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Energy Healing:

Looking in All the Wrong Places


Robert Todd Carroll

 (This article was written in response to "The energy to heal" by Jenny Hontz, Los Angeles Times, July 5, 2004.)

How is it possible to get relief from swelling, pain, nausea, headaches, anxiety, and an assortment of other ailments without the use of medicine or surgery? It happens all the time and has been going on for centuries. It’s called by many names but these days it’s mostly called “energy healing.” Whatever name it goes by, ultimately it amounts to faith healing. The amazing thing about it is that the healer need not even touch the patient. In fact, the healer need not even be in the presence of the patient. Powerful medicine, no? Yes, very powerful and not completely understood, though there are many theories being offered, the most common ones these days being couched in terms of chi or prana, meridians, auras, and chakras. Is there any evidence that there is a metaphysical life force (call it “energy” or “chi” or whatever you want) that determines health depending on whether it is blocked or flowing? If there is, I’d like to see evidence for it that's not just post hoc reasoning and begging the question.

In the eighteenth century, Franz Anton Mesmer had the ladies of Paris convinced he could heal them. He convinced himself he had tapped into a new force. He called it “animal magnetism.” There’s about as much evidence for animal magnetism as there is for chi. Most scholars now believe that Mesmer stumbled upon hypnotism. He eventually figured out that he didn’t need the magnets he was using. Just waving his hands did the trick. Modern day nurses practicing what they call “therapeutic touch” seem to have hit upon the same formula. Aura healers and chakra healers have been practicing their craft under different names for centuries. In Japan the practice of energy healing is known as reiki. They just wave their hands over the patient and “feel” the energy moving.  The patient feels it, too. Great stuff but what’s really going on? How did so many different people independently discover energy healing? It must be because there really is energy that can be manipulated to bring about healing, right? Not necessarily.

Nine-year old Emily Rosa tested 21 therapeutic touch (TT) practitioners to see if they could feel her life energy when they could not see its source. The test was very simple and seems to clearly indicate that the subjects could not detect the life energy of the little girl’s hands when placed near theirs. They had a 50% chance of being right in each test, yet they correctly located Emily's hand only 44% of the time in 280 trials. If they can’t detect the energy, how can they manipulate or transfer it? What are they detecting? Dr. Dolores Krieger, one of the creators of TT, has been offered $1,000,000 by James Randi to demonstrate that she, or anyone else for that matter, can detect the human energy field. So far, Dr. Krieger has not been tested.

There’s no question that the energy healers have many satisfied customers. And there’s no question that the energy healers believe they are bringing about healing by manipulating some sort of life force. However, the only evidence for this life force is that it has become an integral part of various metaphysical theories used to explain what is going on in these healing experiences. Some of the theories are rather simple, like the Chinese theory of chi running along meridians and occasionally getting blocked or clogged, thereby causing illness and disease. Some are rather elaborate and involve vibrating sub-atomic particles, biofields, transcendent beings, or astral bodies. These theories, however, have no independent verification. Take away the concept of life energy and these theories implode. The theories aren’t evidence for the life force; they need the life force in order to have any plausibility. But is there any independent evidence for the existence of chi or prana or whatever you want to call this alleged life force? If there is, I’d like to see it.

Is there another way to explain these healings without resorting to the notion of energy? I suppose some might say that all these healings are due to the so-called placebo effect. I think they'd be right, even though we don't completely understand how placebos work.  Some might say that some sort of hypnosis or self-hypnosis is going on in at least some of these healings. But hypnosis seems to be the paradigm of a placebo. One shared element between hypnosis and self-hypnosis and energy medicine is the reduction of stress, which we know can have profound physiological and psychological effects. In a relaxed state and  believing that relief is on the way may lead to a more suggestible state resulting in attitude change, which in turn results in a behavioral change.  Many advocates of energy medicine mistake the effects of classical conditioning, expectation of relief that leads to reduction of anxiety and stress, and beliefs about the effectiveness of the medicine as effects of mythical energy.

Antonella Pollo et al. demonstrated that placebos can help people with serious pain (Blausell 2007: pp. 139 ff). Other researchers, such as Donald Price, have shown that placebos work to reduce pain only when the subject believes that the therapy is capable of reducing pain. "This belief can be instilled through classical conditioning, or simply by the suggestion of a respected individual that this intervention (or therapy) can reduce pain" (ibid., p. 141). Martina Amanzio et al. demonstrated that "at least part of the physiological basis for the placebo effect is opiod in nature" (ibid., p. 160). That is, we can be conditioned to release such chemical substances as endorphins, catecholamines, cortisol, and adrenaline. One reason, therefore, that people report relief from energy medicine may be that they experienced stimulation of the opiod system, the body's natural pharmacy.

A person’s beliefs and hopes about a treatment, combined with their suggestibility, may have a significant biochemical effect. Sensory experience and thoughts can affect neurochemistry. The body’s neurochemical system affects and is affected by other biochemical systems, including the hormonal and immune systems. Thus, it is consistent with current knowledge that a person’s hopeful attitude and beliefs may be very important to their physical well-being and recovery from injury or illness.…

 A part of the behavior of a “sick” person is learned. So is part of the behavior of a person in pain. In short, there is a certain amount of role-playing by ill or hurt people. Role-playing is not the same as faking or malingering. The behavior of sick or injured persons is socially and culturally based to some extent. The placebo effect may be a measurement of changed behavior affected by a belief in the treatment. The changed behavior includes a change in attitude, in what one says about how one feels, and how one acts. It may also affect one’s body chemistry….

Another theory gaining popularity is that a process of treatment that involves showing attention, care, affection, etc., to the patient/subject, a process that is encouraging and hopeful, may itself trigger physical reactions in the body which promote healing. (“The Placebo Effect,” from The Skeptic’s Dictionary)

We might also compare energy healing to something like classical homeopathy, where the medicines used are always inert yet often effective. Homeopath and historian of homeopathy Anthony Campbell writes, “A homeopathic consultation affords the patient an opportunity to talk at length about her or his problems to an attentive and sympathetic listener in a structured environment, and this in itself is therapeutic.” In other words, homeopathy is a form of psychotherapy.

This is true whether or not the homeopath recognizes that she is using psychotherapy. Many homeopaths would agree that there is an element of psychotherapy in the consultation, but they would not accept that that is the main part of it. However, homeopaths generally pride themselves, often with justification, on being people with good powers of intuition and empathy; indeed, unless they have these abilities they will not succeed in their profession. This also means that they are good psychotherapists. (Campbell)

Is it possible that energy healing is a form of healing that involves complex conscious and nonconscious social interactions that can bring about significant physiological, psychological, and behavioral changes without the manipulation of any life force or the titillation of any biofield? Is it possible I can cure your stomach ache without projecting my chi into your body? Is it only required that you believe I have this power? Is it possible I can heal you without cleansing your dirty aura? Is it only required that you believe in dirty auras and in my power to cleanse them? Is it possible that my hands can’t heal you, but if you believe I have healing hands then I can heal you by waving my hands over your painful joints? Is it possible I can heal you without releasing intense heat from my hands as long as I can relax you and make you feel that great energy is flowing from me to you? Is it possible that I can’t really manipulate chi at a distance but if you believe that my soothing voice over the telephone is connected to a pair of healing hands that can unblock your chi, then I can heal you? I could go on with these hypothetical questions, but the reader should get the point by now: faith can heal.

Even if there is no such thing as a life force and energy healing is not about energy at all or the power to manipulate forces undetectable by our most delicate instruments, this kind of healing shouldn’t be dismissed as mere quackery. There is something extraordinarily interesting going on here and it ought to be investigated. There is a parallel here with parapsychological phenomena, I think. There are four possibilities. Fraud or hoax is always a possibility. The phenomena could be genuinely transcendent, outside the bounds of space and time. Or, the phenomena may have a psychological and/or a physical explanation. (On the physical level, the bare minimum should be to recognize that some diseases are always fatal, some are never fatal and are always followed by a complete cure, while others go up and down as we get better then get worse again and again.) Unfortunately, most of those doing research either in paranormal phenomena or in energy medicine are those who have ruled out the two most promising areas of research, the psychological and the physical. They are following in the footsteps of the likes of Dr. Gary Schwartz, who is establishing the Extraordinary Healing Research Program at the Center for Frontier Medicine so he can investigate miracles and other transcendent phenomena. My guess is that he will be about as successful in finding anything of interest as those who take the extreme skeptical approach and say there is nothing here worth investigating.

Why shouldn’t it be the case that we are healing each other not by conscious and willful manipulation of energy but by nonconscious processes we only barely understand? Think about it. Much of our everyday life, our sense perception, our memories, and our behavior are driven by processes we are not conscious of but which involve nothing more than our bodies, our brains, and our interaction with others and our environment. We often blame devils or give credit to angels or other benevolent spirits for what we think or do, but the evidence seems to indicate that these attributions are not justified. And while the processes and experiences of possession or apparitions might be complex, there seems to be little reason these days not to look for psychological and physical explanations for such phenomena. What is more likely? That spirits or paranormal phenomena are moving dowsing rods, ouija boards, tables in the dark, etc., or that the mind is affecting movement in the body at a nonconscious level (the ideomotor effect)?

In short, explanations of healings in terms of energy seem about as likely to yield anything of interest as looking for ghosts at a séance. We would be much better off if we investigated how energy healers are altering subjects’ motivations, expectations, and interpretations of their own feelings and experiences. Just as we have learned that the power of hypnosis has nothing to do with putting people into trances or opening up the doors to the subterranean subconscious, so too we might learn that energy healing has nothing to do with energy but everything to do with complex social interactions in various cultural situations. There is much to learn from the energy healers but I’m afraid we’re looking in all the wrong places.

See also Skeptic's Dictionary entries for vibrational medicine, faith healing and consilience energy mirrors,  my review of Snake Oil Science: The Truth about Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell (Oxford 2007), and my review of the "documentary" Something Unknown is Doing We Don't Know What.

further reading

The Living Matrix: A Movie Promoting Energy Medicine Beliefs is a movie review by Harriet Hall, M.D., in which she writes:

It purports to be a documentary about the “new science of healing” but really amounts to an infomercial for various forms of quackery based on so-called “energy medicine.” It’s not about science, but about pseudoscience and mythical misinterpretations of physics and quantum theory. It says things that are simply not true and misrepresents them as indisputable scientific facts. The film features interviews with patients, with non-scientists, and with a veritable Who’s Who roster of infamous fringe scientists like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin. But it doesn’t offer a single word of comment by any mainstream scientist or by the many skeptics who have examined the “evidence” for so-called energy medicine and found it pathetically inadequate. It doesn’t even acknowledge that dissent is possible....

These people are not seeking the truth: they are certain that they already know the truth and they are only seeking to persuade others to accept their belief system. The Living Matrix made my brain hurt. It was only worth watching as an appalling demonstration of the human capacity for self-deception and as a reminder of how badly our error-prone human brains need the discipline of rigorous science and critical thinking.

The Living Matrix also features such luminaries from the world of alternative thinking as Edgar Mitchell, Lynne McTaggart, Eric Pearl, Marilyn Schlitz, and Adam Dreamhealer.

The Energy Fields of Life by Victor J. Stenger

The Psychology of Transcendence (1980) by Andrew Neher. This Prentice-Hall book is out of print. Used copies may be available from Amazon.com. It was reissued in 1990 by Dover Books as Paranormal and Transcendental Experience.

Neher's book was recommended to me by Wally Sampson. I especially recommend the section on Psychic Healing, pages 164-174, where Neher explores the roles of stress reduction and of conditioning in healing. In his foreword to the book, Ray Hyman writes:

Every experience is a product of both external or environmental inputs and our own bodily and psychological states. The immediate environment and our own memories and expectations contribute to the experience. We usually do not realize the extent to which the experience is actually a construction based upon our own contributions. In most ordinary interactions with the environment, this failure to keep separate our own contributions from those of the environment is of little consequence. Indeed, it might be an advantage because it enables us to focus on what is going on around us rather than on how we know what it is that is going on..

But under unusual circumstances, especially those conducive to transcendental experiences, the failure to distinguish between what the environment is and what we are contributing to the experience can result in a variety of false commitments, many of which are superbly discussed by Andy Neher.

Neher writes in the introduction to his book that "transcendental experiences appear mysterious because they arise from processes outside of our ordinary conscious awareness." The goal of the book is to get a grip on the details of those processes. Neher's book is aimed at understanding, not debunking.

Stenger's article is a primer by a physicist on why it is wrong to equate the bioenergetic field with the electromagnetic field.

Finally, I've been recommending Barry Beyerstein's little piece on belief in bogus therapies for years (Why Bogus Therapies Often Seem to Work). It is short, to the point, and a good place to start an investigation into how such practices as energy healing could have so many satisfied customers if the healers weren't really reading auras or manipulating chi.

Last updated 16-Feb-2013

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