Tuesday, April 26, 2005

The Hidden Messages in Water

The film What the Bleep Do We Know!? presents research on water crystals that leaves the viewer saying “Wow!” The premise of the research is that thoughts and intentions (even those in writing) can affect the structure of water and that this structure can be revealed by taking photographs of the water while it is thawing after having been frozen. I showed this film recently in my Health Psychology Course, and one the students had a copy of the book The Hidden Messages in Water. After reading this book, I felt compelled to debrief my students and to encourage them to keep an open yet skeptical mind about the findings of the book. This book is not a scientific treatise. His methodology is spelled out in only the most general terms; a quick search on the Internet has not yielded any information on replication studies. Towards the end of this short book, he provides some important information about his methodology. He says “when water samples are put into Petri dishes – we usually make 50 samples – the resulting crystals differ, depending on how the water is handled and on the thoughts of the researcher. And the condition of the fifty samples of water changes moment by moment … For each of the fifty dishes, we make graphs showing the number of crystals in each dish that are considered beautiful, hexagon, incomplete, and so on. For each pattern, we establish a coefficient, and given number values to the crystals. This gives us a clear picture of the characteristics of the crystals in each individual sample, and we then can classify the samples into categories of beautiful, hexagon, and so forth. Then we choose one crystal to photograph that best represent the characteristics of that particular sample” Emoto assumes the truth that thoughts can influence the crystals, and was describing these methods in the context of the experiments where written words were taped to bottles of water and the effects observed. Revealing in this description is the apparent selection process that occurs. It is not clear that the selector of the most representative crystal is blind to the condition the water was exposed to. Not being blinded in this way, the observer can be biased on what is selected in a direction that confirms the working theory. This is a well-established principle in research methodology.

What you will find in the book are the ramblings of what sound like a sweet Japanese man who is trying to foster a spiritual approach to life. Since he believes thoughts can affect water and since human bodies are 70% water, it therefore supports the notion that our thoughts can be efficacious. He says “I believe I am also starting to see the way that people should live their lives.” His recommendation is to embrace love and gratitude because these form the most beautiful ice crystals. Such an approach to life does have scientific support, as studies in neuroscience have shown the brain function underlying positive and destructive emotions (stay tuned for future blog entries on the brain effects of mindfulness meditation). But this support does not refer to hidden effects on water. Unfortunately, by presenting his work as scientific, he takes potential advantage of the general population’s lack of scientific understanding. Without more emphasis on methodology (as any scientist would), he resorts to pseudoscience.

We can easily fool ourselves. Take for instance, his suggested experiment to intend thoughts towards clouds so that they will break up when we concentrate on them. I would encourage trying this experiment as well. Here is why this might appear to work – there is variation in the way the clouds move. As he suggests, it will take some time to hone your concentration so that the clouds appear to move from your intention. Therefore, we discard the failed attempts and pay attention to the apparent success. Let’s say it takes twenty trials to get one success. That is, after nineteen times of concentrating and the cloud not moving as intended, on the 20th time, it moves as we intended. Wow! Right? Not so fast. We are looking at a ratio of 1 in 20 or 5%. In science, it is recognized that sometimes an observed outcome will happen by chance. Therefore, in statistical analysis this randomness is taken into account, and something must demonstrate that the likelihood of it having occurred by chance is low. One standard is to say that the probability of chance occurrence should be less than 5%. This tells us that we should expect 1 observation out of 20 to look like it is a legitimate phenomenon when it is not (a chance occurrence). In order to do the cloud experiment properly, we would have to demonstrate that the clouds appear to move more often than would be predicted by chance. To do this, we must take into account all the times it does not work. This, by the way, is one way to explain other amazing-seeming coincidences. For example, you were just thinking about this friend and she calls, or you were just thinking about something and it is mentioned on the radio. We’ve all had these experiences. Maybe there is a disturbance in the morphic field that explains these phenomenon, or maybe we overlook the fact that each moment holds the possibility for such a revelation, and the vast majority of these moments yield no such coincidence. To read the occasional correspondence as significant, then, seems like a form of potential self-deception, similar to the clouds. Looked at statistically, asuccessful outcome one out of every tens of thousands of possibilities is just not that impressive. Our minds tend to collapse all the misses and dismiss them when the hit occur, striking in its prescience. I will try the cloud experiment, the next mild day when I can lay in the grass and apprehend the sky. I don’t want to be closed minded, and I will keep diligent track of my failures and try not to get too taken in with my triumphs.

He also presents a number of rather fantastic ideas such as the water on the earth arrived from an extraterrestrial source, and that “The human body requires the circulation of water, and we can conclude that this is what the universe also requires. If large volumes of water flow in only one direction, toward the earth, the circulation of water in the universe will ultimately come to a standstill.” Should we be worried about this? In fairness, Dr. Emoto has another book soon to be released, The True Power of Water, and I'll take a look at that when it is available

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