Oct 22 2007

Tap Your Way to Happiness

No, this article is not about tap dancing. It is about another dubious psychological treatment – tapping various parts of the body to simply and quickly solve complex emotional problems.

When my computer starts to act funny, gets extremely slow, or freezes up entirely, the simple cure-all is to reboot the system. This is easy to do and usually works. There may be another solution, but the quickie reboot saves me the time and trouble of going through a troubleshooting procedure. Troubleshooting can be difficult and frustrating, so why bother if a reboot will do the trick?

If only we had a simple reboot procedure, or some equivalent, for the human brain. Wishing does not make it so – but it does create a market for the easy-answer peddlers. Psychological problems are especially vulnerable to the easy-answer sales pitch. The reasons for this are complex, but stem from various identifiable features of emotional problems. They are highly subjective, and therefore amenable to the placebo effect. The expectation of improvement, or the very fact of taking action to improve one’s psychological condition, can have a therapeutic effect. The introduction of anything novel can produce the expectation of benefit. The relationship with a therapist or a support group can have non-specific benefits, regardless of the specifics of any techniques used. The employment of ritual can give one a sense of control and empowerment, which again can have therapeutic value.

For these reasons just about any method, no matter how absurd, can seem to have benefit for psychological or emotional symptoms or disorders. One might therefore argue (as someone always does for such treatments) what, then, is the problem with such methods. If the methods themselves are worthless, but the therapeutic relationship, the ritual, and the expectation of benefit are legitimately beneficial, then the method is worthwhile. Perhaps the method is all just for show, and the trappings of therapy are what are really of benefit, but so what. The method is therefore a therapeutic conduit, even if it is essentially a placebo.

There is some reason to this position, but in practice there is much harm to such approaches. Pseudoscientific or worthless therapeutic methods distract providers and patients from methods that may actually have some direct benefit, and are therefore more effective. Such methods commonly instill an expectation of rapid benefit, and therefore may deter patients from working long term on their real underlying problems and issues. Such patients may migrate from one worthless method to another, each time garnering short-term benefit only and never doing the work that would result in long term improvement.

Also, such fanciful methods instill bizarre ideas of health and disease. This encourages both practitioners and patients to distrust scientific medicine, and to accept models of biology, neurological function, psychology, and even basic physics that are aberrant and likely to cause them much mischief in the future. When patients become convinced, for example, that some form of energy medicine helped their mild depression, they are more likely to rely upon such treatments when they get cancer.

Tapping therapy fits cleanly into this mold of pseudoscientific psychological treatment. The premise, taken from the tapping.com website, is this:

When we tap, we say the belief out loud to bring up the corresponding emotion in the nervous system. Then we tap the various points to reset the system. Each point is the end of a nerve channel in the body. Tapping sends a shockwave down that channel.

There is no easy way to know which nerve channel is holding a particular emotion, so we just tap them all. Sometimes when you have done a lot of tapping you’ll be able to just feel where it is, and you’ll feel it clear as you tap it.

When the emotion is gone, your mind is no longer attached to the belief. Suddenly your mind is free to re-process it, and realise it isn’t true or that there are easy ways around it.

This is poetic nonsense. “Nerve channels” as presented in this “explanation” do not exist. There are nerve pathways that follow specific anatomical structures and serve specific functions, but no gateway to specific emotions. When tapping the wrist, for example, you are stimulating the corresponding sensory nerve and maybe cause some muscle stretch receptors to fire. This leads to activity in the sensory cortex and maybe parts of the brain involved with motor control. If the stimulation is painful this will activate pain pathways and the corresponding negative emotions that make pain a very unpleasant experience to be avoided.

But there is no hack into an emotion to which you can send “shockwaves” to “reset the system.” This is made up nonsense.

Even though the explanation is not based upon anything factual or scientific, it is possible (if improbable) that someone stumbled upon a method that never-the-less works. What does the empirical evidence say? What empirical evidence? I could not find any published studies on the efficacy of tapping therapy, and the tapping.com website did not contain any references (just testimonials).

There is a video demonstrating the technique. It’s worth a view – I found it a little humorous to watch, but I think it demonstrates well the ritual aspect of tapping therapy. In fact, there is an element of cognitive therapy in the ritual (telling yourself good thoughts). It’s likely that the positive affirmations, without the tapping, would be just as effective. Or you could substitute literally any mindless ritual for the tapping and get the same outcome – even tap dancing.

In a perfect world proponents would do the research first, prior to making claims and selling books and videos. But we live is a society of direct-to-consumer nonsense. No research (or even common sense) required. Unfortunately we can no more reboot society to fix all our problems than we can reboot the brain.

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