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Lecture Sunday: Margaret Wertheim

Physics on the Fringe: Smoke Rings, Circlons,
and Alternative Theories of Everything

Sunday, December 11, 2011 at 2 pm
Baxter Lecture Hall

FOR THE PAST 15 YEARS acclaimed science writer Margaret Wertheim has been collecting the works of “outsider physicists,” many without formal training and all convinced they have found true alternative theories of the universe. Jim Carter, the Einstein of outsiders, has developed his own complete theory of matter and energy and gravity that he demonstrates by experiments in his backyard—with garbage cans and a disco fog machine, he makes smoke rings to test his ideas about atoms. Captivated by the imaginative power of his theories and his resolutely DIY attitude, Wertheim has been following Carter’s progress for the past decade. Through a profoundly human profile of Carter, Wertheim’s exploration of the bizarre world of fringe physics challenges our conception of what science is, how it works, and who it is for.

Tickets are first come, first served at the door. Seating is limited. $8 for Skeptics Society members and the JPL/Caltech community, $10 for nonmembers. Your admission fee is a donation that pays for our lecture expenses.

Sacred Salubriousness

In the December Skeptic column for Scientific American, Michael Shermer looks at new research on the link between religion, behaviour, goal achievement and self-control.


Paleolithic Politics

Research in cognitive psychology shows, for example, that once we commit to a belief we employ the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirming evidence in support of it and ignore or rationalize away any disconfirming evidence. In this Skepticblog, in light of the group-psychology of our ancestral past, Michael Shermer looks at how the confirmation bias affects our still-tribal political process.



Unbottling some Jinn

If you think Genies are funny like in Aladdin, or sexy like in I Dream of Jeannie get ready to have your assumptions challenged. In the Middle East, Jinn aren’t whimsical characters of fantasy. They are considered to be frightening, real entities that haunt desolate places and can perform terrible magic. In this episode of MonsterTalk we interview author Robert Lebling about his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar. If you miss this episode you’ll wish you hadn’t!

MonsterTalk Podcast App (presented by Skeptic Magazine) is available on Amazon

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About this week’s eSkeptic

In this week’s eSkeptic, we present Karen Stollznow’s “Bad Language” column from Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 4 (2011) in which she looks at some of the pseudoscientific claims about the healing powers of sounds. Though most sound healing claims are just a lot of hot air, could there be some legitimate applications of sound technology being used to heal?

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Healing and Harming Sounds

by Karen Stollznow

Illustration by Nancy White

Illustration by Nancy White

Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot can bring people to tears, but can the tenor’s voice heal too? Can sounds both cure and kill? Let’s investigate some claims about healing and harming sounds.

Many people seem to think there’s something magical about human speech; for example, the belief that uttering spells and prayers can bring about an effect in the external world. Some practitioners even claim to be able to cure disease using the human voice. As usual, there are many names for the claims: Bioacoustics, Sound Therapy, Sound Work and Sound Medicine. All of these methods purport to harness the alleged healing power of our own voices.

One proponent, Paul Newham, believes that good health requires not only a sensible diet and exercise, but also singing. His book The Singing Cure teaches “Voice Movement Therapy,” a series of exercises based on “vocal healing traditions” from indigenous cultures.1 Newham claims the voice is a powerful healing instrument that can be used to tame anger, grief, shame and other negative emotions.

One “certified therapist” in Voice Healing conducts sessions of singing to reduce stress, ease pain and create a “cellular level of healing”:

This powerful healing technique which dates back to ancient civilizations and new scientific researches, will enable you to use the power of your voice vibration to improve your health and life. This course is for everybody; the human voice is a very powerful tool. it was not only created to speaking or singing, but also to heal and help each one of us (having a beautiful voice is not relevant) to achieve a state of greater self awareness. Once we get to know our voices with the help of intensive training we will be able to cure ourselves from many disturbing diseases and multiple pains caused by stress, such as insomnia, migraine, abdominal pain, heart problems, sinusitis, cold flu, and more…2

The Discovery Channel television series Mythbusters proved that with the right frequency and volume, and when sustained, it is possible to shatter glass with the human voice.3 However, no note is going to cure the common cold. Like mantras and meditation, singing only has subjective benefits for the individual.

Another therapist uses the voice in conjunction with music, drums, quartz crystal bowls and tuning forks, to return our voices to their “healthy state of resonance”:

We arrive on this planet with every thing that we need to heal ourselves, and when we came; our voices were rich with all the necessary frequencies to maintain us in a healthy state of resonance. Due to the conditioning of childhood and the suppression of our true thoughts and feelings and the accompanying sounds that go with them, by the time we arrive at adulthood our speaking voice no longer contains the same frequencies it did as a child. Our voice will always reflect our current mental and emotional states of being. When a person feels alive, healthy, happy and abundant, their voice sounds much different than if they are depressed, unhappy, angry or afraid. You may notice a difference in your own voice when speaking your truth compared to when you are not, it feels different in your body as well, and from an energetic standpoint the cells of your body are not getting the frequencies they need to stay healthy.4

Consistent with the beliefs of other holistic therapies such as naturopathy, this therapist claims that we all have a natural healthy state to which we can return using the body’s innate ability to heal itself.

To return to this inherent state of health, Alfred A. Tomatis experimented with the most seminal of sounds—a mother’s voice. To his patients, Tomatis played recordings of their mother’s voices to treat a variety of disorders, including dyslexia, autism and depression. He also used Gregorian chants and music by composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. To this day, proponents of the Tomatis Method claim his listening techniques treat learning difficulties, and assist in learning second languages, developing better communication skills and improving creativity.5

By now, the idea of using Mozart music might be sounding familiar. Don Campbell took Tomatis’ research further with his book The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Campbell believes that listening to Mozart music boosts intelligence, and in The Mozart Effect for Children he claims that exposing children to classical music increases brain development.

Campbell’s theory was popularized before it could be (dis)proven. The mere claim led then Governor of Georgia, Zell Miller, to propose issuing the parents of newborn children with a CD of classical music.6 In an effort to produce more milk, a dairy farmer in Spain plays Mozart during milking time, in what is affectionately known as the Moozart Effect.7

However, research does not support the claim that listening to Mozart can enhance spatial performance.8 Furthermore, there is no evidence to support Campbell’s additional claims that his therapy treats a range of conditions including autism, dyslexia and Attention- Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).9 Much like the “we only use 10% of our brains” myth, the belief that “listening to Mozart makes you smarter” has outlived its debunking.

Again, any benefits of listening to classical music are based in perception, like taste in music. One person’s Mozart is another person’s Metallica. Similarly, there is no music that will literally “expand your mind” like the claims of Squareeater that their psychedelic music “stimulates the brain to lead users to the furtherest edges of the conscious mind.”10

Music isn’t always used to soothe the savage beast; sometimes it’s used as a torture tactic. There was a curious soundtrack to the 1993 Waco siege of David Koresh and his disciples. When negotiations failed, the Federal Bureau of Investigation surrounded the Branch Davidian ranch and blasted high-decibel music into the compound to subdue the occupants. The bizarre playlist included Tibetan chants, Christmas carols, bugle calls and Nancy Sinatra’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’. Like Charles Manson, Koresh fancied himself a rock star, and retaliated by playing tapes of his own compositions, until the electricity was cut off….

U.S. soldiers unleashed this rock ‘n’ roll warfare during the 1989 invasion of Panama. A cacophony of Styx, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, and a version of God Bless the U.S.A. was blasted into the papal nunciature—Manuel Noriega’s hiding place—until the Vatican put an end to the concert. Closer to home, classical music is pumped into the PA systems of some shopping malls in an attempt to lower crime and deter teenagers from loitering (because Beethoven isn’t cool).

Sometimes earplugs aren’t enough. Sonic weapons are coming out of science fiction and into use for defense and law enforcement. Instruments such as Long Range Acoustic Devices (LRAD) are used as hailing devices and in crowd control efforts. An LRAD was even used to ward off a group of pirates off the coast of Somalia. High-power sound waves can be used to incapacitate a victim, and can cause disorientation, discomfort and nausea.

The very technology used to harm may be used to heal. Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have created “sound bullets” that could eventually be used to obliterate kidney stones or destroy cancerous cells without damage to surrounding tissue.11 The device is based on the old toy Newton’s Cradle, and creates concentrated sound waves from ball bearings.

In experimental research, sound waves are being used to treat prostate cancer. In a study conducted at the University College Hospital and Princess Grace Hospital in London, High Intensity Focused Ultrasound (HIFU) is used to kill cancerous cells. The results are promising; the cancer was treated successfully, with fewer side effects than chemotherapy.12

As we can see, there are some legitimate applications for sound technology, but there are many pseudoscientific theories about speech and sound. The claims that singing can cure disease and listening to music can make you smarter are just a load of hot air.END

  1. Paul Newham. 1993. The Singing Cure: Introduction to Voice Movement Therapy. Rider & Co.
  2. Manifesting Mind Power. Voice Healing. Accessed 04/20/2011.
  3. Karen Schrock. 2007. “Fact or Fiction? An Opera Singer’s Piercing Voice Can Shatter Glass.” Scientific American.
  4. The Healing Voice. Accessed 05/12/2011.
  5. Tomatis Method. Accessed 05/11/2011.
  6. Kevin Sack. 1998. “Georgia’s Governor Seeks Musical Start for Babies.” The New York Times. Accessed 05/11/2011.
  7. Rebecca Lee. 2007. The Moozart Effect. Accessed 05/11/2011.
  8. Pippa McKelvie, Jason Low. 2010. “Listening to Mozart does not improve children’s spatial ability: Final curtains for the Mozart effect.” Developmental Psychology. Vol. 20, No. 2, 241–258.
  9. Campbell, Don. 1997. The Mozart Effect: Tapping the Power of Music to Heal the Body, Strengthen the Mind, and Unlock the Creative Spirit. Quill Publishing.
  10. Squareeater. Accessed 05/17/2011.
  11. “Sound bullets” could blast cancer. ABC Science. April 2010. Accessed 04/20/2011.
  12. Ahmed et al. 2009. “High-Intensity-Focused Ultrasound in the Treatment of Primary Prostate Cancer: The First UK series.” 1 July. British Journal of Cancer.
Suggested reading on sound perception, faith healing, and prayer…
cover Phantom Words & Auditory Illusions
by Dr. Diana Deutsch

Dr. Deutsch demonstrates striking auditory illusions and curiosities of sound perception. Examples: when a recording of a single spoken phrase is repeatedly played, our brains suddenly perceive it as sung instead of spoken; when listening to repeating nonsense sounds people may falsely “hear” words associated with their interests (sex, food), or hear the voice of a recently lost loved one. One of the weirdest experiences one can have. Don’t miss it. READ more and order the lecture on DVD.

cover The Faith Healers
by James Randi

This book is Randi’s greatest investigation and exposé of Peter Popoff, W.V. Grant, Pat Robertson, and Oral Roberts, as seen on the Tonight Show. Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith was based on this book and Randi won a MacArthur “Genius Award” for this work. The Toronto Sun calls it, “A fascinating look at a world of misplaced faith and blind trust that seems more appropriate to the Dark Ages than to the end of the 20th century.” READ more and order the paperback book.

cover Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance
of Religion & Medicine

by Richard Sloan

Is there a scientific connection between prayer and healing? A majority of Americans believe there is, but by taking a hard look at the scientific evidence, Columbia University Professor of Behavioral Medicine, Richard Sloan, believes there is no proven curative power to prayer and that the use of it as a medical treatment undermines effective patient care. Sloan exposes the questionable research practices and unfounded claims made by scientists who manipulate scientific data and research results to support their claim of effective mystical intervention in healing. READ more and order the hardback book.



  1. Mister john says:

    Lithotripsy has been used in the UK to treat kidney stones for several years to my own knowledge, having benefited from it myself.
    It consists of sending sound waves focussed on the stone, in order to break it up, and it works.
    But it doesn’t need any hocus pocus to explain it, although I would probably have liked to have had some Mozart to listen to at the time it was being done

  2. oiojwa says:

    While the claims of these people is beyond belief, the placebo effect has been demonstrated.

    Is it possible that music or other sounds can also trigger placebo like effects?

    • Eileen McKusick says:

      Do you think that the sonic weapons are triggering a placebo effect?

    • brennan says:

      the “placebo effect” is a box scientists put around the mystery that is the power of thought. Thoughts are also vibrations. Each one with a distinct frequency created in the brain and emitted out, past the skull and into the space around us. Sound definitely has an influence on the “placebo effect”

  3. c. glenn says:

    oiojwa, I htink it might go beyond a placebo effect, but not very far beyond. Anecdotally, we all know that music can have psychological effects (usually short term), and that psychological effects (usually longer-term) can affect healing.

    But we definitely need to disregard the supernatural woo-woo beyond any of that.

  4. Doug A MD says:

    There is an epidemic of disordered breathing in western societies … know medically as obstructive sleep apnea. ( Even to the experts the exact site and cause of the obstruction is unclear ). There is some scientific evidence that playing a musical instrument may be therapeutic. As a life long sceptic we need to be cautious of purely dismissing the things we don’t yet understand.

  5. Dr. Strangelove says:

    Music may have a physiological effect. Soothing music helps babies, children and some adults fall asleep. Chanting and drum beating can produce sound resonance in the brain that induces altered state of mind. Who knows maybe the Tibetan chants drove Koresh to insanity and shooting spree.

  6. Jay says:

    AVE (Audio Visual Entrainment) is real and being studied, but a huge problem is that may online marketers of devices for these products have made unsubstantiated claims and have been made and sometimes even how up in some of the more reputable companies and even in research because the claims are so common.

    Michael Hutchison who popularized AVE even commented on some of the problems with the AVE market in an interview he did years ago.

    See the link bellow. (Note: The old link didn’t work but a copy of it could be found via WaybackMachine.)

    • Jay says:

      Half of my post didn’t show up for some reason and I keep getting spam warning when I try to post links.

      The part of the interview with Hutchison I’m referring to is bellow.

      Q: What concerns do you have regarding the AVS industry?

      A: “One thing that concerns me is the whole problem of hucksterism, wildly exaggerated claims, false advertising, snake oil salesmen, and so on. There is a lot of that going on, and it worries me. For example, one leading manufacturer of psychoacoustic tapes has admitted in court to using false advertising. Amazingly, this manufacturer claims to see nothing wrong with it, and said, “Everybody does it.”

      Another problem is the possibility of potential harmful effects on the brain. People need to be aware that these devices and these technologies can have powerful effects on the brain. The brain can be a very fragile instrument, and is susceptible to damage, if harmful techniques are used. For example, one neurotechnology product may cause neuronal death, brain damage, and seizures. Also, it’s well known that attention deficit disorders, brain trauma, learning disabilities, and various cognitive dysfunctions are directly linked with too much slow brain wave activity, such as delta and slow theta. Yet, we have a lot of psychoacoustic tapes and CDs, electrostim devices, and light and sound machines whose manufacturers are encouraging people to use them to entrain theta and slow delta, when in fact this is the last thing many people need, for this is only going to make their cognitive problems worse. In fact, brain wave entrainment, if used improperly, can create a harmful state, known as hypersynchrony, and negatively affect performance for days.”

      Stanford University has had 2 conferences on the Brain & Music that had several AVE researchers presenting at them. You can look at the 2006 & 2007 conferences if you want to check those out,

      Some more quick notes on AVE.

      Light and sound aren’t as effective as using just one type of stimulation.

      Light alone is the more effective. Sound alone is next and the combination of the 2 is last.

      For audio you have 3 different types used.

      Bianurals Beats – One different pitch is listened to in each ear and the difference combines in the brain to make the beat. Example a pitch of 200Hz in the right ear and a pitch of 185Hz in the left ear makes a binaural beat of 15Hz. Binaurals aren’t very effective and the effects reported of them are often just placebo.

      Momaural Beat – Two different pitches are combined outside of the ear to make the the beat. This is way more effective.

      Isochronic Pulse- One pitch is turned rapidly on and off. This gives the greatest response but the tones can be unpleasant to listen to.

      Pitch and beat often get confused, and numerous frequency list often don’t say if they are referring to pitch or beat and tend to lump pitches and beats together.

      Be very cautious of any claims made about a specific beat or pitch, many of them are when you investigate are often unsubstantiated.

      I’ll wrap this up as I don’t have time to retype all of what I had typed before.

  7. Frank Jude Boccio says:

    It may seem like nit-picking, when the article overall is quite good and a nice rebuttal of all the woo around the so-called “healing power of the human voice!,” but I’m not sure what it meant by the following sentence: “Like mantras and meditation, singing only has subjective benefits for the individual.”

    There are research papers being published every week, it seems, pointing out real observable benefits of meditation. Changes in brain function and even structure have been seen to result from the practice of meditation. And while I don’t agree with mantra practitioners who believe the Sanskrit words and sounds have some kind of ‘energy,’ chanting anything can become a form of meditation, so I wouldn’t be surprised if similar changes can occur through chanting.

  8. Loughlin Tatem says:

    I always wondered why some types of music and well-made speeches stirred me almost to tears or action, yet I never attributed this to powers emanating from the word or the music itself, but from something inside myself.

  9. owlman says:

    Something often missed by self-professed skeptics is that skepticism is not the automatic dismissal of anything you don’t agree with or that is not comfortable.
    Falling into this pattern is just as ineffective as believing everything that comes down the pike. Being skeptical simply means you want proof, or that you actually need to examine the subject for yourself.

    This last I would offer to the author of the pseudoskeptical/pseudointellectual
    tripe above. It is true there are many idiots around, some of whom spout total
    garbage couched in cosmic or pop science terms, and that they often make silly claims ungrounded in fact. On the other hand, the fact that the author is unaware of the years of hard science and good research available doesn’t mean it isn’t there; it just means said “expert” is too lazy to be bothered to find it. Or afraid
    reading and examining might disconcert comfortable prejudice.

    Believe anything you want personally, just keep it to yourself. Leave attempts at education to the informed.

  10. Maria says:

    I have about 20% hearing in my left ear and have suffered with tinnitus for many years. Does anyone know if sound therapy really works? I have had an assessment with them and they claim that my hearing will improve dramatically and the rininging in my ears with subside in time. I first started having problems equalizing my ears when I was in my early 20s which caused me great pain when flying. I am also told by them that after using the sound therapy system, this will stop too. Its a lot of money to pay out to listen to classical music for 10hrs a day. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.

    • Lyz Cooper says:

      Ringing in the ears can be caused by a number of things, but sometimes can be stress related. In this case we have had really good results with our method of sound therapy, which is not to be confused with playing white noise or classical music. This is a focussed treatment, rather like Acupuncture, but using sound instead of needles. The sound frequencies help to balance the system and may help improve hearing as a result.

    • Chelsea says:

      I am a massage therapist because I believe most things can be fixed with one form of massage or another. There are a huge long list of reasons why that you can research for days. Regardless, I was also suffering from tinnitus. Being a therapist, we tend to receive the least amount of massage over anyone and need it the most from what we do, hunching over and clenching for hours. So once the tinnitus started driving me crazy, I made it a priority to loosen everything up in my neck and shoulders. I am happy to say it is gone.
      Whether it is inflammation, lymph, nerve impingement, the parasympathetic nervous system overactivation or something else, when the body/nervous system is operating healthily, things like tinnitus and millions of other disorders simply do not occur.
      For all kinds of healing techniques that have been proven, I am always posting stuff on my facebook page.
      I use to be a skeptic in the lamens sense, but I’ve learned through overcoming fear and opening the mind to the unknown, the possibilities expand exponentially. Dangerous to some, but only when you fear it do you seam to manifest it.

    • Sandra says:

      In Dec 2009 I “apparently” got a virus so said 5 Drs & a Specialist. It left me profoundly deaf in my left ear & with the most horrendous tinnitus you can imagine. My life wasn’t the same again. I have listened to Sound Therapy min 4 hrs a day for 7 weeks, 2 days ago I actually heard the dial tone on the phone in my left ear, high pitched & distant none the less for the first time in over 3 years I have heard that sound. My tinnitus has changed pitch (not so annoying) but still there, I will continue for the required 6 months. I was a skeptic, but no more. As my Husband said “what have you got to lose”. All I can honestly say is that it has been all positive for me!

  11. Lyz Cooper says:

    I was really interested to see this healthy debate and am speaking from the pro-sound therapy camp. Although I do not subscribe to much of the ‘new age’ thinking around this modality, I have witnessed many amazing ‘wholings’, and have undertaken research that demonstrated that the techniques I have developed do help to reduce stress, and not just by a little. As modern medical thinking and research connects stress with many illnesses it is not hard to come to the conclusion that reduced stress = improved health. Aside from this the techniques we use at The British Academy of Sound Therapy help to raise awareness of a persons condition, therefore helping them to make positive changes to their lives and take responsibility for their health and their personal process.

    I think it is also important to acknowledge that there is a lot we still do not know and that as technology improves, we will discover more about why this modality is so effective.

  12. Chelsea Redwood says:

    This isn’t just sound, it describes the changes that occur and why, in the brain.

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