I get asked this a lot. People want to know if I think all “this stuff” is real — all this stuff about vital energy, life forces and auras, or what the Chinese call qi.1 Qi (pronounced “chee”) is allegedly an “energy” or “force” that flows through channels or meridians in the body, according to Chinese philosophy and folk medicine.
I don’t have much use for qi as a literal concept. We know that professional qi manipulators — reiki and “therapeutic touch” practitioners — can’t actually feel it,2 and that acupuncture is powered by the idea of needling, not by qi, or even obscure biological effects.3 Qi as a real force is pure “vitalism,” and vitalism is about as intellectually bankrupt an idea as there has ever been, and it went broke many decades ago. Scientifically and philosophically, vitalism is now as outlandishly wrong as young Earth creationism.
But a literal vs. figurative interpretation of qi is a big difference, like the difference between the beliefs of a Biblical literalist and a progressive academic theologian. I believe the idea of qi is useful, interesting, and aesthetically pleasing … just not a description of actual stuff.
In the course of the history of our species, we have often cooked up ideas that elegantly but non-literally described a collection of natural phenomena. I believe the Chinese were occasionally savvy observers of human health — definitely not always,4 but sometimes — and came up with all kinds of beautiful ways of describing what they could not possibly understand. Qi was an attempt to make sense of it — a label for the collective je ne sais quoi of human health and vitality.
Could it turn out to be a real thing after all, though? A force or an energy that might someday be measured by scientific instruments? I grew up longing for The Force to be real, and for many years qi seemed like a good candidate.
When I practice qi gong or t'ai chi, I do not trouble myself with whether or not the qi is “real.” Qi gong is an art. I practice it in a beautiful way. Like Japanese cuisine, it works best when it looks good. To do a thing in a beautiful way, to move gracefully, is to experience qi. Is beauty a real thing? Yes. But there will never be a Beauty-o-Meter®.
I am quite content to think of qi as a complex and beautiful metaphor. The Chinese may even never have intended qi to be more than a metaphor, albeit a potent one: “just” poetic imagery that expresses the essence of the miracle of life and the vivid sensations that make it up. To live is a miracle; to live well, to be full of life and to live in balance and harmony, is a beautiful miracle — a miracle full of qi. Perhaps the idea of qi is a condensed, Taoist way of saying “I am more than the sum of my parts.”
The Chinese have always been very good at saying a lot with a single sound or a simple image.
On the other hand, I suppose qi could turn out to be a measurable force of nature or a description of physiological circumstances, and a potentially useful medical idea. Humans and matter itself are phenomena of force and energy, and we exploit the forces of physics quite a bit in our physiology.5 We are not actually solid, you know — instead, our molecules are weird concatenations of energy. This is just physics.
Emphasis on the just.
However, this is exactly the point at which many writers would hijack science to make qi seem more respectable, and it makes scientists cringe — in fact, quantum physics probably really doesn’t have anything to do with qi, or indeed anything to do with life on our scale. I only brought physics up as a general reminder that we still have some things to learn about how chemistry becomes biology, and how biology becomes a person, and maybe, someday, we’ll find out there is something like an energy-type qi going on in our bodies. I doubt it, but I’m not completely closing my mind to the possibility — I’m a qi-as-stuff agnostic.
Meanwhile, I am quite happy with qi-as-poetry. We are “only” energetic beings in that we are crackling bonfires of neurological and chemical activity. Which is awesome. I am not disappointed by that reality.
Confessions of an energy worker
Phil Greenfield is a relentlessly sensible and good-humoured bodywork therapist of my acquaintance. Like me, he used to do and believe in “energy medicine.” Like me, he change his views not just with experience, education, but specifically because of where and how science has advanced in the last couple decades.
I was once a practitioner of ‘energy medicine’.
I believe that those like me who ‘worked with energy’ were a pretty broad church, some of whom believed in the existence of a discrete type of energy as yet unidentified by science, which animated the human body, and which was subject to disturbances that would result in both unease and disease, and on the other hand a bunch of others (like me, latterly) who employed the word ‘energy’ in a metaphorical sense; using it as a way of pointing toward all those aspects of a human being that were both non-structural, and non-measurable. Such things as mind, emotion, vitality, love, history, hopes and dreams... things that we know for sure are important to a human life, but which had been historically sidelined by the biomedical model. I think that the whole ‘energy’ movement was an attempt to offer some sort of validation to those things... to unite measurable structure with intangible qualities in order to make the human whole again.
I also believe that the ascendance of the biopsychosocial model in the field of therapeutics is going a long way toward satisfying what we were attempting to achieve back in the eighties in our desire to treat the sufferer in an ‘holistic’ fashion.
Back then we thought that the answer would emerge from a New Age revolution, where the short-sightedness of science would be revealed, and all the ancient esoteric traditions would be vindicated. But we mistakenly conflated science with the biomedical model, failing to see that the scientific debate, given enough time, can probably effectively encompass all current dilemmas, and provide a reasonable and rational language to bridge even the most polarized of arguments.
Phil Greenfield, bodywork therapist, author of Unravelling
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer in Vancouver, Canada. I was a Registered Massage Therapist for a decade and the assistant editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve had many injuries as a runner and ultimate player, and I’ve been a chronic pain patient myself since 2015. Full bio. See you on Facebook or Twitter.
- The Myth of Healing Hands — Reiki, therapeutic touch, and other “energy medicine” methods are culturally rich but scientifically bankrupt
- For a practical guide to breathing (a great way of stimulating “qi”), see The Art of Bioenergetic Breathing.
- The Anatomy of Vitality — What makes life tick? A poetic romp through the substance of vitality. Perhaps the strangest article on PainScience.com, this is a sort of poetical essay, thoroughly exploring the idea of qi.
- Extraordinary Health Claims — A guide to critical thinking, skepticism, and smart Internet reading about health care. Just as important as “believing” in the beauty of qi, we must keep a clear head about what can be known, and what cannot.
- Does Acupuncture Work for Pain? — A review of modern acupuncture evidence and myths, focused on treatment of back pain & other common chronic pains
- T’ai Chi Helps Fibromyalgia, but It’s Not “Alternative” Medicine — Despite a high profile boost from the New England Journal of Medicine, it’s still just gentle, elegant, and pleasant exercise
What’s new in this article?
2019 — Added a terrific quote from a former energy worker.
2017 — Added three new citations, minor editing.
2005 — Publication.
- You see the words ji and chi in taijiquan and t’ai chi (which are the modern Pinyin and more traditional Wade-Giles transliterations of the Chinese). These two words are not the same words as ch’i and qi! Almost everyone gets this mixed up (including me, for many years). Ji/chi is a philosophical concept, a really deep thought, hard to define and translate, but “pole” or “ultimate” will do. It is qi or ch’i that refers to breath or life energy, like the western concept of vis vitalis (vital force) or the Greek pneuma (breath, spirit, soul).
- Rosa L, Rosa E, Sarner L, Barrett S. A close look at therapeutic touch. JAMA. 1998 Apr 1;279(13):1005–10. PubMed #9533499 ❐ PainSci #56856 ❐
This paper is an entertaining chapter in the history of the science of alternative medicine: a child’s science fair project published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, showing that “twenty-one experienced therapeutic touch practitioners were unable to detect the investigator's ‘energy field.’ Their failure to substantiate TT's most fundamental claim is unrefuted evidence that the claims of TT are groundless and that further professional use is unjustified.”
Therapeutic touch practitioners could not demonstrate any ability to detect a person by feeling their aura, let alone manipulating it therapeutically. The test made them look ridiculous.
- Chae Y, Lee IS, Jung WM, et al. Psychophysical and neurophysiological responses to acupuncture stimulation to incorporated rubber hand. Neurosci Lett. 2015 Feb;591C:48–52. PubMed #25681621 ❐
In this study, subjects had their brains scanned while acupuncture was performed on a “phantom limb,” by tricking the brain into perceiving a rubber hand as if it was real (a well-established technique). In this scenario, the needling cannot possibly cause a biological response. And even if people have qi flowing in meridians, clearly rubber hands do not. And so this experiment neatly eliminates two of the major common explanations for how acupuncture might work.
The results identified the same kind of perceptions and brain activity that previous studies have found with needling of genuine limbs. This (strongly) suggests that the explanation for any perceived benefit of acupuncture is psychological: the brain is responding to the idea of needling. Real needling not required to elicit the same response that has been touted as a specific therapeutic effect. If true, belief is the active ingredient in acupuncture, not the manipulation of qi, or obscure biological effects.
This result is perfectly consistent with the skeptical position on acupuncture.
Dr. Steven Novella wrote a much more detailed analysis of this study: “Phantom Acupuncture.”
- Traditional Chinese medicine is not “wise”: like any other folk medicine, it’s mostly a patchwork of superstition, habit, and guess work, often with awful consequences. See The Reality of Ancient Wisdom, in which Dr. Harriet Hall presents some excerpts from an old book by a physician working in China in the late 19th Century. His matter-of-fact reports of the actual medical habits of the Chinese at that time are chilling, and a harsh reminder that traditional Chinese medicine was not wise and profound. Little wisdom is possible in a state of profound ignorance.
- See The Body Electric.