There are a wide variety of energy healing therapies available today. If you read some popular articles on social media, you’d think that these energies can harmonize, oscillate, flow, be manipulated, and otherwise cure anything ranging from the common cold to every flavor of cancer. Oddly, these energies can never seem to be measured nor have they ever been proven to exist. They are rarely defined empirically and, for all intents and purposes, appear to be completely fake. There is also a thriving market for using all manner of curative amulets, bracelets, and other artifacts to manipulate life energy for medicinal purposes.
If you’re reading this article, you’re probably a little skeptical that such things work. Maybe an errant Google search sent you here. Either way, let’s look at what energy is and isn’t so we can hopefully shed some light on the topic of Reiki and other energy-based healing systems.
Energy can be typically defined as the ability to do work. When considering energy, we have a few major categories to use:
Kinetic energy: This is energy in motion. Whenever you throw a baseball, this is the energy that the baseball has when it strikes someone’s glove. This can be measured in terms of impact strength. It can be calculated using non-complex equations.
Potential energy: This is energy held “in potential” when an object is elevated. This can be calculated using simple equations.
Thermal energy: This is energy from the kinetic agitation of molecules. Most people would just call it “being hot.” The heat content of something can be measured using calorimetry. The surface temperature of something can be measured with a thermometer.
Gravitational energy: This is the energy imparted on objects as a result of mass attraction. We normally only care about this when doing astronomy.
Acoustic Energy: This is vibrational energy. We measure this in decibels. This is a determination of the sound pressure felt at a particular point. This is difficult to calculate so we often use something called the finite element method. Only Google that if you’re not faint of heart.
Photonic energy: This is light energy. We can calculate this in a few different ways depending on how accurate we want to be. We can measure light energy in a wide variety of ways ranging from photosensors to photovoltaics.
Elastic energy: This is the energy stored in a bouncing ball when it’s bouncing. This can be measured with strain gauges.
Electromagnetic energy: Here’s one of my personal favorite types of energy. This is the energy type that brings my post through your WiFi hotspot to your computer. Electromagnetic energy ranges from radio waves to dangerous gamma rays. We measure these with instruments ranging from RF probes to antennas to radiation dosimeters.
Chemical energy: The energy of chemical bonds. Your muscles work based on chemical energy. Neurological responses in your brain happen due to chemical energy. We often measure this using calorimetry but there’s numerous ways depending on the application.
Nuclear energy: This is the energy found inside of atoms. We exploit this in nuclear reactors (as well as radioisotope generators) to make power. We can measure this with very specific instruments like a BF3 proportional counter.
Dark energy: No one knows. No, seriously. This term is what we use to apply to the force that is increasing our universal expansion acceleration. We don’t know why it’s accelerating so we call it dark energy. What a world.
Now that we’ve discussed what some real energies are and how they can be measured, let’s talk about Reiki energy.
Life energy, Reiki energy, Chi, Qi, Ki, Dosha, Orgone, and a few other terms: Here we see our not-real energies. This is something that is used to describe what differentiates humans from inert matter and sometimes animals, depending on the practitioner. These energy fields are based on the concept that humans are infused with a type of energy that is undetectable. In traditional Chinese medicine, diseases were believed to be caused by the interruption of energy flows throughout the body. In acupuncture, spirit energy is redirected using small needles. In many chiropractic belief systems, alleged spinal misalignments cause improper energy flows resulting in disease. However, as this life energy is pseudoscience, these alternative healing systems cannot be shown to have any medical value.
Energy must be caused by some process. Similarly, energy must be measurable in some way. Even in the case of dark energy, we can measure it even if we don’t know what it is!
The National Institute of Health has reviewed a number of studies on Reiki healing. Unfortunately for Reiki practitioners, none have shown that Reiki energy exists nor that Reiki has any impact over placebo. Since it’s pretty boring to talk about how there’s no proof, let’s talk about the history of Reiki and its sister-discipline.
Mikao Usui, a Japanese monk that followed Shugendo, invented the practice of Reiki. Shugendo is a traditional Japanese religion that incorporates fortune telling, faith healing, divination, ritual incantations, and exorcism. Mikao Usui adapted these religious beliefs into a different form of faith healing that he called Reiki healing. This apparent enlightenment came after meditating at a retreat for several weeks. He claims to have discovered “healing without energy depletion.” This life energy he created was supposed to support the body’s natural healing ability.
Practitioners of Reiki attempt to channel spiritual energy through their hands using various hand positions. Hand positions are held for a few minutes until the practitioner feels “energy flow.” Reiki sessions are typically around an hour in length. In a particularly interesting twist, Reiki can be performed even if the patient isn’t nearby. At this point, you’re paying someone to think about you while sending you “healing energy.” Some Reiki practitioners have advanced their craft by drawing shapes in the air then make pushing motions to apparently push the symbol into the person.
Why do people believe in Reiki?
Reiki gets to benefit from the placebo effect. People assume that it is working so they naturally will tend to believe that their pain is subsiding. Additionally, Reiki involves being placed in a relaxing setting as well as being touched by a sympathetic person. Human touch has been shown to improve some subjective measurements in humans. How does that help? As a good way to consider the medical efficacy of human touch, you can imagine petting your dog. Petting your dog calms it. Similarly, being held by a person for an hour tends to calm humans as well.
Related to Reiki, therapeutic touch was created as a Western form of Reiki healing. Doris Krieger came to the conclusion that energy fields were present in humans. She termed this energy to be a person’s “biofield.” It is worth pointing out that similar to Reiki energy, this energy field has never been described, measured, or have any proof of existence whatsoever. What did Doris have to gain from creating therapeutic touch? The same thing as any alt-med practitioner: Money! Therapeutic touch classes are about 150-250$ per class. Despite the name, therapeutic touch practitioners don’t actually touch you at all. Instead, they touch your “biofield” rather than your actual body. In this case, patients are paying someone to wave their hand over their body.
Is there any proof?
In science, it is often difficult to prove that something doesn’t exist. We could expend trillions of dollars attempting to prove that a teacup doesn’t exist in orbit midway between the Earth and the moon. Instead, we merely attempt to demonstrate that there is insufficient proof of existence to warrant further study.
One of the most amusing studies on Reiki comes from a child. An 11 year old named Emily Rosa actually became the youngest person to publish a medical study thanks to Reiki healing. She requested that Reiki practitioners attempt to use their powers of energy field manipulation to detect which hand she was presenting to them under experimental conditions. As a result of the Reiki practitioners failing to detect energy fields, Emily was successful in publishing in a major, top-tier medical journal before she was in her teens.
See? Alternative “medicine” can do some good in the world!