Söderhamn Municipality Spent ~16 500 USD on Biofeedback Meters

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The Swedish municipality of Söderhamn has recently taken ~16 500 USD that were suppose to be used for integration projects and instead spent it on a project called Coherent City. This project involves the use of 60 “biofeedback meters” that measure heart rate variability and use it in an “inner balance” study using earlobe attachments and smartphones.

The people behind Coherent City claim that this method improves “inner balance” that results in “syncing between the heart and brain” and allow people to “use more of their brain capacity and can even lead to “societal transformation”. Ultimately, they make the astonishing assertion that they can make entire cities “coherent”. In their various claims about “coherence” on their website and materials, they draw a wide range of topics, such as the earth’s magnetic field, quantum mechanics and “structured water”. Most of the statements on their website are phrased as questions and they even admit in a Q&A section that their entire construct of “coherence” is not based on evidence. What is really going on here?

What happened?

The Swedish municipality of Söderhamn is located in the Gävleborg County north of the Stockholm capital. In the wake of the refugee crisis in Syria and surrounding countries, the Swedish municipality of Söderhamn is funding various kinds of integration projects. Yet, not all of these projects appear to involve integration and some of them seems to be based on nothing but pseudoscientific nonsense and quackery.

The municipality took 150 000 Swedish kroner (~16 500 USD) and gave it to an organization called “Coherent City”. What is this project and what is it trying to accomplish? Well, according to their website and introduction video, the company was founded in 2015 and the aim is to make Söderhamn city transform into a “coherent” city “in balance”. How will they accomplish this? Well, they want to set up an experiment with 60 participants to “test” their ideas.

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What is “Coherent City” claiming?

The video claims that “coherence” means that the body achieves a consistency with itself, which they video defines as “heart and brain being synced up”. Most science-minded people can easily see through all of this as meaningless neurobabble: the brain and heart are always connected and work in different ways, so there is really nothing to “sync up” in a clinically meaningful way.

They even promise that achieving “coherence” allows people to “use more of their brain capacity”. This is based on the disproved myth that humans only use a small proportion of their total brain capacity (typically 10% or so) and that if they could unlock some hidden inner potential, they could boost this working brain capacity. In reality, humans use all of their brain capacity all the time. There are no parts of the brain that are inactive. That would mean that such parts of the brain are dead, because living human cells are always active. They cannot form spores. Popular science treatments of brain scan results often claim that some action is linked to activity in some part of the brain, but these experiments uses a control condition that they take away from the experimental group, so those pretty brain scans only show the differences between conditions, not evidence that considerable parts of the brain are “inactive”.

They also push the myth of “structured water” (similar to the ionized water idea that has already been debunked). In reality, those kinds of products involve ionizing some water and changing its pH. But because the body has multiple robust systems for regulating pH in the body, it will have no effect on health.

How is their project advertised and funded?

The Coherent City project make use of deceptive language in their advertisement. In particular, they shy away from making clear claims, but instead rely on modifiers (such as “imagine the results when”) and phrase their claims as questions. This is likely used as a psychological technique to push certain claims, while hoping that viewers forget that they were phrased as questions instead of assertions and as a protection against critics. After all, they are merely “asking questions”, right?

Other groups that have funded Coherent City (besides the Söderhamn municipality) include KAMBUA (a bank that promises implausible extreme returns on invested capitals) and Sparbanksstiftelsen. The latter is treated as an actual entity, but it is really just a name for a type of foundation that is involved in owning a bank that is transformed from one kind of bank to another). In other words, the other funding sources for Coherent City is a bit unclear and potentially suspect.

How does the company justify their ideas?

The project leader said in an interview with the Swedish Public Television that (my translation):

The autonomous nervous system of the body consists of the parasympathetic and the sympathetic system, a stress system and a relax system. With breathing exercises that have been known for a long time, one calms the body. This biofeedback system really supports this kind of breathing and focus exercises so that we achieve a good state.

The project leader appears to be using some basic facts about the nervous system to impress people when all the idea really says is that you can use some exercises to calm down and that the biofeedback products they sell are useful for this. It is unclear what is new, exciting or revolutionary about that. Why do their company even exist?

A psychologist representative for the Swedish Skeptics Association rejects their claims as either false or uninteresting (my translation):

This is pure nonsense. It is astonishing that someone has managed to convince people of this. Praise to the person who has managed to sell this, it is surely a very talented seller. […] This is an clear example of pseudoscience. It is also a tragic example since money is being taken that were suppose to be used for integration. […] If you breath in a certain way and are focused, you will be calmer. We know this already, we do not need to research it.

How does the project leader respond to this kind of skeptical criticism? He pulls out standard pseudoscientific debating strategies that are well-known about skeptics (my translation):

Through what I have read and my own experiences, I believe this. No researcher can take that away from me, that is the thing that is most important to me and I think that is the case for those that participate as well. There are always skepticism against new areas that have not become evidence-based yet. Sometimes, it goes overboard, but how things look is up to the people who make statements.

The project leader primarily relies on personal anecdotes and the “it works for me” gambit. However, personal anecdotes are tricky. There is no way to reliably attribute them to a specific cause because it is not part of a controlled experiment and there is no way to know how much they can generalized. He also references things that he has read, but does not cite any references. He repeats the common trope that his area is being oppressed by those nasty skeptics, yet clearly admits that the entire are are not evidence-based. A similar admission occurs in the Q&A section on their website (my translation):

Coherence and coherence training is an umbrella term for inner balance and does not have a scientific evidence but is used as a concept in biofeedback to train your inner balance.

(The phrase “a scientific evidence” (“en vetenskaplig evidens”) occurs in the original.)

So there is a weird contradiction: on the one hand, Coherent City promises to make an entire city “coherent”, but now admit that there is no real evidence that this is even possible for individuals.

How does the municipality justify throwing ~16 500 USD at it?

Individual projects have not been reviewed on a case-by-case basis and there has been no political decision taken to fund the Coherent City project. Instead, the decision appears to have been taken by civil servants working at the business unit of the municipality. The head of the municipal council claims to trust the civil servants who made this decision, but admits that the integration projects were of varying qualities.

The business developer at the municipality completely ignores the problems highlighted by the Swedish Skeptics Association and delivers some empty phrases about how “if you do the way you have always done you might get the same results that you have always gotten, but here we are given the opportunity to do things a little bit differently and this thing with Coherent City is one thing. We try, which is not always that easy at the municipality, to do things in a different way”. When the reporter asked him if he really believes this stuff, he replies “absolutely”.

So in essence, it looks like this funding decision was taken by civil servants with an extremely poor basis for which to make these kinds of decisions. It was not a political decisions and could have involved lobbying from the company. Because the project is not based on any real scientific evidence and the people behind it push very common pseudoscientific claims, it is very unfortunate that so much money was spent on nonsense that could have gone to useful societal projects.

Emil Karlsson

Debunker of pseudoscience.

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