What Is Energy Work: Some Thoughts from an Evidence-Based Therapist
What is energy work? Practitioners of energy work claim there is a subtle human energy field which they can detect with their hands. By placing their hands on or over their subject, they are able to correct imbalances and unblock blocked energy. Reiki, Therapeutic Touch, Chakra Balancing, and Polarity Therapy are all various forms of energy work.
There is only one problem: no one has ever actually demonstrated the existence of a human energy field. No one. Ever.
Practitioners of energy work claim to be able to feel a human energy field with their hands. However, under controlled conditions, they fail to demonstrate an ability to do so. The most famous experiment, the Rosa Study, was designed by a nine year old girl who became the youngest person to have a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Simple and elegant in its design, practitioners of Therapeutic Touch sat behind a screen and were tested on whether they could detect the presence of a hand held next to theirs without being able to see the hand. They failed. The study has never been contradicted.
The James Randi Education Foundation offers a $1,000,000.00 prize to anyone who can, under controlled conditions, demonstrate the existence of a human energy field. To date, the prize remains uncollected.
Yet many practitioners sincerely believe that they can feel a human energy field and many recipients report experiences ranging from relaxing to transcendental when undergoing such treatments. Skeptics dismiss energy work as fakery but when someone has an experience that feels very real to them, they are not going to listen if someone tries to tell them that they did not have that experience. So what is going on?
I believe that we skeptics have been remiss in not acknowledging that the personal experience of someone practicing or receiving energy work is very real to them. It is the explanation for the experience that is flawed. What is happening to the practitioner and the recipient during energy work is not the result of a force field outside of themselves. Energy work happens between the ears. I believe that the experience is occurring inside the brain.
Take the example of a conductor conducting a piece of music. When listening to a piece of music, we experience an emotional response to it. If it is a particularly beautiful or moving piece of music and we are engrossed in it, the experience of listening to it can take us on an internal journey. We may have visual images appear in our mind's eye and may experience a range of emotions. The conductor is quite aware of this and, in fact, is probably quite engrossed in the music himself. As he leads the orchestra through the music, he knows quite well that as the music skips along sweetly, or becomes a bit sad and melancholy, or builds to a dramatic crescendo, that he and the musicians and the listening audience share an emotional experience, a kind of psychodrama. This is not strange or mysterious to us and, in fact, we know that music has been used by humans for thousands of years to induce a collective, somewhat hypnotic state.
Modern neuroscience is learning much about the brain. We have identified areas of the brain that are associated with a sense of presence of another, a sense of connection with others, with transcendental states. We know that gentle touch and focussed attention from another human being can stimulate a positive response.
Anyone who has practiced pantomime, has been an actor, or has a vivid imagination knows from experience that it is quite easy for some of us to vividly imagine something or someone that is not there. It is not difficult, if your imagination is very good, to hold out your hands, imagine that you hold a ball in your hands, and begin to "feel" the resistance of the ball between your hands. We know there is no actual ball, that this sensation is generated in our mind, but if we are good at imagination, it can feel very tangible.
It seems rather obvious to me that those who engage in energy work are engaging these same processes.
Before becoming a massage therapist, I worked for 13 years as a construction electrician. Many people are afraid of working with electricity, as well they should be. You can't see it and by the time you feel it, it is too late. You are being shocked and that is not good. Even an open panel of 480 volts gives no hint of whether it is "hot" or not without some sort of tester. Because of our inability to feel even this very strong voltage without actually touching it, some of my brother electricians have been seriously burned when they unwittingly put their hands into a live panel that they thought was turned off.
Scientists have instruments that can detect very, very subtle and small measures of energy. They can measure the minute voltages across a single cell wall; they can detect pulses from quasars many light years away. Yet they cannot detect a human energy field. Meanwhile, energy workers insist they can feel this undetectable field but cannot feel the electrical field of a 480 volt panel. It just doesn't add up.
I think if energy workers would give up the unprovable idea of a human energy field and embrace, instead, modern neuroscience, they would be on much firmer ground and might learn things that could be very useful. And I think if skeptics would accept that people engaging in energy work do, indeed, sometimes have experiences which can range from relaxing and mildly pleasant to profoundly moving, that perhaps the people having those experiences might begin to open to a more rational explanation for those experiences.
Of course, I could be wrong.
Attitudes about energy work are one of the more divisive areas in the field of massage therapy today. Many of us who attempt to practice an evidence-based approach to therapeutic massage think it is time to drop the language of energy work and move on. There is nothing wrong with a pleasant, relaxing experience, but claims of human energy fields and balancing chakras are implausible, cannot be substantiated, and should be left behind if we are to be taken seriously as professionals.
In my next entry, I'll describe my own personal experience with energy work.
[For more on this subject, see Ravensara Travillian's amazing multi-part series at POEM, the Project for Open Education in Massage.]