Mind Games: The gap between therapists and researchers

Researching rebirthing in the context of the Mankind Project, I ran into an article by social psychologist, Carol Tavris titled, Mind Games: Psychological warfare betwen therapists and scientists. Tavris mentions rebirthing as a process for which there is no evidence, but her reasoning could be applied to other approaches as well (e.g., holding therapy, bioenergetics, etc.).

Here a couple of excerpts:

Our society runs on the advice of mental-health professionals, who are often called upon in legal settings to determine whether a child has been molested, a prisoner up for parole is still dangerous, a defendant is lying or insane, a mother is fit to have custody of her children, and on and on. Yet while the public assumes, vaguely, that therapists must be “scientists” of some sort, many of the widely accepted claims promulgated by therapists are based on subjective clinical opinions and have been resoundingly disproved by empirical research conducted by psychological scientists. Here are a few examples that have been shown to be false:

• Low self-esteem causes aggressiveness, drug use, prejudice, and low achievement.

• Abused children almost inevitably become abusive parents, causing a “cycle of abuse.”

• Therapy is beneficial for most survivors of disasters, especially if intervention is rapid.

• Memory works like a tape recorder, clicking on at the moment of birth; memories can be accurately retrieved through hypnosis, dream analysis, or other therapeutic methods.

• Traumatic experiences, particularly of a sexual nature, are typically “repressed” from memory, or split off from consciousness through “dissociation.”

• The way that parents treat a child in the first five years (three years) (one year) (five minutes) of life is crucial to the child’s later intellectual and emotional success.

Indeed, the split between the research and practice wings of psychology has grown so wide that many psychologists now speak glumly of the “scientist-practitioner gap,” although that is like saying there is an “Arab-Israeli gap” in the Middle East. It is a war, involving deeply held beliefs, political passions, views of human nature and the nature of knowledge, and — as all wars ultimately do — money and livelihoods. The war spilled out of academic labs and therapists’ offices and into the public arena in the 1980s and ’90s, when three epidemics of hysteria caught fire across the country: the rise of claims of “repressed memories” of childhood sexual abuse; the growing number of cases of “multiple-personality disorder” (MPD), from a handful before 1980 to tens of thousands by 1995; and the proliferation of day-care sex-abuse scandals, which put hundreds of nursery-school teachers in prison on the “testimony” of 3 and 4-year-old children.

She continues…

But psychotherapeutic nonsense is a Hydra: Slay one set of mistaken ideas, and others take their place. Recovered-memory therapy may be on the wane, but “rebirthing” techniques and forms of “restraint therapy” — physically abusive practices that supposedly help adopted or troubled children form attachments to their parents — are on the rise. In Colorado, 10-year-old Candace Newmaker was smothered to death during rebirthing, a procedure in which she was expected to fight her way through a “birth canal” of suffocating blankets and pillows. The two therapists convicted in Candace’s death are now serving time in prison, but efforts in Colorado to prohibit all forms of “restraint therapy” were defeated by protests from “attachment therapists” in the state and throughout the country. After Candace’s death, one member of the Colorado Mental Health Grievance Board noted with dismay that her hairdresser’s training took 1,500 hours, whereas anyone could take a two-week course and become “certified” in rebirthing. Yet the basic premise — that children can recover from trauma, insecure attachment, or other psychological problems by “reliving” their births or being subjected to punitive and coercive restraints — has no scientific validity whatsoever. 

In the rest of the article, Tavris calls practitioners to base our interventions on research and to take a skeptical stance toward our work in order to avoid confirmation bias.