The Science of Healing Touch (or alternatively, how magic hands work)

The Reiki is strong in this one

The basics are as follows:

Human energy field/Aura/Reiki is a field of energy that surrounds and penetrates the body and also emits from every living thing (like the force, just less exciting). They even have a colour (if you are particularly aware) that depends on your base emotional state.

A healing touch practitioner is able to interact with this field and remove any blocks to the ‘vital flow of energy’ that a patient may have. This then allows the now considerably fiscally poorer patient to absorb more energy from the universe (I can only assume they mean background radiation) to speed up healing. All this without requiring any of that nasty medical equipment that would only clutter up the place, increase overheads and leave less space for fairy themed paraphernalia.

Now, you may be thinking that this is just some fringe healing cult that’s conducted by individuals surrounded by healing stones and an unreasonable number of cats. Alas, this is not the case. Proponents of therapeutic touch, a healing touch variant, stated in 1990 that there were 100,000 trained practitioners [1]. The American Holistic Nurses association (itself a subsidiary of the American Nurses Association) endorses the Healing Touch Program and its courses. According to the American Nurses Credentialing Centre, The Healing Touch Program:

  “meet[s] comprehensive, evidence-based criteria to ensure CNE [continued nursing education] activities are effectively planned, implemented and evaluated.”

This is despite the fact there are barely any studies that can be considered unbiased and report favourably on the side of healing touch. Regardless, the Healing Touch Program has a total of 65 institutions offering an accredited Level 1 therapeutic touch qualification in North America alone. This beginners ‘course trains you to feel the energy fields of people as well as allowing you to visualise it. In addition, it also gives guidelines on obtaining information on the scientific validation of healing touch to give to your friends for when they laugh in your face.

Should probably just move his cloud closer
Should probably just move his cloud closer

The practice has also been integrated with religion (where to prevent any offence caused by using the incorrect terminology, all deities will hereby be known as bearded sky wizards). A quick trawl of the internet provides numerous websites from multiple religions justifying healing touch through quotes in from their assorted texts. Although controversial in most religions, it certainly is present and is most often attributed to the direct influence of sky wizards, their lackeys, or in the case of Christianity, is sometimes carried out by the J-dog himself.

To keep up with the relentless advance of technology, healing touch has also modernised. You can now measure auras by using a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID). This instrument is normally used in mainstream medicine to measure extremely low level magnetic fields as a result of neural activity. So the fact you get a reading from most areas of your body where nerves are present shouldn’t really be that surprising.

Reassuringly, healing touch has of course been debunked by mainstream science. Although rather embarrassingly for the scientific community, it took a nine year old named Emily Rosa and a school science project to design the first study investigating the efficacy magic hands to detect energy. The study tested 21 frauds practitioners through a simple method where they had to sense which hand was in close proximity to Rosa’s on the other side of a divider. The results showed that they performed no better than if they guessed. Who would have thought… This study earned Rosa the accolade of being the youngest published author in a scientific journal in 1998 [2].

Credit: XKCD

With the continual criticism from the scientific community, you would have thought practitioners would jump at the chance to prove themselves. This, however, does not seem to have been the case, even when a considerable amount of money is on the line. $1,000,000 to be exact. The One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge was offered by the James Randi Educational Foundation from between 1964 and 2015. It was to be awarded to anyone who could demonstrate a supernatural or paranormal ability under pre-agreed scientific conditions. During its run, hundreds of would-be healers, spiritualists and psychics (including a woman who claimed to be able to make people urinate with her mind) vied for this money including several healing touch practitioners. The last of these being Robert Tobolson in 2007 whose case was closed “due to a continued inability to express any specific details regarding the claim – including accuracy, conditions required to perform, and an inability to focus on a single claim”. This is unfortunately a common reason for the full test never taking place.

This brings me to my point. If the combined promise of monetary gain, prestige, professional recognition, the opportunity to heal more people and the smug satisfaction that they were right and almost every scientist ever was wrong isn’t enough for a quick demonstration, healing touch practitioners have either the worst drive to achieve ever, or they might just be making it up…

[1]   Krieger D. Therapeutic Touch: two decades of research, teaching and clinical practice.  Imprint.1990;37:83, 86-88.

[2]  Linda Rosa, Emily Rosa, Larry Sarner, Stephen Barret. A Close Look at Therapeutic Touch. JAMA. 1998;298(13):1005-1010.

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