Ask Surly Amy: Heart Trouble and Hypnosis

Ask Surly Amy

Dear Surly Amy,
My mom had some serious heart trouble a few years back, and ever since then, she’s been diligently listening to hypnosis tapes. She swears the tapes decrease her dependence on her pacemaker and generally improve her health. From what I can tell, the tapes claim to use white noise to induce alpha and theta brainwaves, along with subliminal messages to promote inner peace, immunity, etc. I suspect that the tapes are at best well-intentioned woo, or at worst a money-grubbing scam. However, she really believes they are helping her, and I don’t want to pick at something she is already very sensitive about. Surly Amy, is there any way for me to attempt to dissuade my mother from falling for this alternative ‘medicine’ or should I just bite my tongue and be thankful that she’s still around and that she isn’t wasting her resources on something worse, like donating to the Catholic church?
Skeptically confused daughter

My response after the jump!

Dear Skeptically confused daughter,

Your concern is completely justified. When the health of someone we care about is in jeopardy it is important that we do our best to insure that they are receiving genuine science based medicine and not snake oil and fairy dust. That being said, and in this particular instance, I don’t think that you need to be overly concerned.

If your mother is refusing actual medical care or a specific treatment recommended by her doctor and using this method instead or spending her last dime or an exorbitant amount of money on the product then I would do whatever I could to change her mind and help her to understand the facts. You want her to receive the best treatment she can get and have enough money for the necessities of life but if she is just listening to white noise/subliminal tapes to relax then it’s really not such a big deal. While you are correct to assume that the white noise products are pseudoscience and much like binaural beats they are nothing more than an audio illusion sold for profit. No, they can’t actually cure you of anything specific and even the published studies related to white noise and sleep assistance seem iffy at best. A randomized study with infants showed white noise was no help with crying or sleeping but a study funded by a company that sells a white noise product claims it might help heal wounds. Huh, I’m a bit skeptical of that last study. But still, if she enjoys the tapes and they do help her to relax and they aren’t telling her to murder the family then I say let her have them. You need to pick your battles.

I look at it this way, I LOVE Tom Waits. When I listen to Tom Waits it seriously makes me feel better. However, Tom Waits has not been scientifically proven to cure any diseases.

And while I absolutely adore his voice and I’m pretty sure it lowers my blood pressure and cheers me up, I have friends who think he sounds like a garbage disposal. They want to tear their freakin’ hair out when they hear him. Selling Tom Waits as medicine would be unethical on my part (or his) but taking him away from me in times of despair would be a little bit unfair and unnecessary. The subjective results one experiences can at times have psychological value even when objectively nothing has changed. Subjectively, Tom Waits makes Surly Amy feel better.

If your mother asks, by all means absolutely explain that there is no quality empirical evidence that suggests that subliminal messages can treat or cure any specific illness. You can also explain that while hypnosis as a state of mind exists it is not a cure for heart disease or an immune booster although it might help her start a cult. Still, I say let her have the tapes. Relaxation can be very important when you have heart problems.

If she is really into white noise maybe you could even turn it into a musical mother/daughter bonding experience and turn her on to Sonic Youth. They hypnotized a generation with white noise and hypnotic lyrics in much the same way the altmed hypnosis tapes do now. ;)

Got a question you would like some Surly-Skepchick advice on? Send it in! We won’t publish your real name, unless you want us to and creative pseudonyms get bonus points! Just use the contact link on the top left of the page.

*Ask Surly Amy is meant for entertainment purposes only. All advice should be taken with as much skepticism as anything else, really.

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. I agree. I have a friend who is eager to lend me the book the Secret. Because it has dragged her out of borderline suicidal state she is convinced that it is all true.
    I don’t doubt that it has helped her. What I doubt is that the actual “Secret” did it.
    I think what did it was hope. She was able to focus herself for a while on something hopeful, which then led to more energy, which led participating in positive enjoyable experiences which no doubt put her in a better mood.
    Telling her now, would ruin any positive “placebo” effect that the book offered. I don’t doubt that I will eventually have a discussion with her about my views. But there is no hurry. I can wait until she is standing on her own feet.
    And if she never agrees with me, is there much harm to her? No.

  2. @Non Believer: I had a similar experience with that crap movie, “What the Bleep Do We Know.” It unwittingly improved my life and led me to skepticism and an understanding of actual physics! I will tell that story someday. ;)

  3. Or, if you feel like pulling a prank, record some random static from your radio, and switch the tapes. See if she notices, and if they still “work”.

  4. Not to be a buzzkill but the binaural beats is a 404.

    I’ve apparently never seen a SY video before. Thank you for introducing me to that. :)

  5. @Non Believer: Maybe a convesation about how you believed that she helped herself and that she should give credit to herself and not some book would be helpful? Showing her that you believe in her might help her confidence more and you don’t have to focus on why the secret is BS.

    p.s. my username now links to my band’s facebook page (not entirely OT since we definitely show some SY influence, just listen to that entire verse of guitar feedback!)

  6. @Non Believer:

    You should make sure to always look out for her and be their for her, because depression and suicidal thoughts are serious business that are hard to get rid of permanently, especially with a self-help book. It tends to be a chronic illness and even if she seems fine now, she could easily to back to having suicidal thoughts in the future.

  7. @mikerattlesnake: That is an excellent point. You are actually helping yourself when you use a bogus treatment to get better. She might be willing to to change her opinion on the product if she can give the credit for improving to herself. Just telling someone they are wrong or what they believe in is bullshit almost never changes someone’s opinion and in fact usually makes them believe in it more.

  8. My uncle has a pacemaker and apparently it’s very unpleasant when it goes off resetting his heart rhythm. So I can understand someone trying anything they can to make it go off less. It may even being helping her in a small way by reducing her stress and anxiety over having the pacemaker. Placebos can be a help to some people, as long as she isn’t dumping a lot of money into it or avoiding real medical treatment I think Amy’s advice is spot on.

  9. Amy, posting that Tom Waits video made me want to hug you.

    Actually, it made me want to invite you onto a street corner to bark into a megaphone together.

    More relevantly: I use a similar tactic–namely, biting my tongue–whenever my more new-agey friends start talking about things like raiki and aromatherapy. While it inexplicably annoys the crap out of me, it’s pretty much a futile argument, since I know I can’t change their minds (fads, along with the placebo effect, are powerful forces) and it’s not hurting them in the first place.

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