Damned Heretics

Condemned by the established, but very often right

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Qualified outsiders and maverick insiders are often right about the need to replace received wisdom in science and society, as the history of the Nobel prize shows. This blog exists to back the best of them in their uphill assault on the massively entrenched edifice of resistance to and prejudice against reviewing, let alone revising, ruling ideas. In support of such qualified dissenters and courageous heretics we search for scientific paradigms and other established beliefs which may be maintained only by the power and politics of the status quo, comparing them with academic research and the published experimental and investigative record.

We especially defend and support the funding of honest, accomplished, independent minded and often heroic scientists, inventors and other original thinkers and their right to free speech and publication against the censorship, mudslinging, false arguments, ad hominem propaganda, overwhelming crowd prejudice and internal science politics of the paradigm wars of cancer, AIDS, evolution, global warming, cosmology, particle physics, macroeconomics, health and medicine, diet and nutrition.

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Many people would die rather than think – in fact, they do so. – Bertrand Russell.

Skepticism is dangerous. That’s exactly its function, in my view. It is the business of skepticism to be dangerous. And that’s why there is a great reluctance to teach it in schools. That’s why you don’t find a general fluency in skepticism in the media. On the other hand, how will we negotiate a very perilous future if we don’t have the elementary intellectual tools to ask searching questions of those nominally in charge, especially in a democracy? – Carl Sagan (The Burden of Skepticism, keynote address to CSICOP Annual Conference, Pasadena, April 3/4, 1982).

It is really important to underscore that everything we’re talking about tonight could be utter nonsense. – Brian Greene (NYU panel on Hidden Dimensions June 5 2010, World Science Festival)

I am Albert Einstein, and I heartily approve of this blog, insofar as it seems to believe both in science and the importance of intellectual imagination, uncompromised by out of date emotions such as the impulse toward conventional religious beliefs, national aggression as a part of patriotism, and so on.   As I once remarked, the further the spiritual evolution of mankind advances, the more certain it seems to me that the path to genuine religiosity does not lie through the fear of life, and the fear of death, and blind faith, but through striving after rational knowledge.   Certainly the application of the impulse toward blind faith in science whereby authority is treated as some kind of church is to be deplored.  As I have also said, the only thing ever interfered with my learning was my education. My name as you already perceive without a doubt is George Bernard Shaw, and I certainly approve of this blog, in that its guiding spirit appears to be blasphemous in regard to the High Church doctrines of science, and it flouts the censorship of the powers that be, and as I have famously remarked, all great truths begin as blasphemy, and the first duty of the truthteller is to fight censorship, and while I notice that its seriousness of purpose is often alleviated by a satirical irony which sometimes borders on the facetious, this is all to the good, for as I have also famously remarked, if you wish to be a dissenter, make certain that you frame your ideas in jest, otherwise they will seek to kill you.  My own method was always to take the utmost trouble to find the right thing to say, and then to say it with the utmost levity. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt for Life magazine) One should as a rule respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways. – Bertrand Russell, Conquest of Happiness (1930) ch. 9

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Brain science explains unscientific conformity to AIDS hypothesis

The “top-down process” in AIDS

There is a telling article by Sandra Blakeslee this morning (Tues Nov 22) in the Science section of the Times, right where it should be – on the front page.

We say this should be prominently displayed because it yields the best explanation for the infinite capacity of otherwise competent and honest scientists in AIDS to believe in what their objective selves should have told them long ago is nonsense, if the expert reviews of the science in AIDS is correct.

The article reports that modern brain studies have confirmed the peculiar capacity of the brain to justify its beliefs – as implanted by accepted authorities such as teachers or colleagues, the media or textbooks – in the face of a mountain of contrary evidence. Instead of adjusting the mental framework it is using to interpret data, the brain prefers to adjust its perception of the evidence which doesn’t fit its preconceptions. Voila! Rationalisation of a belief in the face of heresy, reinforced by resentment of the attempt to disturb the established truth.

These extensive feedback circuits mean that consciousness, what people see, hear, feel and believe, is based on what neuroscientists call ”top down processing.” What you see is not always what you get, because what you see depends on a framework built by experience that stands ready to interpret the raw information — as a flower or a hammer or a face.

Here surely is the explanation of the peculiar attitude of the AIDS rank and file, who so often seem to want to burn at the stake anyone who raises the question, Do we really know that HIV causes AIDS?

They are, in effect, under hypnosis, and instructed ,by their hypnotist (the scientific and health authorities who preach the paradigm to them and other members of the global AIDS congregation) to violently reject any questioner.

In this they appear to be very much a match for the Scientologists and other cults who exploit the same mechanism of mesmerism.

Possibly the mystery of why some people do not accept the mainstream idea, and are led to question and reject it, has something to do with the brain factors which lead some people to be easily hypnotized, and others to be hard or impossible to hypnotize, as the article mentions.

Since the huge proportion of easy believers in conventional wisdom in AIDS seems to be much higher in the general population, however, than the 18-20 per cent of humans that are easily hypnotized as adults, it seems that the figure for children is more applicable.


According to decades of research, 10 to 15 percent of adults are highly hypnotizable, said Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford who studies the clinical uses of hypnosis. Up to age 12, however, before top-down circuits mature, 80 to 85 percent of children are highly hypnotizable.

Come to think of it, there does seem something childish in the incapacity to think for oneself in the face of authority, crowd or peer pressure. But what this research suggests is that it is a function of immature brain structure, and therefore hopeless to try and influence it with arguments of reason or even contrary evidence.


Brain scans show that the control mechanisms for deciding what to do in the face of conflict become uncoupled when people are hypnotized. Top-down processes override sensory, or bottom-up information, said Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, a neuroscientist at Harvard. People think that sights, sounds and touch from the outside world constitute reality. But the brain constructs what it perceives based on past experience, Dr. Kosslyn said.

Most of the time bottom-up information matches top-down expectation, Dr. Spiegel said. But hypnosis is interesting because it creates a mismatch. ”We imagine something different, so it is different,” he said.

Evidently changing the minds of loyal subscribers to an AIDS paradigm which makes no scientific sense in logic or in regard to the data according to repeated scientific review may be akin to telling a five year old that Father Christmas doesn’t exist after he finds his stocking stuffed on Christmas morning: cruel and ineffective.

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NYTimes.com

SCIENCE DESK

3, 2, 1: This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis

By SANDRA BLAKESLEE (NYT) 1706 words

Published: November 22, 2005

Hypnosis, with its long and checkered history in medicine and entertainment, is receiving some new respect from neuroscientists. Recent brain studies of people who are susceptible to suggestion indicate that when they act on the suggestions their brains show profound changes in how they process information. The suggestions, researchers report, literally change what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

The new experiments, which used brain imaging, found that people who were hypnotized ”saw” colors where there were none. Others lost the ability to make simple decisions. Some people looked at common English words and thought that they were gibberish.

”The idea that perceptions can be manipulated by expectations” is fundamental to the study of cognition, said Michael I. Posner, an emeritus professor of neuroscience at the University of Oregon and expert on attention. ”But now we’re really getting at the mechanisms.”

Even with little understanding of how it works, hypnosis has been used in medicine since the 1950’s to treat pain and, more recently, as a treatment for anxiety, depression, trauma, irritable bowel syndrome and eating disorders.

There is, however, still disagreement about what exactly the hypnotic state is or, indeed, whether it is anything more than an effort to please the hypnotist or a natural form of extreme concentration where people become oblivious to their surroundings while lost in thought.

Hypnosis had a false start in the 18th century when a German physician, Dr. Franz Mesmer, devised a miraculous cure for people suffering all manner of unexplained medical problems. Amid dim lights and ethereal music played on a glass harmonica, he infused them with an invisible ”magnetic fluid” that only he was able to muster. Thus mesmerized, clients were cured.

Although Dr. Mesmer was eventually discredited, he was the first person to show that the mind could be manipulated by suggestion to affect the body, historians say. This central finding was resurrected by Dr. James Braid, an English ophthalmologist who in 1842 coined the word hypnosis after the Greek word for sleep.

Braid reportedly put people into trances by staring at them intently, but he did not have a clue as to how it worked. In this vacuum, hypnosis was adopted by spiritualists and stage magicians who used dangling gold watches to induce hypnotic states in volunteers from the audience, and make them dance, sing or pretend to be someone else, only to awaken at a hand clap and laughter from the crowd.

In medical hands, hypnosis was no laughing matter. In the 19th century, physicians in India successfully used hypnosis as anesthesia, even for limb amputations. The practice fell from favor only when ether was discovered.

Now, Dr. Posner and others said, new research on hypnosis and suggestion is providing a new view into the cogs and wheels of normal brain function.

One area that it may have illuminated is the processing of sensory data. Information from the eyes, ears and body is carried to primary sensory regions in the brain. From there, it is carried to so-called higher regions where interpretation occurs.

For example, photons bouncing off a flower first reach the eye, where they are turned into a pattern that is sent to the primary visual cortex. There, the rough shape of the flower is recognized. The pattern is next sent to a higher — in terms of function — region, where color is recognized, and then to a higher region, where the flower’s identity is encoded along with other knowledge about the particular bloom.

The same processing stream, from lower to higher regions, exists for sounds, touch and other sensory information. Researchers call this direction of flow feedforward. As raw sensory data is carried to a part of the brain that creates a comprehensible, conscious impression, the data is moving from bottom to top.

Bundles of nerve cells dedicated to each sense carry sensory information. The surprise is the amount of traffic the other way, from top to bottom, called feedback. There are 10 times as many nerve fibers carrying information down as there are carrying it up.

These extensive feedback circuits mean that consciousness, what people see, hear, feel and believe, is based on what neuroscientists call ”top down processing.” What you see is not always what you get, because what you see depends on a framework built by experience that stands ready to interpret the raw information — as a flower or a hammer or a face.

The top-down structure explains a lot. If the construction of reality has so much top-down processing, that would make sense of the powers of placebos (a sugar pill will make you feel better), nocebos (a witch doctor will make you ill), talk therapy and meditation. If the top is convinced, the bottom level of data will be overruled.

This brain structure would also explain hypnosis, which is all about creating such formidable top-down processing that suggestions overcome reality.

According to decades of research, 10 to 15 percent of adults are highly hypnotizable, said Dr. David Spiegel, a psychiatrist at Stanford who studies the clinical uses of hypnosis. Up to age 12, however, before top-down circuits mature, 80 to 85 percent of children are highly hypnotizable.

One adult in five is flat out resistant to hypnosis, Dr. Spiegel said. The rest are in between, he said.

In some of the most recent work, Dr. Amir Raz, an assistant professor of clinical neuroscience at Columbia, chose to study highly hypnotizable people with the help of a standard psychological test that probes conflict in the brain. As a professional magician who became a scientist to understand better the slippery nature of attention, Dr. Raz said that he ”wanted to do something really impressive” that other neuroscientists could not ignore.

The probe, called the Stroop test, presents words in block letters in the colors red, blue, green and yellow. The subject has to press a button identifying the color of the letters. The difficulty is that sometimes the word RED is colored green. Or the word YELLOW is colored blue.

For people who are literate, reading is so deeply ingrained that it invariably takes them a little bit longer to override the automatic reading of a word like RED and press a button that says green. This is called the Stroop effect.

Sixteen people, half highly hypnotizable and half resistant, went into Dr. Raz’s lab after having been covertly tested for hypnotizability. The purpose of the study, they were told, was to investigate the effects of suggestion on cognitive performance. After each person underwent a hypnotic induction, Dr. Raz said:

”Very soon you will be playing a computer game inside a brain scanner. Every time you hear my voice over the intercom, you will immediately realize that meaningless symbols are going to appear in the middle of the screen. They will feel like characters in a foreign language that you do not know, and you will not attempt to attribute any meaning to them.

”This gibberish will be printed in one of four ink colors: red, blue, green or yellow. Although you will only attend to color, you will see all the scrambled signs crisply. Your job is to quickly and accurately depress the key that corresponds to the color shown. You can play this game effortlessly. As soon as the scanning noise stops, you will relax back to your regular reading self.”

Dr. Raz then ended the hypnosis session, leaving each person with what is called a posthypnotic suggestion, an instruction to carry out an action while not hypnotized.

Days later, the subjects entered the brain scanner.

In highly hypnotizables, when Dr. Raz’s instructions came over the intercom, the Stroop effect was obliterated, hesaid. The subjects saw English words as gibberish and named colors instantly. But for those who were resistant to hypnosis, the Stroop effect prevailed, rendering them significantly slower in naming the colors.

When the brain scans of the two groups were compared, a distinct pattern appeared. Among the hypnotizables, Dr. Raz said, the visual area of the brain that usually decodes written words did not become active. And a region in the front of the brain that usually detects conflict was similarly dampened.

Top-down processes overrode brain circuits devoted to reading and detecting conflict, Dr. Raz said, although he did not know exactly how that happened. Those results appeared in July in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

A number of other recent studies of brain imaging point to similar top-down brain mechanisms under the influence of suggestion. Highly hypnotizable people were able to ”drain” color from a colorful abstract drawing or ”add” color to the same drawing rendered in gray tones. In each case, the parts of their brains involved in color perception were differently activated.

Brain scans show that the control mechanisms for deciding what to do in the face of conflict become uncoupled when people are hypnotized. Top-down processes override sensory, or bottom-up information, said Dr. Stephen M. Kosslyn, a neuroscientist at Harvard. People think that sights, sounds and touch from the outside world constitute reality. But the brain constructs what it perceives based on past experience, Dr. Kosslyn said.

Most of the time bottom-up information matches top-down expectation, Dr. Spiegel said. But hypnosis is interesting because it creates a mismatch. ”We imagine something different, so it is different,” he said.

Photos: SEEING RED — Dr. Amir Raz, rear, and Miguel Moeno with hypnosis test. Right, Bernard C. Gindes and his hypnosis machine in 1967. (Photo by Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images); (Photo by Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times)(pg. F4)

Drawing (Drawing by William Duke)(pg. F1)

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company | Privacy Policy | Home | Search | Corrections | Help | Back to Top

Brain science in this case is really only confirming what most of us already knew what was going on in health and medicine, of course. The power of mind over body has been debated for years, both as the placebo effect (which has survived a front page article by Gina Kolata announcing it didn’t exist a few years ago, according to a Danish metastudy “Placebo Effect Is More Myth Than Science, Study Says,May 24,2001

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NYTimes

NATIONAL DESK

Placebo Effect Is More Myth Than Science, Study Says

By GINA KOLATA (NYT) 1300 words

Published: May 24, 2001

In a new report that is being met with a mixture of astonishment and sometimes disbelief, two Danish researchers say the placebo effect is a myth.

The investigators analyzed 114 published studies involving about 7,500 patients with 40 different conditions. The report found no support for the common notion that, in general, about a third of patients will improve if they are given a dummy pill and told it is real.

Instead, the researchers theorize, patients seem to improve after taking placebos because most diseases have uneven courses in which their severity waxes and wanes. In studies in which treatments are compared not just with placebos but also with no treatment at all, they said, participants given no treatment improve at about the same rate as participants given placebos.

The paper appears today in The New England Journal of Medicine. Both authors, Dr. Asbjorn Hrobjartsson and Dr. Peter C. Gotzsche, are with the University of Copenhagen and the Nordic Cochran Center, an international organization of medical researchers who review randomized clinical trials.

Dr. Hrobjartsson said he had been telling other investigators what he found and watching their responses.

”People react with surprise, but also with a kind of satisfaction,” he said in a telephone interview. ”They start reflecting.”

Experts interviewed this week had a range of responses from ready acceptance of the conclusion to great surprise to a skepticism and the desire to see the details of the analysis.

Dr. Donald Berry, for example, a statistician at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, said: ”I believe it. In fact, I have long believed that the placebo effect is nothing more than a regression effect,” referring to a well-known statistical observation that a patient who feels particularly terrible one day will almost invariably feel better the next day, no matter what is done for him.

Another physician, Dr. Jonathan Moreno, director of the Center for the Biomedical Ethics at the University of Virginia, said it rang true to him. ”Maybe it is one of the urban legends of medicine,” he said.

But others, like David Freedman, a statistician at the University of California, said he was not convinced. Professor Freedman said the statistical method the Danish researchers used, pooling data from many studies and using a statistical tool called metanalysis to examine them, could give misleading results.

”I just don’t find this report to be incredibly persuasive,” he said. ”The evidence of a placebo effect is maybe a little bit less than I thought it was, but I think there’s a big effect in many circumstances. This doesn’t change my mind.”

The researchers said they saw a slight effect of placebos on subjective outcomes reported by patients, like their descriptions of how much pain they experienced. But, Dr. Hrobjartsson said, he questions that effect.

”It could be a true effect, but it also could be a reporting bias,” he said. ”The patient wants to please the investigator and tells the investigator, ‘I feel slightly better.’ ”

Placebos are still needed in clinical research, Dr. Hrobjartsson said, to prevent researchers from knowing who is getting a real treatment. Otherwise, he said, researchers can end up seeing what they want to see. For example, they may notice changes in patients who are taking an active drug while not paying as much attention to similar symptoms in patients that they know are being left untreated. Patients, he said, who are told they are not being treated may leave the study, further complicating research efforts.

Dr. Hrobjartsson and Dr. Gotzsche said they began their study out of curiosity. Over and over, medical journals and textbooks asserted that placebo effects were so powerful that, on average, 35 percent of patients would improve simply if they were told that a dummy treatment was real. The investigators began asking where this assessment came from. Every paper, Dr. Hrobjartsson said, seemed to refer to other papers. And those papers referred him to other papers. He began peeling back the onion, finally coming to the original paper. It was written by a Boston doctor, Henry Beecher, who had been chief of anesthesiology at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and in 1955 published a paper, ”The Powerful Placebo” in The Journal of the American Medical Association.

In his paper, Dr. Beecher, who died in 1976, reviewed about a dozen studies that compared placebos with active treatments and concluded that placebos had medical effects.

”He came up with the magical 35 percent number that has entered placebo mythology,” Dr. Hrobjartsson said.

But, Dr. Hrobjartsson said, diseases naturally wax and wane. And no matter how sick the person is, a truly bad spell will almost inevitably be followed by a period in which the condition seems to improve. What if the natural variation in a disease’s course is behind the placebo effect, they asked?

”Of the many articles I looked through, no article distinguished between a placebo effect and the natural course of a disease,” Dr. Hrobjartsson said. ”This is a very banal error to make, but sometimes banal errors are made.”

He and Dr. Gotzsche began looking for well-conducted studies that divided patients into three groups, giving one a real medical treatment, one a placebo and one nothing at all. That was the only way, they reasoned, to decide whether placebos had any medical effect.

But they worried that there might be so few such studies with a treated, untreated and placebo group that they would never be able to answer the question. ”We thought if we could find 20, that would be a huge success,” Dr. Hrobjartsson said.

To their surprise, they found 114, published between 1946 and 1998. The conditions included medical disorders, like high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and asthma; behavioral disorders and addictions, like alcohol abuse and smoking; neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy, and infections, like bacterial infections and the common cold.

When they analyzed the data, they could detect no effects of placebos on objective measurements, like cholesterol levels or blood pressure.

Dr. John C. Bailar III, an emeritus professor at the University of Chicago who wrote an editorial accompanying the placebo paper, said the findings called into question some mind-body beliefs. These are arguments that use the placebo effect to conclude that the mind can so profoundly affect the course of a disease that people should be able to harness this power and think themselves well.

The findings should also give doctors pause in prescribing treatments they know are useless, like a glass of warm milk at bedtime for patients with insomnia or futile drugs for patients in the late stages of fatal diseases, Dr. Bailar said.

”I think what this ought to do is bring about a very sharp reduction in the use of placebos,” he said. ”My guess is that it will bring about a modest reduction and that it will take a second or third penetrating paper to bring about a real change.”

But, Dr. Bailar said, he understands the reluctance many will feel to abandon their belief in placebos. He, too, is hesitant to wrench himself completely away from what he now thinks is largely a myth.

”I’m not ready to give up on placebos entirely,” Dr. Bailar said. ”I hope there will be a lot more research on how they work.”

Or, he said, ”if they work.”

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

) and in patient responses to all kinds of ailments and cures. Here, for example, is a recent Times article on possibly curing skin problems with the power of the mind.

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New York Times

SKIN DEEP; If You Think It, It Will Clear

By NATASHA SINGER (NYT) 1612 words

Published: July 28, 2005

STRESS may be inflaming your pimples. And hypnosis may help clear them up. Or deep breathing exercises. Or maybe imagining yourself lying on a beach in Aruba.

At least that’s the idea behind an emerging medical specialty that explores the interaction between the mind and the skin. Its practitioners believe that for some patients, stress may play a role in skin conditions from acne to psoriasis, rosacea, warts, eczema, blushing and hives.

These doctors, who identify themselves as psychodermatologists – ”derm shrinks” or ”skin shrinks” for short – concentrate less on medicating the skin and more on getting at the psychological components of what ails it. They do not ignore traditional medicine. But they add treatments like psychotherapy, meditation, relaxation, hypnosis, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and even anti-anxiety drugs.

These strategies, psychodermatologists say, have the potential to help the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from chronic skin ailments. And many patients, frustrated by skin conditions that seem resistant to traditional medicine, are apparently willing to give them a try.

Mary O’Leary is one who has. A surgical nurse in Boston, Ms. O’Leary had so many plantar warts on one foot, it was painful for her to stand all day in the operating room. Her dermatologist prescribed antiviral creams, but nothing helped until she met Ted A. Grossbart, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School who specializes in skin problems.

”I spent months learning self-hypnosis,” Ms. O’Leary said. She visualized her immune cells fighting off the virus and imagined healthy skin replacing the warts. ”It’s bizarre and amazing, but it worked.”

Some doctors are skeptical of treatments based on stress relief. Larry E. Millikan, chairman of the dermatology department at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, likened some psychodermatology methods to the wart-treating strategies Tom Sawyer recommended to Huckleberry Finn: burying a dead cat at midnight or sticking one’s hand in a wet, rotten tree stump while chanting ”spunk-water, spunk-water, swaller these warts!”

”The proven benefit for skin problems comes from traditional dermatology,” Dr. Millikan said. ”That will remain true until we have hard science showing the effects of meditation and acupuncture on skin.”

But psychodermatologists say the anecdotal evidence is enough to convince them that their approach is worthwhile.

”We all have patients whose hives, pimples and eczema get worse when their personal lives or work situations get complicated,” said Dr. Richard G. Fried, a dermatologist and psychologist in Yardley, Pa., whose staff includes an acupuncturist and a biofeedback therapist. ”But dermatologists have customarily ignored the root causes and just treated the visible symptoms.”

Joe Duke, a purchasing manager in Philadelphia, is one of Dr. Fried’s patients. ”Two to three hours after a stressful situation,” Mr. Duke said, ”I used to get a psoriasis flare-up with 20 to 30 lesions across my chest, arms and legs. You look like a leper.”

He had spent decades trying ultraviolet light treatments, prescription ointments and creams, antibiotics and even methotrexate, a drug that suppresses the immune system. Some of these worked temporarily, while others had worrisome side effects. So Dr. Fried suggested that Mr. Duke try biofeedback, which teaches patients to reduce tension by practicing deep breathing and muscle relaxation, and by imagining themselves in idyllic landscapes.

”I started biofeedback about 18 months ago, and last summer I even wore shorts for the first time in years,” Mr. Duke said. ”For me personally, biofeedback has been like anger management for my skin.” The result, he said, has been fewer breakouts and less reliance on prescription creams.

The number of skin specialists who combine physical and psychological treatments appears to be rising. The Association for Psychocutaneous Medicine of North America, which includes physicians and psychologists, has grown to more than 40 members from 12 in 1991. Some of these practitioners treat depressed patients with disfiguring skin conditions or psychiatric patients who harm their own skin. But most also treat common skin ailments.

David Colbert, a dermatologist in New York, employs an acupuncturist to work with some of his rosacea and psoriasis patients. And Philip D. Shenefelt, a dermatologist in Tampa, Fla., often uses hypnosis to treat itching or hives.

A few medical school dermatology programs also have begun to provide stress-relief treatments. St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in New York has a Psychocutaneous Medicine Unit where dermatologists and psychologists often treat patients in tandem. And later this year the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the University of Rochester Medical Center plan to open psychodermatology clinics where doctors may recommend that patients try hypnosis or stress-reduction techniques.

Dr. Grossbart of Harvard, who has been treating skin complaints with psychotherapy for 25 years, said he was pleased that dermatologists were learning psychological techniques. ”If a dermatologist allots only 12 minutes to see each patient,” he said, ”that doesn’t leave time to address underlying emotional issues.”

Several recent studies have shown how stress can impair the skin. In 2001 scientists at Weill Medical College of Cornell University subjected 25 volunteers to a fake job interview and 11 others to a sleepless night. They then gave the volunteers microscopic wounds by peeling off a small, thin patch of skin with tape. All the subjects’ skin took longer than usual to repair itself.

A similar 2001 study, done at the University of California, San Francisco, looked at 27 graduate students during exam time and again during spring break. While the students were studying for and presumably worrying about tests, their skin was slower to repair itself than it was during vacation.

There is less evidence to suggest that the opposite premise may be true: that reducing stress via hypnosis or meditation may heal the skin. But there is some. In 1998 a study of psoriasis patients at the University of Massachusetts found that those who listened to meditation tapes while receiving ultraviolet light treatments healed much faster than patients who did not use the tapes. And a 1999 study at Johns Hopkins found that psoriasis patients who were susceptible to hypnosis treatments improved more than patients who resisted hypnosis.

The biological mechanisms by which these remedies may work are unknown. It is possible that relaxation simply improves people’s outlook and causes them to eat healthier food, sleep better and get more exercise, and that those changes affect their skin. This uncertainty makes some doctors leery of mind-body treatments.

Mark Lebwohl, chairman of the dermatology department at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, said that against his better judgment, he agreed to refer a psoriasis patient, Dennis Foglia of Queens, to a psychologist for hypnosis. The therapist tried hypnosis and asked Mr. Foglia to visualize the rash leaving his body.

”I wouldn’t tell other patients not to try it,” said Mr. Foglia, a retired police officer, ”but I can say hypnosis did not impact my psoriasis at all.”

Richard D. Granstein, chairman of dermatology at Weill Medical College, questioned whether stress-relieving treatments could get rid of anyone’s pimples. ”We can’t be absolutely certain until we can prove that these therapies directly alter a patient’s skin,” Dr. Granstein said. ”It can’t hurt your pimples to take up yoga or tai chi, as long as you’re still using your acne creams.”

Seeking Relief? Just Inhale

BEAUTY products designed to heal the skin by calming the mind represent a small but growing trend. ”The best of the new antistress products marry aromatherapy, which works on your emotions through smell, with high-tech skin care,” said Jenny B. Fine, editor of the cosmetics trade magazine WWD Beauty Biz. To test the products’ claims, Diane Madfes, a New York dermatologist, examined the ingredient lists on a sampling of mind-body beauty items.

Origins Peace of Mind Cease and De-stress Diffuser, $12.50, www.origins.com.

One whiff of the peppermint and eucalyptus in this pocket-size aromatic tube is supposed to relax you in an instant. Some scientific evidence does back up the assumption that peppermint has a calming effect, Dr. Madfes said. ”I think taking a deep breath of this makes you stop for a moment, slow down and de-stress,” she said.

Cellcosmet Anti-Stress Cream Mask, $85, www.zitomer.com.

This moisturizing mask with plant extracts promises to detoxify and soften skin. ”Just the act of applying a face mask should relax you,” she said. ”The orange flower and rosewater in this mask should be calming and nonirritating, while the clay would exfoliate dry skin for a fresher appearance.”

Estée Lauder Stress Relief Eye Mask, $29.50, www.esteelauder.com.

”The aloe and cucumber in these eye pads are great natural anti-inflammatories that will calm skin, and the retinol should help restore collagen production,” Dr. Madfes said. ”The hydrating effect will make the skin look better, and just by putting pads on your face, you’ll be shutting your eyes and getting a few minutes of relaxation.”

Molton Brown Seamoss Stress Relieving Hydrosoak, $29, www.moltonbrown.co.uk.

”Anybody who makes time to have a bath is going to get stress relief,” Dr. Madfes said. ”The seaweed extracts are both anti-inflammatory and good hydrators, while the Dead Sea salt is a great exfoliator.”

Skyn Iceland Anti-Stress Oral Spray With Angelica Archangelica, $25, www.skyniceland.com.

”If you stop, take a deep breath and spray this in your mouth, it’s very cooling and calming,” Dr. Madfes said. Green tea, an antioxidant, may help reduce damage from sun, stress and pollution.

Photos: ESTÉE LAUDER; CELLCOSMET; SKYN ICELAND; ORIGINS; MOLTON BROWN

Drawing (Drawing by Dynamic Duo Studio)

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

So why is the obvious truth that it applies in politics, demonstrated by Goebbels, the Reverend Jones in Guatemala and all kinds of misleaders of humanity in the past century, so completely overlooked by critics in the scientific debate in AIDS?

Perhaps it is simply too ad hominem to mention as the likely answer to the big question that jumps to mind when anyone hears for the first time about the HIV?AIDS paradigm challenge: why and how can a global consensus in science be so wrong?

POSTSCRIPT: Here are the letters in the Times which followed the article, which show that readers got the point:

(show)

Making Our Own Reality

To the Editor:

Re “This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis” (Nov. 22): The discovery of top-down brain processing is the biological confirmation of a philosophical truism: we make our own reality. It also helps explain the power of political indoctrination, and the power of hope.

Goebbels knew it; so did John Lennon. The ideas that non-Aryan people are subhuman, or that world peace is attainable are equally absurd, but I would prefer to believe the latter.

As the writer Kurt Vonnegut observed, we are what we pretend to be, so we might as well pretend to be good.

John Grannis

Montclair, N.J.

•

To the Editor:

Re “This Is Your Brain Under Hypnosis”: The first thing that came to mind when I read that some people are susceptible to suggestion is the trance some religious fundamentalists get into. The article goes on to say that suggestion changes what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true.

That would explain the apparent contradiction in our most recent presidential election, where logic seemed to be turned on its head.

Was that 10 to 15 percent who could have been in a hypnotic trance enough to turn around an election and in essence undermine (undermind) the democratic process?

Mark Gretch

Raleigh, N.C.

•

To the Editor:

Re “This Is Your Brain”: The first thing that came to mind when I read that some people are susceptible to suggestion is the trance some religious fundamentalists get into.

The article goes on to say that suggestion changes what people see, hear, feel and believe to be true. That would explain the apparent contradiction in our most recent presidential election, where logic seemed to be turned on its head.

Was that 10 to 15 percent who could have been in a hypnotic trance enough to turn around an election and in essence undermine (undermind) the democratic process?

Mark Gretch

Raleigh, N.C.

One Response to “Brain science explains unscientific conformity to AIDS hypothesis”

  1. Darin Brown Says:

    Michael Ellner was one of the first people to point out that the massive, seemingly ubiquitous advertising campaign that took place in the mid- to late-80s had all the components of classical hypnosis. And Casper Schmidt in 1984 said that the general population was in a “trance state” with regard to AIDS.

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