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Should We Take Reiki Seriously?

Energy healing is available at many first-rate academic health centres. But behind the veil of testimonials lie questionable publications and the fantasies of a starving man.

The topic of Reiki can be approached with a fist or with a light touch. Its interventions, which are based on an energy not measured by scientific instruments, offer an unmissable punching bag to the skeptic who wants to pummel absurdity. A study on the effect of carbonated drinks on chakras, you say? A Reiki master using stuffed animals to practice distance healing, really? But I will dial down the sarcasm and focus on asking questions to see if the claims and history of Reiki—and its spiritual children like Therapeutic Touch—pass the sniff test.

Starving brains hallucinate

Reiki is a Japanese technique whose adherents say can promote healing. It posits some sort of life force energy that, when low, makes us sick. Through hand placement above and on the client’s body, a Reiki master believes they are channeling their god’s energy to heal the client.

While there have been many versions of Reiki in the past, the most common one is called Usui Shiki Ryoho after its founder, Mikao Usui. Born in 1865, Usui was a Japanese man who belonged to a group that wanted to develop psychic abilities and who climbed a mountain, starved himself for 21 days, and had a vision. If this story had taken place just a few years ago, I wonder if Reiki would be taken seriously by academic health centres.

The history of therapeutic touch—essentially Reiki under a nursing hat—similarly hinges on an anecdote. The story goes that, in 1971, a nurse by the name of Dolores Krieger was dispirited at the sight of a young patient dying from a gallbladder condition. So she decided to try something she had been learning for the past few years: a laying-on of hands taught to her by two psychic healers, Dora Kunz and Oskar Estebany. Happy with the results, Krieger started teaching this method to other nurses.

According to the website of the International Association of Reiki Professionals (IARP), Reiki doesn’t cure anything. It does however help “get to the root cause of a condition” and create the best environment “for the body to heal.” Does that not sound like curing? “Granted,” the text continues, “dissolving the root cause of a condition can definitely alleviate symptoms and physical conditions, but they were ameliorated in a different manner than curing provides.” Is this “pretzel logic” convincing or does it sound like someone doesn’t want to get sued for practicing medicine without a license?

Many highly theoretical mechanisms have been proposed to explain how hand waving could cure—I’m sorry, not cure but “help the body heal itself”—but none of these mechanisms make sense scientifically. Some believe trauma is stored in our cells and therapeutic touch can restore communication between cells (a claim cell biologists would definitely frown upon). Others say the iron in our blood creates an electromagnetic field as it circulates, and this aura can be manipulated. Finally, Reiki traditionalists simply claim to channel their god’s divine energy. With such colossal powers at their disposal, it’s a wonder Reiki masters typically advertise lowering your stress and improving your mood. Why can’t they regrow limbs?

Death by a thousand scientific paper cuts

It is hard for me to take these energy healing choreographies seriously from a scientific point of view. And the problem is that Reiki and its children are not content to stay within the bounds of spirituality; they venture into medical territory by making health claims and by weaponizing the scientific literature.

Take this review published in 2017: “Reiki is better than placebo and has broad potential as a complementary health therapy.” Should we trust its conclusion? It was published in the Journal of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (which invites some skepticism) and written by a chemical engineer turned Reiki master. (The review ends with an acknowledgment of the “guidance and wisdom of his Reiki masters” and the support of his Reiki association “dedicated to letting the love of Reiki shine in the world”. In fact, many studies of Reiki end with similar spiritual language. I wonder how seriously cardiovascular research papers would be received if their acknowledgements spoke of letting the love of cardiology shine in the world.)

The individual studies listed in this review, as well as most papers testing Reiki, are a teachable encapsulation of bad science. They often involve a single Reiki session with no follow-up; they test small groups, which leads to noisy data that can look positive by chance alone; some test Reiki on rats with implantable telemetric transmitters; and they measure so many things that one of them is bound to yield a favourable signal. And speaking of sloppiness, the author of the aforementioned 2017 review did not thoroughly search the literature the way a scientist would; he used Google Scholar.

What these papers will rarely tell you is that a young girl, Emily Rosa, once devised a clever way of testing whether or not therapeutic touch practitioners could really feel their clients’ energy. She tested 21 of them under blinded conditions and they did no better than a coin toss. Starving brains can hallucinate, but even well-fed minds can convince themselves they can feel something which simply isn’t there.

Studying the implausible

Should we even galvanize money and time to research something as implausible as this? What if I fast at the top of a mountain and hallucinate that I can massage your organs with my thoughts, and I accumulate a string of happy campers who think their colons have settled down thanks to my mind healing? Should the government, with its limited resources, fund studies into my claim?

There’s no doubt in my mind that Reiki and its knockoffs can be relaxing and improve your mood. The danger, however, is that its followers are not always content with relieving your stress. Who can blame them? If you thought you could channel divine energy, would you stop at mood enhancement? The IARP’s website gives an account of a Japanese woman in 1935 who was “very ill” and “in need of surgery.” She listened to her instincts, didn’t get the surgery, and was allegedly healed via Reiki. The Canadian Reiki Association’s newsletter mentions the use of Reiki symbols for ear or sinus infections, and that excessive fatigue, sudden strong desires fo sensual gratification, and hearing voices might actually be symptoms of a “psychic attack.” These affirmations are reckless and untrue and can shepherd people away from actual treatments.

It pains me to write that Reiki is offered in premier medical centres, including the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins. If it were called “Jedi healing”, I’m not sure it would be taken seriously.

Take-home message:
- Reiki and Therapeutic Touch are interventions that claim to help people’s bodies heal themselves by modifying the body’s so-called energy field
- Reiki was created by a man who claims to have starved himself for 21 days and who had a vision
- Studies of Reiki and other energy healing therapies tend to be of poor quality and, while these interventions can be relaxing, there is no good evidence they can treat any disease


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