Respectful Insolence

As regular readers may have noticed, I was on vacation the last two Fridays in a row. To keep Your Friday Dose of Woo (YFDoW) going, I decided to resurrect a couple of posts from the old blog that would have made good installments of YFDoW installments, had YFDoW existed at the time when they were originally written. One thing I noticed upon coming back and approaching this first new YFDoW since getting back to work was that it seemed even harder than usual to settle on a specific topic this week. I looked back over some links that I had saved, but none of them fired me up enough to wade into them in sufficient detail to provide the proper Respectful Insolence™ that my readers have come to expect every week. So, like the Pooflinger, I started perusing woo-filled websites to set my sights on. Unlike the Pooflinger, I’m not into flinging the gift that shows you care. I leave that to someone who’s dedicated his life to it. The repercussions of–shall we say, splashback from an poorly aimed fecalgram–are not something I want to deal with. Besides, after having revealed my nerd credentials yesterday for all the world to see, I don’t need the added social ostracism that could occur if I were to cease smelling clean and fresh.

So I went searching, looking for only the best, the most bizarre woo to highlight today. So I actually went to the grand-daddy of all altie sights, that massively dense suppository–I mean repository–of all that is woo, Whale.to. Of course, the problem with Whale.to is that it is such an unbelievably, massively, huge repository of woo that it was just too hard to choose any one target. It’s kind of like what sometimes happens to me when I visit Amoeba Music in Hollywood during meetings that I sometimes have to attend in Los Angeles. There are just so many CDs there to choose from that I want to buy way more than I can afford. Knowing that I can only choose a few out of the many thousands available, I freeze. Same principle. There is just so much woo at Whale.to that I couldn’t settle on just one or even just one broad topic.

Fortunately, yesterday, a fellow ScienceBlogger, Ed Brayton, unwittingly bailed me out. He reminded me of a brand of woo that is so outlandish, so unbelievable, so patently ridiculous, that I knew I had my topic.

Did you know that you can train yourself not to need food? A guy named Mason Howe Dwinell promises to tell you how if you buy his book. He learned this from the teachings of an Indian guru named Hira Ratan Manek (HRM):

He spoke of hungers; does your hunger control you or do you control your hungers? Not just hungers for food but hungers in general. Why do we make the choices we make? This Indian gentleman explained that world peace begins with the individual. HRM said if we could exist without hunger, then we would have no suffering. He suggested that one way to experience peace was to embrace the sun.

His formula was simple: either at sunrise or sunset (when the intensity of the sun is at its minimum) stand on the earth and stare directly at the sun for 10 seconds. Adding an additional 10 seconds to the total sungazing time each consecutive day. In 6 months your hungers would be under control and understood. Stand there for 10 months you would never need food again. Not only that, but, you would not have to stare at the sun again. After 44 minutes of sungazing one would be ‘full’, energized, just like a solar charged battery. There was no need to continue the practice. Essentially, HRM preached to the world that within one year, anyone could learn to live without the need for food.

I was told that a few by-products of the sungazing practice included: a decrease in irritability, a decrease in anger, a decrease in frustration and an increase in memory. Not to mention bold claims of complete relief from all disease. Hey now, where do I sign up? I was open to anything that could potentially decrease my frustrations regarding relationships and increase my ability to remember my neighbors name.

Holy solar cell, Batman! They never taught me in medical school that the body was physiologically capable of converting sunlight directly into chemical energy and then storing it for later use. I suppose I’d better get cracking. If I were to discover the mechanism that allows this particular guru live on sunlight and liquid, we’re talking Nobel Prize, baby. And I’d need the money from the prize and the new career opportunities that the Nobel Prize would bring, too, because if this guy is right just staring at the sun would put me and all my other colleagues out of business. Who knew it was so simple? And who knew that it would take so little time:

Another unique quality of this practice is it’s brevity. Nine months to a year and that’s it. You don’t have to pledge the next 40 years of your life to a master sweeping their ashram. HRM has promised a lot. However, if his claims hold water, then yes, the implications are staggering.

He’s even kind enough to outline the practice and give helpful pointers. My favorite part is the claim that the sunrise “holds more energy, vitamins and minerals then the sunset.” Who knew that the sun produced any vitamin other than vitamin D in the human body? Who knew that it provided minerals? Why didn’t they teach me this stuff in medical school? Who knew that it could provide these benefits:

Once you reach about 15-18 minutes (3-4 months) of sungazing many of your mental tensions: irritability, anger, fear, grief, and general personal frustrations may go away. This is just the beginning, but what a beautiful beginning it is. Life could become easier, more comfortable and more enjoyable as you get closer and closer to finding out who you really are. A blissful, euphoric sensation may envelope you. Your energy levels may increase and the benefits of having a routine in conjunction with the earth’s rhythms will begin to have a peaceful affect on your perception of the world.

It should be important at this point to take careful note of what you are ingesting. What type of foods and drinks. Drugs? Alcohol? It is at this point when the sun’s vibration may really have a chance to benefit your cells. If you happen to be eating and drinking low vibrational items (refined sugars, alcohol, refined wheat, processed goods, drugs ect) you may be self defeating in your efforts. Just a helpful reminder to slow down as much as possible and try to be aware of what items in your life cause you to feel good, bad or indifferent.

At about 25-30 minutes (6-7 months) of sungazing, your hungers may begin to diminish. How and why you make the choices you make may come forth with remarkable clarity. Your self confidence may begin to increase, as your comfort level with being you is heightened. And yes, your physical hunger for food will also begin to lessen. For anyone sungazing for more then 30 minutes there should be careful consideration of one’s diet. Lighter and lighter foods. Preferably adjusting to soups, broths, juices and teas.

Between 35 and 40 minutes (9-10 months) of sungazing physical disharmonies, injuries, and diseases may be remedied. Also your hunger for food may begin to substantially diminish. At this point you may also feel awakenings in your charkas as well as possible energy beginning to stir within your kundalini. Each day more energy blockages will be dissolved as you get closer and closer to your higher self. At about 35 minutes your brain reaches its ability to store an energetic charge.

You have reached the final step, 40 to 44 minutes. Wow. Now you stop sungazing. To continue on can be very detrimental to your eyes. At this time, sungazing is concluded and there is no need to continue the practice any more. During the first three months, the pineal gland is getting activated, and the hypothalamus or pathway to the brain from the eye is getting charged. After that period the solar energy starts reaching your brain and charging it. After this period, the solar energy starts getting stored in each and every cell in your body. When all the cells in the body are purified there is no need to sungaze any more. Now your brain is fully charged, the ability to control your destiny is in your hands.

Let’s see how we can debunk this looniness.The physics geek in me wanted to try to figure out just how much energy that one could absorb during approximately a year of staring at the sun by figuring out the total time exposed to the sun and estimating how much energy the human body could have absorbed if it were to “absorb” every photon that passed into its eyes and convert it to a biologically usable form of chemical energy with 100% efficiency. Heck, I could even give this guy the best possible chance and figure out how much energy could be absorbed if 100% of the photons hitting the body’s skin were converted into biologically useful energyy. Next, I could figure out how much energy it would take to sustain a typical 70 kg 35 year old man for, say, the remaining 40-50 years of his life. Remember, the prototypical 70 kg male requires approximately 2,000 Cal per day each and every day.

Wait a minute! What the hell am I doing here?

Forget it! This claim is so insanely ridiculous, so biologically impossible on the surface of it, so utterly magical that it’s an utter waste of time to waste my science geek powers actually doing the calculations to prove that it’s impossible because the body simply cannot convert sunlight into usable chemical energy. (That’s why we eat plants, which can achieve this feat, or eat the animals that eat the plants.) The brain and eyes are a truly wondrous organs, but sadly neither are incapable of converting sunlight to biochemical energy, either alone or together. Going without food for too long would simply result in starvation, although dehydration would kill you long before starvation if you were foolish enough to stop all intake of food or liquid.

If you don’t want to deal with the lackey, but would rather get your woo straight from the master, HRM has a website called Solar Healing that is so chock full of woo that I could spend hours there. Here‘s what he says about the brain “converting” sunlight to usable energy:

We have a super computer in our bodies given to us by the nature, which is our brain. HRM (Hira Ratan Manek) calls it the “brainutor”. The brain is more powerful than the most advanced super computer. Each and every human being is gifted with innumerable talents, and infinite inherent powers by nature. Individuals should never underestimate themselves. Everyone is gifted. If we make use of these powers we can take ourselves to great levels.

[...]

In order to operate the brain effectively, it needs to be activated. Being a holistic entity it needs a holistic power supply. Sun energy is the source that powers the brain, which can enter and leave the human body or the brain only through one organ that is the human eye. Eyes are the Sun Energy’s entry door to the human brain. They are also known as the windows of the soul. Recent research has found out that the eye has many functions other than vision. And more information is continuing to be revealed about the functions of the eye. The eyes are complex organs and they have 5 billion parts much more than a spacecraft that has about 6-7 million parts. By this, you can see the immense capacity of the human eye.

HRM asserts that the rainbow is in the eye not in the sky. The seven colors of the sun is only the reflection of what is in the eye. We can create a rainbow anytime we want – go to the garden, just observe below a source of flowing water as the sun moves above. There you will see the rainbow. Eye can receive the entire spectrum of the sunlight. It’s like having a glass window. Eye is the perfect instrument to receive all the colors of the rainbow. Since eyes are delicate parts of the body, we have to use them in such a way that they serve our purposes without getting damaged. Present day teachings and ideas such as don’t look at the sunlight at all –you will damage your eyesight; never go out in the sun as you will get cancer, are causing needless hysteria and paranoia. The more you are away from the nature, the more there is a cause for illness and you will automatically support global corporations. There are definite foolproof ways of getting the benefits of the nature without exposing ourselves to its adverse effects. It is also as intuitive as when the clouds gather we become gloomy. When we see the sun, we feel energetic.

Wow. Because we tend to feel depressed and not so energetic when it’s cloudy and to feel happier when it’s sunny out, he seems to say, the sun must be able to provide us with enough energy to survive–directly, without first being converted by photosynthesis into a form that we can use. That’s some serious woo, revealing Mason Howe Dwinell as strictly a woo amateur. He’s also a patsy, because it turns out that HRM doesn’t exist only on sunlight. As Randi reports, his wife feeds him buttermilk and juices, and, contrary to HRM’s claims, his abilities have not been verified by NASA.

There’s actually a name for this kind of woo: Breatharianism (also known as Ineda). Breatharians believe that it is possible to live without food, with nourishment coming from one’s life force or from, as above, sunlight. It’s difficult to tell if these people are scammers or if they are deluded enough to truly believe that it is possible to live indefinitely without food or water. One Breatharian who definitely appears to be on the deluded end of the spectrum is the famous Jasmuheen (birth name: Ellen Greve). This woman actually seems to believe that she can live without food. Indeed, several years ago, her “abilities” were put to the test by 60 Minutes in Australia, where she agreed to be closely monitored for 30 days as she went without food. Peter Bowditch described the results thusly:

I had assumed that Jasmuheen was just a crook and that she didn’t believe what she said, but she did something which makes me think she is insane. She agreed to have the Australian TV show 60 Minutes observe her for a month while she went completely without food. After a couple of days she complained about the hotel they had her staying in so the whole thing was moved out into the countryside. After six days she was obviously distressed and looking very ill but she was insisting that everything was fine. The doctor on the project stopped the exercise. Jasmuheen is now claiming that she was unfairly treated and not allowed to prove herself. The rest of us think that the doctor saved her life.

Particularly amusing is Jasmuheen’s whining during the first couple of days that she needed clean air to extract nutrients. Not surprisingly, moving her out to the country for some fresh air didn’t help. I agree that the doctor almost certainly saved her life. Indeed, this is how the doctor described her:

After Greve (Jasmuheen’s original name) had fasted for four days, Dr. Berris Wink, president of the Queensland branch of the Australian Medical Association, urged her to stop the test. According to the doctor, Greve’s pupils were dilated, her speech was slow, she was “quite dehydrated, probably over 10%, getting up to 11%.” Towards the end of the test, he said, “Her pulse is about double what it was when she started. The risks if she goes any further are kidney failure. 60 Minutes would be culpable if they encouraged her to continue. She should stop now.” The test was stopped.

She may have stopped, but more than one follower of hers have died trying to live without food. Perhaps they should have followed Greve’s example more closely, because her house has been reported to be crammed with food, an observation that she explains that it’s for her husband, while admitting to “taste orgasms” with chocolate ice cream on occasion. (She also admits “if I feel a bit bored and I want some flavour, then I will have a mouthful of whatever it is I’m wanting the flavour of. So it might be a piece of chocolate or it might be a mouthful of a cheesecake or something like that.”)

So she doesn’t really need food but she admits to eating cheesecake. Anyone want to bet that those “mouthfuls” of cheesecake or “whatever” are way larger than just a mouthful?

In any case, this particular form of woo is truly incomprehensible to me. It just astounds me that anyone can believe that any human being can live indefinitely without food. Debunking this nonsense seems besides the point, as it is so self-evidently ridiculous even to nonphysicians and nonscientists that humans cannot live for very long without food, much less be healthy doing it, much eliminate all disease in those doing it properly. Moreover, to go without food for days or weeks is not an easy thing. Hunger pangs suck bigtime; so does the progressive weakness that occurs as malnutrition progresses. Certainly one can’t be energetic and healthy for long while doing it. Also, it takes a serious and persistent act of will to starve oneself. I can only conclude that Breatharians all must be either (1) scammers preying on the gullible; (2) mentally ill; or (3) both.

I have yet to see any evidence to disabuse me of my conclusion.

Comments

  1. #1 Andrew Dodds
    September 8, 2006

    Well, if I can recall the constants accurately..

    Solar influx top the earth is approx 1353 W/m2. We can assume human surface area to be 1 square meter for good math reasons, and round off a bit for angle of incidence and atmospheric absorbtion to give a nice round 1kW.

    The figure of 2000 kcal/day gives 8400,000 Joules, or around 100 W. So, if you could directly turn solar energy into usable chemical energy at 100 percent efficiency, you could survive on 2.5 hours a day of very good sunlight.

    This would clearly cause problems for sunbathers on holiday – sunbathing would make you put on weight. Baywatch just wouldn’t be the same.

  2. #2 Orac
    September 8, 2006

    Actually, the body surface area of a 70 kg man who is 5’10” (in other words, of average height) is approximately 1.87 m^2. I assume that you took into account that only approximately 1/2 of that surface area can ever be exposed to the sun at any one time. Of course, for your calculations to work, you have to assume that the person is naked; otherwise you have to estimate what percentage of the body surface area is covered by clothing and then subtract that from the calculation, which would decrease the energy absorbed by that percentage.

    Now if you really want to get geeky, you could figure out how much of that energy hits the eyes. ;-)

  3. #3 Stuart Coleman
    September 8, 2006

    If some of her “followers” have died, she should be convicted for murder, or at least negligence. There are some people out there who are so desperate for meaning that they’ll listen to these wackos and then die. Sure, it’s funny that they believe something so stupid, but when people are getting hurt it isn’t funny, it’s criminal.

  4. #4 Dunc
    September 8, 2006

    Yeah, but you’ve gotta remember that these nuts don’t believe in conservation of energy either. When they say “energy”, they don’t mean energy, they mean “magic life force”.

  5. #5 Andrew Dodds
    September 8, 2006

    No – If I was being REALLY geeky, I’d have to take account that I’m short-sighted, so the amount of energy reaching the eyes would be reduced by refraction..

  6. #6 natural cynic
    September 8, 2006

    Breatharianism (also known as Ineda).

    You mean as in “Ineda dose of reality”?

  7. #7 themann1086
    September 8, 2006

    mmm, woo smackdowns and a pink floyd reference: does it get much better?

  8. #8 A Babe in the Universe
    September 8, 2006

    Have you forgotten what anniversary September 8 is? I haven’t.

  9. #9 Orac
    September 8, 2006

    Have you forgotten what anniversary September 8 is? I haven’t.

    No.

  10. #10 bushpigeon
    September 8, 2006

    I just checked whale.to — you certainly are spoiled for choice. Here’s what I found at the top of the page on “child health”:

    [Vaccines (and antibiotics) are the main suspect for child illness, such as asthma now seen in 1 in 5 children, Cot death and Shaken Baby Syndrome, combined with Junk food poisons such as Aspartame & sugar, along with baby milk now proven to double the death rate for babies.]

  11. #11 Alison
    September 8, 2006

    I’m trying to figure out why all those starving people in the world lying out in the sun all day without shelter aren’t the picture of health.

    bushpigeon, now I have to go visit the darned site. I’m dying to know how vaccines cause Shaken Baby Syndrome. “Stop crying, you darned kid, it was just a little tiny needle, ya wuss!” (shakeshakeshake)

  12. #12 tim gueguen
    September 9, 2006

    Even if you could live on nothing but sunlight, why would you want to? The appeal of food for the majority of humanity is more than just that it forestalls dropping dead.

  13. #13 Daniel Morgan
    September 9, 2006

    Tim,

    Sunlight is cheap.

  14. #14 Barry Leiba
    September 9, 2006

    Stuart Coleman says:

    If some of her “followers” have died, she should be convicted for murder, or at least negligence. There are some people out there who are so desperate for meaning that they’ll listen to these wackos and then die. Sure, it’s funny that they believe something so stupid, but when people are getting hurt it isn’t funny, it’s criminal.

    You don’t think people are responsible for their own decisions? I do. I’ll give some slack to people who believe religious hooey that’s been jammed into their heads from before they left the womb, but this isn’t that.

    If I had some disease, and a doctor — a real M.D., with the best reputation in the world, recommended by everyone — told me that I could cure my disease by staring into the sun, shining purple light on my left elbow, or eating only rutabaga skins for six months, I would not believe it without a great deal of research, and second, third, and fourth opinions.

    When I did something stupid as a child, my mother asked why I did that, and I said, “’cause Billy dared me,” my mother would reply, “Oh, and if Billy dared you to jump off the tallest building in town, would you do that too?” She taught me to take responsibility for my own actions. It’s not Billy’s fault; it’s mine.

    So when some nut with a funny assumed name tells you that you can improve your health and well-being by not eating… well, if you believe that, I think it’s your own responsibility.

  15. #15 Mandy
    September 10, 2006

    http://www.whale.to/b/pindar.html

    Maybe not exactly woo, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

  16. #16 Hot Cup of Joe
    September 14, 2006

    I first noticed this bit of Woo while in my company’s break room a couple of months ago. An episode of Wife Swap was on and one of the swapped spouses had to take up the practice of sun-staring of the vegan wife that she replaced. The vegan had to take the place of the spouse who’s family motto was “if we can kill it; we can cook it” (or something like that!).

    I thought, “what bunk,” and went back to work.

  17. #17 Tanya Bilsbury
    July 29, 2007

    Jasmuheen is either insane, a criminal, or criminally insane. She should be locked up, in a prison or as an inpatient.

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