In April of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, a documentary film premiered on YouTube and its title could not have been more relevant: Stressed.
Over the course of an hour, it made the case for a different kind of intervention on stress, using talking heads interspersed with inspirational landscape aerial photography. As the interviewees’ names flashed on screen, I noticed a pattern: most of them held the degree of “DC” or Doctor of Chiropractic. More than that, many of them were listed as donors in the end credits, meaning that these chiropractors essentially paid to appear in this movie.
Chiropractic has over the years acquired a legitimacy it does not deserve. It was devised by a magnetic healer, D. D. Palmer, who claimed he had cured a man of his deafness by cracking his spine, and one of its foundational beliefs is the presence of so-called “chiropractic subluxations” in the spine, lesions that do not actually exist. Recently, more science-minded chiropractors have tried to rescue their profession from its pseudoscientific and borderline religious origin, but the value of chiropractic remains seriously questionable.
Despite the preponderance of chiropractic voices in Stressed, I could hardly understand what it was they were pushing for. Their intervention was called the neuro emotional technique, or N.E.T., but the movie felt like a pitch for a timeshare in Miami, where the pitch itself is buried at the end of an hour-long discussion about the joys of going on vacation.
It turns out that N.E.T. is not just a fancy name for chiropractic. It is a pseudoscientific Voltron made up of chiropractic manipulations, applied kinesiology, and traditional Chinese medicine, and its goal, I found out leafing through the academic literature, is to expand chiropractors’ scope of practice.
Ouija boards and games of Twister
The birth of the neuro emotional technique is explained in Stressed by its founder, a chiropractor named Scott Walker who looks like Santa Claus wearing a beret. The story he relates, I would later learn, took place in 1985.
Walker wondered why some of his clients were not being helped by his chiropractic spinal manipulations. Instead of considering that maybe chiropractic subluxations are not the cause of all diseases, he hypothesized that his clients with recalcitrant conditions might have emotional problems.
He tested his hypothesis on a woman who had survived a car crash. He asked her if she had experienced fear during the accident. Given that the woman was not an android, she replied, “Yes.” And that’s when Walker put into practice a theory he had learned from his mentor—the man who created applied kinesiology and who tried to fuse chiropractic with acupuncture—and devised N.E.T. on the spot.
The best way to explain what N.E.T. is is to walk through one of its protocols, which is thankfully available online. This one describes the steps to using N.E.T. for people with trigger points, i.e. spots on the body that tend to be painful or sensitive to the touch.
The first step in an N.E.T. consultation is to compare the strength of a healthy muscle with and without pressing down on the trigger point. The muscle should weaken when the trigger point is squeezed. Next, this process is repeated with the client’s palm on their forehead, which according to founder Scott Walker is the emotional point. If the muscle is now felt to be strong, it somehow means that there is an underlying emotion from the past that has rippled over the years and is causing the current illness, and N.E.T. is warranted.
What follows is a borderline spirit board session that is actually called applied kinesiology (not to be confused with kinesiology, an evidence-based discipline that studies how the body moves). Applied kinesiology is a pseudoscientific attempt at diagnosing illness by asking muscles to reveal what the body is going through. Basically, you ask a person a question, then press down on their extended arm to see how much resistance the muscle gives you. The muscle is said to answer “yes” or “no” if its power is felt as strong or weak.
Applied kinesiology can be consciously turned into a parlour trick. Indeed, during a now-infamous episode of Dragons’ Den, a chiropractor applied pressure on a person’s arm at different angles to make it appear like his clipped-on “quantum” device improved the wearer’s balance.
In the context of N.E.T., the practitioner, as if questioning the spirits via a Ouija board, talks about, let’s say, money and presses down on the client’s arm. When weakness is felt, the word that was spoken—in this case “money”—represents where the problem lies, so the practitioner starts to dig deeper. They question the muscle with more precise hypotheticals until the core issue has been identified. “Money” leads to asking about “losing money,” which leads to asking about “gambling,” for example.
Then comes acupuncture, though without the needles. While the client is told to actively think about their core issue, which is presumably the reason why they are ill (e.g. gambling), the N.E.T. practitioner presses different acupuncture points on the client’s body that are said to be tied to internal organs and to be associated with a distinct emotion. At each point, the muscle is tested again for strength or weakness. This time, if the weakness goes away as a particular acupuncture point is pressed, N.E.T. claims that the emotion that corresponds to that point is involved in that client’s trauma. For example, if the muscle regains strength when the gallbladder point is pressed—a point on the skin that is roughly located where the gallbladder sits in the abdomen—that means anger or resentment is at play.
Still with me?
This questioning of the body through muscle tone continues for a long time as the N.E.T. practitioner attempts to define whose emotion was involved in the trauma, and why this emotion came about during this traumatic experience, and when this trauma took place, until finally the practitioner feels like they can correct the illness the client currently experiences.
In what could be compared to a game of Twister, the client touches both their forehead and the acupuncture point and contemplates their traumatic emotion, while the practitioner performs chiropractic adjustments on their spine. The muscle questioning resumes until the muscle is found to be strong even when the client is thinking about their trauma.
In the documentary, a chiropractor says that “it’s really a brilliant intervention. […] It really required a special brain to do that.” “Special” is definitely the right word for it, as it is not always used meritoriously.
The neuro emotional technique is based on a variety of pseudoscientific practices compounded together. It makes no sense in light of our understanding of the human body and illness. Stress can indeed aggravate illness, but it is not the cause of all diseases.
If, like me, you remain strongly skeptical, the foundation that finances research into this strange practice provides us with scientific papers.
Do they prove N.E.T. works?
A lack of emotional control
The ONE Research Foundation, which funds research and education into N.E.T., lists a complete compendium of published research on the neuro emotional technique, and while the length of the list and the scientific words used in the papers’ titles may lend credibility to the intervention, a closer look shows this is little more than a case of blinding with science.
Seven of these papers are case reports or case series. Basically, the N.E.T. practitioner reports that a client came with a particular complaint and, after a number of N.E.T. sessions, their condition resolved. There is no controlling for the natural course of the disease or for other interventions. In a particularly egregious example of obstinacy, two women with polycystic ovary syndrome received 29 and 56 N.E.T. sessions respectively before their periods returned to normal and they started ovulating again. The authors write that it is “difficult to ascertain a causal link,” but these cases are presented as success stories.
Five papers are reviews of the academic literature on issues tangentially related to N.E.T., like the interplay between chiropractic and traditional Chinese medicine.
Three papers are straight-up commentaries providing no scientific evidence, while four more are attempts at showing that different practitioners will independently agree on a muscle being weak or strong during the assessment.
One paper is a survey of chiropractors, in which they are asked if they consider their clients’ emotions when providing treatment. Most believe that emotions do influence pain, but less than half say they are able to evaluate emotional factors in their practice. The unspoken conclusion here is that they are a mere one N.E.T. workshop away from being able to roll this into their practice.
Two papers are simply the protocols that will be used in upcoming studies. One was registered in 2006 and is still marked as recruiting participants. The other, a trial on N.E.T. for hypothyroidism, has had its results published, although strangely enough it is not listed on the ONE Research Foundation’s webpage. The authors’ conclusion? N.E.T. did not work for hypothyroidism.
We are thus left with nine studies of N.E.T., four of which are clinical trials. These studies are far from impressive. Aside from one decent trial involving a meager 60 participants, studies either lack a control group, meaning it is impossible to know what would have happened without the N.E.T. intervention, or they have a poor control group, such as having those participants simply be put on a waitlist. This can make an intervention look better than it is. Indeed, putting aside the muscle testing and spinal manipulations, participants in the N.E.T. group are getting to talk about their pain and their emotions. They are receiving a form of care. That alone can make N.E.T. look valuable, but it has nothing to do with the specifics that make up N.E.T. It’s just human beings connecting and empathizing.
A larger scope of practice
Research into N.E.T. seems to be limited to a very small group of researchers, with some at Macquarie University in Australia and others at the Marcus Institute of Integrative Health of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Chiropractor Henry Peter Pollard is an author on no fewer than 20 of these papers.
Reading these publications chronologically, I saw the aim of N.E.T. becoming more and more explicit. Chiropractic is often perceived as being limited to the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions, but what if chiropractors could also treat people with non-mechanical complaints? They refer to these conditions as “type O” disorders, for “organic,” and often mention the biopsychosocial model of medicine to justify this expansion of their scope of practice. This model states that ill health is due not just to physical problems, but to the interaction between biological, psychological, and social factors. Chiropractors who believe in the worth of N.E.T. are looking for better ways to address medical problems like hypothyroidism or ADHD than medication. They see stress as the common boogeyman behind every disease, and they think that N.E.T. is the key to figuring out the origin of that stress and to breaking the body’s harmful response to it.
If N.E.T. works, chiropractors can step into a larger scope of practice. More clients means more money.
The problem is that none of the above-mentioned studies convincingly demonstrates that N.E.T. works, and the plausibility of this technique is weighed down by the mass of baseless beliefs it is founded on. Chiropractic subluxations do not exist. The meridians of acupuncture were metaphors for the rivers of China and are not found in the body. Our organs are not associated with distinct emotions. And pushing down on muscles is not a comprehensive diagnostic test and even less a “subconscious lie detector test,” as one paper on N.E.T. claims. (That paper, by the way, tested to see if N.E.T. could predict the sex of a baby in 27 pregnant women, stunningly enough, before concluding that it did no better than chance.)
The neuro emotional technique represents yet one more attempt by practitioners of alternatives to medicine to gain legitimacy and expand what they are allowed to do. It is part of integrative medicine, a movement that seeks to complement actual medicine with therapies that have either not been shown to work or been proven not to work. Indeed, one of the interviewees in Stressed is Dr. Daniel Monti, a physician, who is the director of the Marcus Institute of, wait for it, Integrative Health. The Institute offers vitamin C infusions and appointments in functional medicine, a pseudomedical offering that overtests and overprescribes supplements. But the Institute’s presence within an actual hospital, Jefferson Health, gives it a patina of legitimacy. And that’s the goal of integrative medicine: for the credibility of medicine to wash over unscientific interventions.
Toward the end of Stressed, the founder of N.E.T., Scott Walker, boldly states, “We haven’t found anything that [N.E.T.] hasn’t improved. We don’t know where the limits are.” In a poorly regulated space, the limits, it seems, are solely defined by how many clients are willing to pay money to experience N.E.T. for themselves.
- The documentary Stressed presents stress as the cause of most illness and advocates for an intervention called the neuro emotional technique as a solution
- The neuro emotional technique is a pseudoscientific hybrid of chiropractic, acupuncture, and applied kinesiology in which past trauma is thought to be uncovered by asking the body questions and translating a muscle’s strength into the body’s answer
- Studies into the efficacy of the neuro emotional technique almost always lack a control group or use a poor control group, so that any non-specific effect of the technique (such as talking to a therapist) can make it appear to work