More Deepities: What is “Energy Work”?

In a previous post I introduced the concept of a deepity. Deepity is term coined by Dan Dennett to describe a somewhat ambiguous statement that precariously balances between two possible meanings. One potential meaning is true but trivially obvious, while the other would be earth shatteringly profound if true, but is in fact false.

Dennett invented the term to deconstruct a particular form of argument that is often used to justify supernatural beliefs. Because the world of alternative health care is filled with supernatural beliefs, we might expect to find some deepities there. I think the word “energy” qualifies, particularly when used to describe certain forms of manual therapy as “energy work.”

True but boring: the scientific meaning of “energy”

First let’s review the scientific meaning of energy. Energy basically means the ability to do work, or the ability of one physical system to exert forces such as pushes or pulls on another system. Some examples of different types of energy are thermal, chemical, mechanical, electrical, nuclear, sound, elastic, magnetic, etc. Under this meaning of energy, it is boringly obvious that all forms of bodywork involve energy. The therapist is a physical system doing work on another physical system, the client, by creating forces and pushes and pulls. This is definitely true but in a way that is so trivially obvious there is really no reason to ever mention it.

Imagine if a client asked about me about the kind of bodywork I do and I said: “Well, I turn chemical energy stored in my fat cells into mechanical energy to move my arms and hands, and this creates mechanical forces that push or pull the client’s body in various directions, which results in physical changes in the client’s body. There might be some thermal energy passed between us as well, and some sound energy from my mouth which causes vibrations in the client’s ear.” These statements are true, but in a way that tells the listener absolutely nothing of any relevance. It is like asking Tolstoy how he wrote War and Peace, and he responds by saying he combined words in particular sequences.

Interesting but false: the esoteric meaning of “energy”

So why do people say they do energy work? Because they are referring to something entirely different than the scientific meaning of energy. Usually, the “energy” to which they refer is of a kind that has not been recognized by science. Instead, the energy has something to do with a vital, organic, or even mystical force unique to living beings. This energy might be termed “vital” or “esoteric”, and has been alternately named in various health care traditions as chi, qi, prana, life force, kundalini, breath of life, healing energy, etc. Some traditions claim that they can harness or channel this energy and pass it from their body to the client’s body. Others claim they are merely rearranging the client’s own energy into a more healthful pattern.

Many practitioners in these traditions are completely unashamed of the fact that there is no scientific evidence to support the existence of esoteric energies. That’s fine with them, they don’t care, they’re not big Carl Sagan fans. Other practitioners are very bothered by the accusation that their practice lacks scientific credibility. And in arguing with the skeptics, they are very likely to start using deepities as a defense. Not out of any conscious intention to deceive of course, but because these are confusing issues with confusing language. Here’s a little drama to illustrate how this might play out:

Massage Therapist:  I do energy work. I can balance your chi.

Skeptic:  There is no such thing as chi. Carl Sagan is my hero.

Massage Therapist:  You are very closed minded and “western” in your thinking. I’ll translate so your reductionistic mind can understand. Chi just means energy. Obviously everything we do takes energy. I need to use energy to work on my clients, and if they are affected by the work, then there must have been some change in their energy in some way. I spent my sophomore year in China.

Skeptic:  That’s fantastic. Are the laws of the universe different in China?

Massage Therapist:  That is a racist comment. And your turtleneck and sideburns look completely ridiculous.

Skeptic:  (Sobs) No they don’t!

So, why did our fearless skeptic fail so miserably in this encounter? Because he did not know how to spot a deepity! Where was it? It occurred when the therapist effortlessly shifted the meaning of “energy” from “mystical force” to “boring old everyday energy.” We know this because in his first statement, he could not have possibly meant that his work was energetic only in the scientific sense – this would have been a meaninglessly uninformative statement that would go without saying. He obviously meant that he dealt in “life force” type energies that are unknown to science. But when the skeptic challenged him by invoking Saint Carl, he switched his meaning of “energy” to something much more defensible – no magic forces here, chi is just good old western energy by another name. And then he crushed the skeptic by dissing the turtleneck.

Watch closely and you will see this happen someday. (Perhaps even in the comments section!)

One final note. I don’t want to be disrespectful to therapists who do “energy work.” I’m sure there are a great many who are sincere, caring and effective therapists, and who can make their clients feel better. I just think there are better explanations for why their therapies work. I will make that the subject of a post in the next week.

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50 Responses to More Deepities: What is “Energy Work”?

  1. Matt P says:

    Minor nitpick —

    “War and Peace” was Tolstoy. Dostoyevsky wrote “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov”, among others.

    Great post otherwise ;-)

  2. Alfredo says:

    Nice post Todd

  3. Way to go Todd. Watch your back now.

    Here’s my take on it about 15 years ago:

    http://www.barrettdorko.com/articles/novirgin.htm

  4. Dale Favier says:

    Yes. I feel the same way: I really don’t disrespect the work that these people do, but the “energy” drivel is absurd and exasperating.

    If you say “I listen and respond to emotional and cognitive distress, primarily through the sense of touch,” we can dispense with the pseudo-scientific nonsense, and recognize this as a legitimate variant of talk therapy. (And in my experience “energy workers” are usually as skilled at physical bodywork as most other brands of bodyworker.)

    In fact every bodyworker does this: mammals as keenly social as we are can’t possibly touch for this long without communicating huge amounts of social and emotional information. How aware we are of doing it is another question.

    • Dale,

      Yes, I believe that a skilled manual therapist is often not very aware of exactly what they are doing that is therapeutic. Many experienced and successful therapists from many different schools with very different philosophies will say something very similar – that what they are really doing is “listening” to the tissues or having a conversation with them. The conversation is rather unconscious. There is a very interesting book called Non – Volitional Movements or maybe Non-conscious Movements that Barrett Dorko recommended. All about ouija board type movements, cold reading, the clever Hans effect, great stuff. The basic gist is that we can read other bodies and communicate with our bodies without much conscious awareness of how that works.

  5. Arne says:

    As you may or may not know, “chi” cannot be translated directly to the word “energy”, as it is used in modern science. And this is the source of the kind of confused discussion that your therapist/skeptic pair is having. :)

    • Arne,

      I agree that chi cannot and should not be taken to mean the same as the scientific meaning of energy. It is wholly different concept involving the idea of a life force. Of course, there is no reason to believe that such a force exists.

      • Jeff Woodruff says:

        You may believe there is no good reason to believe that chi, or life force exists but the only reason you do not believe in it is because you have not seen it or felt it. I am an Atheist and I can both see and feel intrinsic energy around people. I can also feel it with my hands and if I did not see and feel it, I too would not believe in it because you are right there is no tangible reason to believe in it. However, I do not believe in it, or should I say I have no belief in it. I just naturally see it because it is naturally there. Perhaps you should actually attempt to feel it or see it, isn’t that what free thinking is all about. By the way I also love Carl Sagan.

        • Todd Hargrove says:

          Jeff,

          I disagree that your subjective experience of an energetic force is a good reason to believe in chi. Perceptions often do not match reality. And we are starting to understand more each day about how certain people have perceptions that are very different from other people. For example, synesthetes see sounds and perceive black and white letters as being colored.

          If there was such a thing as chi or life force energy, it would be the most revolutionary discovery in the history of science. Most of the laws of physics, chemistry and biology would need to be completely rewritten. A much simpler and more believable explanation for your experiences is simply that you have an unusual way of perceiving the world.

  6. I agree with the concept of deepities and I think the exchange with the energy therapist and the skeptic is mainly a language issue.
    Usually when a therapist uses the term “energy”, they are not referring to the scientific definition.
    The same is true when I ask for organic produce. In scientific terms, all food is organic whether pesticide free or not.
    You also seem to imply that anything that has not been scientifically proven does not exist. I posted the link to the rolfing-skeptic article as food for thought regarding how easy it is to dismiss important work that has not yet been scientifically proven.

    • Kathy,

      Thanks for the clarification. I agree that skeptics can be inappropriately dismissive of ideas outside the mainstream, including alternative healthcare. Many of these quackwatch type sites dismiss therapies without knowing anything about them at all. However, they also make some good points, and I think a skeptical approach is a necessary tool to arrive at the truth.

      I am not implying that what cannot be proven scientifically does not exist. For example, I doubt whether anyone could ever prove scientifically exactly what I was thinking last Tuesday at 8:45 pm, but I’m sure certain thoughts existed one way or the other.

      What I am saying is that there is no reason to believe in a life force type energy, any more than there is a reason to believe that there is an invisible man on my shoulder that controls my thoughts and feelings in a way that is completely undetectable by scientific methods. Chi is really no different than the invisible man.

  7. Rod says:

    Concepts like chi,prana,etc are easier for rational people to work with when they accept them as metaphors that reflect the personalized experience of anatomy and physiology.When we add the “feeling sense” of movement and sensation,it is quite obvious why these energy concepts were created by people with less understanding of the basics of form(thousands of years ago). I guess you could say “be aware of the facts but dont let it hinder your experience”Having said that,people who only live metaphors can get quite tiring.

  8. I’d also recommend Geary’s new book, I Is An Other. This is the ultimate guide to metaphor.

  9. It depends on what you mean by “life force type energy” your interpretation of that term is probably very different than mine. That’s why I can believe it exists and you can believe it doesn’t and we are both right.

    • What do you believe exists that might be called life force type energy?

        • Kathy,

          Lest I suffer the fate of the skeptic in the drama, I must point out the deepity here. “Life” has two potential meanings as a factor that can be manipulated by a therapist in the context of bodywork.

          The scientifically defensible but so obvious that it goes without saying interpretation is that the therapist and client are each living beings, and that the therapist is trying to change organic or life processes within the client.

          The profound interpretation is the idea that “Life” is some vital essence that can somehow be accessed or sensed or touched or felt or altered by a skilled therapist. This is basically the idea of vitalism or elan vital, which scientists stopped looking for long ago, not for lack of trying.

          Or as Dan Dennett said: “Vitalism—the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things—turns out to have been not a deep insight but a failure of imagination.”

  10. Rod says:

    When I turned on my computer this AM I could of sworn that it appeared to more than the sum of it’s parts.

  11. Alright, then, how about consciousness?
    I am also interested in your take on intuition.

  12. Kathy,

    I appreciate your willingness to consider alternative perspectives.

    I think intuition or gut sense is an excellent source of wisdom. I think that intuition isn’t magic, its just unconscious processing based on past experience. Any good therapist who can get results probably relies to some extent on intuition. But I think that intuition has its limitations and needs to be limited by a scientific rational and skeptical perspective.

    As to consciousness, I think science has learned a great deal about how the particular physical processes in the brain create particular subjective experiences such as pain or well being. But the question of why consciousness is there in the first place or exactly what it is quite a mystery, or as David Chalmers would say, a “hard problem.” I would guess the hard problem will never be solved. I think Dan Dennett would disagree, as he has a book called Consciousness Explained. But I haven’t been able to get through it yet! In any event, I don’t think we need to solve the hard problem to have a very full understanding of how and why therapies work.

  13. Rod says:

    Do we all agree on the definition of consciousness?I find it intriguing that most of us take the personality we call us, to be walking around looking for things to be concious of, where as the buddhist’s would say consiousness is the result of contact with an object.Gazillions of these contacts create the illusion.I think I remember you discussing this on Stephan’s blog?Anyway,I think it is important that the definition be there and perhaps Dennet’s argument is along similiar lines.I should be careful because my safety badge is glowing which indicates I’m getting in over my head?

  14. I like what Susan Blackore says about consciousness: “It’s an illusion, and by that I don’t mean that it doesn’t exist, I mean it doesn’t exist in the way we imagined it did.”

  15. Rod says:

    One of the better things I’ve heard in a while.It almost sounds like a diagnosis that someone could charge $100 for.

  16. Rod says:

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/?p=2938
    Kathy,
    Another man’s take on intuition.

  17. Hi, Todd. You can alter the behavior of a material by altering its energetic organization. If you pump liquid soap through a foaming soap dispenser, the foam will be far more efficient at cleaning than the liquid soap: less soap is needed and the foam cleans faster. The interesting behavior of a variety of foams is described by Professor Sydney Perkowitz’s popular science book “Universal Foam”.

    My point is that the word “energy” used by Yoga and other movement instructors could be referring to the energetic organization or structuring of our bodies. We can move in a very fluid fashion (think about T’ai Chi) or in a very rigid/jerky/awkward fashion — different ways of organizing our structure. Perhaps “energetic organization” was what was always being discussed and a word got lost in translation at some point.

    Do I think the use of the word “energy” by Yoga practitioners is unfortunate? Yes. Absolutely. They are not speaking of the definitions of energy from either classical mechanics or classical electrodynamics. One could consider it a “lost in translation” term. To anyone who is well-grounded in the scientific term, its use in another context is certainly grating.

    When students complete a Feldenkrais ATM lesson, they regularly see some improvement in the baseline measure used at the start of the lesson (typically some ROM). As someone who has completed 2 of the 3 years of Feldenkrais training, what do you attribute those improvements to?

    • Phil,

      Thanks for stopping by. I don’t think anything is lost in translation. The terms chi, prana, elan vital, vital force, life force, breath of life, or “energy” are all clearly referring to a mysterious or esoteric energy that is unique to living organisms and can’t be found elsewhere. I don’t think they are terms that are rough translations for western science concepts, they are words that express a totally different philosophy – that of vitalism. Of course, there is no good reason to believe that life force type energy exists, and vitalism has been discredited for a long time.

      I believe that Feldenkrais works because the movements provide information to the CNS which it can use to make better decisions about how to sense and move the body. So, novel sensory input improves movement and sensory maps, which reduces threat, and makes movement more coordinated and less painful. I think these are the major mechanisms by which almost all therapies work.

      How do you think that Feldenkrais or other therapies works?

      • Thanks for your prompt response, Todd. The first presumption is that all body/mind disciplines should be thought of the same way. Some use some amazing woo-woo words to describe their activity; they make no sense whatsoever. One of the most egregious are the publishers of Carlos Castaneda’s “tensegrity” (see the writeup on http://castaneda.com ). On the other hand, I’ve never seen the “life force” vocabulary to describe T’ai Chi, Pilates, or Aikido. I’ve never heard that vocabulary used to describe your body/mind professions: Rolfing or Feldenkrais. All of PT has a body/mind component to it, agreed?

        This is something that needs to be explicitly addressed. Many who are not familiar with any body/mind discipline will paint them with the same broad brush-stroke. They will extrapolate the nonsensical explanation of some discipline to come to a conclusion about other disciplines. This is a kind of lazy skepticism; it has no business in a fact-based discussion.

        Todd wrote: “I don’t think anything is lost in translation. The terms chi, prana, elan vital, vital force, life force, breath of life, or ‘energy’ are all clearly referring to a mysterious or esoteric energy that is unique to living organisms and can’t be found elsewhere.”

        That is an excellent question to explore. I would agree that living structure are distinct from traditional (and rigid) man-made structures. But look at the structural example I already noted in this discussion: foams. Something like the Airex Balance Pad (google on those 3 words to see one) has an exceptional structure. These closed-cell pads have been popular in the body/mind community for about a decade; many gyms are now also putting them in the free-weight lifting area.

        The invariable one-word description of standing on these pads: they feel alive. They push back against your feet in a nonlinear fashion. There are a variety of competitors — both open-cell and closed-cell — but (IMHO) none of those foams have the life-like responsiveness of the Airex.

        Look at foaming soap pumps: something patented around 20 years ago by the Dutch company AirSpray ( http://www.airspray.nl ). Why does foaming make liquid soap a better and more thorough cleaner? A mathematician or engineer would talk about the minimizing principle of soap films and the massive aggregate surface area of tens of thousands of tiny soap bubbles. They would note how that energetic organization makes it more effective than the liquid soap in the reservoir. A less-rigorous but more-poetic person might say that the foamer pump “breathes life” into liquid soap.

        As Perkowitz notes in “Universal Foam”, nature uses foam everywhere: viruses, cork, sponges, lungs, bones, etc. Nature uses foam because it is fantastically efficient at doing the job, and nature is fiendish in its search for efficiency. And Todd is right — at least historically — in noting that manmade structures have never been made using foam and the other fantastically material-efficient and energy-efficient structures that the blind watchmaker has stumbled upon through the ages. That is slowly changing: engineers are starting to understand and deploy new kinds of efficient structures; we’re learning how to do more with less.

        An interesting side-effect of these biomimetic engineering breakthroughs: we may well realize that there never was any woo-woo in these body/mind disciplines in the first place. I actually think that Carlos Castaneda’s “tensegrity” exercises look pretty interesting; it’s only the massively stupid explanation they use that sounds like nonsense to me. If a friend were going to a session somewhere and invited me, I’d probably go along and try it out.

        • Phil,

          While I appreciate the effort you put into your response, and I can see you are an intelligent and sincere person, I don’t have much idea what you are trying to say here and I’m also pretty sure that you haven’t grasped the point of my post. So I don’t really see this conversation going anywhere. Nevertheless, I will try to respond to some specific points in your post that I could make sense of.

          As to whether tai chi employs ideas of esoteric life force type energy, google chi blast and you can find many videos and sites where tai chi practitioners claim an ability to send their opponents flying with bolts of “energy.” You can also find skeptics resisting the bolts quite easily. I would guess that pilates did not use any concepts of esoteric energy.

          I don’t think “mind/body profession” is a good way to describe Feldenkrais because it suggests mind over matter as opposed to the more scientific idea of an interaction between brain and body. See my recent post on “Mind/Body Connection” for more. I think a fair way to describe Feldenkrais would be a therapy aimed at the ectoderm more than the mesoderm. I would agree that almost any therapy will affect the mind and the body. But some therapies such as such as stretch and strengthen type PT is more directed to the mesoderm, while motor control type PT is a little of both, and feldenkrais and ideokinesis would be far towards the ectoderm end of the spectrum.

          As to the foam example, I have no idea what you are talking about here. You seem to be arguing that life force would be a poetic way to describe the complex science surrounding the behavior of foam. I disagree. As I said earlier, the terms chi and prana and life force are usualy not used as a poetic shorthand for complicated science, they are used to refer to the idea of vitalism, which has no scientific grounding.

          Perhaps some people use the term energy or life force and are in fact using it poetically and not meaning vitalism. In this case I suppose they do not technically deserve my criticism for being woo, but they would be well advised to use clear language to avoid confusion. For example, what if I said that my health is governed by leprechauns, but then explain that when I say leprechauns, I am just referring to complex and poorly understood physiological processes that I can’t describe with any precision. Technically true, but a confusing and dishonest way to talk.

  18. “As to the foam example, I have no idea what you are talking about here.”

    Thanks for saying what wasn’t clear to you. More than just dispensing the product, the foaming soap dispenser is also mechanically energizing the soap when it creates the foam. The surface tension of those thousands of tiny bubbles is what makes foaming soap more effective than the liquid form. The soap film wishes to minimize its surface area; the foaming has imposed a large aggregate surface area on the foam. Each bubble has a small bit of mechanical energy in it — you could visualize each as a tiny wound-up spring.

    If you pump foaming soap onto a tabletop, the bubbles will start to pop. The many small bubbles will merge and become a smaller number of large bubbles. Remember the inverse-square relationship: foam with larger bubbles will have far less aggregate surface area. In about an hour, the foam will revert to a liquid; the mechanical energization of the foamwill be lost. No problem: the soap can be pumped again through the foamer to re-energize it.

    I really like the example of foaming soap. Foamers are available at any corner food store; anyone can easily formulate and conduct a science-project experiment. Foam has remarkable properties, but foamers are not mystical at all. Both scientific papers and popular science books are readily available about foams. It’s an excellent for people to start studying the amazingly material-efficient and energy-efficient structures of nature. And, sadly, it provides great examples of lazy skeptics: check out the comments of GregfromCanada in the comment chain of http://lolgod.blogspot.com/2011/03/anti-science-red-flags-of-quackery.html . Greg clearly has no idea about the physics of foam, but that doesn’t from imposing his “skeptical” beliefs.

    The point is that the line between structure and energy is somewhat blurred. The structure of foaming soap works because some mechanical energy has been [literally] pumped into the system.

    The most important thing for a skeptic is to know what he knows and what he doesn’t know. When your hypothetical skeptic said, “There is no such thing as chi. Carl Sagan is my hero,” he is not speaking as a skeptic. If Carl Sagan were around, he would find a stick and [metaphorically] beat your “skeptic” for his sloppy use of the concept. A true skeptic would instead say, “I have seen no scientific evidence for what I think you mean when you say chi”. The hypothetical skeptic’s question, “Are the laws of the universe different in China?” is quite arrogant; it implies the skeptic is intimately familiar with the nuances of the physics of biological structures, but most seem to be quite ignorant.

    You do the same when you label that section of your blog post as “Interesting but false”. The Wikipedia article “Energy (esotericism)” references a broad number of fields — including rolfing. If you are trying to claim that all of them are “false”, I would like to see your evidence. The Wikipedia article never makes such a claim.

    One of the best scientists out there on Fractals and Chaos Theory is Stephen Strogatz of Cornell. I highly recommend his teach12.com course “Chaos”. In his book “Sync”, Strogatz notes that two identical grandfather clocks placed next two each other will eventually synchronize their pendulums. They do this because of the subtle vibrations that the momentum of the pendulums transmit to each other. It’s very similar to foam: a very mundane way to demonstrate concepts that few people ever explore.

    Strogatz talks about coupled oscillators in biological systems: electrical, chemical, and mechanical oscillators. He notes how small, subtle forces are used to synchronize those oscillators. Strogatz has published a variety of papers; you can see the list on his Cornell webpage.

    Todd: both your Wikipedia reference to esotericism and Professor Strogatz are talking about vibrations in biological systems and they talk about subtle forces that alter the relationship between those oscillators. You said earlier in the discussion that you didn’t think there were any rough translations for western science concepts. That does seem false: Strogatz does indeed provide peer-reviewed science describing these ideas.

    Understanding foams is important to understand biology; the same applies to fractals. The energies may be unique to biological structures; part of the reason is that mankind has never used fractal designs for creating structure. I can’t tell how many of the “skeptics” have done their due diligence to understand how and why nature uses foams, fractals, tensional integrity models, etc. I suspect the percentage is very small.

    I was mystified by Barrett Dorko’s “watch your back” comment. If everyone here is interested in a fact-based discussion, the worst that will happen is that people will learn new things. In my scorecard, that can’t be a bad thing.

    • Phil,

      I agree that a proper skeptic should be cautious about declaring something to be false. I also agree that it is better to say that we have no evidence that chi exists than to say it doesn’t exist. That is why I used that style of language almost every time in my posts.

      I am not claiming that all the therapies mentioned in the wikipedia article are “false” whatever that might mean. I am sure that every one of them can be effective sometimes. What I am claiming that there is no reason to believe that any of these therapies work by manipulation or channeling of a vital life force.

      Further, even if manual therapies worked by harnessing some obscure principles of foam bubbles or synchronizing clocks, this would not make any difference to my main point, which is that such therapies don’t work by a magical mysterious “energy” that is unique to life forms.

      I followed some threads over at somasimple where you engaged in some tortuously and torturously long and unproductive conversations with other participants. In almost every response you made extended irrelevant diversions from the main point. Even if I got into a foam bubble bath, I would have no “energy” for such a conversation here.

  19. Jason Silvernail says:

    Todd-
    I sent Phil Earnhardt this link ref: “energy” foolishness.
    Sorry about that.
    Enjoy the irrelevance – thankfully it won’t last forever.

  20. I’m still getting personal meassages on Twitter from this guy.

    Ugh.

    BTW, he’ll probably comment on that.

    Would it help to say I’m ignoring the comments?

    Probably not.

  21. […] is demonstrating some excellent deepity skills here. (First, note the use of the word “energy” as a deepity.) His claims sound very profound, as if he has discovered a force that is so […]

  22. effelaHex says:

    mjog ahugavert, takk

  23. […] ideas about exactly how they are helping their clients. Like thinking they can manipulate energy fields, chakras, chi or cerebral spinal fluid patterns. Interestingly, my own observation is that […]

  24. Sue Shekut says:

    Todd,

    I love your blog and this post. It’s so refreshing to read intelligent people discussing energy work from a more scientific perspective. For years I’ve been listening to massage teachers and peers in the massage field talk about energy work and how they are moving energy and healing people by waving their hands around in specific patterns to unravel or untangle mysterious blockages. I’ve felt a strong peer pressure to just believe and if you don’t you are labeled a “hater” or somehow immature or unenlightened in your own consciousness. These types of discussions shed light on what to me has long been obvious:

    People are practicing and teaching techniques that they have no scientific basis for. They sound cool and make the practitioners seem more enlightened and powerful than they actually are. If I say, “hey I am a massage therapist and because I am kind and empathetic and have a highly developed sense of touch and understanding of human pain and psychological needs, I can make you feel safe, allow your ANS to shift to parasympathetic mode and your body will then relax and release tension in your muscles,” it sounds less exciting than saying, “Hey I am an energy worker and I can heal you by moving this mysterious life force around and reset your chi.” Or chakras. Or life force. “And you can’t do it by yourself-you need me, the special energy worker person.”

    I also believe that most of the people I know that do “energy work” are well meaning, kind and caring people who likely have this well developed sense of touch, empathy and compassion. They know how to relax people and help clients feel safe. Which is no small feat and no small favor for most people. In a culture where most people are so jacked up on caffeine, out of the moment planning and working for the future, assaulted by daily threats (cars, politicians, poor economic prospects), people need more time in parasympathetic mode. And for many, they would like to believe in something magical because it is easier than understanding the science behind why they feel better. Clients often don’t care often how they get better, they just want to feel better. We are the ones that care how and why this all works.

    I am open to learning and understanding more about energy work and the idea that there are things that we do not understand that operate in the universe. But your post does a fine job of explaining why the deepity type explanations helps no one is right on. There may be very useful and even scientific explanations as to why Rolfing and Feldenkris and other energy type modalities can help clients. (Although I never thought of these two modalities as energy work. I thought they were more physiological types of modalities. Hmmmm.)

    Thanks for being here and writing your blog! And thanks to Alice Sanvito for linking to it!

  25. Loves Arguments says:

    I think these websites are helpful for figuring out this energy problem.
    http://www.aikidorepublic.com/aikiphysics/what-is-ki
    http://westlearnseast.blogspot.com/2011/10/what-is-qi.html

    Personally, my opinion is that chi is an ancient approach to understanding energy. The mysteriousness comes from a tragic absence of the scientific method. Even with the method, the modern form of calories took a lot of hard work, serious thinking, and skepticism of established ideas to be defined.

    Todd, I like your “chicken sexing” article! It is hilarious and thought provoking at the same time!

    • Todd Hargrove says:

      LA,

      Thanks for the references maybe I will look at those when I get time. I’m sure the concepts started as a way to understand energy. But the great thing about science is that it throws away the concepts that get superseded by better ones. Keeping the idea of chi around is an exercise in cultural preservation, not science.

      Glad you like the chicken sexing article!

  26. […] work.  There are many different forms of this idea, but all essentially embrace the philosophy of vitalism – that idea that there is some essential force or energy (chi, prana, elan vital, the breath […]

  27. Mark Hollis says:

    Even if there is a life force that was able to be harnessed etc wouldn’t there also be a necessary co-related re-action that would be able to be observed at a tissue/cellular level of activity (much like heat or UV can change the cellular structure of our body … Sunburn etc). And yet when practitioners of energy work are assessed those changes in cellular tissue are only ever at least equal to placebo, regression to the mean, nonspecific effects, etc?

    The question isn’t if there is a life force (that maybe exists in quantum or 10th dimension or nanoscopic or whatever reality) that can be harnessed, that is a belief that comes down to faith and non-evidence-able claims (which I’m happy to differ with people on), the question is how come proponents of the theory aren’t able to produce results that show co-relatable changes at the scopic/observable 4D level of scientific falsifiableness reality?

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