Your Friday Dose of Woo: Eat the sun?

With the utter ridiculousness of the arguments laid down by Dr. Oz when Steve Novella appeared on his show and the even more ridiculous silliness of J.B. Handley thinking that Matt Carey, a.k.a. Sullivan, is really Bonnie Offit, I had originally thought that I should find some peer-reviewed scientific article today to do a sober, serious analysis of some cool bit of science. Hey, it sounded like a good idea. Then I finished my day, which was my clinic day, and I was simply too tired to summon up the effort it would take to go through a paper, analyze it, and write up that analysis for the edification of my breathlessly waiting fans.

OK, plan B, then.

My original plan B was to do a post about some of the antics going on in the anti-vaccine movement. The last couple of weeks have been busier than usual on that score, but then I paused again. Think about it. What could anyone else in the anti-vaccine movement be doing that’s any more ridiculous than what happened to J.B. Handley when Sullivan “outed” himself and a minor blogswarm erupted to demand that he put up or shut up about his promise to give up the domain and never mention Dr. Offit publicly again? Not much, I daresay, although it wouldn’t surprise me if soon something even more ridiculous than J.B.’s latest embarrassment were to occur. It is, after all, the anti-vaccine movement we’re talking about.

OK, then plan C.

I was wondering what plan C should be when what to my wondering eyes should appear in my e-mail in box but the perfect remedy for blogging indecision. There, sitting right in my in box from a P.R. flack named Alexis Cohen of Morning Sky Public Relations. Alexis was promoting a documentary called Eat the Sun (Twitter, Facebook), whose tagline appeared to be, “Is it possible?” Well, I had no idea because I didn’t know what “it” is. Was “it” possible that I didn’t give a rodential posterior about Eat the Sun? More than possible. Then I perused a bit of the movie site and realized that in offering to send me a screener copy of the movie he might well have done me a huge favor.

He gave me a beautiful target topic that gave me an excuse to resurrect Your Friday Dose of Woo!

So what in the movie is so YFDoW-worthy? Well, first check out the trailer:

It’s all about something called “sun gazing.” Basically, the idea is to stare directly into the sun for as long as possible with the idea being that somehow you can absorb the sun’s energy that way. Basically, the trailer shows a bunch of people staring into the sun with blank looks on their faces, like so many human plants trying to absorb energy by photosynthesis. Of course, human beings don’t generally absorb enough energy to keep their bodies going that way. The promotional materials on the movie’s website describe the story of Mason, who has discovered the “ancient” (of course!) practice of sungazing:

San Francisco, CA 2004: A flyer at school advertising a lecture by an elderly Indian gentleman sparks the imagination of a young man named Mason. The flyer reads: “You can become solar powered.” It also states that the Indian man giving the lecture, who goes by the acronym HRM, has not eaten in over 8 years, a direct result of sungazing.

Intrigued, Mason begins this simple practice along with a few other classmates. Everyday, in accordance with HRM’s protocol, they stand barefooted on the bare earth looking directly into the sun and every day they add 10 seconds to their sungazing time. The goal, according to HRM, is to reach 44 consecutive minutes of looking directly at the sun — which could take 9 to 12 months to achieve — at which time one would be “fully charged”, meaning not only cured of all mental and physical ailments but also now without the desire or need to eat food.

In many ancient civilizations — from the Incas and Aztecs to the Greeks and Egyptians – this practice was exclusive to only the high priests and forbidden for ‘ordinary’ people. Today, with the help of the Internet, this revived practice is gathering global momentum.

Modern day sungazers claim a multitude of health benefits including better eyesight, enhanced vitality, weight loss and, in some more profound cases, a complete loss of the desire and need to eat food. The main theory of how this is possible focuses on the stimulation of the pineal gland from direct sunlight entering the brain via the eye – the only external expression of the brain – and traveling along the retinal-hypothalamic tract.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The pineal gland does indeed produce melatonin in response to changes in light, and melatonin is known to be important in a wide variety of bodily functions in mammals, including reproduction, sleep-wake cycles and other phenomena showing circadian rhythm. Whether staring into the sun at sunset and sunrise has anything to do with pineal gland function and melatonin levels is possible, but any connection between such putative changes and all the health benefits claimed is dubious at best, ridiculous at worst. In any case, apparently sungazers have a goal of reaching 44 straight minutes of staring into the sun, a goal they approach by starting with short periods of time doing it and then working up to 44 minutes over weeks and months. At this point, the sungazer becomes “fully charged,” like some sort of solar battery. Some even claim not to need food anymore.

Indeed, one of the main characters featured in Eat the Sun is HRM, an Indian man who claims he has not eaten in 8 years as a result of sungazing. He claims not to need to. His name is Hira Ratan Manek, and he makes a number of spectacular claims, the most amazing and difficult to believe of which is his claim that he does not need ot eat, that he can exist solely on the energy of the sun. He’s prominently featured on a website called Sunlightenment. He can also be found on YouTube in multiple videos. Here is one example:

And what does being “fully activated mean”? What wondrous powers will I get if I start staring into the sun every morning and evening? To find out, I wandered over to HRM’s own website:

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. Unfortunately, these infinite inherent powers are programmed in that part of the brain that is largely dormant and goes unused. Even medical science agrees we hardly make use of the brain but about 5-7% – the most brilliant of humans like Albert Einstein is reported to have used only about 32% of their brains.

If we can activate the human brain and awaken these infinite powers inherent in ourselves then we can raise ourselves to higher levels. We can achieve any results we want. 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.

So, how do you do go about realizing the claimed benefits of this most…enlightened of woos? Here’s how:

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 will go away. This is just the beginning, but what a beautiful beginning it is. Life will 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 effect on your perception of the world.

At about 25-30 minutes (6-7 months) of sungazing, your hungers will 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.

Between 35 and 40 minutes (9-10 months) of sungazing physical disharmonies, injuries, and diseases will be remedied. Also your hunger for food will 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.

Yes! I want my brain to be fully charged! I want it to be so charged that I can shoot lightning bolts out of my fingers like a Taser (or like the Emperor at the end of Return of the Jedi). Of course, the latent 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. Then I thought about it for a minute and restrained my geekitude. After all, HRM’s 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 few remaining physics 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 animals that eat the plants.) The brain and eyes are a truly wondrous organs, but sadly neither are capable 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.

It is claimed that HRM was part of a 411 day medical study in which he did not eat. As you might imagine, I’m rather…skeptical of this claim. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the claims of yogis, Breatharians, and various other cranks who claim to be able to exist without eating are almost always never well documented, as described here.

And as Randi points out here and in this video:

I tend to liken the evaluation of claims of breatharianism, sungazing, or other claims that human beings can live without food or water and exist only air or the energy of the sun to prior probability in science-based medicine. For example, we know in great detail how humans produce energy from food, how much food people need to survive, and the metabolism through which humans produce energy from food. We know that humans don’t have chlorophyll or the biochemical machinery to use the energy of the sun–and even plants need nutrients. Cut off a plant’s source of nitrogen and water long enough, and eventually it will die. Based on our understanding of biochemistry and physiology, the prior probability that a human being can exist indefinitely without food and water is on the same level of ridiculousness as the claims of homeopathy. One thing you’ll notice whenever you read about “scientific” investigations of these charlatans is that they never, ever have them under observation in such a way that fraud can’t be ruled out or to validate claims of long term living without food. For example, it is claimed that HRM was under “constant” observation for 411 days and did not eat or drink anything other than water. Yet nowhere have I yet been able to find publication of these findings other than on the web by someone named Dr Sudhir Shah. If you bother to read it, you’ll see that it sounds all science-y but ends up being utterly unconvincing to anyone who knows a bit about physiology and biochemistry.

I don’t know how skeptical Eat the Sun treats the claims of sungazing because I haven’t seen the movie, but I can guess from the website and its Facebook page. Judging from the trailer and website, I’m not particularly optimistic. After all, the tagline is just plain dumb: “Is it possible?” Basically, if the filmmaker weren’t credulous, he’d answer, “No,” and that’d be the end of it. If he wanted to, he could go into all the well-established scientific reasons why it is not possible. But then there wouldn’t be much of a movie, now, would there? There’s not much drama in that, is there? Then there’s this bit on the official blog for the movie:

I think it’s fair to say that there are a couple of universal concepts that are widely accepted truths cross-culturally:

  1. If you look directly at the sun (for a long period of time) you will go blind.
  2. People have to eat.

I was really drawn to the idea that there were people out there challenging these deeply held beliefs.

Uh, dude, it’s not a “deeply held belief” that people have to eat. It’s simply a fact. These people aren’t “challenging” that “belief.” They’re delusional. As for looking at the sun for long periods of time, have them try to do that at midday rather than right at sunrise or sunset. It’s very possible to look straight at the sun at those times of day because the angle at which the sun’s light reaches you then involves traveling through much more atmosphere. The day I see a sungazer staring at the sun at noon and not harming his eyes is the day when I might start to take sungazing slightly more seriously. There’s nothing miraculous about it, although it would be interesting to see what the prevalence of cataracts is among sungazers. Fortunately, their numbers are too small to do a reliable measurement and comparison. Also, unfortunately for sungazers, they are not immune to damage from the sun, as much as they delude themselves otherwise. As the director says in his statement:

When we took Mason for an extensive eye exam and they found a burn in the center of his retinas, he was disheartened and discouraged and he stopped sungazing. Why he ultimately decided to continue sungazing to reach HRM’s goal of 44 minutes and risk even further eye damage was testament that he was after something bigger than the physical.

Or he was after burning his eyes out. What kind of delusion drives a man to continue doing something that is damaging his eyes?

I’ve encountered variants of this particular sungazing woo before, although not for quite some time. I had even heard of HRM before. What I hadn’t known before is that HRM had conned a credulous filmmaker into doing a movie in which he is prominently featured. Actually, it appears more that Mason Howe Dwinell, acupuncturist and author of a book on sungazing, managed to con the flimmaker into believing. I also hadn’t known that apparently HRM is dead. There are oblique references to it in the promotional materials, such as a mention of “HRM’s demise.” I can find no confirmation of this anywhere else, however. If true, I guess it means that charging yourself up with the sun, even though HRM once claimed, “Only through this process can man achieve complete freedom or Moksha. You rid yourself from physical and psychological ailments. Psychosomatic ailments out of stress become a distant dream. But more importantly you develop a corona of energy around you. As this energy field becomes stronger, diseases don’t harm you. Even your worst enemy will become harmless.” Dammit, I want a magic energy field to protect me from disease, injury, and death, too!

In the end, it’s hard to imagine coming to believe that human beings can eschew food and water in order to live off of the energy of the sun. Actually, we already do live off the energy of the sun, just not directly. The sun provides the energy that is derived from plants and from the animals that eat the plants, both of which we ingest and, through the wonders of evolution and biochemistry, convert to a chemical form of energy that we can use. Maybe sungazing is nothing more than a metaphor for this process.

Or, more likely, it’s nothing more than a delusion.