5X5 Episode 44

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5X5 Episode 44
Homunculus-based Medical Pseudoscience
4th November 2008

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5X5 43 5X5 45
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
R: Rebecca Watson
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Homunculus-based Medical Pseudoscience[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5, and tonight we are talking about pseudoscientific systems based on some sort of homunculus or mapping of the human body. For example: reflexology, which is a pseudoscientific alternative—I hate to say healing, but health-type of system—that uses the foot and pretends that the different parts of the foot map to different organs in the body. So one little spot on the foot will map to your liver, for example. And there are many systems which are based upon this simplistic notion that in one small part of the body, the entire part of the body is magically represented.

E: So Steve, in the case of reflexology, you are saying if they do some sort of massage or pressure on my big toe, that represents, say, my brain, or my lungs or whatever it is there particular map dictates that it is?

S: Exactly! Now of course there is no actual anatomy connecting the homunculus in your foot or with iridology with the flecks in your iris to your body. There is no pathways; there is no specific connection; there is no mechanism by which this can exist; it is a pre-scientific, completely magical belief system.

R: And can I just mention, before you go any further, that I love where homunculus comes from, the word. So basically what a homunculus is, is a tiny little man inside a sperm, and that's kind of the beginning of life. It's this little tiny little man inside this sperm. That's where the word comes from and that's why we use it to refer to things in which your entire body is represented in one part of your body.

J: All right, guys, we are definitely dancing around the absolute, by far, best one of all time. Jacqueline Stallone, Sylvester Stallone's mom, of course. She is basically the number one rumpologist, and I'm not making this up. You can go to her web site jacquelinestallone.com/rumps.html and check it out for yourself; I'm not making this up. But that is how ridiculous this can get.

B: Here's one pull-out quote which really just tickled me. She says she'll "send you a condensed one-year prediction in the direction your rear-end is taking you".

R: Backwards, apparently.

S: It doesn't get better than that.

R: There's never been any study that showed any kind of truth to any of these treatments. Not reflexology, or rumpology or anything like that. When you break it down, there is just no connection between this one part of your body and the rest of your body. Like, well, obviously there's a connection, but not a direct one-to-one ratio.

S: A functional connection.

R: Right

B: Right, like you can't read the lines in your eye and figure out if your kidneys are functioning correctly or not.

S: It's mainly a desire to just have a simplistic system, to subsume all of the complexities of biology. It would be nice if we had a map of the whole body somewhere that we could just read it and know what was going on with somebody, but again, there is no mechanism for that whatsoever. Of note, there is actually—there are real homunculi in your brain. Like, there is a motor homunculus; there's a motor strip in your cortex actually does map to your body. But there are actual connections. Those cells give off axons which actually go to all those parts of the body and connect there. The brain does map to the body, but your foot doesn't map to your organs. Your palm doesn't map, you know, in terms of palmistry, the lines in your hands don't correlate to any aspect of your existence. There is other sort of pseudo-mapping systems like acupuncture. There are acupuncture points which map to different parts of your body, or organs and things. And even chiropractic—straight chiropractic—postulates that different spinal cord levels, or vertebral levels—the nerves there will map to different organs in your body, even when those nerves don't actually go to those organs or provide any kind of nerve supply to them. So, it is just playing footloose and fancy free with anatomy and it is pure pseudoscience.

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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