It must have looked like they were testing for telepathy. One self-described healer and their patient, sitting face to face, were each wearing what I would describe as a rugby helmet covered in electrodes, the tangle of cables coming off of the skull cap looking like a cyberpunk ponytail.
This strange experiment was published in 2016. The goal? To see if the central claim of a method called ThetaHealing® could be confirmed by looking at real-time brain activity.
The website for the ThetaHealing® approach describes it as a “meditation training technique” that uses a “spiritual philosophy” to improve and evolve the “mind, body and spirit”. The site is painted in rainbow colours and promises testimonials, seminars, and listings of certified “ThetaHealers®”. (That registered trademark symbol keeps reminding us that the preceding words stand for a product.)
The “theta” in “ThetaHealing®” refers to a type of brain wave resulting in a “state of very deep relaxation”, according to the website. It is the tell-tale sign of the subconscious, we read, and accessing it increases your chances for instant healing. Healing from what? That’s where the testimonials come in, so that the people behind the technique cannot be held legally responsible for making exaggerated health claims. A long list of anecdotes describes a teleported tooth, a miraculous recovery from hepatitis C, and many cases of cancer simply vanishing. (What’s with the teleported tooth? It wasn’t growing in the right place, but a theta prayer took care of that, allegedly.)
Can theta waves really do all that?
The data on theta
We estimate that our brain is made up of 86 billion cells called neurons, and they communicate with each other using electricity. You can think of this prickly chatter as generating waves that can be detected when scientists put electrodes on our scalp. Some of these waves look very compressed, while others are slow and elongated. Because of these differences, scientists classify these brainwaves in ranges, and one such range is called “theta”.
Theta waves are seen when rodents explore their surroundings. They are also detected during REM sleep, when eyes move and memories are stored long term. But we are not rodents, and the theta waves detected in humans may be unrelated to those seen in rats. In fact, there seem to be two types of theta waves generated by the human brain. One comes from the hippocampus, which plays a major role in consolidating our memories. The other emanates from our neocortex, involved in the kind of higher-order functions we humans engage in.
Research is ongoing to figure out exactly what these two types of theta waves reveal, but these studies are difficult to carry out. To pick up on the signals coming from the hippocampus, deeply buried inside the brain, scientists have to rely on patients who had electrodes implanted inside their brain to figure out the source of their epilepsy. For the neocortex theta waves, however, electrodes on the surface of the head are fine. And that takes us back to our initial experiment.
The healer-patient pair with the rugby helmets and the cyberpunk ponytails? They were hooked up to an electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure the theta waves emanating from their neocortex during a session of ThetaHealing®. Ten pairs were tested, with a mean experience of three years in ThetaHealing®. The healer would access their meditative state (or is it MeditativeState®?) alongside their patient, and the researchers would document what was picked up by the EEG before and during the so-called healing. Did the ThetaHealing® increase theta activity, as claimed by its practitioners?
No. It did the exact opposite. Theta activity overall went down.
Critics of the only published study of ThetaHealing® will point out that the sample size was small, which is true, but if the procedure did indeed result in an increase in theta activity, it should have been detected. Certainly, getting the opposite result is a sign that there’s something wrong here. But as it turns out, there’s a lot more wrong with ThetaHealing®. A whole lot.
Cash is all in the mind, as are your ovaries
Vianna Stibal, who created ThetaHealing®, claims she cured herself of the cancer she had in her thigh bone using her trademark-registered method of healing. Except that her ex-husband testified in court that she “was not definitely told that she had cancer.” In fact, her medical records had biopsy results that indicated “a suspicion of cancer, but were not diagnostic.” It’s easy to heal yourself of a condition when you never had it in the first place.
This court document exists, by the way, because someone successfully sued her for fraud, breach of contract, and punitive damages. The reason? Stibal was offering a doctoral degree in ThetaHealing®, and the person who would eventually sue her enrolled, only to question the validity of their degree later on.
Courses in ThetaHealing® are still available. A few days ago, the Montreal chapter of ThetaHealing® was offering a wealth consciousness course to teach you, among other things, that “money is just an illusion.” But don’t go believing that until you’ve paid them 250 Canadian dollars for the course, on top of 500 American dollars “payable directly to the teacher.”
A BBC Newsnight piece on ThetaHealing® referred to it as “faith healing”, the idea that prayer to a divine presence can shoo away illness. At a meeting in the United Kingdom, Vianna Stibal claimed it was possible for ThetaHealing® to grow back an ovary and an amputated leg. And we thought that Jilly Juice lady was wacky for suggesting as much on Dr. Phil….
Healing philosophies like Stibal’s are often appealing because of the scientific-looking weapon they wield. For some, that sword is the Law of Attraction, a claim that merely wishing for something hard enough will attract it into our existence. For others, it’s quantum mechanics, which superficially looks like weird things happen in the universe and anything is possible. Yet others have grabbed hold of the newly forged sword of epigenetics. With epigenetics, our environment helps regulate our genes, which seems to mean that what we choose to surround ourselves with could, in theory, deliver us from our genetic destiny.
ThetaHealing® combines these three blades into one superweapon but it remains a double-edged sword, and that’s a big problem in the world of alternative medicine. When an intervention promises self-empowerment, it can also be used to blame the victim. That course on wealth consciousness alludes to releasing worries, empowering you with successful habits, and gaining a better understanding of quantum physics to “know with certainty you are creating your reality.” But if you are in full control of your life and illness strikes, who’s to blame?
Our local ThetaHealer® also offers a basic DNA course that focuses on “activating the 12 strands of DNA within each participant.” I have a Master’s degree in molecular biology. I have extracted, amplified, and sequenced DNA I don’t know how many times, in research, clinical, and forensic contexts. I can tell you with as much certainty that our DNA is not separated into 12 strands within us.
But I guess if you believe faith healing can regrow limbs, even when your theta waves are decreasing when they should be increasing, anything is possible.
- ThetaHealing® is a philosophy according to which a healer and a patient tap into a type of brainwave to allow divine energy to heal them.
- Its founder was successfully sued for fraud over a degree she was offering in ThetaHealing® and she has said she thinks her healing method can regrow limbs and organs.
- The only study of ThetaHealing® published in the scientific literature did not show that experienced ThetaHealers® increased their theta activity, but actually that this activity went down.
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