The unreality of reiki and distance healing

Well, it’s 2017. In a mere 17 days, unreality will become reality, as the most unlikely and terrifying President in my lifetime is sworn in. Consequently, as I was thinking about what I’d like to write about for my first post of the new year, only one thing came to mind. Only one thing that I routinely apply my Insolence, both Respectful and Not-So-Respectful, to achieves the level of unreality that our politics entered in November and will amplify in a little more than two weeks.

Yes, it’s time for a reiki post.

OK, I admit it. A reader sent me a hilarious article about the mechanism of reiki that I knew I’d have to write about at some point; so I retrofitted the explanation above to justify writing about it today. I had thought about doing a post about naturopathy, which is pretty darned unreal as well, but naturopathy does include a few things that can be evidence-based, like a handful of tiny gems buried in 50 tons of nonsense. However, I don’t think it was unjustified of me to justify writing about reiki this way because what I said about the unreality of reiki and the unreality of our new President-Elect still holds true. Also, I don’t need an excuse to write about reiki, other than that my last post of 2016 was kind of depressing, and I needed a little something light to cleanse the palate before the serious pain of 2017 takes hold. Also, it’s sufficient that reiki amuses me, particularly articles like HOW REIKI ACTUALLY WORKS (THE SCIENCE PART), by Lara Starr. Except that the article isn’t by Lara Starr. It’s a repost of an article from several months ago by Arjun Walia posted to Collective Evolution, a woo-friendly site that I haven’t examined too closely.

I like how Walia starts out by describing reiki as having been “practiced and taught around the world for many years, with many believing its origins to be as ancient as those of humans themselves.” Of course, as most regular readers will know, reiki has only been in existence since the 1920s. I’ll give Walia credit. The way this is written implies that reiki is ancient when in fact it’s less than 100 years old, having been made up by a man named Mikao Usui because, if you believe the version of history promoted by believers in reiki, he wanted to discover how Jesus healed. Usui even supposedly disappeared up a mountain for 21 days to meditate in much the same way that the Bible recounts Jesus disappearing for 40 days to pray before he began his ministry. Like Jesus and his miracles, when Usui returned, he knew how to do reiki.

It makes a lot of sense, too. After all, reiki is a form of energy healing in which practitioners claim that they can, by making hand motions that sometimes involve touching, sometimes not, on or over the patient in order to channel “healing energy” from what they call the “universal source.” Of course, it’s hard not to note the parallel between reiki when described this way and faith healing. Indeed, boiled to its essence, that’s what reiki is, faith healing. Think of the “universal source” as God and reiki energy as the healing power of God, and you’ll see what I mean. The only difference is that reiki substitutes Eastern mystical beliefs for Christian beliefs. No wonder there are parallels between the “official” account of Mikaomi Usui’s discovery of reiki by Hawayo Takata and the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus fasting and praying for 40 days. No wonder the Catholic Church doesn’t like reiki, viewing it, quite correctly, as a competing religion.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take Walia long to dive into quantum woo:

With scientific research now emerging attesting to the ability of human thoughts, emotions, and intentions to affect the physical material world, an increasing number of scientists, quantum physicists in particular, are stressing the importance of studying factors associated with consciousness and its relation to our physical world. One of these factors is human intention.

Reiki essentially uses human intention to heal another person’s ailments. Practitioners usually place their hands on the patient in order to channel energy into them by means of touch. It can be roughly defined as using compassionate mental action and physical touch, energy healing, shamanic healing, nonlocal healing, or quantum touch.

It sounds like quantum quackery bingo, doesn’t it? It’s all there: “intent”; quantum healing, nonlocal healing, and the claim that quantum physicists somehow view the claims of reiki believers to be plausible based on recent discoveries in physics. Walia even goes so far as to invoke Max Planck:

Quantum physicists have been advocating for the effectiveness of such treatment for some time. For example, Max Planck, the theoretical physicist who originated quantum theory — winning him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918 — stated that he “regards consciousness as fundamental” “and derivative from consciousness.” He also maintained that “everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”

Of course, nothing in any of the quoted statements by Planck support the claim of “quantum consciousness” or the idea that quantum theory somehow provides an explanation for reiki. What Planck was espousing was a philosophical, not scientific position, that the postulate that consciousness is fundamental indeed implies that the existence of a mind-idependent world is a metaphysical hypothesis. But, contrary to Walia’s cherry-picked quote would imply, Planck thought that hypothesis of a mind-independent world was necessary for science to progress because our own consciousness and experiences are not enough. Also, a lot of the fathers of quantum physics said similar things. John Purcell, author of Mind, Matter and the Universe, put it this way:

It’s clear why Planck said this. Many of his contemporaries said similar things; Heisenberg, Max Born and others.

They were puzzling over what actually constitutes an observation in quantum mechanics, and trying to come to terms with the idea that small particles don’t appear to have a state until one is created by an experiment in which their state is observed. But the particles of the measuring apparatus therefore shouldn’t have a state until they are measured either.

Faced with this, they realised that the ultimate test of whether an observation has occurred or not is simply that we consciously believe an observation has been made.

Since then the fashion among physicists has swung sharply the other way, with only a few percent believing that consciousness has anything to do with quantum mechanics.

I think Planck’s most basic point was one that should not really be controversial. We ultimately know about physics only because our minds arrive at opinions about what we have seen, and we can share those opinions. So in this way, consciousness is certainly fundamental. It’s always our starting point, whether we admit it or not.

Planck went much further than this and apparently regarded the physical world as being partially or entirely a creation of consciousness. Clearly our minds do produce a model of reality, which may or may not be “like” some underlying fundamental reality. The modern trend has been largely towards realism/physicalism, according to which the model our minds produce corresponds directly to an underlying physical reality. But this is not the only logical possibility.

In other words, as woo-meisters I’ve encountered more times than I can remember like to do, Walia is taking the word of pioneering quantum physicists who were grappling with the paradoxes that come with the field and using them to claim that quantum physics supports “energy healing” like reiki. Apologists for “energy healing” are particularly fond of invoking concepts like quantum entanglement to claim that quantum physics supports quackery like “distance healing.” They also willfully misinterpret observations that you can’t escape consciousness when making scientific observations for the trivially true observation that scientists are human beings and their consciousness affects their observations and that how our minds work means that whatever we observe is based on how our minds model reality.

Walia continues:

Did you know that clinical trials testing the effectiveness of DHI [distance healing intention] have been being conducted since the mid-1990s? Serious scientific inquiry has been ongoing and continues to this day, with both systematic and meta-analytic reviews being published, many of which have concluded that, with nearly half of all the published studies on this topic exhibiting statistically significant results, further study is desperately needed.

Funny, but when I examine the clinical trials of such DHI (and, make no mistake, studies of intercessory prayer are basically clinical trials of DHI), I find unrelentingly negative studies, such as this famous one from a decade ago in which intercessory prayer produced no effect on recovery from coronary artery bypass surgery and, disturbingly, subjects thinking that they were receiving intercessory prayer was associated with worse outcomes. I can’t help but note that neither reiki nor distance healing are substantively different than intercessory prayer or faith healing.

None of this stops believers from wasting time and resources to test their fantasies of being able to heal people at a distance by looking at other outcomes, the rationale being that, if distance healing or reiki or whatever energy healing woo can produce a change in a measurable physiological parameter, then it can heal:

Hundreds of experiments in this area, which is closely related to DHI, have been conducted as well. DMILS is not concerned with healing, but rather with searching for measurable empirical evidence that A can affect B in any way, rather than if A can heal B.

These studies investigate the influence of A’s intention on B’s physiological state — a process referred to as “remote intention.” They further examine the influence of A’s attention on B’s physiological state while A gazes at B over a 1 way video link, called “remote staring.” Last but not least, they study the influence of A’s intention on B’s attention or behaviour, which is referred to as “remote helping.”

The effects of distant mental interactions are measured using electrodermal activity, heart rate, blood volume pulse, and electrocortical activity (EEG electrodermal activity, heart rate, blood volume pulse, brain blood oxygenation [MRI], and electrogastrogram [EGG]).

These studies have yielded remarkable results which have since been successfully repeated in laboratories around the world.

Reproducible. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The disappointing thing about this article is that, despite its title, Walia never really explains how reiki “really works.” I know, I know. Reiki doesn’t work, but clearly Walia is trying to make the case that it does and to explain how. Basically, the article boils down to, “Reiki and distance healing work because quantum physics,” without actually explaining how this might be so, coupled with some carefully cherry picked quotes from a pioneer of quantum physics, an astronomer who is a bit woo-friendly, and, of course, from the king of all distance healing woo (even more so than Deepak Chopra), Dean Radin.

You know, maybe I should have gone after something more substantive for my first post of the new year. The sad thing is, there’s no reason for me to be in a rush. I’m sure there’ll be plenty of atrocities against science this year that demand my attention. Hopefully there’ll also be some cool studies and interesting medical controversies to take on as well.