Culture

The MIT Dahn Yoga Brain Respiration Experiment: How Belief In Failed Theories Persists

This article began as a series beginning 3 January 2009. I thought it well to revisit it as an example of how to investigate controversial Science.

Clever readers will notice I designed the test below before I came to my full view on the nature of probability and evidence, which coalesced in the early 2010s, culminating in my book Uncertainty. You will see the differences.

I haven’t change any of the text, except to correct the most egregious typos placed into it by my enemies. Where I thought clarification was necessary, I added comments [in brackets, like this.] There are now many dead links, especially those officially aligned with Dahn Yoga. I did not correct these, but where I could, I added a link to the Wayback Machine archive. There is also a new Update at the end to discuss why failed theories are still believed.

INTRODUCTION

On 20 September 2004, in the Physics Department at MIT, sponsored locally by the Body and Brain Student Club, I proctored a test I had designed to probe the psychic powers of three Korean children.

The kids were under the tutelage of Ilchi Lee and the Korean Institute of Brain Science (KIBS) [Wayback]. That group claimed that kids who had training in their methods of Brain Respiration and Dahn Yoga would be able to “read” the colors of cards inside opaque envelopes while blindfolded.

KIBS called this ability “non-visual, heightened sensory perception”, or HSP. They insisted that this is not the same as extra-sensory perception, or ESP, though the differences seem largely semantic.

This, in five parts, is the story of that experiment, what events led up to it, what happened during, and the sad but predictable aftermath.

I have written about this experiment before, but this is the first time I present all details. This will take us some time, and might even be tedious at times, but it is, you will see, necessary to be explicit as I can be.

1. BACKGROUND

In the fall of 2004, Dr Sung Won Lee was an attending physician in the department of General Internal Medicine and Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at the Cornell University Medical School. I was there, too, as an Assistant Professor of Biostatistics.

Sung and I were friends. He is one of the sweetest humans on the planet. We had been to each other’s homes for meals, compared grievances about our boss, and so on. We used to argue about physics and biology and what it means to be conscious, what constitutes evidence for or against a theory, the strictures of philosophical systems, what is and isn’t “science”. Sung put a lot of thought into his beliefs and was suspicious of logic.

Dr S. Lee got involved, a couple of years earlier, with Dr Ilchi Lee (no relation), KIBS, and Dahn Yoga. As part of an official experiment he was conducting at Cornell, Dr S. Lee was teaching adults Dahn Yoga to measure their improvement in various quality of life measures. Sung had many close social associations with other members of Dahn Yoga.

Sung knew that I had written a book about testing psychic phenomena—So, You Think You’re Psychic?—and that I was interested in magic, particularly mentalism, which is the art of fooling people into thinking you have psychic powers. So he asked whether I’d be interested in designing a test for KIBS.

He explained that his friend, Dr Ilchi Lee, had developed a method called brain respiration that would allow people to develop extraordinary sensory powers. For examples of these claims, click here [Wayback]. Note that this is only one of the many dozens of sites run by that group. More on this later.

Sung thought that training in brain respiration methods would allow kids to be able to “feel” colors—without, of course, using their eyes. He said that KIBS-trained kids could, while blindfolded, hold colored cards in their hands and correctly identify the color of those cards by touch. Sung had a promotional video tape from KIBS showing these miracles.

He brought the tape to my apartment and we watched it. The tape was in Korean, but Sung provided the translation. It started by showing a batch of children about six to twelve years old attending a brain respiration orientation. Before they knew its secrets, they tried reading the colors of cards blindfolded, but failed. They also tried to stick spoons on their face by “magnetizing” themselves but failed that, too. The kids then underwent training and afterwards could read colors blindfolded and could stick spoons to their faces. There might have been other abilities, but I’ve forgotten them.

I was exasperated by the performance because I thought the kids were obviously cheating. Sung believed they were not. I got a spoon from the kitchen and demonstrated it not sticking. I then “magnetizing” myself and—lo!—the spoon stuck. This is a simple trick, the simplest maybe, of all magic tricks. To get a spoon to stick, simply press it hard so that as large a surface area of the spoon touches your skin as possible. Make sure the bowl sticks outwards. It helps if your skin is not dry. I put mine on my forehead and nose.

I fashioned a blindfold and Sung handed me colored cards. I could easily “feel” their colors by cheating. Blindfold tricks are the next easiest and cheating is so easy a KIBS child could do it. Try it and you’ll find how simple it is to see anything, as long as you’re able to move the object to an advantageous spot, which the KIBS kids could.

I warned Sung that there were two ways to be fooled in psychic tests: the investigator could see things he wanted to see but weren’t there, and the person under study could cheat, knowingly or not. Psychic phenomena are supposed to occur by other than normal means, but most people do not appreciate how perceptive we are, and how we can sense subtle clues from our environment that might not allow us to, for example, say exactly what object is held in an opaque bag, but will let us guess better than randomly.

The temptation to cheat is strong, especially in kids, who are anxious to please adults and who enjoy praise when successful.

The stronger an experimenter wants to believe the more likely he will miss clues that his subjects are cheating, or to dismiss the times he did catch his subjects cheating as aberrations, or even as necessary to “relieve testing stress.” This has happened countless times in psychic testing.

In short, psychic tests are difficult because you have to work hard to eliminate all possible avenues of sensory leakage, remove the subtle clues that people unconsciously use, and make it impossible for cheating to occur.

You already believe [in brain respiration], I told Sung, but others do not. The only way to convince outsiders that brain respiration was real was to produce incontrovertible evidence of its abilities under the strictest possible conditions. Sung agreed with this.

I told him that if a controlled experiment succeeded, I would be willing to believe in brain respiration, but given my experience with situations like this, I did not think it would work.

Then came my big warning. I explained what happens when people who believe strongly in psychic powers are presented with positive evidence that the powers are false. They refuse to acknowledge that evidence. They dismiss it, explain it away, insist it is flawed, or a fluke. In no way do they lessen their belief in their power; if anything, their belief strengthens.

They also blame others for the failure.

Sung said none of this would happen. He was confident that the KIBS trained kids would pass any test, and was excited about the prospect of demonstrating to the world the amazing possibilities of Dahn Yoga and brain respiration and training.

I said, OK, I would design the experiment.

2. STUDY DESIGN

As I mentioned, it is crucial to design a test that eliminates all possibility and suspicion of cheating. If the KIBS kids were going to demonstrate extraordinary powers, I had to be sure they could not use any of their ordinary powers.

Luckily, this is easy to do for this kind of alleged ability. Blindfolds were definitely out, because nobody would ever—or should ever—believe results from a blindfold test. It is just too easy to cheat.

Still, Sung said that the kids were trained using blindfolds, were comfortable with them, and would like the chance to demonstrate their talents with them. I agreed to this, for one because there was no other way—they insisted on the blindfold demonstration—but also because a contrast between a way in which it was possible to cheat and one in which it was not would strengthen the evidence if the test failed.

Here, in our original draft of the experimental protocol, is what Sung and others said about brain respiration:

Throughout history, unusual skills have been claimed to occur as a by-product of meditative training. “Brain Respiration” (BR) is a mind-body training program that has been practiced by nearly one million persons in South Korea, Japan, North and South America, and Europe since the early 1980s, as a means to maximize brain function for the purpose of peace. More recently, the curriculum of this practice has included methods for developing “heightened sensory perception” (HSP). HSP is a putative perceptual faculty that allows identification of colors, shapes, letters or other forms of information without use of vision. HSP is described as a normal but relatively neglected neural capacity present in all humans. Use of HSP is felt to facilitate emotional and moral development, as well as to assist in discriminating among competing items of mutually exclusive information. Children are said to be more easily trained in HSP because of their fewer preconceptions against the possibility of such skills, as well as their greater neuroplasticity.

A draft document was written explaining the protocol to which all members agreed. That document was authored by Sung W. Lee, M.D., M.Sc., Instructor, Weill Medical College, Cornell University; Joseph Ingelfinger, M.D., Instructor, Harvard Medical School.; William M Briggs, PhD., Assistant Prof. of Biostatistics, Weill Medical College, Cornell U.; JooRi Jun, B.S., Director of Special Projects, Korea Institute of Brain Science; Ul-Soon Lee, Vice President and Chief HSP Instructor, Korea Institute of Brain Science; Chang-Su Ryu, Director of Research, Korea Institute of Brain Science; Ilchi Lee, PhD. (honorary only), President, Korea Institute of Brain Science.

Overall

The test was to be in two phases: blindfold, and opaque envelope. Three Korean-national boys, aged 10 to 15, would take part. They were flown in a week before the test to acclimate to the new time and place. None were to take part in the test unless they expressed confidence they could perform.

During the blindfold phase, the kids would be handed cards and had to guess their colors. All in the audience could see the colors of the cards. The kids could take as long as they wanted, move in any way they wanted, eat chocolates or other candy, stand up and do exercises, until they were comfortable enough to take a guess.

In the opaque envelope phase, the kids took off the blindfolds and were presented with colored cards inside sealed envelops. The kids again could move around, eat, even talk to anybody they wanted. The only stipulation was that the envelope had to remain in sight on the table. They could take as long as they wanted until they were comfortable enough to take a guess.

During both phases, a separate proctor would watch each child. I recruited fellow professor of statistics Mark Glickman [new site] from Boston University to be one proctor. Sung found two others, both physics graduate students. I was to watch the proctors, and Sung ran the experiment.

When a child announced his guess, the proctor would hold up either the card or envelope and repeat the color. For example, if the child said “blue” (they spoke English for the color names), the proctor would say, “Blue?” or “Did you say blue?” The child could either confirm or change his mind. Once the entire audience, proctor, and child were satisfied that the guess was indeed “blue”, the proctor would record the guess on a piece of paper, and then the child would be told if he was correct or the envelope would be opened and revealed to all. The true color was then recorded on paper, and the next test would begin. If the kid got the color right, it was recorded as a “hit” else it was a “miss.” By agreement, if the kid did not know the color that trial was set to a “miss”.

After all the guesses were complete, then and there we would announce the results. We did not want anybody to go away not knowing what had happened.

The KIBS trainers were in charge of fashioning and fitting the blindfolds. Neither the proctors nor I verified their opacity or integrity. The blindfold phase was explicitly meant to be a “warm up” and would not be used as the official test results. Only the opaque envelope phase of the test was to be counted towards or against proof of HSP.

Sung and I agreed that either or both of us could write or publish anything we wanted about the test. I was very clear about this because of my concern of what might happen in the test was a failure. Our agreement was a gentleman’s one—and Sung is a gentleman—so there was and is no need of him to have written out a legal document.

Envelopes phase

Each child was to be presented with 12 cards contained in opaque envelopes. The cards were various colors: yellow, red, etc. Before the test, Dr S. Lee and I went to several office supply stores in order to find adequate envelopes. I held each sample envelope up to a 60-watt bulb to ensure there was no way they could be seen through. Once we were satisfied with the choice, Dr Lee ordered a large batch from a manufacturer in New Jersey. A quantity of these were sent to Korea by Dr S. Lee for the children to practice on. I took the rest. The envelopes were 65# grey, 6×9 inches, and colored paper card stock was cut to just fit inside each envelope. The example envelopes and colored stock were sent to Korea at least three weeks prior to the experiment, and none of these samples were used for the actual experiment.

I generated a random list of cards using the R statistical software platform. It picked the numbers 1 through 6, assigned each number to a color (1 was always “red”, for example), and then listed those colors. Computer random number generators take as initial input a “seed”, a large integer that is used to commence the sequence. I wrote the code to produce the numbers but I did not know the seed.

I gave the program to my number two son and he picked a seed, ran the program and generated the list. Then he and my number one son stuffed each of the envelopes. I did not know, before or during the test, which envelope held which color. My two sons remained in New York City while I made the trip to Boston. They sealed, in a separate envelope, the randomization sheet, which matched each envelope, which were numbered, with the colors generated by the computer. I did not open this envelope until after the experiment was over.

These precautions were necessary to ensure that there was no way I could offer any visual clues, consciously or not, to the kids during the experiment. They could not look to me to see whether their “Maybe blue?” guesses were right or not. The only two people in the world who knew the contents of the envelopes were nowhere near Boston, nor did they have any communication with anybody about the contents of those envelopes.

To be clear, the randomization procedure could have produced a list of cards that was, for example, all red, or “yellow, blue, yellow, blue,…” There was no way to know in advance—or during the test—what sequence would show itself to the kids. As it turned out, the list looked “random”, that is, it presented an equal mix of all 6 colors.

Each envelope was “licked” and then liberally glue-sticked closed. My sons and I experimented with this to see if we could find a way to cheat by, say, picking the corner loose and peeking inside. Of course, we cannot guarantee that cheating was impossible, but we felt it was extremely unlikely.

I had, and have, no idea how the kids used the envelopes to practice in Korea, but I could sense surprise when the envelopes proved difficult to open, even by the proctors.

Statistics

Calculating probabilities of “hits” and “misses” in this experiment is particularly easy. Since there is a 1 in 6 chance of getting any card right just by guessing, we can then calculate the probability, over 12 trials, the probability of 0 hits, 1 hit, 2 hits, and so on up to 12. For example, the KIBS people were confident that the kids would get around 10 hits each. The probability of guessing by chance 10 or more cards right is about 8 x 10^-7, or about 1 in 1.3 million, odds sufficiently low to give evidence that brain respiration worked if the kids scored that high.

For reference, the probability of scoring at least K hits out of 12 guesses is

K Prob(Hits >= K | 1/6 chance)
0 1
1 0.89
2 0.62
3 0.32
4 0.13
5 0.036
6 0.0079
7 0.0013
8 0.00016
9 1.3 x 10^-5
10 7.9 x 10^-7
11 2.8 x 10^-8
12 4.6 x 10^-10

However, do not forget that we are testing 3 kids, not just one. Imagine we are testing 1 million such kids. Do you think it would be unusual if at least 1 of those million got 10 or more hits? No. In fact, there is a 54% chance that at least 1 will score 10 or greater. Thus, we wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen. In our case, there is probability of 2.4 x 10^-6 that at least 1 kid will score 10 or greater. Still low enough that it would be surprising enough if it happened.

(To learn how to calculate these kinds of probabilities, turn to Chapters 3 and 5 of that wonderful book Breaking the Law of Averages: Real-Life Probability and Statistics in Plain English.)

[Obviously, my thinking on probabilities of this kind have greatly changed, and I would now do things differently. But, as we shall see, these niceties didn’t really matter.]

3. THE EXPERIMENT

The test was filmed by several cameras, mostly from the KIBS people (I have been unable to find any videos on line). The KIBS staff itself was large, about a dozen or two. The public was not barred from filming or photographing any part of the proceedings, and many did. I did not meet many people, but I was told prominent physics and medicine professors from Harvard and MIT were invited, as were other “thought leaders”. There were about forty people not from KIBS in attendance.

There were snacks and drinks provided. I set up in a corner and tried to be be non-obtrusive. From what I could gather from the chatter, the audience was anxious but expected good things. Everybody, staff included, was all smiles. Each kid was more adorable than the last, and we were all pulling for them.

Ilchi Lee gave a standard opening speech in Korean, which was simultaneously translated by Sung Lee. Sung also gave a speech explaining the history and goals of brain respiration and what was expected that night. I was introduced, as were the proctors, but none of us spoke.

Sung explained that, in practice, the kids had hit rates of 80-90% with the test envelopes during the previous two weeks. As I said before, I have no clear idea how they did these unsupervised trials. We were thus expecting each kid to guess about 10 more envelopes correctly.

Sung outlined the experimental protocol, assured the audience we would see some special that night, and the test began.

Blindfold phase

The three kids sat together at a table, but only one at a time was blindfolded. Not surprisingly, the kids got all the blindfold guesses correct. I’m pretty sure they didn’t peek down their nose, though they could have peeked above them because they held the cards up high in the air to indicate that they were ready to announce their guess.

But they didn’t have to peek to cheat. I and two other proctors, who also had experience in magic, felt that the kids were cluing each other (the third proctor admitted the possibility but did not care to guess); which is to say they were either telling the blindfolded kid openly what color card he held, or using other signaling methods. There were certainly countless ways the kids could have communicated to each other. All in the room could see the card except the blindfolded kid. The kids were fairly close to one another and they were allowed to move about and talk when the other of them was blindfolded. I’m fairly sure on the kids and the KIBS staff spoke Korean, so there was no way for the proctors to definitively know what was said. I suggested to one Sung about the potential ways the kids might have cheated, and that there were ways that we can check this. But he was not interested in finding out.

Interestingly, a good portion of the audience cheered and applauded when the correct guesses were revealed. One woman, not affiliated with KIBS, was moved to tears.

This phase of the experiment went exactly as I had expected it to. The kids in that KIBS tape we watched never missed when wearing blindfolds, and neither did they now in front of an audience.

Envelopes phase

After a five-minute pause, the main trial began. As mentioned, each kid had a separate proctor, and I watched from the sidelines. The kids took up to 20 minutes for each guess, announced his guess in English, the proctor repeated the guess, the kid confirmed it loud enough for all to hear, the proctor wrote down the guess then checked the envelope for holes or tears which would have allowed the kid to cheat, then the proctor opened the envelope and wrote down the actual color.

We never found any holes, though one kid’s envelopes were consistently wet as if he tried to lick them and perhaps allow a tear—but the paper was too thick to allow him to see anything. The dampness could also have been sweat as this kid occasionally held the cards to his face tightly. He might have also been trying to see through the envelope as he consistently pressed the envelope to his face and pointed his face towards the ceiling lights. But my prior tests of directly holding the envelopes on the surface of an incandescent light bulb assured that it would not be possible to see through the envelope using a ceiling-mounted fluorescent bulb.

The first set of cards took about eight minutes. The kids grunted and sweat, ate come chocolates, did some exercises, and announced their guesses—not all at once, but when each was ready individually.

There was tension in the room when the first kid spoke his guess. The proctor confirmed it and then began to open the envelope. Remember, nobody, not me, not anybody, knew what the card’s color was going to be. People held their breath. I held my breath.

It was a miss. The color did not match the kid’s guess.

No problem, 35 more cards to go.

After a few more misses—and open groans and even hand wringing—there was finally a hit, followed by applause and cheers. Had things finally turned around?

Most of the guesses were wrong, and the pressure started to mount on the kids. Each kid was to get 12 envelopes, and by chance we’d expect they’d get 2 or so correct. But the hits—the correct guesses—were slow in coming.

The kids knew they were failing, the audience had become mostly silent, or sat quietly talking to one another. The kids began to get up more, ate even more candy, exercised more. But no change. Most guesses were misses.

Eventually, after it became clear that nothing more was going to happen, Sung told me he was going to stop the experiment out of concern for the kids’ anxiety. The remaining trials would be marked down as misses, as per the protocol.

Sung stepped up and announced the trial’s ending. The audience understood, and clearly felt for the kids.

One kid did 7 trials, the other two did 6 before the experiment was stopped. They were scheduled to do 12 trials each. They got 4 hits during these 19 trials, right what chance would predict: kid one got 1, kid two got 1, kid three got 2.

Before the trial started, KIBS staff members were confident each kid would get at least 10 out 12 hits.

Immediate sequel

Because the test was a failure, the oldest kid wanted to do another blindfold demonstration. I should not have allowed it as it was not part of the official protocol agreed to before the test. But I weakened and said Okay.

This demonstration went the same as before: he got both new cards right. It was then suggested be a proctor that all three kids be blindfolded at once, and that, respectfully, no noise be made. This was because the Sung and the KIBS people finally took seriously our suggestion that the kids were cuing each other when one was blindfolded and the others were not.

I still didn’t love this idea because there were many other people in the room who could have cheated if they wanted to (the KIBS staff, audience members, and so on), but the audience insisted on it. Again, I should not have allowed this, but I was weak.

Only kids two and three attempted a reading, but all were blindfolded anyway. In the previous blindfold demonstration, each kid made their guesses in under a minute. This time—when none of the kids could see each other—it took about five to seven minutes until kid number three started to complain of a stomachache. And so, even the last blindfold demonstration was called off with no guesses made.

The end

The evening ended with both Sung Lee and Dr. Ilchi Lee giving rambling, long, impromptu speeches saying things like, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”, they hoped that more trials would be done, none of us really understood what is going on, and something about “mysterious Z-rays that are absorbed or emitted by the human brain.” [Yes, really.]

None of it made any sense, and the audience began shifting their traps, clearly ready to leave.

Nobody from KIBS spoke to me after the test. I walked out with Mark Glickman and said goodbye.

Except for Sung Lee, that was the last time I talked to any KIBS member.

4. AFTERMATH

The test was clearly a failure, the kids bombed. The only time they succeeded was when the opportunity—and temptation—for cheating was available. It was not just that they couldn’t read the colors inside the envelopes—though the KIBS people claimed they could in Korea, and all sides agreed to the experimental protocol—but they could not read the cards when all three kids were blindfolded, taking away the opportunity for cuing.

All evidence, therefore, rationally points to the simplest explanation: HSP is false and the kids cheat. They might cheat with the best of intentions, but it’s still cheating. In other words, with this evidence, it would be irrational to increase your believe that brain respiration is real. It is rational, however, to decrease your belief in it.

Randi

Before the test, I emailed James Randi, a well known expert in designing tests of psychic phenomena. Randi has for years held out the “Million Dollar Challenge”, which will pay to the individual who can demonstrate, under test conditions, any psychic ability, what is now over one million U.S.A. dollars. [I believe that the challenge ended with Randi’s death in 2020.]

My email to Randi was unsolicited (he didn’t know me), so I only gave a sketch of my request. He did not get back to me until the test was over, at which time I emailed him again, briefly outlining what had happened. At no time did I not mean for my sketch to be a complete report of what occurred. But Randi, without my knowledge, published my email on his popular site, with his added interstitial comments, taking me to task for deviating from the protocol and allowing the non-scheduled blindfold trials after the main trial had failed.

He said, “Matt, sympathetic as I am to your situation, you let the kids run away with the situation. That doesn’t happen when I get going on such a test.” Well, Randi is an old man and curmudgeonly, and certainly has had more experience than I ever will, so I accept his criticisms gracefully.

I want to stress that had Randi asked for permission to publish my email, I probably would have given it, but I would have liked the opportunity to be more explicit about what happened. I have had no further communication with Randi since, except that I mailed his educational foundation library a copy of my book (also unsolicited).

It is important also to note that Randi had written negative commentary on Ilchi Lee prior to receiving my email. I didn’t know about these posts until afterwards, but my favorite is the one explaining the $4,000 cost of a small metal turtle that Dahn Yoga followers could purchase and place by the side of their bed to “increase energy flow.”

What happened next was this: some member of Dahn Yoga found Randi’s post of my email and told Dr S. Lee. Sung was furious that I could have published something without his prior knowledge. But the first time I learned that Randi had published my email was from Sung. I told him this, and also said I didn’t care that Randi had posted it, and reminded Sung of our agreement that either of us could publish what we wanted.

Sung stop talking to me and starting communicating with me via email, mostly to dispute my conclusions about the experiment’s results. I suggested to Sung that if the kids truly perform as good as they say they can, that they contact Randi to win that million bucks. This received an emphatic no.

I also suggested that, if I was right, and brain respiration was false, then KIBS was doing the kids harm by encouraging their cheating and subjecting them to stressful situations that they might not understand. This warning fell, as it’s said, on deaf ears.

Sung

A reporter, either present at the MIT trial, or who had heard about it, contacted Cornell’s Public Relations department. The reporter was concerned because there were rumors that Dahn Yoga was a cult. I did not know about these accusations before the experiment.

I was subsequently contacted by Lorie Anderson, who runs this site, which compiled evidence of Dahn Yoga’s less laudatory practices.

I assured Miss Anderson, and my boss, that we ran the MIT experiment unofficially, and that we did not involve Cornell’s name except to give our affiliations for the record. Sung also assured the Public Relations department and our boss of the same thing. This was accepted.

But it was further discovered by officials at Cornell that Sung was running and planning experimental medical trials which used Dahn Yoga as a treatment. His interactions with the Cornell hierarchy became more acrimonious and he, about two months after the MIT experiment, resigned from the Cornell faculty.

Before he left, I tried patching things up with Sung and told him I thought brain respiration was false and why didn’t he? We went back and forth, but I finally said, “Let’s boil it all down to this turtle” (mentioned above). I asked, “Do you really and truly believe it does what it says it does? If so, then you’re a true believer; if not, then you’re willing to accept negative evidence.” He started, “Well, there are things about energy…” and I stopped him. I said, “Okay, you do believe. Let’s leave it at that.”

We shook hands and he left.

I had heard he went out to Arizona to work in a new facility Ilchi Lee was building to develop brain respiration in America. As far as I know, he hasn’t contacted anybody at Cornell since he left; I haven’t heard from him either.

5. CONCLUSION

I lost track of Sung after he left Cornell, and had not given much thought to Dahn Yoga or KIBS for some time. But my memory was jogged when I finally saw somebody in the window of a Dahn Yoga center, which is on my route to the dreaded F train (the yoga center was then on the second floor on the southwest corner of 66th and 3rd in Manhattan).

I did a search and found this video, which shows Dr Sung Won Lee in a conference sponsored by KIBS, held this past summer at the United Nations.

[The original YouTube video, and the account that posted it, no longer exist.]

More on that conference can be found here. [This is now a dead link, unfortunately, and I can’t recall the details of the video and conference, which featured Sung, but it was all much of a muchness with that above.]

Sung uses a lot of words, but says little other than that strong emotions can sometimes cause difficulties, something we have known since the men of Sumner first drank the byproducts of moistened barely. Intriguingly, he mentions that a later speaker will be Antonio Damasio, a best selling author of The Feeling of What Happens and Descartes’ Error. Damasio is a neurologist whose main interest is in consciousness, and is somewhat well known. This means that Ilchi Lee is still reaching out.

And Dahn Yoga and KIBS is going strong.

Pressure

I am not, in any way, an expert of cult behavior and so cannot say too much about this. But a quick search reveals stories like this one, not at all atypical. At the very least, Dahn Yoga practitioners like to put the hard sell on people to spend a lot quickly. Many more links are at Lorie Anderson’s site.

This video is typical of what you will find: link
As is this video and this one. [Alas, all are dead links now.]

The Rick Ross Institute is an “Internet archive of information about cults, destructive cults, controversial groups and movements.” [a href=”https://web.archive.org/web/20010301172445/http://www.rickross.com/”>Wayback.] They have a page on various Dahn Yoga activities that I highly recommend perusing. [Wayback.]

Cult or no? I don’t know, but none of the evidence points to Dahn Yoga being an entirely benign organization.

I worry very much about the kids back in Korea who are undergoing “training” in brain respiration/education methods.

Open Mind

I am often told by proponents of psychic powers that “I should keep an open mind.” That if my mind was “closed” I would never be able to appreciate what they could.

I agree.

An open mind is important. This is why I design and conduct tests like the KIBS kids test. I will not dismiss somebody’s claims out of hand. If the KIBS kids test would have been a success, I would have been willing to believe that the theory behind brain respiration, now called “brain education”, had validity. But the test did not work, and so, rationally, I conclude that brain respiration is yet another failed theory, that it is invalid.

I now ask those who believe in Ilchi Lee to have an open mind. To prove you have it, answer this question: What evidence will convince you that brain respiration/education is false?

To people who believe in ESP, I ask the same thing: What evidence will convince you that ESP is false?

To people who believe in any controversial theory: What evidence will convince you that it is false?

If you find you cannot or do not want to answer this question, then it’s your mind that is closed, it is you that is unwilling to face the truth, it is you that is stuck in old ways of thinking.

I have never yet met a True Believer who gave me an answer.

6. UPDATE

This is new commentary.

Since it’s complicated and tough to keep everything in mind all at once, let’s review the evidence:

  1. KIBS claimed kids could read the colors of cards using their brains (and not eyes) while blindfolded or inside sealed envelopes;
  2. Envelopes used in the test were sent to KIBS well in advance of the experiment, and the kids practiced on them. KIBS claimed the kids could proficiently “see” inside those envelopes;
  3. While one kid at a time was blindfolded, but otherwise unrestrained, the blindfolded kid correctly spoke the color of the card (not inside an envelope) he was holding;
  4. While all three kids were blindfolded at the same time, they could not speak the color of the card (not in envelopes) any was holding;
  5. With no blindfolds, but the cards inside envelopes, the kids guessed very poorly, and well below the target accuracy rate agreed to in advance by KIBS.

It was my weakness in deviating from the protocol that allowed the “experiment” after the official test. But it was then we saw that when all the kids were blindfolded simultaneously, guesses were no longer accurate.

It is, of course, not impossible that KIBS is right about “brain respiration”, and these kids had an off night. Not logically impossible, that is.

But the evidence, taken as a whole, including the background investigation of Ilchi Lee and Dahn Yoga, does not in any way support KIBS.

Yet, you can’t be surprised to learn, many still believe. That is the real matter of interest. Why belief persists (or even why it doesn’t!) in spite of what appears to be conclusive evidence. Not just for “brain respiration”, but any strange belief. Take just three recent manias: global warming of doom, transgenderism, coronadoom “solutions” as panacea.

Predictions of environmental weather doom have been failing since the 1970s, there are no such creatures as “trans” (a biological impossibility), and not one measure has eradicated our favorite respiratory virus (China just locked down Wuhan again after four positive tests! And quadruple-vaccinated Biden tested positive immediately after having gotten over the bug). At the very least, less ardor from believers should be exhibited after all these failures. The opposite is usually true.

Some things, like ESP and cold fusion, have their Days of Glory, and then fade. Love can grow cold for some theories. It’s hard to recall now how big ESP was in the 1970s—I mean in Science, not just the popular culture. It was serious business. (We’ll return to this another day.)

Both subjects did fade, though, as did Dahn Yoga, leaving only tight cores of enthusiasts, and with no real political force.

It’s here we have to study local versus universal truths and the like, which I speak of in Uncertainty and Everything You Believe Is False. But the real difference between something like ESP and global warming of doom is “solutions”. It’s what is downhill from the theories, and not the theories themselves, that drives True Believers.

They want, need, desire, and must fight for those “solutions.” They can’t give up on the theories because then the “solutions” no longer have a Science driver. Our culture can’t point to just desire or even to philosophy for a “solution”; it has to claim Scientific justification for all things (even critical race theorists claim sociology as a science, and Equality is a scientific truism). Once Science is removed from a claim, it doesn’t necessarily die, but it weakens as a political force.

There isn’t really any “solution” for the theory of ESP (and the like), except for some vague universalism or how humanity will evolve into some bright new future. Nor is there any definite “solution” for “brain respiration” or other odd forms of yoga, except on the individual level to stretch oneself to perfect health at infinity, or whatever. So both can be abandoned by most when the negative evidence piles up. It helps that there are many other theories that offer the same or similar “solutions” to take their place.

But for some theories the “solutions” are far too powerful, not necessarily for believers in the theory, but for those pushing the “solutions” politically. It is these actors who keep the theories before the public mind, using every avenue of propaganda they can, and because propaganda works, the public remains faithful to the theories.

We see this in coroandoom. Many of its “solutions” have become less politically viable, or perhaps it’s better to say less profitable. Political actors find other areas which cause their greed or passions to throb, the propaganda for a once-favored “solutions” ceases, the belief in the theory ebbs until it becomes a distant hum. The theories are only rarely pronounced failed, because they might be of use again some day.

I have no solution to offer you, except to restore, to the extent its possible, and at every opportunity, Reality to Science. But don’t hold out too much hope in this climate.

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Categories: Culture, Statistics

21 replies »

  1. “Complementary and Integrative Medicine” is politically correct newspeak for witch doctoring. Not that I have anything against witch doctoring, the only time I was hospitalized, I was cured by voodoo.

  2. It is long … I’ll have to get back to you

    I know, you know, that
    I’m not telling the truth
    I know, you know, they
    just don’t have any proof
    Embrace the deception,
    learn how to bend
    Your worst inhibitions
    tend t5o psych you out in the end … The Friendly Indians

  3. Briggs wrote: “It’s hard to recall now how big ESP was in the 1970s”

    Duke University had a department specializing in ESP that was largely financed by the Department of Defence (“Men Who Stare at Goats” types of stuff). When I was a child, they went around all the elementary schools testing pupils for potential further study. I got one of the highest scores in the school, 17 of 30, I clearly remember. But is wasn’t enough to get me into the program.

    But I do think there is something to ESP. Many times I’ve had the thought of a friend or business colleague across the world and a few minutes later I get the telephone call from them. This happens to a lot of people.

  4. Wow! Thanks for doing that, back then, and thanks for recounting the affair, now. The world needs more Reality-based Statisticians to the Stars! Not many people are willing to take on scammers/conmen/frauds. Kudos.

    A couple of comments and observations:

    Randi: I, too, was a fan of Randi. His schtick of exposing frauds and revealing hoaxsters and fakers was right up my alley, and I saw him as an exemplary force for truth and reality. His treatment of you: “He said, “Matt, sympathetic as I am to your situation, you let the kids run away with the situation. That doesn’t happen when I get going on such a test.” Well, Randi is an old man and curmudgeonly, and certainly has had more experience than I ever will, so I accept his criticisms gracefully.” would seem to be a reflection on his character. And not an attractive reflection.

    The more I learned about Randi, the less I admired him, until he was finally revealed as a gross faker/fraudster himself. Turns out that his long-time homosexual lover, who Randi first put on the stage during a “fraud-revealing” operation in Australia (the young lover, who fraudulently used the name Jose Alvarez during his decade+ cohabitation with the “truth-seeking” magician). Shortly after meeting Randi, Pena used stolen documents and identity to obtain a passport so he could travel with the “fraud-revealing” Randi. Sort of ironic, no? Lauded skeptic and enemy of fraud a co-conspirator in actual criminal fraud. It’s clear Randi knew of the fraud from the beginning, and it’s almost certain that Randi was involved in the document theft and passport fraud (his lover was a 19 year-old penniless art-student at the time).

    https://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/09/magazine/the-unbelievable-skepticism-of-the-amazing-randi.html

    Briggs: “But for some theories the “solutions” are far too powerful, not necessarily for believers in the theory, but for those pushing the “solutions” politically. It is these actors who keep the theories before the public mind, using every avenue of propaganda they can, and because propaganda works, the public remains faithful to the theories.”

    As a prophet of Reality, you nailed it! Just this week we’ve seen revelation of a massive scientific fraud/deceit/deception in billion-dollar “Settled Science” industry. Turns out that the research at the foundation of Alzheimer’s Settled Science (brain plaque, or something) was fake. The entire federal/academic/publishing/pharmaceutical “Science” was all a scam! Just like “climate researchers” who brook no deviation from the Science based on a scam, the entire dementia industry, for 10+ years, attacked and destroyed anyone who dared to deviate from dogma, or to suggest possible alternatives. Drugs were designed, tested, and marketed to “treat” the condition, based on the fraudulent theory!

    https://www.bizpacreview.com/2022/07/31/science-leaders-expect-criminal-charges-for-researchers-involved-in-fraudulent-alzheimers-study-1268273/

  5. Occultist Culture remains vibrant in Korea and among Korean people. A person representing to possess such powers is seldom dismissed outright (or put to the test).
    Doing so might bring bad luck.

    SIDE NOTE ON DESTRUCTIVE CULTS

    The former Japan Prime Minister Abe, Shinzo was assassinated on 8 July 2022 while making a public speech in Nara City. The assassin’s entire family were unfortunate victims of a cult (Toitsu Kyokai) which preys on wealthy Japanese widows. The cult also openly promotes its relations with certain politicians and political organizations – including certain persons tightly connected with Abe, Shinzo.

    ** Below is a video – of a conference held on the subject in Tokyo in the immediate aftermath.
    “The Activities of the Unification Church in Japan”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owNiYsT_Bnc

    ** The senior lawyer at the conference Hiroshi Yamaguchi is a brave and modest man,
    who made it his mission in life to oppose cults which psychologically prey on the elderly.
    I’ve meet with Yamaguich san in person and discussed details of his law practice and his views on predatory (Destructive Cults) occultists in Japanese society generally. Yamaguchi san personally initiated the introduction of strict laws now enforced against Religious Sales in Japan. Briggs presents an typical example above as: {the $4,000 cost of a small metal turtle that Dahn Yoga followers could purchase and place by the side of their bed to “increase energy flow.”}. Yamaguchi asks his clients to pay him a fee of only 10% of any monies he is able to recover for them. This allows funding for psychological rehabilitation for other elderly victims (many of whom are destitute) and abandoned.

  6. Kent

    My biggest disappointment in skeptics was Michael Shermer who lost the thread in 2004 when he became a Global Warming Believer all the way back in 2004.

  7. Why belief survives disproof? Have you read Festinger? (The original – the official line on dissonance has it backwards).

    Nice experiment – maybe one nice way to understand it is to cast the experiment as “lets find out how believers react to disproof..”

  8. Fascinating and timely piece, thanks for posting this update.

    ”Clever readers will notice…”

    Notice what?

    ”…most people do not appreciate how perceptive we are, and how we can sense subtle clues from our environment…”

    A clever dog can seem psychic picking up on subtle clues, as can a horse — witness the famous case of Clever Hans, a horse that could answer complex questions, numerically, by tapping his hoof. Prompted by public amazement, an investigation later determined the horse was picking up on cues from his owner, or even from audience members if the owner was absent.

    ”Yet, you can’t be surprised to learn, many still believe. That is the real matter of interest. Why belief persists (or even why it doesn’t!) in spite of what appears to be conclusive evidence. Not just for “brain respiration”, but any strange belief. Take just three recent manias: global warming of doom, transgenderism, coronadoom “solutions” as panacea.”

    That is the compelling lesson of these past two remarkable years — a shockingly large number of people are susceptible to tendentious nonsense designed to influence their behavior, to their own detriment, and for the benefit of malicious actors. While this was commonly understood to be a possibility in the case of small groups such as Dahn yoga, or the Jim Jones cult, it has been staggering to realize that a huge chunk of Western Civilization has been swallowed up inside one of these malicious cults, and with mad fervor by otherwise intelligent people who willingly make themselves true believers in monstrous nonsense.

    A corollary to that understanding is that this vulnerability in people is not new, and is indeed ancient knowledge, and that the ability to manipulate masses of people is a source of power, and so the methods of manipulation have been long studied, and passed down, by those who would make themselves masters of men. I was quite naive on this point prior to this and would hardly have believed we could be where we are today; watching a desperate gambit by these would-be masters to swallow up the entire world in their crazy cult.

    ”…since the men of Sumner first drank the byproducts of moistened barely.”

    One of your better typos, Briggs. I’m picturing Senator Charles Sumner and his cronies in some seedy cloakroom enjoying “moistened barely”. Much funnier than Sumerians and barley.

  9. By 1984, Bill Murray in the movie “Ghostbusters” was using Rhine Cards, shock aversion conditioning, and overt cheating to cue his audience into his character and career as an academic fraud.

    The movie team clearly remembered how “big ESP was in the 1970s” a decade earlier. And how, by the 1980s, the fad had passed.

  10. Of James Randi, I concede his problems. But I admire at least one strikingly honest report.

    A guy claimed he could identify a piece of music recorded to an LP record, not by playing the record but merely by visually inspecting the pattern of “grooves” in the disc. Randi prepared one his characteristically thorough “debunking” tests. The claim was proved — at least for classical music. (The viewer was no fan of and could not identify popular music albums, especially rock ‘n roll.) LPs can, to a trained eye, be identified by sight alone.

    The thing that struck me was that Randi allowed his “failure to debunk” to be widely published. Gotta hold that up as a good example for any experimentalist. We can’t just publish when we get the results we expect.

  11. Oh my goodness, this reminds me of experiments I did in high school! Like many young women, I really wanted ESP to be possible. Unlike many young people, I had a biology teacher who was certain the Soviets had already proved it was, so he was more interested in the subject than most biology teachers and let me do some experiments for a project. I have no idea what books I used to devise them, but I do remember being quite certain I was doing tests as well-devised as any “real” ones and used various ways to prevent cheating. I tried a number of different experiments, most of which I don’t remember. The one I do remember is the only one that had a result more than chance — and that was only with one person. It was rolling 6 dice in an attempt to get the 6 face to come up more often than it would by chance. I forget how many times each person had to roll them — 36, I assume. The main problem with this experiment is that EVERYONE got bored before finishing it, and this subject refused to do the experiment a second time to see if her result held. Thus ended my career in ESP testing! I got an A, although I’m sure Mr. Argiro was disappointed in the results. The Soviets were still going to come out ahead…

  12. I should perhaps add that my high school experiments were in 1980, so that’s just after the 70s and ESP mania — which was, indeed, a huge deal. Everyone my age grew up reading about it and seeing stories about it on TV. Much as I wanted it to be real (and some of it might be — the only things I have ever found convincing in real life have not been anything like the sideshow stuff touted as “real ESP”) I read books debunking fakes and shoddy “experiments,” and had a friend who kept quoting things from the Skeptical Enquirer, and I had a healthy desire not to be fooled. Like Arthur Conan Doyle, many people are determined to believe even obvious fraudsters.

  13. Robin: “But I do think there is something to ESP. Many times I’ve had the thought of a friend or business colleague across the world and a few minutes later I get the telephone call from them. This happens to a lot of people.”

    How many times have you thought of a friend or business colleague across the world and *not* received a call from them?

  14. Pouncer: “A guy claimed he could identify a piece of music recorded to an LP record, not by playing the record but merely by visually inspecting the pattern of “grooves” in the disc. Randi prepared one his characteristically thorough “debunking” tests. The claim was proved — at least for classical music.”

    Interesting. I can see how that’s possible. The grooves in a record are visible patterns showing musical architecture. The grooves are analogous to music notation on paper. If you know the music well then a visual representation of that music will be discernible. Classical music grooves would be more discernible than pop grooves owing to Classical’s greater complexity of form, making it more distinctive, and identifiable. It’s like finding it more easy to distinguish between Chartres Cathedral, The Pantheon, and the Taj Mahal, than it is telling houses apart in Levittown.

  15. Interesting comments, Mr. Bagpipe. I’d like to add that, in addition to its greater complexity, the greater dynamic range of classical music also results in more distinctive groove differences.

  16. Indeed, Mr. Cotterman. Next time around a collection of LP vinyl records get hairy eyeballs “in the groove”. Start with something easy, like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

  17. @Cloudbuster: That’s the obvious question.

    But when a name just pops into mind, a name that maybe hasn’t crossed one’s mind for a year or two (or more), and the phone rings 3 minutes later, it’s downright spooky. When this happens multiple times …

    If quantum entanglement exists? I’m keeping an open mind.

  18. I have done a bit of research on the ESP thing. I’m more inclined to the hypothesis that there is some kind of mind to mind communication by currently unrecognized/identified mechanisms but it is a very weak effect more to do with synchronization and timing of perceptual information and not any actual transfer of information per se. That is why, I think, some people genuinely see some kind of ESP effect but they’re generally looking in the wrong direction. Sheldrake’s stuff on Morphogenetic Fields is interesting and worth a look but it seems to be a fairly niche interest not required to explain anything much anyone is interested in for practical purposes.

  19. @Robin – Quantum entanglement is nothing more than noting that opposite sides of a fair coin show different faces. What it really states is that sine waves 180 degrees apart are in opposite states, and will remain so. Which is true by definition. No hocus, and certainly no pocus, required.

    The Bell inequality claims to debunk local realism by pitting a sine wave against a square wave, and then showing that they are different. It’s a test purpose designed to show a predetermined conclusion.

  20. Dear Briggs. Psychic bull selection question…. If I pull 20 numbered balls out of a jar containing 100, and do this three times; what are the odds of pulling out 4 balls with the same number on each trial?…. I tried an agricultural version of this, except with bulls not balls and selected the same 4 bulls, out of a total of 89, by observing a video, a photo, and finally each bull in the flesh while trying to winnow the number down to about 1 in 5. The video and photo catalogue originally had 100 bulls and of those put up for sale, I selected 19 by video, 21 by photo and 23 in the flesh. My impression is 4/89 is about right/random and should I ever get into cattle breeding I should avoid the few I don’t like and be happy with any other bull I could afford…. I read Uncertainly for the argument not the pictures and am stumped how to set this up.

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