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thought field therapy

Thought field therapy (TFT) is a New Age psychotherapy dressed up in the garb of traditional Chinese medicine. It was developed in 1981 by Dr. Roger Callahan, a cognitive psychologist. While treating a patient for water phobia:

He asked her to think about water, tap with two fingers on the point that connected with the stomach meridian and much to his surprise, her fear of water completely disappeared.*

Callahan attributes the cure to the tapping, which he thinks unblocked "energy" in her stomach meridian. I don't know how Callahan got the idea that tapping on a particular point would have anything to do with relieving a phobia, but he claims he has developed taps for just about anything that ails you, including a set of taps that can cure malaria (NPR interview).

TFT allegedly "gives immediate relief for post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD ), addictions, phobias, fears, and anxieties by directly treating the blockage in the energy flow created by a disturbing thought pattern. It virtually eliminates any negative feeling previously associated with a thought."*

The theory behind TFT is that negative emotions cause energy blockage and if the energy is unblocked then the fears will disappear. Tapping acupressure points is thought to be the means of unblocking the energy. Allegedly, it only takes five to six minutes to elicit a cure. Dr. Callahan claims an 85% success rate. He even does cures over the phone using "Voice Technology" on infants and animals; by analyzing the voice he claims he can determine what points on the body the patient should tap for treatment. 

For $145 and one day of your time, Dr. Callahan's staff will train you to successfully treat people suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, trauma, phobias and addictions. The training is restricted to "licensed or certified mental health, medical professionals, social workers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, or homeopathic physicians actively employed in their field." 

For $280 and two days of your time, Dr. Callahan's staff will train you to also successfully treat people with obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and panic attacks.

For $100,000 you can take Voice Technology Training and have the whole world as your clientele:

This is a customized training course consisting of three-full days at the Thought Field Therapy Training Center in La Quinta, CA, one-on-one with Dr. Roger Callahan, the founder and developer of TFT and the revolutionary Voice Technology. The course includes the tools and technology necessary to practice TFT Voice Technology and includes three years of follow-up support. A TFT Voice Technology practitioner has the potential for the whole world as their clients.

Dr. Callahan has a theory that thoughts have fields and these fields have an effect on the body. He also claims that there is a one-to-one correspondence (isomorphism) between  perturbations caused by negative emotions and specific energy meridian points on the body. He claims to know the exact algorithm (where to tap) for each kind of perturbation. How he knows any of this is not clear, though it appears he made up the theory to fit with ancient Chinese beliefs in chi and meridians, and he seems to have figured out the algorithms by trial and error. He seems not to have done any controlled studies to rule out confirmation bias and self-deception. He relies on anecdotes to support his beliefs and hence he cannot be sure that the effects he observes are not due to standard cognitive therapy techniques (including having the patient think about what frightens him or her) rather than to the tapping on particular pressure points.

Monica Pignotti says she took Callahan's training and became a believer but then did a controlled experiment in which she treated half her patients with taps on the places taught by Callahan and the other half by tapping at random places. She says she got the same (good) results with both groups,  which suggests that the power of suggestion (the placebo effect) is what is really at work here.

According to psychologist Scott O. Lilienfeld, "there's virtually no research whatsoever in published journals [on TFT]. Almost all of the supposed research rests on anecdotes, case studies, testimonials, or, in a few cases, controlled studies that are so poorly done as to be almost not interpretable." James Herbert, a psychology professor at Drexel University, claims that the "scientific status of thought field therapy is basically nonexistent" and there is "no evidence it does what it claims to do."

Callahan seems to have discovered what shamans and witch doctors have known for ages. Bob Park explains very simply and clearly how the placebo effect works in contexts like TFT:

People seek out a doctor when they experience discomfort or when they believe that something about their body is not right. That is, they suffer pain and fear. The response of the brain to pain and fear, however, is not to mobilize the body's healing mechanisms but to prepare it to meet some external threat. It's an evolutionary adaptation that assigns the highest priority to preventing additional injury. Stress hormones released into the bloodstream increase respiration, blood pressure, and heart rate. These changes may actually impede recovery. The brain is preparing the body for action; recovery must wait.

The first objective of a good physician, therefore, is to relieve stress. That usually involves assuring patients that there is an effective treatment for their condition and that the prospects for recovery are excellent—if they will just follow the doctor's instructions. Since we recover from most of the things that afflict us, the brain learns to associate recovery with visits to the doctor. Most of us start to feel better before we even leave the doctor's office. (Park 2000: 50-51.)

Like the folk healers of old, Callahan thinks it is his magic that is effecting cures at lightning speed. That his cures are long-lasting is dubious because there is a lack of follow-up studies to support this notion. One lady on the NPR program whose anxiety was relieved temporarily by TFT blamed herself for the lack of lasting peace of mind. She wasn't tapping herself enough, she said.

See also acupuncture, chi, EMDR, Occam's razor, and yin and yang.

reader comments

further reading


Park, Robert L. Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud (Oxford U. Press, 2000).


"Can We Really Tap Our Problems Away? A Critical Analysis of Thought Field Therapy" by Brandon A. Gaudiano and James D. Herbert, Skeptical Inquirer July/Aug 2000

The Search for the Holy Grail: Heart Rate Variability and Thought Field Therapy Ä James D. Herbert and Brandon A. Gaudiano

APA no longer approves CE sponsorship for Thought Field Therapy

Psychological Treatments to Avoid

news stories

Unorthodox Therapy in New Orleans Raises Concern by Alix Spiegel NPR 3/30/06

Last updated 07-Nov-2015

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