The Myth of Healing Hands
Reiki, therapeutic touch, and other “energy medicine” methods are culturally rich but scientifically bankrupt
The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
Therapeutic touch (TT) is hands-off aura massage, actual touch not included. It is the most common form of “energy medicine” left in a scientific and technological world, nearly synonymous with Japanese reiki. Auras and meridians don’t exist and can’t be felt, let alone massaged (or otherwise stimulated) for medical benefit.
In North America and Europe, most therapeutic touch practitioners are massage therapists and — oddly — nurses. Many years ago I believed in TT (but that’s true of Santa Claus, too) and routinely offered it to patients in my massage therapy practice. Eventually I decided it was nonsense based only on wishful thinking, laughably naive references to quantum physics, and wide-eyed exaggeration of ordinary social interaction effects.
TT is pure vitalism, the belief in a soul or animating force — exactly like the Force in Star Wars, and just as fanciful. It’s about as intellectually bankrupt a theory 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 it is certainly still thriving in alternative medicine and popular culture! Mental images like Mr. Miyagi healing Daniel so he could finish the big fight are deeply embedded in our collective consciousness, and to this day you can hardly read a book or go to a movie without finding some vitalistic idea beating at the centre of the story.
And yet auras and life energy do not exist and cannot be felt, let alone manipulated therapeutically. It’s utter nonsense. Just as dousers and psychics have never passed a controlled test, TT practitioners cannot detect a person by feeling their aura,1 which makes them look ridiculous.
Other “energy medicine” modalities
This article focusses mainly on therapeutic touch and Reiki, but these topics overlap strongly with other forms of “energy medicine.” The main example of energy massage with touch is shiatsu/acupressure — acupuncture without needles, massage intended to stimulate acupuncture points.
Acupuncture itself is the undisputed king of vitalism in modern health care — which gets far more credit for being evidence-based than it actually deserves.
Homeopathy is widely perceived to be a kind of exotic herbal medicine, not energy medicine, but the core concepts of homeopathy are based on pure magical thinking about physics, way further out in left field than most people realize.
T’ai chi and especially qi gong are widely used as both tonics and treatments. These are basically vitalistic exercise therapies: massaging your aura with movement.
Chiropractic is a surprising member of the energy medicine club. Although many modern chiropractors have left vitalism far behind, the profession remains sharply divided, and the a major faction of “straight” chiropractors still believe the original big idea of chiro: that spinal adjustment is all about restoring the flow of life energy. Chiropractors are also the primary practitioners of “applied kinesiology,” a diagnostic method relying on vitalistic principles (and a classic perceptual illusion).
When I die, I want to donate my chakras to pseudoscience.
unknown ?This clever one-liner was in my notes and I thought I was ripping it off… but I cannot actually find it anywhere online. If I am stealing it, I can’t figure out who from!)
How energy medicine supposedly works
Practitioners often clumsily attempt to describe vitalistic beliefs as either beyond science,2 or validated by bleeding edge physics, or a bit of both. It’s a strong theme in all the bizarre and medically illiterate “shit 💩 massage therapists say.”3 These “arguments” never go deeper than the word quantum, or a vague cliché like “everything is energy” (more on these ideas below). They are hopelessly bereft of any actual science, and all equally depend on the hypothesis of an unknown form of energy that can be felt and manipulated but not actually detected by any other means. Keith Eric Grant is a physicist and massage instructor — likely the only one! — and he has written at length about the extreme implausibility of any unidentified form of bio-energy:
All the known forces depend on virtual particles to carry them (hence carrier particle) across space. For the electromagnetic force, the carrier particles are virtual photons. Electromagnetic radiation also is carried by photons. There has to be a physical means to get from here to there. A proposed new form of energy, a form of energy that interacts strongly with matter (of which human tissue is an instance), would require such a carrier particle. Reorganizing particle physics to include a new energy and its accompanying particle presumes that something that should have been obvious was overlooked in all the particle experiments analyzed over the years. I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Science and Energy, by Keith Eric Grant
That whole article is well worth a read, if you want to delve into this topic.
Certainly not all massage therapists believe in magic life energy. In fact, many consider it to be a crying shame and a critical controversy in the future of their profession:
Saddling a perfectly good naturalistic practice like massage with repeatedly debunked supernatural faith in energy medicine is the single fastest path professional massage therapy could take to total irrelevance.
Ravensara Travillian, MT
Massage therapists, and others in the holistic arts … seem to be a particularly gullible bunch. And there are a lot of people who have seized upon that, and marketed their products, their classes, their modalities, and their wild claims to us … and many of us have fallen for it, hook, line and sinker … and unfortunately, gone on to convince our clients to buy into it, as well. … Our profession has turned into the snake oil medicine show.
Excuse me, exactly how does that work?, by Laura Allen
TT is a culturally neutral subset of other, richer vitalistic folk medicine traditions, particularly Japanese reiki, which has been successfully exported around the world.4 There’s also lots of prana in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, and “chakra” — prana hot spots — became a household term in the 1960s. And of course there’s traditional Chinese medicine, which is obsessed with meridians of ch’ior life force.5 TT practitioners borrow liberally and inconsistently from all of these cultural traditions, but TT itself remains curiously bland: mostly just hand-waving around the body.
Going for a massage & getting ‘energy work’ is like going to a restaurant, ordering your meal & only being allowed to smell your meal before it’s taken away. It is close to what you want, but not what you asked for. To me that’s even more unsatisfying than getting nothing.
Matthew Danziger, LMT, CPT
For perfectly good psychological and sensory reasons, it might be nice to have someone wave their hands all around you with friendly intentions, but those effects are mostly minor and fleeting and it doesn’t matter what specifically the therapist does, because it’s the interaction that is the active ingredient. Hence the term “non-specific effects,” a cousin of placebo. They can be formidable in their own right, and there’s no problem with doing therapy in a way that optimizes non-specific effects — but it has strict limits. Placebo is nowhere near as “powerful” as people believe (usually for self-serving reasons),6 and there are all kinds of ethical and practical problems with cluttering up the interaction with magical interpretations of what’s going on.
It’s possible to make use of the idea of life energy without being a flake — but it’s pure poetry, not medicine.
It’s so deep it’s meaningless.
The Tragically Hip, “So Hard Done By” (Day for Night)
Popularity and mainstream credibility
Vitalism has broad appeal to the public; “ancient” wisdom is highly marketable. Although the popularity of alternative medicine is overstated by alternative medicine proponents, it is still a large industry that people love to love, and mainstream media is cluttered with pieces like this one, published by the New York 🤬 Times:7
“I would do some polarity work, some first and second chakra work, and some acupressure around the lungs and heart, points that relate to self-love,” she said, referring to ancient meditation practices and the seven chakras considered the main energy centers of the body.
Referring to nonsense as absurd as fortune telling, actually. PainScience.com is marginalized because, in the eyes of Google’s search algorithms, it’s not as credible and authoritative as major mainstream sources8… but those publications constantly pump out this kind of hot garbage! It’s an infuriating irony.
Satisfaction guaranteed by primate neurology
How do we account for the popularity of no-touch therapies, which don’t have much to offer, not even the tactile luxury of a good massage? Other than the enthusiasm of belief, they probably owes quite a lot to the simple pleasure of being paid attention to, reinforced by autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), a distinctive pulse of euphoria with tingling over the upper body — inevitably interpreted as “feeling the energy” by eager customers.
ASMR is an odd bit of sensory sorcery triggered by attentiveness, a soft voice, quiet and repetitive actions, and interesting and gentle tactile stimulation (especially around the head). It isn’t well understood, but it’s probably a sensory reward for grooming behaviour (in the same way that orgasms are an evolutionary incentive to reproduce).9 It’s motivating, in other words.
To me, a Reiki session looks like an ASMR-generating ritual with a New Age paint job — satisfaction guaranteed not by spooky healing powers, but by primate neurology. The ASMR is not only inherently pleasing, but artfully reinforces the vitalistic story the practitioner is telling.
Well aware of the perception that they are literally doing nothing, energy medicine practitioners often try make a virtue of confessing it with the ambiguous humblebrag: “I’m just facilitating natural healing.” It sounds self-deprecating and wise, but it’s actually just ambiguous nonsense. It’s an irritating cliché of all alternative medicine, but particularly common in the world of magic healing. See The False Humility of “Facilitating” Healing.
This is a classic “deepity”: either true but trivial, or profound but false or misleading.
Matter/energy equivalence and quantum rationalizations
A deepity is a vague idea that is either true but trivial, or profound but bullshit, depending on the needs of the moment.10 Energy medicine leans heavily on one of the most classic of all deepities: that we are “made of energy,” or (even more broadly) that “everything is energy.”
The prosaic interpretation of this is certainly true — an undeniable fact of physics — but it’s also irrelevant to human affairs, unless you work at a particle accelerator or a nuclear power plant.
The profound implication is that a concept from advanced physics is somehow useful in medicine and therapy. So profound! If true! But of course it’s actually utter nonsense.
But, if we are made of matter, therefore we must be made of energy? Technically, in one sense, yes. But not in many other senses! It just has no practical implications in our world.
The strangeness of quantum physics is also frequently exploited as a justification for all kinds of vitalistic beliefs. Again, there’s a kernel of truth that makes it more credible: quantum physics really does involve some bizarre, “magic” phenomena. But only at the quantum scale! Quantum physics is exploited by biology in some very special cases.11 But it has very little to do with life at the scale that we live in, and it doesn’t mean that we can leverage it in any useful way. There is basically no such thing as “applied quantum physics” outside of physics labs.
But people try! For instance, consider this health gadget to enhance balance and strength, allegedly powered by quantum entanglement, championed by chiropractors, demonstrated on Dragon’s Den using “applied kinesiology” (one of the most absurd and obnoxiously deceptive forms of quackery in all of alternative medicine). See “This is snake oil”: Scientists don’t buy balance-boosting clips featured on Dragons’ Den.
Are energy atheists uncaring robots?
Therapists who do “energy work” tend to be contemptuous of those who don’t. The energy atheists are pariahs in a profession dominated by believers. We are treated as though our refusal to inability to see human interactions through a spiritual lens is stunted and pitiable. Laura Allen, massage therapist, author of Excuse Me, Exactly How Does That Work?, and an energy atheist herself, describes this phenomenon:
There are some strange ideas floating around out there about massage therapists who stick to the practice of massage without throwing in energy work. I laugh with my clients. I grieve with my clients. I empathize or sympathize with whatever emotional time they might be going through and at times comfort them. Leaving energy work out of my practice does not mean I am some kind of uncaring robot just going through the physical motions. But that seems to be the general characterization a lot of people make about us.
I think it’s actually the other way around. It’s far more rewarding to try to understand why life actually feels the way it does, rather than chalking it all up to unknown and unknowable forces.
And there is infinite room in psychology and biology for profound, meaningful shared experiences. It isn’t necessary or helpful to attribute strange and interesting sensations to poorly defined “energy.” Actually, it’s a cop-out, a failure of imagination and knowledge, a grossly oversimplified reckoning of the amazing richness of human nature.
Laura Allen again:
We can manipulate someone’s energy by withholding nourishment from them. We can manipulate someone’s energy by withholding oxygen from them. How much sense does it really make to think we can manipulate it by waving our hands in the air above their bodies, or laying a hand on their body? Unless you’re laying your hands over their nose and mouth so that they can’t breathe, not very much.
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, Chiropractor, author of Unravelling
Magical healing at the movies
I am going to start collecting examples of vitalism and magical healing in popular culture, especially the movies (because I am a movie buff). It crops up in almost every genre. From Mr. Miyagi to Yoda to John Coffey, healing powers are “explained” with everything from Eastern mysticism to midi-chlorians to Christian faith. It is often the sole magical element in a story, embraced by audiences no matter how jarringly incongruous. We just love the idea of healing with what amounts to wishful thinking that works. Even skeptics who roll their eyes at real-world psychic healers and Reiki “masters” routinely enjoy the very same idea when it’s packaged as fantasy and science fiction.
To start off my collection:
Ant Man and the Wasp (2018) — Michelle Pfeiffer returns from being stuck in the “quantum realm” for decades. “It changes a person,” she tells Michael Douglas, and I guess it would! Apparently it levelled her up: Pfeiffer immediately deploys full-blown magical healing hands, rescuing Hannah John-Kamen from the severe chronic pain caused by a lifetime of ghostliness. The rescue is achieved with pure will and glowing-finger touches — classic magic hands, based on quantum hocus pocus. Paul Rudd closes the scene with “Did you know she could do that?”
(Sign of the times: the other thing that jumped out at me in this scene was the way Pfeiffer didn’t wash her hands before applying them. Obviously you should always wash your hands first thing after returning from the quantum realm!)
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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., or subscribe:
On this website, you might be surprised by what I have to say about believing in “ch’i.” I actually used to be a huge flake who believed almost anything: I have deep New Age roots. I’ve archived one of my oldest articles, which reads like a love letter to vitalism: The Anatomy of Vitality: What makes life tick? A poetic romp through the substance of vitality.
And here’s the complete list of all the other articles on the site that discuss vitalistic healing practices (or vitalism adjacent):
- The Chiropractic Controversies — An introduction to chiropractic controversies like aggressive billing, treating kids, and neck manipulation risks
- Does Spinal Manipulation Work? — Spinal manipulation, adjustment, and popping of the spinal joints and the subluxation theory of disease, back pain and neck pain
- Organ Health Does Not Depend on Spinal Nerves! — One of the key selling points for chiropractic care is the anatomically impossible premise that your spinal nerve roots are important to your general health
- Homeopathy Schmomeopathy — Homeopathy is not a natural or herbal remedy: it’s a magical idea with no possible basis in reality
- Does Arnica Gel Work for Pain? — A detailed review of popular homeopathic (diluted) herbal creams and gels like Traumeel, used for muscle pain, joint pain, sports injuries, bruising, and post-surgical inflammation
- Applied Kinesiology is Bunk — The skeptical position on applied kinesiology, a bizarre alternative medicine method of diagnosis
- 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
- The Tyranny of Yoga and Meditation — Do you really need to try them? How much do they matter for recovery from conditions like low back pain?
- Do You Believe in Qi? — How to embrace a central concept of Eastern mysticism without being a flake
Elswhere on the web, EBM-First.com has a good collection of skeptical reading recommendations about therapeutic “touch” and other energy therapies.
Keith Eric Grant is a rare combination: both a physicist and a massage therapist. In Science and Energy, he explains why you can’t invoke “energy” as a useful concept in health care.
Todd Hargrove goes into depth with a philosophical perspective on the meaning of “energy” as a deepity: More Deepities: What is “Energy Work”?
“Reiki ‘cannot do harm’ — or can it?” Christopher Moyer, Ph.D., a psychologist and massage researcher, explores the consequences of pursuing alternative medicine with an excellent practical example.
An argument about Reiki, excerpted from the Australian comedy/drama show “Please Like Me.”
What’s new in this article?
Seven updates have been logged for this article since publication (2013). All PainScience.com updates are logged to show a long term commitment to quality, accuracy, and currency. more
When’s the last time you read a blog post and found a list of many changes made to that page since publication? Like good footnotes, this sets PainScience.com apart from other health websites and blogs. Although footnotes are more useful, the update logs are important. They are “fine print,” but more meaningful than most of the comments that most Internet pages waste pixels on.
I log any change to articles that might be of interest to a keen reader. Complete update logging of all noteworthy improvements to all articles started in 2016. Prior to that, I only logged major updates for the most popular and controversial articles.
See the What’s New? page for updates to all recent site updates.
Mar 4, 2022 — Expanded a little on the concept of a “deepity” and how it applies to matter/energy equivalence in energy medicine.
2021 — Explained the relevance of autonomous sensory meridian response in a small new section, “Satisfaction guaranteed by primate neurology.”
2020 — Added a section about the popularity and mainstream traction of vitalism, based on a particularly fluffy New York Times article about it.
2020 — Started a collection of examples of vitalism and magical healing in pop culture. Also did a big edit and changed the title to begin making this article more of a hub for all information on PainScience.com about vitalism and other forms of energy medicine.
2019 — Added a terrific quote from a former energy worker.
2019 — Added a sidebar about all the other major vitalistic therapies. Although primarily about “therapeutic touch,” I am gradually turning this article into a more general one about energy medicine.
2019 — New section, “Matter/energy equivalence and quantum rationalizations.”
2013 — Publication.
- 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 Bibliography 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. Emily Rosa’s experiment showed 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.
Ms. Rosa was just nine years old when she did this experiment, and remains the youngest person to have a research paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. (It is, of course, likely that she had some parental assistance — but I don’t know the whole story.)
- “Science doesn’t know everything” is a classic, common non-sequitur from people defending quackery. It’s true but obvious, and irrelevant to their point … which is that their kooky treatment beliefs are so exotic that they are immune to investigation and criticism, beyond the reach of science. Nope! Not even close! It’s like declaring a leaky old canoe to be seaworthy because we don’t yet know everything about the ocean depths.
- Ingraham. 💩 Massage Therapists Say: A compilation of more than 50 examples of the bizarre nonsense spoken by massage therapists with delusions of medical knowledge. ❐ PainScience.com. 11683 words.
- Reiki practitioners have the infamously obnoxious holier-than-thou habit of calling themselves “masters.” •eye-roll• A blatant form of Healer Syndrome.
- Don’t mix up your chi with your ch’i. Ji and chi (Pinyin transliteration and Wade-Giles) are not the same thing as ch’i and qi — almost everyone makes this mistake (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. Qi/ch’i refers to breath or life energy, like the western concept of vis vitalis (vital force) or the Greek pneuma (breath, spirit, soul). This article is concerned with ch’i, not chi!
- Placebo is fascinating, but its “power” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be: the power of belief is strictly limited and accounts for only some of what we think of as “the” placebo effect. There are no mentally-mediated healing miracles. But there is an awful lot of ideologically motivated hype about placebo! For more information, see Placebo Power Hype: The placebo effect is fascinating, but its “power” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
- Revell, Ruth Fein. “Massage Therapy Without the Touch.” Internet. Accessed 2020-08-27.
- Since about 2018, Google has been making “expertise, authority, and trustworthiness” more important factors in evaluating the quality and search rank of traffic. It’s a good thing in general: it’s squarely aimed at suppressing misinformation published by cranks. Unfortunately, Google can’t seem to tell the difference between cranks themselves and the critics of cranks, and PainScience.com may have suffered significantly because of this — collateral damage.
- This is hypothetical but plausible. In any case, the claim isn’t required to make the point that ASMR is pleasurable and motivating by definition, and therefore likely more than “just” a feeling — it does have predictable effects on mood and physiology, and “may have therapeutic benefits for mental and physical health” (Poerio).
- The interpretation of a deepity is slippery by nature, shifting with rhetorical priorities. If it suits the wielder, the emphasis goes on the more factual aspect, to be more convincing. But if it needs to seem more impressive — for marketing, say — then the emphasis shifts to the “cool” interpretation. Devious.
- One of the ways that plants do their marvelous trick with photosynthesis is by leveraging a principle of quantum physics to achieve spooky efficiencies. But it’s “just” nature doing what nature does: exploiting physics to get the biological job done. And very cool.