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.]


Guest (not verified) says:

Interesting read. Do you feel some Asian modalities (e.g. shiatsu) may work, but for reasons other than the traditional explanations?

Alice says:

Definitely. The explanations for these modalities were formed in pre-scientific times and are usually quite mystical in nature. The difference between tradition and science is that tradition is frozen in time and does not adapt to new information, while science will change its explanation when new evidence contradicts its theories. It was once thought that people with epilepsy were possessed by demons. We now know that it is caused by disturbed neuron activity in the brain. Epilepsy has not changed but our understanding about how it occurs has changed precisely because we continued to ask questions and adapt our theories to new information. Had we clung to the demonic possession explanation, we would not have effective treatment for epilepsy today.

Barrett Dorko, P.T., likes to say, "Change your thinking, not your tools." If a "tool," a modality, works well for someone, there is no reason for them to abandon it. However, I would like to argue in favor of thinking accurate thoughts. Having accurate information and thinking critically are important elements in making good decisions in our personal lives and in the world.

If people enjoy the experience of whatever it is that they do during energy work, who am I to tell them that they should not do that? But if claims are made that cannot be supported, then I would argue that people are being misled and that is harmful.


Guest (not verified) says:

Excellent post providing a plausible explanation for why people "feel" energy work. I like the idea of looking to neuroscience as a resource for learning more about the perception of a human energy field.

Spending time with people we feel comfortable with can be relaxing. Is it because of human energy fields or some kind of neural pathway that makes it easier to activate feel good neurotransmitters (endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin) when we are near familiar and safe people that are kind to us? Perhaps the experience of feeling energy work is the same experience people have from spending time with an empathetic massage therapist or even psychotherapist. It may be the human connection, not the energy field "work" that is therapeutic. And that's not a bad thing. It's just a different kind of woo woo--the emotional touchy feel-y kind.

There is a fair amount of research in the psych field about the effects of empathy and therapeutic alliance on clients. Although MTs do not do psychotherapy per se, just offering a nurturing, accepting, nonjudgmental space for people to be for an hour may be the cause of what some attribute to "energy" work.

Keep writing, Alice! You inspire me and get me to think from a more interesting perspective.


Guest (not verified) says:

I am a nurse working in the field of Hospice and Palliative Care. I am a Complementary Therapy Hospice and Palliative Care Nurse overseeing a complementary therapy program that employs CHPN certified hospice nurses with additional advanced practice certifications in bodywork therapy. We offer and recognize the value of adapted versions of massage, light pressure reflexology and energy based therapies in working with individuals moving through the last months, weeks and days of their lives. We also work on stressed caregivers, regularly. As program coordinator, I have been in a position to identify therapies that matter, make a difference.. and support therapeutic goals professionally in a healthcare system. The entire program started out very simplistically, with comfort massage and reflexology added to the plan of care of high priority patients / caregivers. Within a few years it was clear to me that we needed an energetic (biofield therapy) to meet particular needs for symptom relief and anxiety / fear based states.. conditions .. that concrete touch therapies were not capable of supporting. I had access to the use of Reiki practitioners and a Healing Touch practitioner / Holistic Nurse and Psychiatric Nurse to meet these needs. We ultimately decided on Healing Touch since it is a long certification process (developed by a nurse, and patterned on nursing process), embraces a number of energy techniques and develops the professionalism of the practitioner.

I need all three of these modalities to service the end - of life care community holistically. Each therapy provides its own specific usefulness
in Healthcare, but takes on new meaning and purpose in end of life care.
End of life care is body mind spirit care.. and therefore when we employ bodywork therapy in hospice cases we are practicing the application of the therapies in all three realms of the receiver.. fully. Healing Touch creates a deep peaceful detached contemplative state, a sense of being away from the body. The Healing Touch practitioner uses techniques that focus on very important functional systems of the body.. and each system (call them chakras .. or very busy physical kinetic centers in the core of the body) .. can bring mental/ mindful awarenesses / contemplations to the recipient. If a Healing Touch practitioner is working around the heart, contemplation about love meaningful attachments - pleasant or painful might surface quietly ..a very personal experience for the receiver .. and meant only for the receiver. Profound changes happen, a 'shift' in anxiety to deep peacefulness..can happen permanently after a hospice recipient receives a session, and I attribute that to a permanent new understanding that an individual comes to in the mind.. from contemplation or vision, that happens during the session. The catalyst is the session.. and no form of concrete tactile bodywork therapy is going to achieve that for some individuals, certain circumstances. Medications won't change that for some individuals / circumstances. On the other hand.. there are some people who are so fearful of death..or have such a need to stay living.. the detached contemplative state is frightening and feels too much like lost control..and for those individuals, concrete grounded touch often works best to ease physical tensions and confirm the physicality of life, "grounding" as some therapists would say. You have to know to use the 'Right Therapy, Right Person, Right Reason', I teach that. ..and you need access to them all in
a hospice program.

I agree that much of the value of energetic work is based in the mind, what someone is 'open' to in the relaxation of the experience (some people just fall asleep..some feel nothing, most have a profound deep relaxation and have gratitude for it, some have visions, and many have something to contemplate from the self introspection they receive).. and when I write about energy therapy, as a healthcare professional advocating for the right and proper uses of massage and bodywork therapy, .. I am often tempted to call Healing Touch a mind - body vs. a body - mind therapy.

I cannot wait for evidenced based practices to convince me or not..that it is 'real' or 'not'.. and I say that with full understanding that we need to have evidenced based practices in healthcare.. it is very very important to continue to fund and research all complementary therapy / alternative therapy modalities so that we can move from a complementary to an integrative model in our country. I have chosen to stay open and professionally grounded and boundaried enough..to employ therapies.. and allow the patients and the families, the caregivers and the rest of the hospice team..to teach me about the use, the value. I am a professional observer and listener.. and I integrate complementary therapy, very very responsibly..slowly.. with oversight, with caution..and with one thing in mind: The benefit to those who might need it most, the patient, the stressed caregiver. In hospice we learn on day one that Pain it what someone says it is. I stand by the same principle, that relief of pain is what someone says it is too.

I would not have a complementary therapy program without access to Healing Touch therapists educated in the boundaries and application of the work in Hospice care, Healthcare, working as a part of an interdisciplinary team. In this work, it not simply the 'therapy' that needs to be substantiated, it is the practitioner with the 'tool' of the therapy..how they use it, talk about it. A common language, understanding will help bridge barriers.. skepticism..

Really enjoy dialogue that starts dialogue! I do find, that sometimes we can see what is true about life, when we get to be still and observe from those that are dying. I do know that energy therapy (or whatever anyone wants to call it now or in the future) is extremely helpful to those who suffer and need to find peace through the care and presence of another human being.

Valerie Stoughton Hartman RN, CHPN, CTRN

Alice says:

Sue and Valerie, thank you for such beautiful, thoughtful comments. Valerie, I do not think we need to wait for evidence. As you have experienced, more active touch therapies are not always appropriate or desired. I think that in the context in which you are working, caring, focussed, compassionate contact is soothing and beautiful. It is a bit like guided meditation. I think the imagery and symbolism of metaphysics, poetry, art, can be quite useful.

My problem with energy work is taking this imagery literally, instead of metaphorically, and trying to convince people that this is true. There is quite an industry built around this and people making a lot of money selling something that doesn't actually exist. People pay a lot of money taking various levels of Reiki classes, as if they need someone else to "attune" them. One of my colleagues was told, when he said that he couldn't feel any energy, that he had to take higher levels of Reiki classes. There is no external energy field for him to feel. He is not deficient.

I think if someone is going to engage in this kind of work with clients, there are skills to be learned, and I think those skills could be enhanced by learning from the fields of psychology and neurophysiology. However, I object to the notion that special magical powers to manipulate "universal energy" can be possessed by one person and then transferred to another through the performance of some brief ritual, the passing on of special words and symbols, and the payment of a fee. I say this as one who has a certificate that verifies I am a "Reiki Master."

Much of what I do as a massage therapist cannot yet be "verified." Being a science-based therapist doesn't mean that I have to wait for science to verify everything I say and do. It means that my approach is consistent with what is known and I avoid making claims that I can't support.

Valerie, it sounds like the work you do with people in their last days on earth is beautiful and comforting. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us.

Alice says:

Late breaking news: Ravensara Travillian, a massage therapist and information scientist in Seattle, WA, coincidentally has been writing about this very subject at POEM, the Project for Open Education in Massage. Her response to an article published about energy work by David Lauterstein in Massage & Bodywork magazine earlier this year is the most articulate, thorough, and compasstionate treatment of this important and divisive issue that I have ever read. As of the writing, she has posted #12 in a series. I hope every massage therapist will read her comments from the beginning and give them the thoughtful attention that the subject needs.

Stephanie Scott (not verified) says:

I agree Valerie. I also worked in palliative care and my patients experienced something I know an 'assessment approach' to their care was not providing. I noticed a trend many of them were seeking outside support for Reiki therapy and paying around $100/hr for the services. Intrigued and open to it I decided to take Reiki Level 1 (up to my Reiki Master). I did begin to become more sensitive to feeling energy and understanding my clients needs based on connecting with them from an 'unscientific' level and began to connect with them on a personal human level, reading their body language, facial expressions and vocal tones more easily. Because it isn't easy to measure and is completely based on a client or practitioners own experience doesn't not make it valid. We are learning more and more the importance of patient centred care. People have feelings and needs, at the end of life, many fears, anxieties and pain. They want to connect with their health professionals, have their needs and feelings validated and be guided to help them achieve their health goals. Incorporating reiki therapy I would often ask clients what their pain level or symptom levels were (e.g. stomach cramps, constipation, headaches, sleeplessness, nausea etc). I would offer a short 15 minute head to toe Reiki session as I assessed my client at the same time and they would verbalize their symptoms and concerns to me that previous nurses did not pick up on, on their "assessment questions" only approach. They would share headaches occurring for weeks, they would report less pain, improved sleep after a few days with me utilizing reiki therapy in my nursing approach. I could get a pain rating of 7/10 to a 3/10 with reiki alone, altering their state just by validating their pain and being empathetic to it. I would also teach them about meditation and other ways to reduce fear and emotions that could compliment their medication regime. I would also call their physicians and improve any prescriptions/dosages that could help their needs as well. There is no one right way to do anything in life. It's all about a balanced approach in all that we do. I refer to myself as an integrated nurse because I feel both holistic/traditional ancient medicine is just as important to understand as what's current and new in the world of science/western medicine. I study all subjects to keep myself well rounded and it helps me have more solutions to problems by looking at things from different angles.

Therapeutic and healing methods need a balance of both whether they have an effect means of study or not. This is how things are proven and evolve. The world used to be flat. The earth used to be the centre of the universe. Best thing is to study your clients results and see what the trends are and what is working best for their ultimate goals of health & healing. Sometimes being too focused on what the evidence shows "right now" can create a rigid practice and being 'too perfect' ultimately not benefiting yourself as a caregiver and your clients because human needs, feelings and spirituality is more difficult to measure. Science makes disconnecting from peoples needs... easier, but ultimately sets both the practitioner and client up for failure. I've saved many a physicians from being sued because I took the time to explain the process to patients and validated their concerns because I'm good with people, and their physician may not have had the time to connect/listen or may be more sciency then they can understand. People first, aways. By focusing on people it makes it easier to want best practices for them.

Alice says:

Stephanie, what you experienced was not a validation of Reiki, which rests on a claim of implausible energy. What you experienced falls within the realm of psychosocial experience. You gave your clients time and focused attention. They told you things they didn't tell other health care providers because you helped them feel safe and relaxed and had the time to listen. What this validates is the value of focused attention, listening, making the client feel safe, and time. 

This is where massage therapists have an advantage over most other health care practitioners. We do have the time. A good assessment is not just listing someone's physical symptoms and history and doing orthopedic tests, it's listening carefully to the client's story, how they feel about their situation, what they believe about their condition. The quality of the client/therapist interaction may often be more important than the modality used. 

I think that if massage therapists took themselves more seriously as professionals, other health care professionals who don't have the time to give them extended periods of focused attention might be more willing to refer their patients to massage therapists. I've had referrals from physical therapists whose limited time with the client needed to focus on remedial exercises and orthopedic evaluation. Some PTs recognized that their patients could benefit from longer sessions of both hands-on therapy and also being listened to. However, we have to establish ourselves as professionals if we want them to trust us, and promoting pseudoscience is not going to gain their respect. 

If we can establish that focused attention and gentle hands-on therapy will help the client get better faster, insurance might be willing to pay for it. Insurance is not going to reimburse for religious practice or fantasy-based modalities, though. That's why we need to separate ourselves from unsupported claims and stay firmly rooted in reality. There is plenty of support for other psychosocial interventions. We should be able to take our place among them if we're willing to do what it takes to establish our credibility. 

Matthew (not verified) says:

Great post. Thanks for the interesting read.

I agree with what you are saying about energy work being a real experience. I almost wish that we could substitute "energy" for "experience" and leave it at that. Energy is a convoluted term because it has scientific foundations and is being used by people who are using fundamentally non-scientific ways of understanding the world. The "energy" that they feel has nothing what so ever to do with energy. The "experience" healers (if I may refer to them as such) may very well not even realize that "energy" is a scientific term and has nothing to do with the heart of their own work or that the work is founded on pre-science based thinking. But it is.

Thanks again for the read

David (not verified) says:

I believe in energy work, and many other traditional treatments. But never for why they say. Energy work i think is basically a form of positive thinking, what's going through your head effects everything you do. People can 'sense' subtle changes in your body language and touch, even if they can't consciously identify what they are sensing, and it might be this change that energy practitioners are claiming they sense, they just have the wrong explanation for it. I have a believe that even something works keep doing it, even if it has a ridiculous reason for why it works

Guest (not verified) says:

I understand I am very late to this conversation but I will say how do you explain the feeling that someone has entered or is already in a room without you hearing or seeing them? I'm sure this has happened to a lot of people. It feels like a knowing and that causes you to turn around for instance and your feeling is then validated. I would say that a type of shift in energy has taken place in the room/space. Would this not be some sort of validation that humans do have an energy field? When I was younger I could always pick up on what type of mood my dad was in after coming home from work as soon as he stepped his foot over the front door threshold. This was without seeing or hearing his voice.

Alice says:

Thanks for your question.

Yes, we do experience many sensations that we don't know how to explain. Since we don't exactly know why they happen, I think we should refrain from assigning a specific cause to them, especially one that does not fit with what we know about how the natural world works.

What we do know is that our brain can create all sorts of sensations. Sometimes we'll think we hear a voice when no one is around, or think we see something out of the corner of our eye that, when we look, is not there. Deja vu is another common experience, the feeling that we've been somewhere before when we know we haven't. Exactly how or why do these sensations occur? I don't know but we know they do happen and most people experience them occasionally.

In low stimulation environments, we know the brain will start creating its own stimulation. Experiments with sensory deprivation tanks demonstrated this. People practicing meditation sometimes have vivid sensory experiences. It's not surprising that during massage, in a low lit room with quiet music and focused attention, that our brains might sometimes create some interesting sensations. Even in everyday life, they can occur.

Knowing this, I think it provides a much more plausible explanation than attributing it to an energy field which cannot be verified and defies the laws of physics.

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