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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

When Superstition Claims to Be Science: The Conscious Conception and Peace Lark

A reader recently called my attention to the forthcoming publication “Parenting for Peace” by Marcy Axness. This book, and Axness’s website , claim to integrate science (“quantum”, right?) with spiritual insight, and stress neurobiology as a major source of information. In reality, though, much of the material Axness promulgates is nothing more nor less than superstition. If she wants to present her views as a matter of faith, well and good-- but to state that they are based on science is incorrect.

Here is one example from the quantumparenting site:

In discussing fertility issues, Axness quotes Laura Uplinger’s description of her beliefs about becoming pregnant. “My husband and I sent out a call to the universe—as if posting an ad on a galactic website—stating who we were and what we could offer to a soul who wished to join us. We carried on our daily activities in a mood of solemn expectation and profound surrender; was a soul going to be drawn to us?” In commenting on this and similar ideas, Axness refers to the idea of thought as an organizing principle that can influence even conception and development.

Are these views correct? Do souls wait in some nonmaterial world until they join bodies at the time of conception? Do our thoughts shape our physical structure and function? Those who believe these things don’t want or need systematic evidence to support their beliefs, and I don’t want to argue with their universe of discourse. However, I can say that those beliefs aren’t science. Science as a modern human endeavor is based on certain assumptions that are contrary to the ideas Axness promulgates. Science is mechanistic, assuming that even the most complex human functions are based on the same physical and chemical events that occur in the non-human, non-living world. Axness’s views are vitalistic-- she assumes that living organisms contain some factor that is absent from non-living substances, a factor that may be thought of as a spirit or soul. She also appears to assume that the soul is not just an animating principle, but is instead a personality with intention and power to make decisions, and one that can at all times be influenced by thought (cf. the “primal wound”). These assumptions are by definition not scientific, and ideas based on them are not scientific, no matter how many tidbits of neurobiology they are bolstered with.

Axness has a strong tendency to try to shape material from scientific study so it matches her vitalistic and transcendentalist view, with its characteristic tone of the 19th century’s New Thought. For example, in a statement on (website of a chiropractic organization), she says this: “A child who is securely attached to his parents is deeply motivated to behave in harmony with them.” Now, certainly it is true that conduct disorders, extreme risk-taking, and age-inappropriate oppositionalism can all be associated with a poor attachment history or with other evidence of insecure relationships. But this does not mean that secure attachment is characterized by “easy” relationships in which little discipline is required-- which is what seems to be implied by “deeply motivated to behave in harmony” and by other comments Axness has made about children who are brought up according to her principles. Axness assumes, and presumably believes, that easy and desirable outcomes can be produced by thinking in the right ways. (Is this part of that “idealization of motherhood” that can be so problematic?)

Here again we have statements that do not follow a basic rule of science, the rule that all information must be considered unless there is a very good reason for omitting it. What Axness omits is the fact that failing to “behave in harmony” with parents may be an essential step in a child’s development. Bowlby’s attachment theory describes a set of events that do not stop with parent-child affection and commitment. Attachment is about learning to deal with other people, knowing whom to trust, knowing what to expect, and these lessons must eventually be applied to persons outside the family. A big portion of that learning has to do with the practice of negotiation and compromise, a major emphasis of development in the preschool years and again in early adolescence. When parents are helping children learn to negotiate, negative feelings can run high on both sides; Indeed, this may be a desirable situation, as it helps the child learn that people can be very mad at each other but still work out a satisfactory compromise. The child is deeply motivated to move along its own developmental pathway-- which includes autonomy--- but this really cannot be seen as behaving “in harmony”.

The First Amendment permits Axness to make what statements she prefers about early development, but the fact is that there is no science involved in her views. Neither, by the way, is she a leading figure in child development circles, as some websites say. Axness has a Ph.D degree from the Union Institute in Ohio, an intermittently-accredited organization that as far as I know allows students to choose the academic field where they feel a dissertation belongs and to have the degree granted in that field. (Other alums are Lark Eshleman, a therapist involved in the Nathaniel Craver case; Gregory Keck, a Ohio attachment therapist whose degree is said to be in criminology, and Bill Goble, who diagnosed Candace Newmaker over the telephone before recommending that she be taken to the Colorado therapists at whose hands she died.) Although her website suggests that she does some form of therapeutic work, I do not see a California license verification for Axness as either a psychologist or any kind of counselor; she refers to her work as “psychoeducational”, so perhaps she doesn’t need a license.

Whatever Axness is, she isn’t a scientist. Whatever her beliefs are, and however often she mentions brains, her principles aren’t based on science. Is it even pseudoscientific to claim that thought shapes the physical world? Frankly, I’d call it superstition.

Addendum, 12/10/11: The statements about the Union doctorate in the following are presumably also true about Axness's degree claims:

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