My default disposition is fairly rationalist—or at least, rationalist-informed—and have a gut distaste towards “the woo”. I also have plenty of curiosity and believe that wisdom is often lossily encoded in culture, so have tried and experienced quite a few things that I initially met with a wave of skepticism. Many have become significantly meaningful in my life.
Scientific reductionism is the modus operandi of thought in Western, educated circles. For it’s flaws, this approach has pushed the boundaries of our knowledge of how the world works, but consistently has blindspots between domains, with significant consequences. However, non-scientific belief can also be dangerous, leading to conspiracy, causal inference, and worldviews not rooted in reality. (If the reproducibility crisis in the social sciences is bad, the non-reproducibility of entire branches of alternative medicine beyond the placebo effect should be terrifying.)
This is an ongoing list of practices and beliefs that I’ve benefited from that sound a bit “woo”, as a fun exercise into forming non-consensus belief. This is less of a judgement of the scientific support of these, and rather based on my and friend’s initial viewpoints. For many of these, I’ve found personal balance between what is scientifically known, what I’ve observed with n=1 experiments, and the costs of being misguided.
Breathing is incredibly popular now, and frankly, a massive number of claims are not supported with evidence. However, in general, the breath has observable and repeatable impact on mental well being, mindfulness, and parasympathetic regulation.
One branch of breathwork—which is as broad of a term as mindfulness, obfuscating what we’re talking about—are exercises that induce very low blood CO₂ concentrations, with either high or low blood O₂ saturation.
Brief physiological primer: your blood is usually nearly entirely saturated with O₂. Breathing quickly will lower CO₂ concentrations in the blood. When you hold your breath, O₂ decreases. The urge to breathe is largely governed by increased CO₂ concentrations, which eventually induces diaphragm spasms. You can relax this reaction with practice.
Wim Hof breathing, as well as holotropic breathwork, manipulate CO₂ concentrations to be very low. For Wim Hof, you then hold your breath as long as possible. Wim’s emphasis seems to be on pushing the body, and while he makes far-reaching health claims (about ice baths too), I’ve enjoyed increasing my breath hold times (currently around 4:30 minutes), and find it as an active meditation that helps clear my mind.
Another form of this style of breathwork takes a therapeutic view. Approaches include Stan Graf’s Holotropic Breathwork, Steve Beattie’s Breathing in Nature, Neurodynamic Breathwork, and David Elliott’s Breathing Meditation all use extended, heavy breathing to induce shifts in consciousness. Practitioners often uses nonscientific language (energy flows, chakras), but these observably do what they claims: they repeatably induce shifts in perspective and feeling that can be therapeutically impactful. Scientific study of why this works is fairly limited, but these sessions may reduce default mode network activity, similar to psychedelics.
Food as medicine, rejection of reductionist nutritionism
In addition to the constant shift in dietary trends and advice, modern personalized health has critiqued “nutritionism”—the belief that what you find on a nutritional label determines the value of what we eat (this is the Soylent approach to nutrition). This one is complex and deep (and inspired Levels), so I won’t do the topic justice here. I’ve refined my beliefs over several years, started by Pollan’s In Defense of Food.
The premise is that we’re not great at nutritional science, and the “zoomed in” approach to study nutrition has obfuscated what matters in food. My fundamental belief is that, while modern medicine has incredible value, food must be a fundamental component to any disease prevention, mitigation, and reversal strategy. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of hogwash in the “food as medicine” world as well, including fetishization of “superfoods”, ancient grains, etc.
In practice, I value regular consumption of a wide degree of “real food”, which includes many micronutrients that activate necessary metabolic pathways. Concurrently, I eat a minimal amount of processed foods.
Humans didn’t evolve in constant glucose-rich environments, yet this is where we exist now. While there’s significant scientific support for fasting, some proponents make further bold claims about cancer reduction, detoxing, etc. Many of these are likely dubious. My current beliefs:
- Our bodies benefit from breaks in food, with periods of significant caloric restriction.
- Fasting promotes metabolic flexibility by forcing the body to use non-glucose energy pathways to generate ATP.
- Modern food environments easily induce hormonal insensitivity, including of insulin and leptin. We can reduce resistance to these through caloric abstinence.
- Fasting is a great way to psychologically and physically induce stress. For me, it’s often a stoic and mindfulness exercise that helps me be grateful for food.
Wim Hof has a program where you hyperventilate and get in icy water, to strengthen your immune system, lower stress, enhance creativity, etc. I’m agnostic about the direct health benefit claims of the ice baths, but love them.
For the past 5 months or so, I’ve only taken cold baths. Getting used to the cold had a pleasant “learning curve”. For the first several times, it was significantly easier than before. As for the specific claims ice bath proponents make, there’s various papers about it, with conflicting findings.
I do them for one primary reason: I feel fantastic afterwards. It also aligns with my belief that systems should be stressed to be stronger. Downside: I’ve needed colder and colder water to keep the same rush afterwards.
I’ve actively meditated for several years, and found immense personal benefit. Many of these benefits are psychological, so are hard to scientifically test. Confusingly, the terms “mindfulness” and “medication” are such wide buckets, it’s difficult to even identify what someone is specifically referring to when they talk about it. Through my personal journey, starting based on recommendations from people I respected, I’ve noticed different common motivations and modes of practice in the West. Here are some overly simplified categories:
- Corporate meditation has been popularized by apps such as Headspace and Calm, people learn how to breathe slowly to encourage relaxation, a sense of calm, and cursory observation of the nature of thoughts.
- Traditional mindfulness meditation is a practice that centers around observing, identifying how we attach our identities and conscious experience to thoughts.
- Metta meditation explores our ability to experience and control deep emotions such as love and connection. In combination with mindfulness meditation, you experience how emotions are driven by thoughts.
- Theory of mind meditation takes mindfulness further, exploring ego, the nature of consciousness, headlessness, etc. I’ve commonly found that Corporate mediation—focusing on relaxation—is the most accessibly to many people and seems to be the most popular, but often doesn’t teach more about consciousness. Personally, this form of meditation felt empty to me, and active practice in the other areas has offered the most benefits.
(Work in progress.) There seems to be a significant connection between the mind and body. This is an area I’d like to explore more, and seems largely ignored by modern medicine. I’ve never had a Western-trained medical physician approach health from this perspective. Curiosities:
- Mental health impacting longevity, including with disease progression.
- Storage of emotional trauma in the body, including healing psychosomatic injury with therapeutic work. I know several people who had very real inoperable, chronic pain disappear using these techniques.
- The connection between body health (diet, exercise) and mental health.
- The strength and power of the placebo effect. Why is it getting stronger? How does it relate to alternative medicine? How can we harness it for inexpensive, minimal harm practices to benefit lives?
Multi-generational emotional trauma transmission
(Work in progress.) This is a psychological model of behavior that recognizes adaptive behaviors built in childhood that carry into adulthood. I first learned this model from Terry Real, who explores identifying adaptive child behaviors that impact adult relationships and mental health. This framework is also explored in Transactional Analysis.
Observably, the practices from Homecoming, which involve intense visualization and role playing of being your wounded child, have made an immense impact on my life. Interestingly, most people I’ve shared this with say the approach feels mystical, in conflict with modern Western models of psychology and mental health.
This is a work in progress, and will be added to as I embrace the woo.