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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Herbert Benson: Bad Psychologist


To be a bad psychologist and join the immortals like Dr. Phil and Franz Mesmer, you must first must have years of academic study, preferably in any field but psychology. Secondly, you must be able to create simple hypotheses that can be understood by any primate, human or not. Third, these hypotheses must be revolutionary, and change the world as we know it. Fourth, there is no time to waste, thus your ideas must be rushed to print so that the world can share in your genius and you in your royalties. Fifth, to make sure that your influence and profit stream keep growing, you must create an institute that builds on the foundation of your wisdom.

Happily, the 'psychologist' Herbert Benson meets all these criteria. A cardiologist by training, his ticket to fame and fortune was simple. He hypothesized that there is an innate 'relaxation response', the opposite of the 'flight or fight' response, that occurs when we settle back in a distraction free environment and focus silently on a repetitive idea or phrase. Bottled in book form, lecture series, and through therapies around the world, and enshrined by Benson's Mind/Body Institute, the relaxation response has won converts the world over. Unfortunately, for the relaxation response to work, one must also activate the equally important 'gullibility' response. Unfortunately, the gullibility response is deactivated with knowledge, as this writer will sadly demonstrate.

In psychology 101 (but not found in cardiology 101), budding psychologists learn the difference between independent and dependent variables. An independent variable is the event you manipulate (e.g. a whack on the head), and the dependent variable is the response (e.g. someone whacks you back) that correlates with the independent event. For the relaxation response, relaxation correlates with focusing on something while sitting in a distraction free environment. Funny thing though, Benson never thought that sitting in a distraction free environment is an independent variable as well (this is called resting). But that's just as well, as sitting by yourself away from mental or physical distractions is a generic hypothesis that would likely fail in book or therapeutic format. Benson could have resolved the issue by showing that paying attention to a simple stimulus (e.g. driving a car in a rain storm while trying to focus on the little white stripe in the road) would cause relaxation no matter the level of distraction, but obviously felt that the relaxation response was so true, it would be insulting to test it further. As for the dependent measure of relaxation, relaxation has always meant (well at least prior to Benson's genius revelation) that the muscles are for the most part not doing anything, or are relaxed. Thus the relaxation response, or a 'doing nothing' response, is in fact an oxymoron, but nonetheless is accepted by morons the world over.

Go here for more of my sarcasm on the relaxation response.

1 comment:

Martti said...

Did you download the beautiful high-resolution black-and white portrait available on his site?
It is magnificent.

smiles

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