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