Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

What Was the Rationale For Water Births? Or, Pseudoscience Aplenty

A reader commented the other day that water births were sometimes said to be less painful for the mother than ordinary births. If there were any evidence of that advantage, it’s easy to see why women would want to choose the water method--  but in fact there is no evidence. Of course, the water birth guru I.B. Charkovsky and his followers have claimed that women giving birth “his way” experience lengthy orgasms, suggesting painlessness at the very least (as well as suggesting that Charkovsky assumes there is a sucker born every minute who becomes ready as an adult to buy his beliefs).  

My thanks go to Yulia Massino for discovering more information about water births  as approved by the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH). At, one of Charkovsky’s protégées, Elena Tonetti, speaks of having been welcomed as a speaker at an APPPAH conference, and on another part of the birthintobeing site quotes the praise of Thomas Verney, author of The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, a piece of fantasy following the beliefs of the “wild psychoanalyst” Nandor Fodor, and a founder of APPPAH. (I am emphasizing this APPPAH connection to show that the problems of beliefs about water births and similar practices are a world-wide problem, not just a peculiarity of Russians.)

In a passage written by Tonetti on the birthintobeing website, we see an explanation of Charkovsky’s belief that water births are advantageous for babies: “The idea to place laboring women in the water came to him [Charkovsky] when he was looking for the ways to relieve a baby’s brain from the shock of gravity. He considered this the main reason why the human brain is not fully available for our use. He states that whales and dolphins have a much better use of their brains, on levels unreachable for humans, because they are not exposed to gravity shock at birth. As proof of their higher intelligence and superior use of their brain, Charkovsky points out that these animals are not territorial and do not kill their own. He suggested that the concussion human beings experience as we emerge from the weightless environment is far more devastating than we care to understand. By the time we grow up and the function of understanding is available to us, we have no reference point to compare our brain power to what it could have been if we had not been, literally, smacked on the head by the immense pressure of our earthly gravity.”

Let’s look at this explanation painful line by painful line, because reading the whole thing at once produces the smack-upside-the-head sensation equivalent to what Charkovsky posits for babies:

“… he was looking for the ways to relieve a baby’s brain from the shock of gravity”.

Charkovsky is apparently unaware that gravitational attraction is acting on all objects close enough to a planet, whether or not they are floating in water. He seems to conflate floating in water with floating in space in a zero-gravity environment. If gravity were not at work on all objects, everything including the water would fly off into space. The sense we have of lightness when in water has to do with the water supporting our bodies against the pull of gravity, thus making limbs movable with less muscular effort, but the support of the water is different only in degree from the support offered by the floor or a bed. That gravity is still at work for the unborn baby or one in the birth process is shown by two obvious things--  first, that most unborn babies move into the head-down position, the weight of their heads being a major factor in this movement, and second, that even Charkovsky wants birthing mothers to be upright rather than reclining, so that the baby is helped to move downward by the pull of gravity, rather than “uphill” as would be determined by the slant of the vagina if the woman is lying down. Can even Charkovsky believe that gravity is operating on the body of the infant but not on the brain? Perhaps he has some concept of brain levitation that has not been included here, but otherwise the logic escapes the reader. Gravity is acting on the brain in the same way from conception to birth and after birth as well, therefore there is no “shock of gravity” to be experienced.

“…the main reason why the human brain is not fully available for our use.”

Here we have one of the most common errors of understanding of brain functioning, the old “only 10%” misconception. It may well be true that only 10% of the brain is used for cognitive functioning, but absolutely essential tasks are performed by the remaining 90%. The brain analyzes visual and auditory input with large areas, organizes and sends signals to muscles to create all voluntary movements, and monitors and controls vegetative functions like blood pressure and salt-water balance. The parts of the brain that do those critical jobs are specialized for their own tasks and cannot be recruited to do cognitive work. We humans may not be as clever as we would like to be, but it is not because we do not use our whole brains. We don’t need to look for a reason why we don’t use our whole brains, because there is no truth to this notion.

“… whales and dolphins have a much better use of their brains, on levels unreachable for humans…”

Romanticizing the intelligence, goodness, and benevolence of marine mammals is an interesting residue of the ‘60s and ‘70s, when John Lily claimed to be able to understand and use dolphin languages, and “whale music” for nurseries was much in favor. Swimming with dolphins and even dolphin therapy remain with us as alternative psychotherapies with unsupported claims for treatment of autism and other disorders. That these animals use their brains more effectively, or have cognitive capacities superior to those of humans, has not been demonstrated--  although of course it is true that in their natural environments they do much better than a human being could do, just as we do better than they could in our environment.

“…[they] are not territorial and do not kill their own”

Desirable as such traits may be for human beings, there are two problems here. The first is that differences in aggressive behavior between different species can be very strong, and to make the same claim for all whales and all dolphins is inappropriate. In addition, many claims about the nonaggressive behavior of specific animals, for instance that gorillas and other primates did not kill for food, current in the 1960s, have not turned out to be correct upon further observation. Second, assuming for the sake of argument that whales and dolphins are peaceful, there is no reason to think that human beings can gain this characteristic by imitating one chosen behavior of those species; if such imitation could be helpful, why not imitate eating plankton or fish, or going naked at all times?

“…far more devastating than we care to understand”
Here we have a typical argument of the pseudoscientific ilk. Rather than disagreeing with the logic or facts of Charkovsky’s views, or even simply failing to understand, opponents must be actively choosing their opposition because they do not want to understand. This choice would presumably be made because of their distorted thought processes and lack of intelligence, caused by their birth experiences--  just as those who oppose “attachment therapies” are said to suffer from attachment disorders. I suppose we could call this rhetorical device “proof by diagnosis”.

“… no reference point to compare our brain power to what it could have been…”
This is very true, but omits to say that Charkovsky & Co. also have no reference point except their own unsupported claims.

Well, there you have it--  the incredibly faulty reasoning behind the belief that being born in water is beneficial for infants’ development. And of course this reasoning assumes that the child survives the experience, which according to news reports has not always been the case.



  1. Charkovsky could have a lively exchange with the self-trapanation people who claim drilling a hole in your head improves blood flow, brain function, and consciousness:

    1. this does beat all-- although I guess blood flow OUT of the head would be improved--

  2. First, I would like to thank Prof. Jean Mercer for her articles. I would like to add some details. At 60 – 70 years of XX cent. in USSR there was rather popular, especially among teens, science fiction novel “The Amphibian Man” by soviet writer Alexander Beliaev, as well as the film at the basis of the given novel. It seems that the bizarre ideas underlying Charkovsky’ concepts in part also might be influenced by this novel and film. However in real life, Charkovsky’s transformed his fantasies in sadistic experiments on children, periodically resulting in child deaths in terrible circumstances. In Russian internet there are organized blogs “Charkovsky – No!” and “Fokina – No”, where people understanding the danger of this sadistic cult (including former adepts of this sect which escaped from it) publish the reports about tragic cases happening with Russian families due to engagement in it (; One also can see at one of such blogs the VIDEO demonstrating the similar awful practice of Charkovsky with children in Israel ( As said in one the comments to this VIDEO-report, “I do not know what to say except swearing”. These wild trainings also are described in English language article published in Israel internet portal (moreover in Israel also there are reports of the death of children due to Charkovsky’s “treatment”):
    Besides, in the cited article there is mentioned that passive attitude of parents fanatically devoted to their Guru makes difficult court analysis of this cruel child abuse practice. Besides, in Russia this “man midwife” and “therapist” used to immediately escape abroad after incidents occurred with his “help” ( At last, some practices of Charkovsky, namely “baby rebirthing” which makes the child immersed into water to lose conscious (to enter into “trans”, as say his proponents) together with the overall cruelty and unscientific character of this “therapy”, makes to remind Attachment Therapy, in particular, the death of the girl Candace due to “rebirthing”.

    1. Thank you very much, Yulia. In all these situations, the complicity of the parents seems to prevent them from taking their natural role as children's protectors and buffers against social and environmental attacks.