out on half of the spectrum. Let's call "hoo" all practices pertaining to body health: going to the gym, various cleansing diets, etc etc. These are often accompanied by woo ideology.

Expand full comment

I'm not sure I fully understand the definition of "woo" here. Yoga, for example, can be a good physical exercise, strengthening muscles and improving flexibility and balance. I guess it's only "woo" if you hope to get some non physical benefit?

But that can't be right, because all physical exercise has non physical benefit. If you keep physically active, that's better for your mental health, isn't it? There must be some more specific thing than that that qualifies it as "woo".

Expand full comment

> 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!

When I factor-analyzed a bunch of variables, one of the factors I found was an ideological/political factor that seemed to pattern-match to this. (Though I didn't have these exact questions. I think Emil Kirkegaard factor-analyzed some OkCupid data and found a similar political factor?) Here's my interpretation of what's going on:

A lot of these things are memes, and probably most of the memes (like dying one's hair) are basically-harmless. But why are there such ideological correlations in memes?

I think the biggest part comes down to differences in which people you trust. When you encounter some abstract distant idea, such as "drugs are harmful/harmless", it is hard to get direct observations on whether it is true. But if you trust Serious Authorities, then they will sternly inform you that e.g. drugs are harmful, whereas if you trust certain other groups, they may argue about some other things.

The notion that the underlying cause is trust helps me make sense of why traumas might have such a big influence on them (especially because I am pretty skeptical of the validity of "traumas as damage" theories). If someone has a conflict with an authority figure where the authority figure was bullshitting a lot and got away with it, then that is logically going to reduce their trust in authorities. It's justified by Bayesianism!

If this analysis holds, then it raises other questions for how to think of this question:

* How much of what authorities say and do is bullshit? (Quite a lot, presumably; think "law of no evidence", replication crisis and other poor scientific methodology, erc.)

* Which groups are the authorities trying to suppress with their bullshit? And are their proposed alternate memes superior to those created by the authorities, or do we need a third solution which improves on both the authorities' memes and the rebels' memes?

Expand full comment

Good questions, I'll have to meditate on that a bit :-P

This post reminded me of a book I read a long time ago, "The Feeling Of What Happens" by Antonio Damasio, which made the case that there is a feedback loop from the brain to the various organs back to the brain, which the brain uses to made emotional assessments - basically, the brain asks the guts "what do you think of this?", and if the guts say "urgh", the brain tries to avoid it. One piece of evidence was that patients with locked-in syndrome (whose feedback loop is thoroughly interrupted) appear to be remarkably equanimous about their horrible situation - they can't suffer as much, because it takes signals from the body to really suffer.

I don't know if the feedback loop theory is sound, or what it would mean for "body work" - that's out of my area of expertise, but maybe someone else can connect the dots.

That said, it bothers me a bit that the word "woo" is applied to stuff like yoga - there seems to be a slippery slope leading from breathing exercises to weird esoteric theories about the cosmos, but in and of itself, yoga exercises are great for developing and maintaining flexibility, balance and coordination, and I would hate to see them painted with the wrong brush.

Expand full comment

5. It's all made up to take money from people and doesn't work except as placebo, and when it doesn't work the cheap way out is to say you didn't try hard enough.

Expand full comment

How did you write something pointing to "get out of the car" while at the same time not being able to get use out of the woo? I feel like I want to be impressed by the phenomenon.

I have had an experience of finding woo non existent on the obvious premise of it not being there, then later finding it to be very existent on the obvious premise of it definitely being able to be felt and viscerally apparent. I don't think either position was wrong and the metaphysics lines up on "it was probably there but I wasn't noticing.

Woo can often be described as " subtle" and because of this it can be missed by people because it's literally the small stuff. Sometimes I've seen it portrayed as noise (when from a certain perspective, there is no noise [yes this is a rationality red flag statement], only information). And at other times I have seen subtle states be so obvious that it has taken me or my friends years to notice what's been right in front of our faces. It's hard to be concrete about subtle objects, they are not so easy to put words to. That's not to excuse lazy epistemics, but merely to give a reasonable warning that it's hard work here.

I tend to tell people, if you don't see(perceive) the "woo" then don't worry about it. Until you do. One day you may meet someone who seems nuts but is operarionalising their seeming ridiculous woo in some efficient way and is doing very well in the process. Then as you get interested in it, you may be able to see it and learn it. Until then, don't bother worrying about it.

As an exercise. If I told you that gravity is always down and not-gravity is always up. That seems obvious right? Well what if you want to try a body exercise of checking where the heavy and not-heavy are. Usually while sitting, the heavy is at the earth-facing side of the body and the not-heavy is at the not-earth side of the body. Sometimes the subtle stuff organises so that it disagrees with the location of the heavy and not-heavy sensation. Sometimes people feel the "weight of the world on their shoulders". If you spend some time (1hr), just noting where the heavy and not heavy details are in the body (maybe on an inch by inch scale) then spend a day noticing the heavy and not heavy. If ever you feel a weight-of-the-world sensation and you move the heavy through the body to the earth side (sometimes with a gently postural shift), often the emotional side of the experience will also shift. This is woo, and comes in fancier language but it works for all sorts of people.

It's possible to play with your epistemics. What if we just call it down because it feels heavy? What if the heavy one was up and the other one was down? What would that be like? Try imagine it and play with it. Maybe you can cure your depression by changing your relationship with heavy and light. This is woo.

Expand full comment

Scott uses the word "woo" in a non-standard way. It has a far wider meaning.

"Woo, also called woo-woo, is a pejorative term for pseudoscientific explanations that share certain common characteristics, often being too good to be true (aside from being unscientific). The term is common among skeptical writers. Woo is understood specifically as dressing itself in the trappings of science (but not the substance) while involving unscientific concepts, such as anecdotal evidence and sciencey-sounding words."

https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Woo

Expand full comment

the idea that this stuff will repair your emotional life or mental health is pretty unusual I think.

Millions of normal tai chi or yoga practitioners just want some vague feel-good health benefits + fitness. Alexander Technique has its base mainly among musicians and actors, who are looking for some combination of stage presence + avoiding overuse injuries. Even Wim Hof mainly promises vague improvements in "energy" + immune system + ability to be a tough guy in the cold.

My own experience with Alexander Technique is that I was promised a narrow scope of what it would do, totally unrelated to emotional processing, and it "worked" as advertised -- but as a head-oriented person I really did have a hard time perceiving my body at first and had to work through this a little as a prerequisite.

I think other woo is similar, and that these twitter posters are talking about something real, just exaggerating the benefits of bodywork and being very smug.

Expand full comment

I'm surprised at seeing Alexander Technique listed as woo. It's a very materialistic approach to improving kinesthesia by (from angle) making movement easier by freeing the neck leading to freeing the back and the rest of the body (this is approximate) or, from another angle, inhibiting parasitic tension associated with movements.

Expand full comment

‘Woo’ encompasses a great many ideas and therapies. Taking all of them together to answer whether they are effective is not helpful and cannot be answered in one essay.

There is good research done to study some of these therapies. I recommend you look at these. Physicians routinely refer patients with lymphadema for lymphatic massage therapy. Tai Chi can reduce falls among the elderly. Acupuncture reduces back pain. You can find this research in PubMed.

Think of it like seeing a physician specialist. If you go to an obstetrician for arthritis it is unlikely they can offer an effective treatment. Not all ‘woo’ has been shown to be effective. Most effective modalities treat a limited number of conditions. And most of the effects of temporary.

Expand full comment

I want to also offer a separation, "skeptical doubt" as separate from "willing skepticism". A lot of woo does get interrupted by doubtful skepticism. It can be fragile like that. Partly because it's a delicate perspective. If you walked into the meditation room, and started loudly asking "why do they do this" they may have trouble staying in the meditative perspectives. Woo can similarly be interrupted by all manner of healthy and unhealthy skepticism. However, usually a well developed woo system will have a pathway for supporting healthy skepticism and inviting it while validating it and a pathway for working with unhealthy skepticism and a place for that perspective to not interrupt the delicate "meditators".

I predict that woo non responders can be willing skeptic and find it more responsive than doubtful skeptical will be able to find. (maybe there's an openness trait here) it also depends on the need.

I have a concept I call "not suffering enough". People who suffer badly enough, start needing spiritual solutions and start asking for them. Then they start seeing them. Before they ask they often didn't see them. (warning: suffering is pointing to the subjective experience of suffering and not the nearby experience of things like "pain" or having a "bad time". You will need to notice the suffering and in a real and genuine way to get onto the stream entry path of awakening). I don't consider this spiritual problem of "it wasn't here" to be a problem for the people who don't perceive it, they aren't worse off for not seeing it, although it does seem (to me) like the people who do see spirituality as having a better time afterwards (although ymmv). Also as per the metaphor of awakening, sleeping isn't bad, being awake isn't "better" but I sure want to be awake if I have a choice. Unless I'm tired, in which case I want rest.

Expand full comment

> it doesn’t seem like woo “experts” have cured themselves and become unusually mentally healthy

That reminds me of a story about Evelyn Waugh, noted Catholic (and obstreperous asshole). He was behaving so badly one evening that his hostess said "How can you behave so badly – and you a Catholic!” Waugh replied: “You have no idea how much nastier I would be if I was not a Catholic!"

Expand full comment

Do various breathing techniques (holotropic breathwork, quantum light breath, some forms of pranayama - anything that focuses on deep breathing over >40 minutes) count as woo here? Because I found that these are very useful for getting to emotions and trauma for many people. There is a reason Stanislav Grof focused on these after LSD was illegalized

Expand full comment

No Possibility #5? The one that says "Woo doesn't work, but some people are more susceptible to placebo effects than others."

Expand full comment

I wouldn't be surprised if woo "works" via the mechanism of someone actively trying to do something to address a problem, regardless of what they're trying. If we go by the simple model that pain is the thing you feel when there is something wrong and we further assume wrong things can include emotions, trauma, and other non-mechanical things (ie, if we accept psychosomatic stuff), then actively spending time addressing pain could in principle be enough to reassure your pain engine that it can stop, since it was heard.

It wouldn't necessarily be a permanent solution if you fail to fix the underlying problem in the long-term, but it might work in the short-term. For example, sometimes I'm feeling physically hungry, with mildly unpleasant sensations in my stomach, and they go away when I deliberately make plans to eat in the near future. But the sensations will come back if I then fail to eat for a long enough period of time

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

Unsure if anyone else had this reaction, but my assumption is that a lot of rationalist types are unusually sensitive to physical sensations, and have lower than average tolerance for stuff like loud noises and physical contact. I don't think I'd characterise this as autism, except in the sense of everyone being somewhere on a spectrum. Hope I'm not claiming too much, but I personally get stressed by loud background noise and am very uncomfortable with being touched by other people, which I'd characterise as very inconvenient preferences to have.

Now, I'm not saying this is a healthy way to be aware of your body, I just feel like if you added the question into the next survey, the average reader of this blog would not come across being particularly detached from physical sensation. This at least seems like it contradicts some of the suggested reasons for us not being particularly responsive to "woo".

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

I have found that woo techniques work quite well as part of a balanced "Get your act together" approach. This means: do something for your body (yoga, gym), mind (reading on various topics, discussions), spirituality (meditation, prayer, others), trauma/shadow (traditional therapy, breathworks, guided psychedelics, various trauma releasing techniques), relationship, sexuality, art. People I know that work across all these areas visibly improved over the years. People that focused only on one technique or area of interest - didn't

Expand full comment

I find it hard to comment on this one, since (1) I do instinctively recoil from "woo" (2) I can't get anywhere with things like meditation and mindfulness and (3) might as well throw this one in here - a lot of it seems to be "70s Californian middle-class nonsense because people had money and leisure and nothing to occupy themselves" (apologies to California which I am slandering as a state, but you gotta admit, you do have a reputation for 'where the nuts are').

On the other hand - (1) I'm Catholic, where do I get off calling other people's spiritual traditions and beliefs nonsense, huh? I think I've had one, or maybe partially one, spiritual/mystical experience in my life, and I don't mean that time I definitely bloody well *did* see a púca, and I have no inclination towards trying any of the mystical practices of my own faith, but I also believe in the reality of those mystical experiences (2) I really am the Poster Child for "not in touch with my body, not in touch with my emotions, barbed wire everywhere" so, eh, maybe I do need to work on that or something and (3) sorry, California, maybe you're just all pioneers in the field of being psychonauts.

Expand full comment

If you've gotten "zero results" from tai chi, yoga or Wim Hoff Method you're doing something wrong. All of those are very solid physical training systems; Wim Hoff's techniques have been extensively studied and documented in multiple university labs all over the world. It's also well-documented that improving physical health improves mental and spiritual health. Trying to dismiss that connection, and the systems designed to facilitate it, as "woo" betrays a kind of "fundamentalist materialism" which is a Rationalist version of Fundamentalism.

Expand full comment

The problem for rationalists whenever our worldview conflicts with others' is that we have to give them the benefit of the doubt while they are under no such obligation. As such, rationalism is doomed to failure under the marketplace of ideas. It's well-tuned to establishing the truth, but fatally flawed from a Darwinian/memetic perspective.

Expand full comment

It feels like we've come at this from an odd direction. Can we define "woo" more precisely?[1] Does it make sense as a category? Who are the people who benefit from it and what benefit do they gain?[2] How do we know?

For example, you claim "the observation that the sickest and most traumatized people seem interested in woo the most", but I don't have that observation, perhaps because I lack your background in psychiatry.

[1] The term seems unhelpful because in popular usage "woo" includes many things which are not wellness or spirituality practices.

[2] All your possibilities 1-4 seem to presuppose that the main benefit of woo involves processing emotions in the body, but I know some people who do a lot of yoga, and I'm confident they wouldn't say the purpose of yoga is to process their emotions.

Expand full comment

It's fun to hear someone steelmanning woo

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

Woo (yoga, meditation) works GREAT for me, and I'm exactly the type of person who (used to) heavily identify with my thoughts to the exclusion of the body.

In fact I would have said that such a person is exactly the most likely to benefit from woo!

Expand full comment

Possible data point: I'm hyper-aware of my body sensations (it's not malfunctioning, I just have standard autistic sensory filtering issues). I also have a history of trauma/diagnosed PTSD. I get absolutely nothing out of 'bodywork' woo except for a feeling of profound silliness, plus some trauma-related discomfort from versions that involve another person.

So one doesn't necessarily have to be mentally-healthy in order to be a non-responder, nor does one have to be heavily dissociated from one's body. I suspect the common factor is probably a lack of faith in the woo, as is standard for all kinds of faith healing/spiritual wellness practices.

(We could go deeper and ask if people who lack the capacity for faith/spirituality are defective. I certainly have wondered that about myself.)

Expand full comment

chemical dependencies and other things can interfere with aligning cakras - then arthur avalon, jung and richard wilhem are good bridges from western conceptualization to more holistic spiritual philosophies... jung even has a good warning somewhere in Secret of the Golden Flower about how sketchy it is for western folks to sample buffet style from eastern mysticism

Expand full comment

Evidence in favor of 1:

You describe all of the woo things as being "bodily", but I'd say some of them are more bodily than others. Internal Family Systems is more on the "heady" end; you definitely need some body-ness to be able to access it properly, but not _that_ much. Some of the people doing IFS say they don't even experience feelings in their body at all, but it works anyway, because it's on a pretty cognitive level.

When I first started getting into this kind of thing, I was very body-averse. I didn't like the idea of doing much physical exercise, and I _definitely_ didn't want to get into bodywork or any of the other embodied stuff some of the more woo people were talking about. But IFS felt safe; it could be accessed on a more cognitive level and I could intellectualize it and mostly explain it to my satisfaction.

And it was useful for a lot of stuff. But then gradually I started to feel like I was hitting its limits. While I could still access some emotional material, pretty often it started feeling like the core of thing remained out of reach.

And also, over time I had started shifting towards more comfortable with my body. Still not totally comfortable, but much more. I stopped the IFS sessions I was having with my therapist and have instead started doing more physical things like bodywork massages, Alexander Technique, and also started going to the gym and doing ballroom dancing for the first time in my life.

I feel like I definitely started as your stereotypical body-averse nerd who processed everything mentally until I reached the limits of that approach, but going with that approach allowed me to unlock enough comfort with my body that I've been able to now shift more into the physical kinds of approaches.

Evidence kinda against, kinda in favor of 3:

I also facilitate IFS for people. I don't work with really heavily traumatized people - I don't have the experience or training for that. Rather, I target people in the "somewhat below to somewhat above average" range, with the occasional client who's a bit more below that.

And in my experience, people who are roughly around the normal range often (but not always) take to IFS easily and find it quite effective. And then people who are worse off (but still not _so_ badly off that I wouldn't work with them) often seem to have a harder time doing IFS, being less in contact with their bodies.

This seems kinda in favor of 3, in that there seems to be a u-curve. But also kinda against, in that you seem to be suggesting that healthy people wouldn't benefit from woo - and if we define IFS as woo, then I do feel like the healthy people who I've worked with have also benefited.

Also, more in favor of this hypothesis - I definitely think that if I hit a point where I was consistently happy over a long period, I'd stop doing a lot of this. (Well, probably going to the gym and dancing would still be fun.) I can tell because gradually there have been longer and longer periods when I've actually been able to feel happy with my life and not just be an anxious ball a large part of the time, and those periods have correlated with doing less of this stuff since I've been happy anyway and haven't felt like I needed to do so much of the woo.

But I'm still quite not there, and there are still some things that make me really anxious or that I feel I just can't do, so I keep at the woo stuff.

Evidence in favor of 4:

To add a caveat to what I just said, _some_ of the woo stuff is starting to feel like it's in territory of "makes me go from neutral to good" rather than just "makes me go from bad to neutral". So I could imagine keeping up with that. Some ecstatic dancing stuff, for example, feels outright fun for its own sake. So I might very well continue with my intermittent morning ritual of "do a three-minute ecstatic dance right after getting up from bed" even after I got my actual anxieties fixed.

Expand full comment

Highly suspect new agey religious claims aside; I do think there is a dissassoation issue in the modern world. From increases in self harm and trans issues.

The thing is we are violent apes who have stopped getting into fist fights, having sex, chopping wood in the winter or walking/jogging for miles at a time.

Idk why the solution to that would be "think about your body in the way the magic cystals say" and not "take a 15 minutewalk in a thunderstorm" or any other sort of thing.

Expand full comment

Interesting. I used to have a fear of public speaking. I went to a therapist who suggested that this was general anxiety (I think it’s a specific phobia) and started on these mental exercises that involved “quieting my inner critical mind”. I did that for a while until I realised I never did have an inner critic at all.

I do have an internal monologue but it’s something I control, it’s just my thoughts about stuff. Could be the weather. Or thinking about this comment before I write it. Or conversations I might have in the future.

When worried I feel it in the gut. Maybe I need some woo?

Expand full comment

“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!”

What is the correlation between traumatized people and various sexual predispositions? Anecdotally, I haven’t seen much of a correlation between trauma and homosexuality, although 30 years ago, I recall otherwise, perhaps this was a case of repression leading to trauma. I don’t imagine it’s controversial to say BDSM is associated with trauma, as it’s associated with the pursuit of pain. But it’s controversial to link trans predisposition with trauma, in spite of this being anecdotally self apparent, and objectively involving hormonal disruption and intense and irreversible cosmetic surgical procedures.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

This is a really weird post. Just the assertion that an extremely vague and ill-defined category of activities "don't work"... For what? What results were you expecting? That's like saying, I tried hobbies, or I tried exercise... It didn't work. Ok...?

There's peer-reviewed research on meditation and WHM among other things demonstrating that they "work" for certain specific benefits. Check out the Andrew Huberman podcast if you want an accessible overview.

https://youtu.be/wTBSGgbIvsY

https://youtu.be/pq6WHJzOkno

https://youtu.be/x4m_PdFbu-s

If those effects are not what you are trying to accomplish, then...maybe try a different approach?

Expand full comment

I think you missed a period at the end, there.

Expand full comment

Possibility 5: it works, but it doesn't come in a flavour that I like

I'm prepared to believe that slowing down, breathing and moving my body in a very deliberate manner for a little while might make me feel better, calmer, more relaxed. But the only forms of "woo" that are available are all very close in meme-space to a whole bunch of things that I don't like, so I cannot do them without feeling silly, and if you're feeling silly and internally grumbling about it then you're not going to get any benefit from it.

What is needed is for someone to come up with a version of the same thing that is more congruent with my self-image so that I can do it while being comfortable with myself.

Expand full comment

Love the reclaiming of the word 'woo' to mean actual practices, as opposed to the disapproval of them, or of the worldviews that are often associated with them. Let's keep using the word in this sense.

Personal anecdata, you can take me as just one data point. I'm just at the spot where woo doesn't come easy for me, but I still have enough access to it to persevere, and I can say unequivocally over several decades that 'woo' has been a huge contributor to my well-being.

Having worked (and fought) plenty with with this space, I can attest that the experience of being "dissociated from bodily experience", and "processing emotions in the mind" (i.e by thinking) pretty well describe the experience I have when I stop doing any of it for an extended period. And by comparison it feels like shit. It's liveable shit - I've never had a mental health problem bad enough to be diagnosed, but the difference is very notable. Imagine having always had pretty bad fast food, and then one day trying gorgeous home-cooked gourmet food - that kind of difference.

In terms of woo itself, I've tried meditation / mindfulness, yoga, relaxation, Wim Hoff, and probably a few more. These days I'm not so much about specific techniques; what I've learned is that if I take a 15-20 minute break or two a day, where I step away from all goal or relationship oriented behavior, and just consciously give myself this time to go as deep into my inner feelings/sensations as it will go that day, just letting it be and breathing through it, there is a whole blanket of inner tension that lifts, at least a bit, and sometimes by a whole lot. The positive feeling is best described as one of integration, which is why I would tentatively agree with describing its absence as "dissociation".

I'm well aware that many people have no attraction to any of this, and don't feel any benefits when they try it, so I'm happy to see Scott express this so clearly. Which raises the interesting question about what woo is actually doing and why it helps some but not others. From my experience, I would clearly exclude option #4.

In terms of the other options, I tend towards #2. People are different in many ways, and there's no obvious reason to declare them defective if they respond (or fail to respond) to woo.

My speculation as to why this whole thing works, is to take a broad view of ourselves as evolved biological organisms. One of our core evolved senses is a general sense of well-being (or lack thereof), and I've even argued than on finer introspection, this is not a single sense, but a multiplicity of senses of valence that are not fungible with each other. To give a simple example, it's possible to be hopeful and sad at the same time. And of course every subsystem of our body feeds into these. So, by default, the idea that doing specific actions with your body/mind/attention/breath/etc should have all sorts of impacts on your well-being should not surprise anyone. It would be mighty weird if our rational centers were self-contained enough to override signals from everything else, and also to overpower signals feeding into the rest of our nervous system.

Another intesting point is that all of this requires no technology or science to function, it's low tech enough that plain old cultural evolution can explore the space and create a body of knowledge. Hence all these disciplines with old and exotic names...

Expand full comment

Most woo systems (and I think a fair deal of psychodynamic therapy modalities) rely on an ability to think symbolically and to take that symbolism as more "true" than physical reality - a sort of Copernican turn or secret Kantianism.

The description that I've read in a number of other comments about having access to lots of low level sensation and that not working with woo practices adds evidence to this; the "magic" of woo is about taking that sensation and hammering it into a particular symbolic

This is also what happens in IFS as I understand - the client chooses to slot their psyche into the symbolic frame of IFS (child parts, protectors, self at best...) and then is able to use that frame to get particular results or resolutions to past experiences (which one can argue are also always already reconstructed in the personal symbolic of memory)

My sense is that entering into foreign symbolics is a really big ask for rationalists, but that without that entering into, none of these things really work (including organized religion?)

Does that land with others experiences?

Expand full comment

"the sickest and most traumatized people seem interested in woo the most" => egregiously false! The main demo at meditation retreats seem to be nice, left-leaning knowledge workers. Alexander Technique is taught at professional acting school, and dancers often learn it as well. In SE Asia, mostly stolidly normal reactionaries become monks. I would say the opposite, actually, that the sickest people tend to try everything for a short time and don't stick with or progress in anything, including woo.

"here “woo” means various more-or-less-alternative wellness and spirituality practices." => Why is Alexander Technique on the list? It's mainstream in performing arts and especially acting. It's not spiritual at all.

"it is the one mental health technique which works 100% of the time" => this seems to be sarcastic, but there's no reason to think that there shouldn't be broadly effective mental health interventions. Exercise and vegetables are broadly effective physical health interventions. Listening to somebody shouting insults at you is broadly harmful to mental health, so why couldn't something be broadly helpful?

Expand full comment

Imo there's another explanation you skipped which seems most accurate to me: there are a bunch of good practices that are probably universally good, like bodily awareness, mindfulness, etc. Woo people are disproportionately likely to want and accept a layer of dubious semi-spiritual interpretations on top of this, for a variety of cultural and personal reasons. If someone tries to sell you on the framework, it won't help unless you have some of those reasons. But that doesn't rule out the usefulness of the underlying stuff. It's also very hard to disentangle which parts are just the physical reality of human bodies and which part are in the spiritual layer, largely because it's hard to find stuff about the former that isn't soaked in the latter.

Expand full comment

One big important question is whether hormones for trans people are important life-saving technology which keeps them from killing themselves, as its proponents claim, or it's a gnarly treatment with lots of medical risks and side effects including mood swings which dramatically increase the risk of suicide, as the available info seems to indicate.

Expand full comment

I don’t know about “woo” but I have read a lot of therapy books and some of them place a lot of emphasis on clients’ being able to experience their feelings in their bodies. I don’t really understand this well. The best way I understand it is that the point is to experience emotions as, well, experiences or sensations and not as narratives or interpretations.

Expand full comment

As someone who feels ambivalent about woo - I’ve seen and experienced instances when it both worked and did not work - I appreciate Scott’s efforts in exploring this topic. With that said, I also think that psychiatry has a lot of woo in it, and I would also love to see him explore that area more.

Expand full comment

Your mind is part of your body. All bodily sensation is within the nervous system, and inseparable from mind. If you feel emotionally fine in either your body or mind or both or neither, then what is the problem you are trying to solve?

Expand full comment

I have a PhD in cognitive psychology, thesis involved neuroimaging, and perhaps as a result have perpetually got hung up on what we're talking about when we talk about "processing" esp wrt the body. What does it mean for the body and the mind to process something? I can invent explanations, some of which are more satisfying than others, but the term got such heavy use in the article that I suspect it's been treated formally somewhere. Can someone point me that way?

Expand full comment

In my experience, almost all modern dancers and most ballet dancers partake of some amount of "woo" as used here (yoga, meditation, Alexander, Feldenkrais—usually focusing more on the somatic education than the transcendence). Among my acquaintances, there's not an obvious correlation with mental health: you get well-adjusted dancers doing a little or a lot, along with anorexics who don't and high-strung people examining their chakras all day.

This is a population of people exceptionally attentive to their bodies, to the point of spending ten hours a day obsessively testing whether they can hold their leg behind them at exactly such and such an angle while balancing on the other and swinging their torso from exactly position A to position B, etc. Some do well on academic tests and others don't, but the real community value is "physical intelligence"—being able to understand and imitate complex movements after seeing them once, predicting how a movement will feel and how the physics will work without actually doing it, being able to trust your body to find a safe and elegant way to land when you find yourself in a strange midair position. And among this community, it's just taken for granted that it's worthwhile and healthy to dedicate time to explicitly reflecting on how energy and emotion flow through your body.

My take is that different people's cognition is "embodied" to different extents: some people do all their thinking in an armchair and think their body is a tedious irrelevance, other people's executive cortices interface more extensively with their motor cortices and they prefer to do their thinking through motion. Accordingly, "woo" is simply the embodied-cognition side of mentalization or introspection: some people reflect on their intellectualized minds by thinking about their cognitive biases and intellectual competencies, others reflect on their embodied minds by paying attention to how energy moves through their daily sun salutation. Psychologists are familiar with problems associated with insufficient or excessive metacognition about one's intellectual cognition (BPD and neurosis respectively), and similar to Scott's "U-shaped curve" there are parallel unhealthy conditions in which people engage in either insufficient or obsessive metacognition about their physical cognition.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

In the Michael Teaching, and also in Gurdjieff's Fourth Way teaching, there are three main centers: intellectual, emotional, and moving/physical. (Technically there is also instinctive, and 3 higher centers mirroring those 3, but beyond the scope here).

Everyone has a preferred center, and a secondary center, and they tend to view and access the world thru those lens.

In short, Think or Feel or Do, pick two, and that's your typical perspective/operation.

Body awareness is one center. Woo comes in many flavors, but most of the Woos listed are body/moving centered woo, often then using that platform to do emotional center work. Works well for those folks who pick those centers, but poorly for non Moving centered people. Talk therapeutics might work better for someone Intellectual centered to reach their Emotional center, as an example. (Or counter to this, picking the center you use least might help balance and free up stuck patterns... So getting you out of your head and into your body, for example)

In other words, Woo has many flavors, and there is Woo to explain why there are many flavors.

Expand full comment

If I watch TV all day and eat a gallon of ice cream, I feel meh. If I bus, plane, train, and then bus again, I feel meh. When I do breath meditation, I feel very un-meh. Scott seems to think of body awareness practices as trying to remove DSM-5 disorders. At least for me, that's not what body awareness is about at all!

Expand full comment

Possibility 5: Woo works on some people because the placebo effect is very powerful in psychological conditions, and some people have a worldview in which it would obviously work.

Possibility 6: Woo doesn’t work on some people because the nocebo effect is very powerful in psychological conditions, and some people have a worldview in which it obviously wouldn’t work.

Expand full comment

I like to use the Moties' approach to quick analysis, so here's a first stab. On the one hand, I love the generosity, the willingness to grant the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, there doesn't seem to be much doubt to grant the benefit of. On the gripping hand, the vagueness of Woo Language traps anyone who jumps in carelessly. I conclude that it would take even more effort to break down and address the specific claims that go under the Woo heading.

That doesn't resolve my curiosity, though, there is still some mystery in my head about this post. I set a five minute alarm and sit back in my chair. It takes only seconds to think the thought that this post isn't about Woo, it's about exploring ways to organize belief and disbelief so that these natural enemies can get along. The alarm went off, I haven't thought of anything better, and I notice my curiosity feels suitably destroyed.

Expand full comment

I seem to remember that in the distant naive past rationalists used to hope to disentangle actually working parts of mystical traditions from obviously worthless "woo" nonsense that they were enveloped in. Is it fair to say that, judging by this post, those hopes have been thoroughly dashed? It certainly looks like nobody ever gets far into untangling, they either dive into that stuff headlong, "woo" and all, or dismiss it altogether.

Expand full comment

My n=1 case study: I have Crohn's disease and have been prescribed anti-depressants multiple times. Several years ago, my Crohn's symptoms and depression became crippling and I was hospitalized repeatedly. I was referred to a surgeon to have part of my intestine removed. My depression was pretty bad. I had previously dabbled in Woo, but never with any serious commitment. From this rock bottom state, I embraced Woo (meditation, tai chi, studying Eastern philosophy) and also made a significant career and location change. I managed to avoid surgery, I have not taken any prescription medication of any kind in the past seven years, my Crohn's symptoms have been very minimal during this time, and I'm feeling pretty good. While the career and location change undoubtedly helped as well, I am convinced that Woo has contributed substantially to my greatly improved physical and mental health.

I think I lean towards possibility 2 based on my experience. I suppose one could interpret my story as support for possibility 4 and Scott's assertion that "the sickest and most traumatized people seem interested in woo the most." But I think this is an oversimplification. I certainly went all-in on Woo when I was in my sickest and most traumatized stage of my life. This is not unusual. But I find longstanding members of the various Woo communities I've engaged with to be the sanest, most emotionally and mentally stable, and most compassionate people I know. After all, the hero's journey requires descent into the underworld before emergence as a hero.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

in my experience, meditation provides a very particular kind of stress, and the process of adaptation to that stress increases my capabilities in certain ways. by stress here i mean mentally challenging my mental inertia. certainly it's specific to the person, but i'd be surprised if controlling your environment in such a way as to provide particular stresses that you feel are helpful and that help you function or feel alive, whatever that is to you - i'd be surprised if that isn't something you do; and i'd be surprised that if your life changed to stop giving you that, that you'd remain vital and happy for very long.

Expand full comment

Tentative theory: I've gotten a lot of good out of some kinds of woo, while starting out as being pretty numb.

On the other hand, even though I was numb, it seemed obvious to me that there was *something* in the mind/body/emotions connection.

Maybe woo of whatever kind works better for people who think some part of the premise is obviously true.

I gather Myers-Briggs doesn't get a lot of respect these days, but I think there's something to the Sensory/Intuitive distinction. Sensory people think that what they perceive is fundamental truth and iNtuitive people think that there's something more real within/beneath/behind/above what they perceive.

Expand full comment

It seems to me that “woo” is incredibly poorly defined and/or steel-manned here. An analysis that lumps together processes as different as Wim Hof and Internal Family Sustems (and as wildly different in their methodologies and goals) without defining the similarities is facially useless. To me, it seems like an old man shouting at the clouds.

Expand full comment

Perhaps you're overgeneralizing when you say "emotions". Perhaps a certain set of emotions are stored as tensions in the body, and others aren't. It's definitely true that every "woo" practitioner I've encountered has overpromissed. but some of them seem to believe their promises. There are a lot of possible hypotheses that cover that, but a combination of marketing and believing what they hear themselves saying often seems to fit. So that's a "body oriented" feedback loop that they don't seem to be noticing.

FWIW, storing emotions in the body has Reichian echoes to me, and I think that he both had some valid insights, and also tended to believe what he heard himself saying. (Better evidence would be better, but since so much was officially suppressed it's not available.)

To me it SEEMS as if many of my emotions echo somewhere in my body (just where varies), but many of them don't seem to have that echo. Now the question is "Is this echo the long term memory of the emotion?". It could just be an related effect. Consider the itch of an insect bite. Is the itch the memory of that bite? A lot depends on the precise definition used. I've got a weak knee that I injured. Is that weakness the memory of that injury? Certainly traumatic events can cause injuries and associated strong emotions. Because of the nature of memory, one might expect them to reinforce each other.

I think the basic mistake is mind-body dualism. They are a unitary whole. You can't split them apart. The idea that you can do so is an illusion. You can't feel WITH you finger, it requires the finger, the neural connection, AND the processing of that sensation. A break anywhere along that chain causes malfunction. I expect that emotions act similarly. Memories have to be stored somewhere, but there's nothing that says all memories have to be stored in the same place. And sensations reinforce memories. Break the chain and the reinforcement disappears. But if you want to change things, a better choice is often to instead establish a wider link of alternative meanings for the emotion or tension. Perhaps this is what some forms of "woo" do for some kinds of emotion.

Expand full comment

I definitely have low body-awareness, and that *does* come with problems. As an example, over the past 10 years I've been diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety disorders, and depression. I've lost three jobs. I recently went to a doctor who listened to my symptoms and immediately said "you have sleep apnea and you're tired. Do you feel tired?" "No," I answered, "but my wife mentioned I snore a lot." A sleep study showed that I was waking myself 60 times an hour from inability to breathe. A week into using a CPAP almost all of those "disorders" have resolved.

Better body awareness definitely would have identified the problem. And I can imagine that better body awareness coming from traditionally "woo" practices like meditation or body work. I was about to say it would not have "solved" the problem but actually a more active lifestyle leading to weight loss would in fact make me sleep better. Still, what fixed the problem wasn't body work, it was a doctor, and a medical device.

I'm not a big fan of various "woo" ideas, but I do think that American doctors and lifestyles de-emphasize body feedback in a way that's likely causing us to miss diagnostic data and treatment options. That might partially account for the worse health outcomes in the U.S.

Expand full comment

I don't know if it counts as woo or not, but when I'm driving and the sleepiness descends on me, and I return to alertness by inducing some flow in the lesser chi circulation.

Expand full comment

You are roping in stuff that is very new-age (cranial-sacral, etc.) with stuff that is totally substantial and physical (Alexander technique). Alexander technique is basically what you see LeBron James doing before games, where he isolates aspects of his movement and balance, to practice getting the parts of his body to move in sync in various ways. You might as well say that learning to ice skate doesn't "work". I mean, you might not be a more enlightened person once you learn to ice skate, but you'll sure be able to ice skate.

Expand full comment

Re #3, what about bodily pleasure? I wonder to what extent some people feel physically good throughout the day vs bad.

Expand full comment

Re. "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.":

If all life is suffering, and the objective of Buddhism is to free oneself from that suffering, then people who are dissociated from bodily experience (like the traumatized who can't tell when they're being massaged) are the most-enlightened of people, and becoming like them should be the objective of Buddhism.

Expand full comment
founding

Huh, I'm a little surprised to see Alexander Technique both 1) listed as woo and 2) something you got 0 results from. (Unless you didn't actually try it and just thought of it as part of a 'bodywork' category, which makes sense to me.)

[I think it will often be the case that someone has already got the basics of what AT is trying to teach, and so both they and the teacher should go "yeah, you're fine"; situations where the AT teacher is like "yikes" and does an adjustment and then the person goes "eh this is the same" seem super surprising to me / likely to require immense dissociation.]

Expand full comment

Just one data point, but as a rationalist/very much "head" centered person, somatic work and IFS have been enormously helpful to me.

For example, I fully buy the idea that all thoughts with emotional valence have a corresponding sensation in one's body (may not be true for everyone!) and learning to notice and interact with that sensation is a useful skill. As I've gotten more skilled at noticing, often I'll see that bodily sensations arise first and then thoughts come after, and by catching the bodily sensations before the arising of the corresponding thoughts I can often halt the process and let it dissipate, instead of becoming a story that my mind is stuck in.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

Wooers shouldn't say "rationalist" when they mean "empiricist". Woo is such a good case study for clarifying the difference between the two, that I hate to see it ruined by using them exactly backwards.

"Rationalist" does NOT mean one who thinks scientifically and wants tangible evidence. That's "empiricist", which is the opposite of "rationalist". A rationalist is one who believes we can prove things about reality in the same way we prove theories in geometry, and have the same absolute certainty in our conclusions. Rationalists believe that scientific experiments are useless because the senses are deceiving, and the only source of knowledge is our own intuition, plus logical deduction.

Theology is rational; science is empirical. Scientists need to understand this, because the religious and post-modernist attacks on science, which have done so much harm in the past 60 years, all work by assuming that science is rational, which theologians and post-modernists justify by pointing out that scientists (who don't know any better) keep /saying/ science is rational.

Woo clarifies the difference because what distinguishes "woo" from medicine is that woo relies entirely on private phenomenology.

Back in the 18th century, Kant gobsmacked rationalists by convincing them that the empiricists were right in saying we can never reach absolute truth, nor penetrate to the essences of things (the "noumena" or "ding an sich"), because our minds grasp only phenomena (qualia, feelings, sensations). The rationalists spent the next 140 or so years trying to find ways around Kant. One of these ways is phenomenology, which, as near as I can tell, says that phenomena /are/ noumena, or that we should pretend they are. That is, human reality is built entirely from phenomena, so you can forget about the noumena, which aren't part of our reality, and reconstruct the rationalist geometricization of your reality by taking your own personal perceptions as the rock-bottom axioms and facts of your logic. Everyone has their own personal truths and their own personal reality, all just as valid as anyone else's.

Psychology became a science late because it's phenomenological: it wants to talk about feelings, which aren't directly observable by experimenters. We can, however, operationalize feelings, which means quantifying them by agreeing on a list of observable behaviors which we think correlate with those feelings. So you get a checklist of behaviors that correlate with depression, and measure how depressed someone is by counting how many times they do something on that list. You have empiricized the phenomenological.

But that's possible only because feelings are largely universal. We are pretty confident that when I say "I'm sad", I mean something pretty much the same as you do when you say it. Woo practices instead revolve around phenomenological descriptions with inscrutable meanings, like "empty your mind" or "feel your chakra". They haven't been operationalized, so we have no way of knowing whether you empty your mind the same way I do, or feel your chakra like I do. Until they can be, they're entirely rational, and not at all empirical.

Expand full comment

Hm. Not sure if this post is being deliberately strawman-ish. Couple of thoughts:

"Woo" needs a much tighter definition. Yoga, tai chi, IFS , and chakra meditation do not seem like a coherent set. Based on an informal sample of dating profiles, I would estimate that roughly 100% of women living in a typical American city are into yoga. And that seems fine. It's a set of stretching and strength exercises. I don't practice yoga, but when I have done it in the past, I felt good afterwards, as I would expect after doing some mildly intense exercise for an hour. I've never done tai chi, but I would expect something similar. IFS is a therapeutic modality with some clinical research behind it. Taken literally, its premises seem pretty goofy to me, but taken as a guide to a structured form of introspection, it seems like it could be as useful as many other forms of therapy. Point being, this stuff seems like a far cry from crystal healing.

The idea that "woo" is good for everyone isn't as absurd as it's supposed to sound. Mild aerobic exercise like walking is good for (almost) everyone. Eating fresh vegetables is good for just about everyone. These practices aren't likely to transform your life, at least by themselves, and ditto for various forms of woo. But you don't need to posit that the woo-averse are broken human beings to accept that there might be some broad benefits to woo.

Finally, I think it's pretty much factually wrong to say that "really traumatized people" are the ones who are into woo. I find it pretty depressing how many seemingly functional people are into astrology. I know tons of happy, non-hippy dippy people who swear by the benefits of acupuncture. As mentioned, pretty much every woman I've ever met seems to harbor a secret desire to leave their career and become a yoga instructor. Woo is pretty much omnipresent, at least in the sloppy definition used here.

Expand full comment

A silly example of "causation vs. treatment" that comes up in my own life is the observation that healthy people something like 7-8 hours per day, while unhealthy people sleep less or more. Sometimes you see articles saying that if you want to stay healthy, then, you shouldn't sleep more than 8 hours a day. To me there's an obvious possibility that sicklier people require more sleep!

Expand full comment

This is an incredibly frustrating article because it’s based on a derogatory term that you don’t attempt to define very well.

I think that you’re almost exclusively talking about embodiment practices, but it’s hard to tell.

And I find the comments section to be doubly frustrating because people are attempting to judge and dismiss a whole range of disparate practices based on lumping them into a bucket based on a term that is intended to do just that.

In the process a lot of talking past each other is happening… maybe that’s just normal. I don’t tend to venture down here very often.

Expand full comment

Woo is placebo so it sort of works for some things, especially if you believe in it, so it wouldn't work as well for Scott or I who are non-believers.

Doctors have been around for millennia but medicine started working in a modern sense only in the last 150 years. why did patients kept paying them if they provided no benefit?

The roots go even deeper with shamans and other people that we would call spiritual healers. It is believed by some historians that the Venus statues of prehistoric Europe had a healing function for giving birth. The oldest are about 40 000 years old.

People have been doing woo in basically in all cultures that we know off so it must provide some benefit and given the variety of practices the positive result is due to the healing ritual itself not a particular practice.

Expand full comment

Is "woo" operationalizable or universally recognized? If not why waste ink?

Expand full comment

Not a woo responder and have made a good faith effort at some of it. If this is woo at all, I do find there’s something about the act of being totally focused on something you do with your body that helps you keep your mind healthy and happy. However, the most non-woo example I have of that is doing cuts on my mitre or table saw. When I do all day I feel like a lot of the sort of existential milieu “what does it all mean, really, when you think about it?” just evaporates. I hear racing cars is the same.

I think fundamentally we’re minds in conversations with our bodies which are in conversation with the reality around us and the more you get yourself in that feedback loop the better. That’s the thing we evolved to do. When I have to rip a sheet of plywood or something my mind and body are totally focused on making sure I keep the blade on the chalk line.

Expand full comment

One form of woo that might help is laughter yoga.

Expand full comment

I have a friend who's a big woo fan, but also super rationalist and doesn't *actually* believe in anything woo (but he suspends disbelief). He's special in that he:

1. Is entirely unjudgemental. He's not 'triggered' by irrationality or nonsense, he finds it quite funny and interesting.

2. Is aesthetically really into all the incense, faux Indian music, imagery, chanting etc.

3. Has the balls to go to these events and say with full confidence: "No, I don't believe any of it, but I just love the feeling and the aesthetics." And people are cool with that. Weirdly, some of the woo people actually don't believe that he doesn't believe in it.

He's a really mentally healthy guy, gets some pretty deep experiences, as well as loads of superficial aesthetic enjoyment. When I've attended events with him, I 100% feel like the defective one for having intrusive thoughts such as: "this is bullshit, how can anyone believe that!" and failing to absorb the positive spiritual vibes.

Expand full comment

I have a lot of opinions on this, having let a bunch of nominally-"woo" practices into my life in the past couple of years. I should say that experience has been that there is nothing magical about it, irrational people layer that on top to make what they're doing feel important, but, that the embodied emotions *feel* like we imagine magic feeling.

My model is pretty different and IMO more plausible than the ones you write about here, I think there are some unjustified assumptions in yours.

First my objections:

To (1)—I don't think the claim is that woo is "great", but moreso that it feels extremely good. However, it is likely that pursuing it comes at the cost of losing access, at least temporarily, to the full rational capability of the mind, basically because your awareness is elsewhere. I can't seem to play chess right now, but if I go play a ton of chess it will probably come back.

To (2), that woo is good for different people, everyone's OK—"This seems like the opposite complaint as the woo people" presumes that "right" is either "processing emotions in the mind", or vice versa. Not so. The better model is: that "right" is "the mind receives emotions clearly from the body and processes them".

This can fail either if the mind can't process them, or it can't receive them. If you aren't receiving emotions clearly from the body (because of dissociation, tension, blockage by trauma etc), they arrive instead as vague hopeless confusing impressions. Bodywork practices make these signals *clearer*—which in the short-term makes them WORSE, and more intense.

It sounds like the earlier psychotherapists, in this model, were doing something a little woo-like, trying to connect to suppressed emotions that were there but were confusing, but they didn't describe it in terms of the body, so it doesn't really pattern-match to the same thing.

You slip in "People who process [in the mind]... might benefit from ... cognitive therapy": CBT, in this model, teaches the other part—responsibly processing the emotions you receive. It will be very hard if you are not receiving clear signals. But CBT seems (vague impression) to be most immediately effective for people who have clear and strongly-felt emotions but no idea how to responsibly think through them—thinking about feelings, for them, is an immediate win. (CBT-style processing doesn't work for me at all when my feelings are blocked in my body.)

"woo practitioners considering their treatment a success when they shift people back towards more bodily processing"—in my experience, not having access to emotions in the body is deeply confusing, disconnected, and painful (if there is pain there.) For the dissociated, woo is clarifying. For the already-embodied, woo is *deeply pleasurable* and feels *meaningful*, significant—feels religious.

On theory (3), treats a specific defect: "[normal people] process emotions in their minds, where emotions belong." vs "shunting to the body... this is a non-normative and defective state". See above, this is not the model, rather, "normal"—healthy—people process in the minds but with full access to the emotion from the body, as opposed to little/no access.

"A correctly-running body part usually feels like nothing"—not so, at least for muscles—a correctly running muscle glows with energy and vitality, is a joy to get to use and wants to be used all the time, like a child running around, for no reason but the joy of it. This is accessible to adults through bodywork. And the lungs, correctly used, feel like breathing divine mana.

The "U-shaped curve"—sounds basically right. Very healthy people—fit, good posture, visibly healthy, glowing—don't seem to "need" woo, although it is very enjoyable for them. They have ready access to their emotions. Kids have ready access but are immature and their emotions are too large and harmful. If you mature without closing that access to the emotions—to the "bodymind"—your emotions remain large and significant but can be wielded responsibly.

If you do not have good access to the body, probably because it's holding a ton of pain, or you spend all day at a computer—then emotions are confusing and vague and everything seems to hurt. The immediate "problem" that your body wants to fix is not "I'm not fit", it's "I can't feel my body", so it's drawn to things that immediately let you feel your body—bodywork, weed.

On theory 4:

* "whooshes of energy will happen in an exciting pattern" —no, they're deeply pleasurable feelings.

* re sex scandals—the optimal amount of thinking is nonzero. Adults who are *fully* in their body are potentially—I expect, if this is even possible—animalistic and dangerous, with the responsibility of a child, in a body that the world sees as an adult.

Re "messed-up, traumatized people"... "Which of these are coping strategies and which are risk factors?" Here is a more specific theory:

* The traumatized mind is wounded and wants to heal. It will naturally try to convalesce—to sink into depression, or to seek ritual practices and the presence of healers, or things that point to healing, like insight into the source of the pain—receiving this insight can be healing itself, e.g. the Sarno Amazon review anecdote. Convalescing behaviors, and bodily practices that expose emotion, are trying to fix the problem—but the body does not necessarily know the best way to be fixed. (I have a chronic hip problem and my body mostly wants to lay around and draw my attention to the pain and try to untangle the clump in my IT band, not *see a PT*.)

* The self demands to be seen, to be differentiated, have an identity, feel belonging, to feel connected, to feel embodied in space with other bodies—"wants" in that it is painful not to. If your confidence is high, your self happily inhabits your body, and feels connected and present with other bodies. If it's not, your "self" hides, peeks out—acts of self-expression assert its desire to be seen anyway. You could call them "coping" but they're not *trying* to fix the problem, they're trying to *exist anyway*. They are not morally bad or good or working or not working. But they might not have been how you expressed yourself if you were perfectly healthy.

* Addictive behavior, seeking dopamine hits, is fully just "coping", sort of. It says: I don't feel like I have the safety to address to my emotions now, to heal—there are too many responsibilities. I can't have any long-term goals, I don't know what I want, because the emotion of deep resonance that ratifies decisions is one that is felt in the body ("gut feeling"), and I'm cut off from that, or because I cannot work through all the feelings I have, they're too overwhelming, I don't have any strongly-held beliefs to orient with, so the only option is to distract myself. Instead I'm going to go in circles and *wait*, hoping fate will intervene, or somebody will see that I'm suffering and engage with it and help me heal.

Expand full comment

>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.

I grew up in Utah and did a lot of camping, skiing, etc. Basically sometimes you will be very very cold and I learned that it basically does not matter. There is a huge space between feeling cold and getting hypothermia. Living in Boston, I would bike through the winter, snow or shine. I always planned for ten minutes of pain at the beginning before warming up, but found it easy to ignore. Just don't think about it!

It wasn't until my mid-twenties when I was high and walking outside that I realized that I was in fact cold all the time wearing my sports coats that were too thin unless I was moving. This is an example of a connection lowering quality of life. Once I took the feeling more seriously I was less likely to go play sports if it was cold outside.

Expand full comment

Seems the woo practictioners/advocates/whatever are trying to get you to prove a negative.

"Well, maybe it's having effects that you don't know about and prove that it isn't!"

Expand full comment

"Bodywork" is a bad term to apply here because it gets used, at least in my experience, to describe a range of things from Reiki (pure woo) to massage (some forms are clearly clinically useful but there's also plenty of woo in the field) to PNF stretching (not woo).

Expand full comment

I'm curious of where the woo-line is being drawn here - yoga obvi has workout benefits, but for a more ambiguous case, meditation does lead to physical changes in the brain? https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8633496/#:~:text=Analysis%20of%20the%20subcortical%20structures,thickness%20and%20gray%20matter%20volumes.

The regions most impacted are the ones around memory and executive control, and it seems likely it has a protective impact. However, the set of folks actually doing focused meditation that consistently I'd say is a teensy tiny minuscule fraction of the woo folks.

(Then again, the overlap between woo-folks and the kind of anti-chemical people who still do cocaine seems uncommonly high to me, so I'm curious when you say that the folks into bodywork seem screwed up, how many are doing it rigorously vs just talking loudly about it a lot? I'm in a lot of hippie circles and folks tend to talk about the benefits of various practices but then not actually stick with them in practice)

Expand full comment

I’m leaning towards option (3), though I’d phrase in a less essentializing way. That is, I’d interpret “defect” to be more of a contextual problem in one’s life situation than a fundamental flaw in one’s psychology. There are times in my life where the discipline or ritual of things like Wim Hof or spiritual yoga feel like they have made a big difference. Though, tbh, these times correlate with poorer mental health for me. When life is swell, my empiricist side will start to tell me that these things are a waste of time.

Expand full comment

There's woo and then there's woo.

There's a lot of woo I like and trust, like auras, but it took me a long time to figure out the difference between that and the woo that drove me up a wall.

The difference (aside from things like preferring Chinese methods over Indian methods) is that I don't tolerate the New Thought style of intention creating reality. I mean, it's hard to even get people to agree on putting putting a dinner party, so why would I believe people's subconsciousness got together to make 9/11 happen?

Expand full comment

Another commenter mentioned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, whose model is very useful here. He would say that seeing this as direct brain-body interactions or the brain gating sensations from the body is not the whole picture.

Rationalists know well that the brain is in large part a machine to make maps or representations or "models" of the world around itself, including spatial relationships, forces, other animals and people, etc.

Damasio argues that the brain spends a great deal of effort making "maps" of the body (specifically in areas like the periaqueductal gray and insular cortex). This map should be constantly updating; the brain is constantly simulating the body, in addition to receiving actual input from the body proper. One advantage is that this is much faster and more efficient than waiting for your body to send signals; it's a bit like a cache.

Different people's body-maps may have very different resolutions, and this leads directly to the signal:noise problems that Scott alludes to.

Expand full comment

I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "a correctly functioning body part feels like nothing". To me, there are 2 parts to this kind of self-analysis.

1. Focusing in on a small part of experience (the body, a part of the body, sensations)

2. Understanding your own attention mechanism, turning it on itself.

Ideally, following this path leads to self-validation, loving yourself without the need for external rewards. But it can go off the rails. The people who get a lot out of the process treat it as an exercise, and part of a balanced life. People who clutch onto it and need it to provide meaning in their life can really screw themselves up. It's dangerous to tamper with your own attention/motivation loop.

Expand full comment

I think you miss some complexity by categorizing so many possibilities as "psychosomatic." The term diminishes the common phenomenon of stubborn physical diseases emerging from thought patterns; generally healthy people tend to assume that if one's chronic stress (for example) led to mitochondrial energy dysfunction, all should be quickly repaired once the stress is dealt with properly. Modern medicine simply doesn't yet understand why sometimes a disease is irreversible even if it was triggered by mental processes (which are NEVER the sole etiology, as genetics and experience complete the unfortunate cocktail).

As for woo (which is short for woo woo), t'ai chi, for example, teaches practitioners to move their bodies through space in a state of balance. This is not primarily a "spiritual" education. It is a recognition that balance is impossible without "flow." Flow occurs in relationship to the everchanging OUTSIDE world (think of a musician or an athlete), so it is outside the purview of rational thought -- and it is certainly much more than just a whoosh of pleasant feelings. It is something your body can actually learn.

If you're relatively healthy, you can get by (with obvious limitations) relying primarily on cerebral consciousness, but imagine being weak and sick, so that all your interactions with the outside world take ten times the effort as someone who can put on a pair of socks mindlessly relying on muscles alone. Muscular movement is deprecated in t'ai chi because the more efficient way to move a body in motion is with balanced momentum, which requires a particular focusing of awareness. The result doesn't have to be a "cure" to constitute an effective disease management strategy marrying mind and body.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

Consider the following categories of experience:

1. "I feel worse today than I did yesterday, and I know why. "

The reason is that this morning, I got hit by a bus.

I don't need science to explain this. You could say that, at some point in human history, or at some point as I was becoming sentient, someone did some "science" to connect the experience of feeling bad and the experience of being hit by a bus, but fundamentally, these kinds of immediately obvious connections between gross phenomena aren't the kind of things we need science to explain, though we might need science to fix our post-bus broken leg.

2. "I feel worse today than I did yesterday, and I don't know why."

The reason is that I was bitten by a mosquito and I contracted malaria. I went to the hospital, and they used science to diagnose me and give my the correct treatment.

Without science, there is absolutely no fucking way I could have made the connection between that tiny, to-me-insignificant experience of getting bitten by a mosquito, and feeling bad. The way science did this, roughly, was to compare millions of people who were feeling bad in a particular way (malaria symptoms) and experiences they had in common, (mosquito bites) and the solution that worked (mefloquine.) On my own, I would've been absolutely unable to separate the signal (mosquito bite) from the noise (everything else that happened to me that day), never mind try every possible solution on earth until I found one that worked. But over the course of years, and combing through millions of individual human experiences, science did, and that's why science is GREAT.

3. "I feel worse than yesterday, and I don't know why."

I went to the hospital, and they ran a bunch of tests, and at the end they were like, "We don't know why either, sorry, but you could try this anti-depressant" so I left and I took the anti-depressant for a while but it didn't make any difference so I stopped. And so then, it was just me and the millions of experiences that make up my days - [eating a fried egg] [eating a salad] [sleeping 10 hours] [playing video games] [getting bitten by a mosquito] [going to yoga] [talking to my friend Zelda]. And slowly, over time, I started noticing some rough correlations between things I did and feeling better and other things and feeling worse, so I started tacking towards those things that resulted in good feelings [yoga] [salads] [Zelda] and away from others. I didn't know why yoga and salads, worked; they just did, and I felt a little better, but not much.

And one day after [yoga], while I was talking to [Zelda] over my [salad], I was telling [Zelda] about the particular way I felt bad, and correlations I'd noticed, and she was like, I have a lot of the same symptoms as you, and you know what helped for me? [Bottled Woo]. So I thought, why not, and I ordered at $30 bottle of it on the internet and I drank it, and it didn't help.

But when I told [Zelda] that, she said, No, [Bottled Woo] only helps if you [fast] and you [meditate] and you stand in a [posture] and [pray] while you drink it, and I tried it [meditation] + [posture} + [prayer] + [Bottled Woo] and I felt a little better, better than I did with just [yoga] and [salads] and [Zelda] but not THAT much better. And I told Zelda that, and she said, oh, that's weird, it usually helps me a ton, why don't you come over and do it with me, and I went to her house and we did the things and I felt AMAZING, better than I ever had, and my problems didn't come back; in fact, I felt even better than I had before all these problems started, and I was really happy because I found a solution that worked.

And then I ran into a scientist I met at the hospital and he was like, how are you feeling, and I said, AMAZING, and he said, Oh great, what did you do? and it was pretty complicated to give him the whole answer so I said [Bottled Woo] and he was like, no, that's pseudoscientific nonsense there's absolutely no way that worked.

And I'm like, but it did, though. And he's like, no, you're wrong [Bottled Woo] has been scientifically proven to do nothing in double-blind lab tests. And I'm like BUT I'M BETTER LOOK AT ME and he shows me all the controlled studies that show that [Bottled Woo] is absolutely useless, and I said, "Oh yeah, I thought that too at first, but you have to [meditate] and [fast] and stand in [posture] and [pray], it's a whole thing."

And he was like THOSE ARE CONFOUNDING FACTORS YOU ARE NOT DOING SCIENCE RIGHT and I was like, I'm not trying to do science I'm just trying to feel better, which I do, so checkmate, buster. He said, okay, well, try doing all the things you're doing but stop drinking {Bottled Woo] and see what happens. And I was like, why would I mess with perfection, I'm better, so changing anything seems risky. But I felt bad for the scientist, so I did...and on some days without [Bottled Woo] I felt the same, and on some days I felt a little worse, and maybe it was all just noise but I really, really didn't want to mess up whatever had caused me to feel amazing, so I went back to drinking it and it definitely didn't hurt.

And then I ran into the scientist again and I tried to duck behind the corner so he wouldn't see me, but he grabbed me by the collar and was like "ARE YOU STILL DRINKING BOTTLED WOO?!" and I was like yeah, and he was like, look, if you're feeling better, that's an amazing miracle, I'm not even mad at you for being bad at science, come be a part of my experiment, maybe it's [Bottled Woo] in combination with some other thing, and maybe we can figure it out and help some people. So I went to the lab and helped the scientist put together the experiment, and separated out as many confounding factors as we could -- [Bottled Woo] [Posture] [Meditation] [Fasting] [Salads] [Yoga] and obviously 99% of the way they were able to replicate my experience in the lab was extremely mediocre, for example, the only salad they could afford to give people was a cruddy one from the cafeteria and the yoga teacher they picked was kind of a ding-dong as opposed to mine who is the best, but the scientist did the best he could.

And I'm a woman, and I'm overweight, and I have a college education, so the subjects they picked for the study were also overweight, college educated women, because that's what the scientist thought that was most relevant about me, as opposed to the fact that I grew up in Pittsburgh, and broke my leg when I was seven, and live on the thirteenth floor of an apartment building, and am Jewish, and was bullied as a child, but I guess they had to start somewhere; and they tried to pick people who felt bad in roughly the same way as I did, which in some ways was obvious but in others they weren't, for example, they let in one woman whose husband had just died, and another lady who came to the experiment straight off of back-to-back shifts at McDonald's, and it seemed to me that those ladies maybe had different problems than I did but I'm not a scientist and even I didn't know what my problem was, exactly, so I just let it go.

Anyway, they ran the experiment, and four ladies got a lot better but the other 96 didn't, and I pointed to the four ladies who'd gotten better, and I was like, "See! It works!" and the scientist was like, wow, you are really bad at science, so I quit the experiment and me and those four ladies went over to Zelda's house and did the whole thing her way, and our lives got so, so much better, like amazingly better than they had ever been before, and when people saw us and wanted to know what we'd done, we told them, and some of us tried it, and it didn't work for them, so they left, and others tried it, and it did work for them, and they stayed.

And meanwhile the scientist kept toiling away in his lab and I kept living my life, and one day he called me and he said, "Listen, I've been thinking, what if the actual magic ingredient is your relationship with Zelda; I've been trying to come up with studies that isolate "Friendship" or "Connection," or "Faith in a Guru" as a confounding factor, but it's not working; I'm not sure what it's missing." And I was like, "Yeah, it's true, the particular constellation of qualities that make Zelda, Zelda are utterly unique anywhere on earth; there is only one of her, so really would be difficult to replicate the experience of knowing her in a lab." And he said, "Well, then, what good is that to anyone?" and I was like, "Ummmm...I'm not sure how to answer that question" and he said, "Here's an idea; what if we run an experiment of one, and you cut Zelda out of your life, and we see if you feel better or worse, it's not the best design but maybe it will do." So I hung up on him and we never spoke again.

And then, many years later, I died, and Zelda died, and so did the scientist, and Zelda's daughter continued this thing called THE ZELDA MOVEMENT that got some traction for a while then petered out, and then one hundred years later, after a massive amount of SCIENCE, a scientist working in the original scientist's lab discovered that Zelda's house was located over a mineral deposit that had some healing effect on the extreme subtle and rare blood disorder that hadn't even been discovered yet, but which genetic testing of their descendants revealed that 40% of the people in her original cult had had! So that's crazy. Score one for science. A funny thing is, though, I didn't have that disorder! To this day, the reason I got better remains unknown. Maybe I just got lucky. Or maybe Zelda really was unique.

Expand full comment

I feel similarly about believing in deities. I tried for many years but couldn't suspend my disbelief enough. I have envied the religious for that ability, and I do think I'm missing out on one way that people find meaning in and cope with life, but I don't think that makes me defective. It's a normal human variation that doesn't preclude me from being well and fulfilled.

Expand full comment

Dan Harris had nervous breakdowns while performing. It took serious work with meditation for him to figure out that he had a drinking problem.

I'd mistakenly attributed this to Sam Harris, a completely different person.

This is a shorter version of my comment. In my efforts to edit it, I somehow deleted the comment and the replies to it.

I was able to recover the replies from email notifications.

Stephen Klunk: "Are you thinking of Dan Harris? I have never heard any of this about Sam Harris, and I’ve been following him for a long time."

Yes, thank you very much. I've been wrong about that for a while.

Deiseach, replying to my being surprised Dan Harris had so much trouble figuring out he had a drinking problem: "In my limited experience, when people drink too much but are functional/not yet at the stage of alcoholism, they will rationalise it all away. "I'm a social drinker, therefore I don't have a problem/I have a drink or two after work to unwind, that's not excessive/I've never been blackout drunk/Sure, I like to have some fun and get a buzz on, what's wrong with that?" and so on. The person we can lie to best is our self. And I mean me in that as well. Other people can see there is a problem, but we deny it until slapped in the face with it. Maybe what meditation did for him was strip away all the "I only/I'm not/I don't" layers of excuses and made him see the raw reality of what he was doing."

I've tried to post this several times and it hasn't posted. I'll delete the extras if they show up.

Expand full comment

Can we define "woo" here? "Bodywork" - so, like, yoga? Stretches? Exercise and flexibility is generally good for people, both mentally and physically.

When I hear "woo" I generally think of astrology, crystals, auras, vaginal eggs that you pay $500 to Gwyneth Paltrow for the privilege, etc... What exactly are we referring to here? Can Scott give some examples?

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

Yuck. I find all of these framings (1-4) tendentious, beginning with the choice to call this "woo."

I would encourage folks to dig into the work of David Spiegel [1] at Stanford Medical School on hypnosis. One of the tools he works with is the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scale, which measures just what it says on the tin. The bottom line: there is natural variation around these things, and there's nothing normative about it. It's not that one level of susceptibility is "normal" and another "defective" or anything like that.

Likewise, the fact that some people take to various bodywork practices more than others strikes me as no more strange or in need of special explanation than that the fact that some people take to long-distance running more than others. There might have been an interesting piece to write on this topic, but the normative talk is really getting in the way.

1. https://med.stanford.edu/profiles/david-spiegel

Expand full comment

WOO is a successful social/political structure akin to the Medieval Church. The practitioners have a decent living, and the patients have a treatment that usually keeps them from becoming seriously anti social.

Why question its utility? Neurosis is a companion of Alienation which is an integral aspect of Modernity.

Modernity itself was questioned in the 19th century, resulting in the roots of WOO.

To be sure, the Developing World doesn't seem to have much time for it: too busy building High Speed Rail and elevating billions of people out of subsitence living.

Their time will come.

Expand full comment

Regarding Possibility 1, and in particular the writings of Bessel van der Kolk, this relates to the message I get from the story of Princess and the Pea: Being highly sensitive to discomfort caused by a real "thing", no matter how subtle, is actually good. I suspect it's been observed for a long time, and certainly matches my personal anecdotal experience, that people who don't seem to be aware that their body is functioning suboptimally or their environment is suboptimal have worse lives. On the surface it would appear to be a disadvantage to be so easily irritated by feelings in your body, but it might pay off if those feelings are genuinely indicative of a health issue or something that can be fixed. For example, if someone's breathing is suboptimal (maybe they have dust mite allergies and sleep in a bed of them) or their joints are stressed by being obese, but they can easily put up with it because they're barely aware of it.

I suspect a large proportion of woo proponents are highly sensitive in this way, but either their sensitivities are misfiring (i.e. they feel bodily feelings that are decoupled from genuine problems, and therefore other solutions don't work any better) or they simply misattribute the causes of these sensitivities. But I do think it's possible some proportion have accurate sensitivities for which there just aren't any good scientific solutions to, and some woo techniques actually do help here.

Expand full comment

I have lots of tattoos, dye my hair, sometimes do drugs for fun, but am mentally/physically quite healthy and don’t practice woo. No trauma here. I’m curious if there’s actually a correlation show between trauma and tattoo/hair color? I can believe drug use for sure but probably not occasional recreational use.

Expand full comment

My explanation is a simple "woo is often the only thing bringing some of these people out of their house to join in recreational activity with other people and build community out of shared belief/practice," of course that's going to be healthy and make people feel better and more well. If you don't feel like it works, it's probably for the same reason a non-sports fan won't get a lot out of going to a baseball game.

Expand full comment

# The "Atypical Woo" Conundrum

1. We are all broken in different ways

2. Social norms invariably pathologize some normalcies and normalize other pathologies

3. Every treatment helps some people with certain conditions (even if just placebo)

4. Many treatments can help most people in the right context

5. In the wrong context, every treatment will be ineffective.

6. In the most wrong context, every treatment can be harmful

7. The generous approach is to fit the treatment to the person, not vice versa.

8. That is surprisingly difficult to do, because the emotional investment necessary to believe "this treatment can help people" creates a sunk cost that is difficult to ignore

9. This effect is worse if "people like me" benefit from the treatment, because then identity is added to the sunk costs

Expand full comment

Tai chi (aka taijquan) is an interesting case because the vast majority of western teachers of it are just purveying woo along with light calisthenics, but if you're lucky enough to study with Chinese experts they are much more down to earth about it. My teacher says westerners are stupid for separating mind from body in the first place, before throwing me across the room.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

A fifth possibility occurs to me (kinda like number 3 above, but not quite): Mentally and emotionally healthy people process emotions largely in their bodies, while traumatized-and-unrecovered people tend to repress them and block them out. But healthy people (including, I assume, Scott) don't get into woo because they don't need any kind of external aid or practice to get back in touch with their bodily emotional sense. It's already their default. In fact it's so natural to a healthy person that they don't even consciously think about it, and so paradoxically may not realize that that's what they're doing. It's only people who have an unhealthy disconnect from their bodily emotional sense who can notice this problem, and then find woo helpful as a treatment.

My perspective on this is as someone with some degree of childhood PTSD I've been working through, particularly in the last few years. I was never at a point where I couldn't tell what part of my body was being massaged. But as I've learned to pay more attention to my bodily sensations, I've definitely noticed that there's a strong correlation between negative mental states / thought patterns, and strong bodily emotional sensations; and that the more I bring my attention to the latter, the more both are alleviated. I haven't really gotten into any form of woo to accomplish this though; I practised breath-following meditation for some time but didn't find it very helpful. What's been most helpful has just been getting into the habit of *remembering to check* for bodily sensations.

Expand full comment

While yoga might be 'woo' in the US, it's fairly normal in India, and I don't think that there are larger percentages of people with mental illnesses that practice it than the general population (I may be wrong...?). Still those people often report great benefit. So I'm not sure the last hypothesis holds.

Expand full comment

Evidence for somatic obliviousness: I felt nothing special after my first Alexander Technique lesson and figured I had wasted money on the lesson. Then later that day I had lunch with a friend, and before I said anything about the lesson she told me that my shoulders looked completely different and asked what had happened. So I went for a second lesson with a different teacher, and felt something so unlike anything else I'd experienced that I went on to train as an AT teacher though I never made a career of it.

Like many other commenters here, I don't think AT fits in the same category as some of these other practices. What AT addresses is the interface between high level intention and low level motor control. Obviously you aren't consciously controlling individual bundles of muscle fiber when you move, there must be some higher level way in which desire is converted to movement, and it stands to reason that this is trainable. AT tries to teach you an effective language for your consciousness to work with your reflexes.

I would encourage you to try again with a different teacher, ideally one who isn't dabbling in mysticism or psychotherapy at the same time. Maybe find someone who trained in England instead of California.

Expand full comment

Confuse at this definition of "woo": I thought it meant *definitely* supernatural stuff, implying supernatural beliefs of some kind, and that things like tarot reading would fall within the "woo" umbrella.

I realise you define your usage of the word, so I'm not saying you're unclear, it's just weird and jarring to me, like if you'd decided to up and use the word "magic" to talk about the yoga-tai-chi-meditation cluster. Is this common?

Expand full comment

I also think a lot of the US 'hippie movement' turned a lot of practices into things they were not. For example, if you go to a new age yoga studio promising to 'relieve the stress of intergenerational trauma' (something I saw the other day) and then find that it doesn't do what was promised, you shouldn't be too surprised.

Expand full comment

I think the government ought to subsidize cigarettes for schizophrenics. It sounds like a joke, but they have hard enough lives. I genuinely think that it's the right thing to do.

Expand full comment

I used to be insensitive to body-focused attention, and identify with the "can't imagine any relevant information there" tweet.

A recent meditation retreat I went on was more body focused than the type of meditation I usually do (retreat included lots of body scans and walking meditation, where you pay attention to the feeling of your feet on the ground etc). At first I was annoyed because that felt like a waste of time, but after 3 days of intensive practice I got onboard. I found moving my awareness down into my body (if that makes sense) super stabilizing -- after all, the head is a pretty chaotic place to be, with your attention caught up in discursive thinking and shifting emotions. The body is much more stable... Again though, it took some practice to really believe this, but is empirically testable (although maybe I confounded myself just by testing, my big gripe with self-experimentation).

Expand full comment

> Maybe these are just two different ways of processing things

I think they are in fact two different things entirely. One is about learning to notice something, and the other is about developing a “vocabulary “ to report on what they notice.

The processing might be very physical (dance, sport, fighting, singing, sex etc)[all the above sound good to me], or very verbal (Jane Austin, Herman Melville, Charles Bukowski ( couldn’t resist seeing those three in the same paragraph…))

And it could be a Zen Master processing all their emotions in real time while remaining perfectly still. No matter how you process, though, first you need to notice.

Expand full comment

I’m coming generally from the rationalist perspective.

I’m not sure if it makes sense to create the responder and non-responder distinction.

I think the core thing is how much you pay attention to the moment-to-moment operation of your body.

The body has responses to all sorts of stimuli in the environment. These can be low-level/physically close to the body in space and time (sympathetic nervous system spike from a loud sound in the environment) or high-level (sympathetic nervous system spike from thoughts about being able to pay bills at the end of the month and what happens if you can’t).

In both situations there is a response in the body. These bodily responses can be observed by the mind.

This fact can be useful when there are high-level negative thoughts (worry about the financial future) that don’t line up with reality (there’s enough money in the checking account). In that situation, the awareness of the feeling of the sympathetic nervous system being active can be enough to get out of thinking about worrying about the imagined situation and instead evaluate reality.

I think this is the skill that they’re referring to. Using bodily experience as a source of information about your mental state, then being able to use that information to correct mental course, if necessary.

Expand full comment

My guess is that rationalists do an above average amount of the practices labeled "woo" here ("yoga, “bodywork”, tai chi, Alexander Technique, chakra meditation, Wim Hof, Internal Family Systems, somatic experiencing, some trauma therapies, etc.").

That is, the percentage of Western rationalists who would say that they've benefited from at least one of the things on this list is larger than the base rate in their countries.

Expand full comment

I remember when behavioral therapy always worked. And when it didn’t, you obviously weren’t doing it right! Woo!

Expand full comment

There’s a Possibility 11 (or whatever number we’re at) which some commenters have pointed at but I’ll describe a little more. If one can be somewhat dissociated from one’s body, as van der Kolk describes, I want to take this a step further and say certain faculties or responses can become frozen to the point of being glaciated and that this is not always “bad.” There may be, um, psychological mutos in that ice and maybe the subconscious just is not interested in waking them yet. There might be some quantity of woo - in whatever units, woonits, sorry - that would have to be directed into that dissociation or blockage. It might take hours/days/months/years and then what you’d get would be months or years of flashbacks and assorted agonies while your system processed whatever Godzillas were in the ice. After you got it all cleaned up you’d find yourself feeling freer perhaps, and responding to woo. But generally people get dragged into those because they feel they simply must heal x in the present, and then the archaeological expedition reveals itself and the time frame for relief is - well, it takes time.

So it might be that someone is not “defective” or a “nonresponder” per se but rather diverting or dodging those energies, not letting go too much to prevent a mass thaw. Based on the little I know of Scott’s backstory I would say the odds of this configuration are nonzero. I did Alexander technique years ago to deal with some carpal tunnel syndrome issues and it helped a lot - and I would say feeling absolutely nothing different after a session or several would be atypical. I also use lots of other woo and appreciate it - and I would say after my own “thaw” I responded to it much more. But the thaw itself was painful and time-consuming. If someone is high functioning and well-adjusted, there isn’t that urgency, so they can take time and find a modality and course of treatment that might provide them something they actually want and then pay top dollar for a full course with a reputable practitioner and see what happens. When someone is in crisis there’s much more of the casting about in desperation for something to take the edge off. Body modification, hair modification, it can be a way to mark transformation or grieve loss. Telling a story of the possibility of change that involves beauty or self-empowerment. Not everyone wants that or would find it in hair or tattoos. But some do.

Anyway long story. People inevitably become interested in their frozen spots - some always choose to leave them alone, others eventually investigate - the investigation is up to the individual. Contemporary society does allow us to freeze and stay frozen in ways past civilizations couldn’t accommodate (I think). “Waking the Tiger” is interesting in patches and addresses these ideas.

Expand full comment

I was going to make some point in support of IFS as pretty useful (and non-woo if you take it metaphorically rather than literally), and then I remembered that I have a significant mental illness and thus I'm not providing any counterevidence...

Expand full comment

This reminds me of how people respond to people who say they cant orgasm/cant do it very well (which is like, 11% of all adult women!)

"You can't?? Well, clearly you havnt tried hard enough. have you tried X? how about Y?"

Ive tried a bunch of things, I feel like ive put in a pretty decent effort at this point, and its honestly not worth more stress

"Well, you're obviously repressed and emotionally frigid. You HAVE to keep trying!"

Im really not unhappy or anything, If i figure it out eventually, great! If not, I've got lots of other interesting experiences

"You can't know what you're talking about. Orgasm is THE MOST IMPORTANT experience. You are missing out on so much."

... gee, thanks?

Expand full comment

This was kind of jarring to read linguistically, because at least in my personal idiolect, "woo" is entirely pejorative ­– "woo is great" would be akin to saying "quackery is great" or "snake oil is great".

Expand full comment

I can make myself cry thinking how one day my daughter will be old and die and forget all our adventures together. Or stare at the sea until shivers go down my spine. Mostly I don't toy with the emotional subsystem thus. Has a masturbatory quality to it.

Expand full comment

One related observation that's impressed me from both the posts and the comments section here is that there is a _lot_ of variation in baseline bodily sensation across the population. From the discussions on CO2 sensing (from "Ondine's Curse" to panic attacks) to those on obesity to those on libido levels, there seems to be a large dynamic range in basic bodily drives.

Insofar as "woo" at least starts with concentrating on bodily sensations, this tends to support hypotheses that one should expect significantly different reactions to "woo" from people with different baseline sensitivities to particular bodily sensations.

Expand full comment
May 30, 2023·edited May 30, 2023

-- I think part of the explanation for woo's reported success may be a selection effect. People who are capable of maintaining a regular practice are going to be more mentally healthy than people who can't. People who are capable of light non-damaging physical activity (yoga, taiji) are going to be healthier than people who aren't. Further, if these practices are designed to ease people into them and encourage participation, the act of participating may actually increase participants' mental and physical health. And even with that aside, if a person is trying one woo after another but is in a bad enough condition that they can't keep up with any of them, and then for unrelated reasons their condition improves, the next woo they try will stick, and for them it will be correlated with improvement. Plus, other people have mentioned the beneficial effects of being in groups, working toward a shared goal, and making incremental progress.

-- Here's another hypothesis for some of the body-work type stuff. There's a lot of factors involved, and a lot of mechanisms, and we don't understand and haven't isolated many of them. Until the point that we do, we have to rely on intuitive, non-rational understanding to work with them. (Compare a chef who "just knows" what spices to add, to a computer program that can analyze flavor compounds and calculate how combinations match against the standard human palate.) There may be a body of knowledge built up using various metaphors that have over time been productive. Accessing the patterns at higher levels requires understanding the building blocks at lower levels. And none of this stuff is like Lost Knowledge from the Gods in a fantasy story; it's simply a lot of best practices built up over time a la "The Secret of Our Success". A further complication is that we are not disembodied intellects, or even a pure intellect in a clean implementation of a neural network: our meat brains are hooked into our bodies in all sorts of weird ways. Biofeedback aside, in certain domains, we (most of us) have hard-coded instincts and biases that are difficult to overcome or even notice. At times like that, being able to operate at the level of a metaphor can allow results that are (for most people) more difficult to accomplish through pure rationality. (Treating people as numbers makes it easier to do things that talking with them, face to face, would make harder. And, perhaps, treating all living things including yourself as incarnation of the same "world spirit" might produce a type of ethical treatment of animals that is difficult to reach and sustain by purely rational methods. Maybe. I dunno. That's just a thought.)

-- Some of this stuff seems close to sympathetic magic. That is, there's a bigger problem, perhaps psychological in nature, and also a smaller problem, perhaps physical tension due to inefficient use of the mechanisms of the body. If a correspondence is built up over time, then part of the treatment for the bigger problem could involve resolving the smaller problem. Probably not at once; it would seem best to match the lengths of treatment and create correspondences and stuff like that. And breakthroughs in the smaller problem could be re-purposed to unblock seemingly-intractable aspects of the larger problem. Alternatively, this would be a great way to scam people into thinking that you'd fixed their big problems.

-- A personal anecdote: in my EMDR treatment for PTSD, I'm often asked after a few minutes of EMDR to notice where in my body I'm feeling tension. I respond with where or not, I'm reminded to hold attention on that, and then we go for another few minutes. I can see how someone might interpret this as woo, but to me it's that I simply react to stress with certain types of physical compensation. Not like fully curling up into a fetal position, but minor things like hunching, fidgeting, and so forth. (There's a strong correlation between those physical sensations and working on something important, but only a moderate correlation the other way.) So if I'm noticing sensations like this, we can use them to track how well I'm processing, as long as I don't fall into the trap of persuading myself that the sensations are whatever I might want them to be. I try to keep the causality flowing one way.

> 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).

My personal experience with pot and PTSD is that there's a linear scale going from PTSDing to normal to stoned. Call it from -1 to 1, and a standard 10mg indica THC edible moves me 0.5 to the right. If I'm heavily PTSDing (-0.75), I'll get somewhat better (-0.25). If I'm moderately PTSDing (-0.5), I'll go to normal (0). If I'm lightly PTSDing (-0.25), I'll get slightly stoned (0.25). If I'm normal (0), I'll get moderately stoned (0.5). Multiple doses appear to be additive, but I've never gone over 2 doses (I don't actually **like** being stoned). One could conceptualize the scale as visceral agreement with the statement, "It's all cool, dude, just relax and let go." If I were not suffering from PTSD, I would not have discovered this about myself.

Does it generalize to other people or other conditions? I don't know. Does it help long-term in dealing with the condition? I don't think so; it seems like temporary relief. Does the drug itself have long-term effects? I don't know. Would someone who spent a lot of time stoned forget how to deal with their condition when not stoned? I rather suspect the answer is "yes": why the FUCK would you want to keep these FUCKING coping mechanisms in your head if you didn't absolutely FUCKING have to? Pardon my FUCKING French.

Expand full comment

is meditation woo?

Expand full comment

"Woo" is usually a mixture of placebos, poorly regulated folk medicine, and practices that are normally part of medicine, such as things like stretching, talk therapy, or meditation. Placebos work for different people to varying degrees so long as it is a condition placebos can touch. And good health practices remain that even if you dress it up in dubious theories about what is going on. So woo absolutely can "work" if you keep your expectations focused on what is actually going on. But people adopting the surrounding mythology is pernicious insofar as it 1) encourages them to try actively harmful treatments 2) causes people to choose it in lieu of more effective options or 3) causes people to form poor habits of mind that end up resulting in them adopting (other) harmful beliefs. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, all three are all over so-called woo communities and people with a good background in rational skepticism rightly should look at that with a mixture of concern and contempt.

Expand full comment

I think woo is fake systematicity, and this is separate from the question of which things have an underlying practice that has an effect for some people. Fake systematicity has lots of bad side effects related to misrepresenting what's actually going on in any given practice community and the biases and emotional problems of the people drawn to that community.

Expand full comment
founding

I am an engineer, very healthy physically and mentally, and score about 9.5 out of 10 as a rationalist. Been following and aligned that way for a decade or more.

I have also practiced Chen style Taiji for over 20 years (over 10,000 hours of practice and instruction). For the first 5 years it was just a complicated exercise - good for the body but comparable to Pilates. Then one day I experienced feelings that were not correlated with Western Medicine and my world view changed. The Taiji teachers would say I experienced “chi”.

I practice Taiji very rationally. If I practice “correctly” then I experience chi and observers will state that my Taiji is objectively better. The chi experience is repeatable and seems to be teachable.

I do not know what chi is and do not care. I simply accept that my sensations are not entirely correlated with the predictions of western medicine. That’s OK, the sensations are useful and repeatable and teachable. I don’t need more than that.

I would be glad to answer questions about this. I think it is valuable for the Rationalist community to accept the possibility that there are “real” experiences that are not explained by current Western models.

Expand full comment

Individuals vary a lot. Describing this as normal vs. defective is the opposite of helpful.

Many variations may be due to hemisphere dominance. Left-brained people may have little interest in their bodies, while right-brained people may find their bodies rich with information. These differences can be a combination of genetic and learned. Learned responses may include trauma responses, but not only that. Simply imitating parents' emotional styles can cause large differences. Both hemispheres have value. See The Master and His Emissary. (The Master is the right hemisphere, so if anyone is defective, it's overly left-brained people, according to McGilchrist). The rational brain is easily fooled, while a "gut feeling" is hard to fake or make up as a rationalization.

Responses to different woo practices vary a lot among people, and practices like meditation can take a long time to get good at. No benefit from one practice says nothing about practices you haven't tried yet.

Only the mind separates the organism into body and mind. The body makes no such distinction.

Expand full comment

I would say I enjoy doing some woo practices (I meditate regularly, stretch (yoga) almost every morning, I love cold dips at Scandinavian spas or after a gruesome physical effort.

I do this stuff because I enjoy them. Simple as that.

I also enjoy a ñarge variety of sports, I enjoy watching TV and films, and I love reading. To me, these woo activities are hobbies that keep me entertained and busy and make me feel good. And I understand that others don't enjoy them as much!

Expand full comment

Forgive me if someone else made this point and I didn't see it among the comments, but I think there's another aspect to woo that is not being considered here: most kinds of woo involve a intimate, trusting relationship with someone who very likely comes across as caring about you. That in itself can be beneficial to those with emotional or psychological trauma or instability, much like a relationship with a good therapist. To wit: we offer Reiki to nurses as part of staff care at the hospital where I work. Reiki is obviously woo, and I have never heard a remotely plausible explanation for it, but I agreed to try it once, and it was really quite pleasant. I felt that the Reiki guy cared about me, I trusted him, that relaxed me, I was less stressed and more focussed the rest of the day, and so on. Would it have been the same if he'd just given me a hug, or I'd played with the therapy dog for a bit?

Maybe! But I get why people like it.

Expand full comment

Can anyone give me an explanation of what “woo” is? I never heard of it until this article, and Scott’s brief description seems to encompass an awful lot. I mean, I do yoga, and it certainly helped - fixed my back right up. It’s boring as hell but it worked!

Expand full comment

One woo peddler I know claimed that Kundalini would be able to cure cancer and genetic diseases. I'm really, really dubious.

Expand full comment
founding

Yes, it is possible.

But rarely done because it would condition others in the same direction. Instead, the teacher will ask questions “how do you feel?” to encourage the student to be aware of their body. A group of people might all agree that “we feel chi when we do XYZ” but would generally not go into any more detail.

But I would share my experiences privately. Peter.houser@gmail.com

Expand full comment

As a variation of 2, maybe woo could have a placebo/nocebo effect (which in this context is pretty much equivalent to it having a real effect), but the specific kinds of woo work only for specific kinds of people, because of their expectations? Those who are open to the idea of spirituality are able to benefit from it, while those who are skeptical about it as a category and more open to traditional medicine would be better off with other forms of treatment. For example, they might get better effects from new, supposedly scientifically-based practices, supplements and medicine with studies proving their efficacy. Even if the studies fail to replicate in a few years, or further studies reveal that the treatment has insignificant effects, the treatment still works for them, as the context at the time allowed for them to be open to the suggestion that it would work.

Conversely, a treatment that is scientifically-proven to be effective, but sounds woo, might be made ineffective if the patient is unable to do their part because they believe it won't work. Adapting the treatment to sound less woo and more scientific would remove the nocebo effect that stops an effective treatment from working.

Expand full comment

On the topic of emotions and body sensations, there was one thing that I personally found really useful, as I might be one of these people who repress their body sensations. So, at one point my therapist recommended I try to experience my emotions with my body rather than with my mind. I found it a rather weird concept, but after some period of trying managed to get it working. And it helped a lot! The way I see it works is that when I try to consciously experience my emotions as body sensations (pain, tightness, difficulty to breathe, whatever), it might be unpleasant. But it always passes, and most of the times quickly. But when I try to deal with emotions in my head - it often creates an obsessive feedback loop when I keep circling around the particular problem, reliving it a hundred times and basically re-creating the emotion raw again and again and again. No such feedback loop in body - it hurts, then it goes away, sort of like when I hit my knee on something and an hour later it is just back to the way it was, no pain.

Expand full comment
May 31, 2023·edited May 31, 2023

One thing I'd like to point out about woo is that it's often (not always, but often) better than nothing. I had relatives who genuinely believed in woo. If I had a headache as a kid, they'd run their hands over my body to channel breath magic or something like that. It was placebo, so it worked.

My question: would kiddie aspirin have been an improvement? Should I have been given ibuprofen instead? Consider the risk of liver / stomach toxicity of these drugs - should you still administer them to young children, or should you try magic tricks that don't run that risk first?

Woo works well for transient, minor pains (for most otherwise healthy people is the bulk of most pains). Woo does not work for serious ailments, and if there is a treatment, it's obviously better to pursue that treatment. But in the absence of available treatment .... Is it better than nothing?

Expand full comment

I'm solidly on Team Possibility 2. I had depression where the symptoms were *so* somaticized that it took over 5 years to realize my problem was mental health related and not a sleep disorder. I'm also someone who easily falls into meditative states and experiences the kinds of things described in the stages of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, including things that happened, in the "correct" order, quite a few years before I read the book or started any kind of structured meditative practice. I prefer unguided meditation. My wife is exactly the opposite: trained as a therapist, processes emotions mentally and verbally, prefers guided meditations and gets lots of benefits from them but not the more woo-y experiences.

Expand full comment

I would question the whole framing, actually. All four possibilities are likely actual. Scott wrote about how meds are both overprescribed and underprescribed at the same time,sometimes to the same people. It is similar to this "woo" thing.

First, we are all at least somewhat dissociated from our bodily sensations at all times, otherwise we would be constantly distracted, itching, scratching and ow-ing. Sometimes we are dissociated so much, we don't feel rather pain in the rush of the moment, not until later. We are often also hyper-sensitized to our bodily sensations, say, feeling more pain in a specific area when we are scared of it. Again, Scott covered this a number of times. One very common example is a person yelling "I am not angry!!!" when pointed out that they are. It is not a "U-shaped curve", more like a bunch of random points.

Second, some people experience a lot more of this than others. A child who was regularly beaten and/or raped growing up learns to both not feel pain to survive the experience, and later experience body-memory pain when triggered. The sensation perception is completely warped in them. Sometimes it is "useful" (I know a person who can choose not to feel mild burns), but most of the time it is not a great thing (a person who has a severe health anxiety and simply thinking about potential heart issues can trigger heart ache, heart palpitations, and all the symptoms of a panic attack that mimic a heart attack). Stigmata is another classic example.

Third, this can often be normalized, at least temporarily, by mindfulness meditation, (self)trance, and all the other "body work" "woo". There are people who are both receptive to this and accepting of it. There are other people who hate the sensation of feeling their body and refuse anything that could "raise awareness" or it. Yet others would love to normalize their bodily perceptions but are not good at it.

Finally, like with psych meds, the trick is to match the treatment to the person, or else one does more harm than good, creating long-term negative side effects without having any primary benefit.

> 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!

Well, some are vicious cycles, and some are virtuous cycles and some are ad hoc coping strategies, and sometimes all three at once, depending on the day of the week.

Expand full comment

I know lots of people who do not have severe problems who are into woo, and feel very helped by some or several varieties of it. It seems to me that their belief in it has a different quality than their belief in science-based treatments, which most also take seriously. They have a special bond with their woopractitioners and with other people they know who are believers in this particular woo. One clear sign of it is that if you say, "but that can't possibly work," they are hurt in a special way -- almost as though you had laughed at their religion, or scoffed at a photo of a loved one that's important to them. It's much different from how they'd respond if you said, "I don't think cholesterol-lowering drugs have any effect." To that they'd say, "What?! Where did you read that? Mine sure works on my cholesterol."

Also, I think people who respond to woo are more suggestible -- better hypnotic subjects.

I'm sure there's also a group of people who are suffering greatly from some illness that conventional medicine cannot treat, and who turn to woo as a last resort. Ross Douthat wrote about doing that.

Expand full comment

My answer to this column is going to be heavily coloured by my experience as a member of Gen X (born in 1970). I had an entirely analogue childhood, which largely involved around running around parks, climbing trees and swimming in rivers. I didn't own a computer until after I graduated university. Since the mid-1990s, my work has almost entirely been based on a computer After an analogue childhood and youth, this has always felt a little jarring to me. The way I've made it work is by looking for hobbies that emphasize physical movement and physicality to provide some balance.

It's interesting that your list includes a lot of options that are based on physicality, including yoga, tai chi, Alexander technique, Wim Hof, etc. The "woo" is often based on the way people talk about these activities (particularly the alleged benefits) and not so much on the activities themselves, which could be included in a much larger category that includes everything from powerlifting to salsa dancing to marathon running to playing tennis and going for a nice walk in the countryside.

I suspect that the drive to include some analogue physicality in our increasingly digital lives is the real story here. Many of our ancestors would probably be more surprised to see us doing abstract work while sitting still in offices and staring at screens than they would be to see some people stretching enthusiastically, getting up early to move gracefully in traditional ways, trying to work on their posture, swimming in cold water and so on.

A more superficial issue is why one activity resonates with one person but not somebody else. Yoga, tai chi, Alexander technique, Wim Hof are non-competitive; involve regular practice; are light on equipment; and often come attached with whole worldviews. That is fine. Some will like these aspects more than others. On the other hand, someone else will enjoy cycle races, with one long training session at the weekend and lots of shopping trips for gear, while any sense of transcendence goes unspoken. That is also fine. But the drive to do something physical is largely the same.

Expand full comment

Ok. I think I have a vague understanding of whats going on here. Scott has touched on Conectome Specific Harmonic Wave Theory. If you check out rhw qualia insititue and testing models of valence theory, you will hear a lot about "neural annealing"

To greatly simplfiy, the idea is sort of that instead of a single brain wave, the brain has multiple connectomes with their own waves. The degree to which these harmonize or are in discord affect something like "mood." Neural annealing happens when people are stuck in "entropy sinks"- feedback patterns that keep the connectomes misalinged in a posiitve feedback loop.

A lot of "spiritual experiences", despite the specifci religious content, seem to happen in similar ways. Data or experiences that the entropy sink cant handle can force an adjustment, which can, under the right conditions, restore the harmonics and thus increase valence. This is something like the idea of Chod in Tibetan buddhism where people would partake in orgies or meditate in a charna field. Note the orgy thing probably wouldnt work for a westerner. The idea was to have an experience so shocking to the senses that a person's normal ego boundaries couldnt contain it and would force a sort of reordering or the percpetion of reality.

Probably, differnt specific traditions describe the process in specifi ways that then become self fulfilling prophecies. For example, there are "many" buddhism that insist theres is the true path and others are getting it wrong. What might happen there is they have their own means and interpretation of the steps of this process, and as Buddhists will point out, initial entry level expereinces are NOT the end goal. So if these different processes lead to people harmoning their connectomes, if unchecked that would feel incredibly significant and convince them their process was the true one.

So what the woo people might be saying is that our models, communties, and ways of understanding things lead to having these types of experiences more easily then a rationalist perspective. This could be true without any of the specific claims being true as the word sare substitutes for vague culturally shared an reinforced intuitons. I have noticed that in the "rationalist world" people tend to beleive they are more aware oif their own cognitive processes then they actually are. This COULD be a block for many, as if one believes they are more ware of their own cognition in rationalist terms, and are in terms of certain models,. they would be less open to poking around at the things that that they form parts of their cognition they are not consciously aware of, which is sort of necessary for a neural anneling process- a degree of honesty with oneself where the subconscious or "shadow self" is explicitly recognized and merged with the conscous ego identity.

Expand full comment

sorry for the typos, I'm not particulalry good at typing

Expand full comment

Sorry Scott, but to me, it's hardly possible to have a meaningful discussion about these issues if one uses categories like "woo", which lump together very different techniques rooted in different contexts. I see your point, but using a more nuanced language would be helpful here.

BTW, lumping all these things under a blob-like label "woo" feels to me like the intellectual counterpart of treating bodily sensations like an undifferentiated blob.

Expand full comment

Also, labeling as "woo" things as different as Somatic Experiencing, yoga and "chakra meditation" (not to mention "crystals and witchcraft", which appear in the comments) seems actually harmful. It's like treating libertarianism, oldschool conservatism, nationalist populism and downright Nazism all as "right wing" - correct from some point of view, but all in all hardly useful for making cogent arguments.

Expand full comment

I’m a little bit skeptical of people who say they have tried meditating / yoga / breathwork / affirmations / etc. seriously (with proper instruction) and regularly (ideally daily) for a longer period of time and experienced absolutely no benefits.

If you had someone tell you they tried antidepressants / diet change / new exercise routine and they didn’t work but they had only taken them for a month you’d tell them that they need a way longer timeframe to experience benefits, and surely all these three things are effective without a doubt.

Expand full comment

Just for general information, when you say you tried all these woo things in good faith, what does that exactly mean? Daily over a period of a month/year? Guided instruction? Would be nice to hear a detailed report on your experiences

Expand full comment

I’ll put in my two cents.

When I was younger, I went through many years of severe depression culminating in a suicide attempt.

The psychologist who saved me was able to identify that I was suppressing my emotions and rationalising them to avoid feeling them profoundly. It was only through a process of feeling emotions - literally, bodily sensations - in the psychologist’s office that I became able to process how angry I was at my father (very stereotypical.)

During and since that period I have done a fair bit of Vipassana meditation (or “body-scan” as it is called in Western tradition) and that has helped to keep me grounded.

As a result of my experience, I have roughly the same reaction to someone hypothesising “maybe body-work is all woo” as I would to “maybe hair doesn’t exist.” It comes out of my head! I can see it on many people I meet! Perhaps being bald is not a pathological state, to extend the analogy, BUT (to extend it even further) if eg it is a result of chemotherapy it might be a sign of deeper problems within.

So I suppose I come down somewhere between possibility 1 and possibility 2 on Scott’s list above. I don’t think you should necessarily seek out body work if you’re not inclined to it, but feeling your real feelings, without resistance, without interference from thought or rationalisation, is the gateway to unwinding a ton of mental pathology.

To wax more philosophically, there is a sense in which your feelings are the only true thing. All interpretation can be misguided, this might all be a simulation or a hallucination, there might not be a “you” at all (Buddhist philosophers teach that there is not) but there is certainly a perception. That is immediate and cannot be denied.

Scott, your comment in the first paragraph about how you have tried body work and not gotten results begs the further question (which you don’t have to answer if you don’t feel comfortable.) What results exactly were you trying to achieve?

Expand full comment
May 31, 2023·edited May 31, 2023

My hypothesis is that the difference between those drawn to woo and those not is how much congruence there is between the way you've learnt you "should" feel and how you actually feel. I believe the term in psychoanalysis is "splitting".

From the snippets I read of this blog's author he doesn't seem wracked with anxiety, doesn't seem to question himself constantly. He writes blog posts quickly, not a lot of second guessing. So I'm extrapolating to say, for him there is no split. How he feels, where ever he feels it, is just that. Thoughts, feelings, body, mind: congruent. Not saying happy necessarily, just congruent.

But then there are those in various communities who have splits of various kinds: people who have experienced trauma that isolates them from others, people who are neurodivergent and have been told constantly that the do things wrong, people who feel the need to mask, people who for whatever reason have a feeling deep down that something is just fundamentally wrong with them. And for them, maybe their brain feelings and body feeling don't match up. Or maybe even it's just their thoughts and their feelings that don't match up. There's some incongruence that leads to confusion and distress, and leads people to be interested in woo because woo attempts to address this incongruence.

Expand full comment

This doesn't match my experience of woo, which was mostly in Quaker circles. I lived and worked at a Quaker center for a year. The central practice, after the breakfast of whole-wheat bread and fair-trade coffee, is the 350-year-old woo practice of sitting quietly and waiting to see if God will speak to you (meeting for worship). People were into listening to your inner light and looong discussion sessions. Most of the staff seemed like pretty stable people.

Of the dozen people in the youth program there, I don't see an obvious connection between who was most into woo and how they were doing personally. The one who went on to become a shiatsu practitioner seemed fine. The one with a lot of trauma from childhood cancer went on to get more into neopaganism. The one who was most obviously struggling mental-health-wise was not particularly into woo.

Expand full comment

I meditated for 7 years before I had any body issues. So its kind of hard for me to grasp that I picked these practices up as a coping mechanism. They were already in tact.

I think this article gets to the crux of the paradox of awareness. You don't know you unaware, until you are. What many people think is a normal mind, is actually not normal. It's kind of just how this all works.

Expand full comment

I don't particularly like your examples. Having been around a lot of woo over the course of my life. Woo, I would categorize this things that solely or at least primarily function through physical or biological mechanisms that have been categorically disproven to exist, so some combination of placebo effect, cultural pressure, wishful thinking and a misunderstanding of the fundamental science mixed in with outright fraud is the animating principle. People do have positive responses to these, and I think the idea that non-responders might be defective in some way is possible, or just neurodivergent better at some things than others.

What I would call woo are things like Deepak chopra's Quantum longevity, Homeopathy which has been done to death, energy healing, Crystal healing, psychic surgery which is pretty much just fraud but can still have Placebo effects, certain forms of detox, High colonics, Etc.

Things that I wouldn't call woo are things that map on to meditation or stretching or exercise such as Tai Chi and yoga, and I wouldn't call internal family systems woo either, because that's just a multi-agent psychology. It may not actually work because there has not been enough scientific validation yet but it's not based on an unscientific model. Multi-agent psychology is arguably the dominant neurophysiological model of how the brain, mind and cognition works.

Are these practices hard medical science? No not at all. There's still a lot of work to be done that may show that they have less value than their proponents think they do. Is there a lot of woo attached to them, yeah I think that's a reasonable accusation though I don't think there's any form of medicine or motivational theory that doesn't wind up with superstitious and exaggerated claims connected to them.

Expand full comment

I don't disagree with what I think is the intended conclusion here, but I do want to flag this:

> But somehow depressed borderlines with five past suicide attempts never need to “learn the prerequisite skills”. It always comes naturally to them!

This is approximately what I'd expect. If you're mostly psychologically/physically healthy, you can move through life without really understand how your internals work and by just trusting your mind and body in a fairly straightforward way. If you're a depressed borderline with multiple suicide attempts, odds are you're used to treating your body and mind with a level of distrust and error-correction that most people don't have to deal with at all. So yes, obviously, the people that have had to sink or swim on their self-awareness will have more deliberate and finely-tuned self-awareness than people whose general level of health never brings them into situations where they'd need that.

Expand full comment

One’s sense of wonder is another’s experience of the mundane. If meditation practice makes you experience your body and mind in a somewhat new way, one is enthralled, while another just files the experience away as any other new experience. So I’m going for door number 2.

Expand full comment

I lived in Boulder for 11 years and tried all kinds of woo stuff — mediation, herbs, hynotization, sweat lodges, reiki etc. etc.

I always felt like it had zero effect.

Then I did a long series of weekend workshops with a particularly talented couple of teachers, during which they put a great deal of pressure on me to essentially get over myself.

One Saturday evening I just opened up. I cried and I felt vulnerable for the first time, and all that woo stuff suddenly made sense. It was like suddenly developing a "sense" of emotion after never having had it. Imagine that all your life you've heard people talking about how food tastes, but it didn't really taste like much to you. You learn to fake having a sense of taste, and you can sort of distinguish food but it mostly tastes quite similar. Then one day BOOM you get the full taste experience and it's completely overwhelming.

It was far and a way the most beautiful and important experience of my life.

It was terrifying, and during the next few hours I gradually shut down again, back to my impenetrable self. I never again felt that way.

But it was clear to me at the time that I live in a particular sort of hardened state that keeps woo from working on me.

I don't think all people are like me, though it sounds like you might be. Maybe very few people are like this.

Afterwards, I did some research into trauma, post traumatic stress disorder etc., but the state of the art at that time seemed primitive and I didn't pursue it.

I studied Buddhism for a long time, and I remember hearing that sometimes a teacher has to help a student build up an ego before helping to tear it down. That resonated with me — I think I shut down so completely, so early in life, that I didn't develop a "normal" psychology, with normal emotional reactions.

There have been a couple of times when I've had a faint shadow of that experience, and it was when I was in stressful and chaotic situations that I couldn't control. I think the shell I developed served as a way to control my emotional exposure to the world from a very early age. It's become so deeply ingrained that I can't see it or choose to stop.

Expand full comment

I can't tell whether 1, 2 and 3 are being offered as genuine possibilities here or not.

Expand full comment

I'm a woo non-responder, and like Scott I have given a few things quite a serious try. I don't think it's a sign of defectiveness not to respond to woo, but in my case I think the lack of responsiveness to woo is part of a larger trait that I do view as a defect: I'm a non-responder to ceremonies where people come together to grieve or celebrate: weddings, funerals, parades, concerts. In my case I think it's something about difficulty connecting with the group vibe. At funerals, especially, you'd think that wouldn't be hard. Most of the other people are feeling sad in much the same way I am, and I know it. I simply am not comforted by their presence, and I can't kind of roll with what's offered -- some music, some talks, some of them mostly about grief, others lighter in tone, memories of fun times and great jokes with the deceased. I'd like to get on that train and ride it but I can't. My experience is that I am sitting alone in a public place, forced so powerfully to think about the dead person that I can't keep from sobbing, yearning to be alone so I can cry in privacy and peace. Dunno why I'm like that.

Anyhow, the woo stuff seems to me to have a groupiness to it -- people feel a bond with the practiioner and with the other people who also feel a benefit from the treatment. It's almost like a little religion. Compare the way people talk about visitis their dentist or their physical therapist to the way they talk about energy healing sessions.

Expand full comment