By David Tuller, DrPH
It’s déjà vu all over again in Norway with the Lightning Process (LP). Earlier this month, a national research ethics authority, NEM, postponed a decision on a proposed LP trial until at least June. The trial has already been approved by a regional committee. The NEM had been expected to decide at its May meeting but did not.
This is the second go-round for this saga. Last year, a previous and also inadequate trial proposal was approved at the regional level but rejected by NEM—and after a similar delay from the expected decision date till a subsequent meeting. At that point, NEM determined that the proposed trial was fraught with conflicts of interest and potential bias. However, this year’s designated committee has new members who might assess the project differently, despite its ongoing deficiencies.
The LP has garnered some credibility in Norway. Not surprisingly, much of the public discussion has been slanted against patients advocates concerned about the LP, portraying them as anti-science zealots attacking high-quality research. In fact, they have have issued smart critiques involving problematic research—such as the proposed trial of the Lightning Process, which is designed in a way likely to generate positive findings.
The LP, a commercial three-day program that combines osteopathy, life-coaching, positive affirmations, and other modalities, seeks to train participants to reject negative thoughts and emotions and replace them with positive ones. (I wrote about the LP for Codastory.com last year.) The LP was founded by a British osteopath and spiritual healer named Phil Parker. In the early 2000s, Parker advertised a course he was co-teaching that focused on using Tarot cards, people’s auras and related modalities to diagnose and treat poor health. In promoting it, he described himself as having “developed this ability to step into other people’s bodies…to assist them in their healing with amazing results.” (So why not keep teaching people to heal themselves with these “amazing” spiritual methods rather than the LP?)
Two years ago, after my name was invoked in an article about the LP in Dagbladet, a Norwegian news organization, I wrote the publication a letter that was posted as an opinion piece. (Dagbladet had referred to me as an “activist” but failed to mention my academic credentials.) My involvement in the issue dates to 2017, when I exposed disqualifying flaws in a major pediatric trial of the LP by Bristol University’s methodologically and ethically challenged grant-magnet, Professor Esther Crawley. Although Professor Crawley’s study now carries a 3,000-word correction due to my work, it has been cited by the investigators behind the proposed Norwegian LP trial. She has also served as an advisor to the group.
An organization called Recovery Norway has played a major role in these debates. Here’s how it describes itself on its website: “Recovery Norway is an organisation consisting of people who have recovered from ME/CFS or other illnesses often labelled “medically unexplained”. Our goal is to provide hope and understanding through their experiences and insights.”
These stories tend to involve the LP and they can be genuinely inspiring, as with this declaration from one account: “I had a shower stool and a wheelchair, but today I am proud and extremely happy to say that I have recovered.” They are effective at conveying that the notion that anyone who could possibly report harms from the LP, or challenge its scientific validity, or regard it as something other than a powerful tool for good, or ask whether Phil Parker was still stepping into people’s bodies, was way off-the-mark.
Live Landmark, the most prominent LP instructor in Norway and the main investigator in the proposed trial, was one of five co-founders of Recovery Norway when it officially became an organization in early 2018 after some prior period of non-formalized existence. According to the website, “as of July 2021, Recovery Norway has 260 members.” In contrast, the Norwegian ME Association, which has challenged the proposed LP study for its inadequate design and other issues, has almost 6,000 members.
The official creation of Recovery Norway made it easier for LP practitioners to publicize anecdotal accounts of success in light of regulatory changes, according to a recent blog post from the indispensable Nina Steinkopf, who keenly tracks ME/CFS developments in Norway. Why? Because, as Steinkopf documents, the group’s period of formation overlapped with the implementation of greater national restrictions in the promotion of alternative therapies.
Phil Parker’s paper in Romanian experiential psychotherapy journal
Those who assert that the LP has scientific credibility often cite a study written by the man who steps into people’s bodies and published in the Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy. For those unfamiliar with the Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, it is sponsored by the Romanian Society of Experiential Psychotherapy in partnership with the University of Bucharest’s Personal Development, Counseling and Experiential Psychotherapy Center. This is the journal’s mission:
“The journal valorizes and releases studies, original research, Romanian and international scientific contributions in the field of personal development, experiential counseling and psychotherapy, therapy of unification (T.U.) – a Romanian humanistic-experiential method of standard and experiential psychodiagnosis, applied in the assistance offered to adults, children, couples, families, transgenerational relationships, organizations and communities.”
Accounts of “amazing” recovery from illness can be very compelling. As scientific evidence, however, they carry the same weight as stories of being suddenly healed through crystal therapy, praying to Jesus, or having someone step into your body.
In contrast to Recovery Norway’s messianic zeal, a recently launched website called LP-fortellinger (LP-stories) presents a more sober view of the situation. So far, it includes a few dozen sometimes harrowing accounts from patients who have felt harmed by participating in an LP course.
Here are a few excerpts:
“I have gotten much worse after the LP course and felt a lot of shame and guilt for a long time afterwards. LP is advanced brainwashing. I would absolutely not recommend anyone with ME to do the Lightning Process.”
“Instead of “getting the life you love” – you risk driving yourself into the pit with full force. It’s too big a risk to take..”
“Before we entered a conference room with hard wooden chairs, we had to sign a paper stating that we’d never tell anyone what the method was about. This made me so scared of being sued that I still don’t dare to write it here.”
“After I was able to sleep again and cleared my head, I realised that LP had made me much sicker than I had been aware of and I stopped doing the exercises, despite the fact that the therapist thought I should continue.”
“After the course I continued at home, and on the phone the instructor said the lack of effect was due to me not doing things right, not working hard enough, and not being motivated enough to get well.”
The proposed LP trial led by LP investigator and Recovery Norway co-founder Landmark cannot be supported on scientific and ethical grounds, for multiple reasons. It is troubling that key players in Norway’s medical establishment believe otherwise. Hopefully, the NEM will once again draw the appropriate conclusions.