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.
~ Obi-Wan Kenobi
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, almost synonymous with Japanese reiki.
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 not detect a person by feeling their aura,1 which makes them look ridiculous.
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 “💩 massage therapists say.”3 These “arguments” never go deeper than the word quantum, or a clichéd deepity4 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 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 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.5 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.6 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.
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),7 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)
Are energy atheists uncaring robots?
Therapists who do “energy work” tend to be contemptuous of those who don’t. (This is a sign of their spiritual sophistication, I assume.) Laura Allen, massage therapist, author of Excuse Me, Exactly How Does That Work?:
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 have often encountered this attitude towards energy atheism, as though my inability to see human interactions through a spiritual lens is stunted and pitiable. 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.
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.
Of course, Han Solo changed his mind when presented with sufficient evidence.
Matter/energy equivalence and quantum rationalizations
Matter and energy are in fact equivalent, in the right context, which is why it is often use to justify beliefs in “energy” as a life force. We are matter, therefore we are also energy? Technically, in one sense, yes! But not in many other senses. It 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.8 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.
About Paul Ingraham
I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.
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.
What’s new in this article?
September — 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.
August — New section, “Matter/energy equivalence and quantum rationalizations.”
- 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.BACK TO TEXT
- “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. BACK TO TEXT
- PS 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. 9376 words. BACK TO TEXT
- A deepity is a vague idea that shifts meaning, dodging from profound-but-false to true-but-trivial. See Therapy Babble. BACK TO TEXT
- Reiki practitioners have the infamously obnoxious holier-than-thou habit of calling themselves “masters.” •eye-roll• A blatant form of Healer Syndrome. BACK TO TEXT
- 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! BACK TO TEXT
- 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. BACK TO TEXT
- 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. BACK TO TEXT