May 08 2012

Coherent Breathing

Last week I wrote about earthing – the claim that being in contact with the earth (especially using products you can buy for this purpose) helps to balance your electrons and improve health.  Earthing fits into a category of pseudoscientific nonsense I called “just make shit up.” This seems to be a deep and constantly growing category, limited only by human imagination, ego, and greed. The existence of claims such as this is an excellent example for why we need the rigors and methods of science – without them to ground us to reality, there is no limit to the nonsense humans will believe.

Recently I was asked about another member of this category – coherent breathing. I bet you didn’t realize that you could use training in how to breath optimally. You probably naively assumed that the elaborate autonomic, respiratory, and circulatory systems that evolved over millions of years would have already optimized something as basic to life and physiology as breathing. You lazily just let your brainstem drive your respiration based on things like blood CO2 and oxygen levels, and let your autonomic nervous system regulate your heart rate and blood pressure. Why bother making a conscious effort to control your breathing when it will happen all by itself without any effort on your part.

Well, if you are willing to spend hundreds of dollars on a seminar you can learn how to synchronize your breathing with your heart rate. What will this accomplish, you may ask? Absolutely nothing – but it will make money for the guys running the seminar.

Here’s the idea – you can synchronize your breathing with your heart rate. This makes pretty pictures of pressure waves that people can graph and they will look really impressive to the scientifically illiterate. This will allow the blood that flows out from your heart through the arteries to match the blood that returns to the heart through the veins – because otherwise… Wait, there must be something more to this. I’m sure the Coherence website will have a coherent explanation for what is happening. They write:

When we don’t breathe productively over a long period of time, the parasympathetic nervous system becomes dysfunctional.

So if I don’t breathe correctly my autonomic nervous system will become messed up. I wonder why we evolved that way? You would think that if breathing properly was so critical to health and performance we would just naturally breath that way.

Seriously, I cannot find an understandable explanation on any of the available articles or websites on this issue for what is supposed to be happening. They talk endlessly about synchronization, and they talk about the real relationship between breathing and pressure in the cardiovascular system (as if they discovered it). This is all basic physiology, but then they add a layer of nonsense without ever making a real explanation for it. It’s wonderful pseudoscientific technobabble – lots of sciencey sounding words, but no real content.

Apparently a martial artist named Stephen Elliott invented this particular health pseudoscience. I could not find any publications by him or regarding coherent breathing. This is always a good indicator of the status of such claims. Having a trail of published research is no guarantee that a claim is true – most new ideas in science are wrong, and most preliminary studies will be false positives. But when a paper trail of research seems to be completely lacking, that probably indicates you are dealing with a “just make shit up” pseudoscience.

There are vague references to “our research” on the websites, but no actual research.

Typically, when I write about such obscure health products or notions some distributor or devotee will show up in the comments. They will commonly make two claims. First they will claim there is research, and sometimes they can even provide a link. This is usually to research that has nothing directly to do with the claims but is just being used to make it seem like the claims are evidence-based. I’m sure, for example, that coherent breathing proponents can link to physiology research demonstrating the relationship between breathing and blood pressure. This is just basic science that deals with the same topic. They can’t, however, link to peer reviewed independent research that actually demonstrates their claims. Sometimes they link to in-house studies that are completely worthless and are not published in a peer-reviewed journal, or are published in the obscure journal of alternative nonsense.  This is often accompanied by the claim that we just don’t know the research.

Many people falsely believe that if you can link to even a single study, or a single researcher, that is making a claim then it is evidence-based. This is completely wrong, however. In order for a new phenomenon to be established you need to see a pattern of research, with replication and verification of basic concepts, and exploration of alternative interpretations, with a consensus building toward the new conclusion. We don’t see that with these fringe claims (that’s why they are fringe). Rather we typically see either nothing, or bad research by an  isolated group or proponents.

The second type of claim that proponents often make when they stumble upon my blog deconstructing their favorite pseudoscience is their own anecdotal experience. They tell us how it has changed their life or their health, and apparently have no idea about placebo effects or the misleading nature of anecdotal experience. They then quickly become frustrated when their naive claims are met with skepticism.

We’ll see if that happens here (or perhaps my preemptive strike will prevent it). I hope it does anyway, as true believers do a better job of showing  how vacuous and pseudoscientific their beliefs are than I can.

I and other science bloggers can only scratch the surface of the many made up claims that are out there, proliferating on the internet. That is why it is important to develop the skills to evaluate such claims for yourself. It is good to at least develop some “red flags” that will make you skeptical of the claims. Coherent breathing has many such red flags: the lone guru who has apparently discovered something missed by the rest of the relevant scientific community, the lack of a history of published peer-reviewed research, the use of jargon that you cannot make sense out of (in other words, the inability to explain the phenomenon in plain language so that it makes sense), and extraordinary claims for wide ranging benefits.

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