“Serves no porpoise” (Dolphin therapy)

If cerebral palsy or a neck tumor is getting you down, splash around with marine mammals for a while and you’ll start to mend. That’s the idea behind therapy that uses dolphins, or less frequently porpoises, to treat mental and physical ailments. It is for those with plenty of disposable income and a supple definition of medicine.

A week’s worth of therapy runs about $3,000, but can appeal to desperate parents. Proponents assert that playing with intelligent, ever-smiling creatures will be beneficial, either by itself, or at least set one on the road to recovery. Some therapies consist solely of frolicking with captive dolphins, while others also incorporate traditional therapy. The latter makes it impossible to know how much of the good the animals are responsible for.

Precisely what the marine mammals are supposed to improve varies by practitioner. The list of alleviated ailments includes brain and spinal injuries, chronic pain, Down’s Syndrome, autism, epilepsy, learning disorders, chronic fatigue, and depression. The most astounding claim I unearthed was the assertion that it revived a comatose child. This seemingly would have necessitated either unhooking the youngster from medical equipment and submerging him in water, or bringing the dolphin into a hospital room. Another boasted that “Two weeks of dolphin therapy gives significantly greater improvement than six months of conventional therapy.”

Besides unsubstantiated claims, proponents also employ linguistic tactics, almost never promising a cure, but rather mitigation or alleviation. Also, most of the practitioners focus on complex cognitive-behavioral conditions, making it difficult to assess the level of improvement.

In fairness, there has been one random, controlled, dolphin-assisted therapy study published in a peer-reviewed journal, and the results were positive. However, this dealt with depression patients, and there was no follow up, a rather crucial omission considering the condition. The study also lasted just two weeks and featured only 25 patients. Other than this, all evidence is anecdotal, and there have been no other controlled studies. A key point is that double blind studies will remain impossible until science develops dolphin cyborgs.

The most extensive review of marine mammal therapy claims was made by Emory University professors Lori Marino and Scott Lilienfeld. They perused several studies and concluded that researchers made exaggerated, unprovable claims. The research used flawed methods, small sample sizes, and inadequate controls.

There are plenty of anecdotes from dolphin therapists and patients’ parents. But which is more likely: That a dolphin’s bioenergy force field assuaged an autistic child’s condition, or that the child was made a little happier owing to perfect weather, gorgeous scenery, and playing with esthetically-pleasing creatures? Marino and Lilienfeld noted that the reported improvements were broad, lacked specifics, were limited to feel-good ideas, and featured no follow-up. Besides the Emory duo, German researchers found that none of the purported studies satisfied the minimum standards for clinical trials.

Despite the scant proof it works, there are multiple guesses for how it does. Some practitioners cite the emitting of healing energy vibrations or speculate that dolphins cause the two sides of the human brain to synchronize. Another guess is that sonar has medical properties. Then we have the idea that high frequency dolphin communication alters human brain waves. Some guess ultrasound does it, but dolphins only emit at that level for 10 seconds, far too short to be beneficial. Besides, if that worked, the patient could just use ultrasound therapy, which would be much cheaper and come without pruned skin. My favorite advertisement promoted “cellular communication and healing” and “intergalactic journeying.” One therapist claimed she could put her hand over a dolphin’s photo and the other hand on the patient, transmitting the recuperative powers to the afflicted. This method allows her to eliminate the salt water and food supply costs that burden her competitors. The common ground for all these ideas is they are void of substantiating data.

One practitioner in Hawaii has announced that she hopes to employ a proactive approach. She wants to keep the conditions from occurring in the first place, by having women give birth in the ocean, with dolphins serving as midwives. So far, there have been no takers, human or dolphin.


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