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The Energy That Wasn’t There

The concept of “energy” has been abused by alternative healers, but real energy has a problem as well: it defies easy explanation.

A local Reiki practitioner claims on her website that her clients receive “spiritual universal energy” during one of her therapeutic sessions. Indeed, one of the published testimonials is from a client who claims the practitioner could “connect to [her] energy almost instantaneously” and she could feel her moving from chakra to chakra, “connecting all the pieces.”

In order to explain why I dismiss these claims about “spiritual universal energy”, I feel like I have to properly define energy, but achieving that turns out to be a lot like trying to capture water in your fist. It’s very slippery and you end up making a mess.

Physicists are the accountants of the natural world

I learned about energy in school but, to write this piece, I decided to seek out textbooks, videos and articles that had wrestled with clearly explaining what actual energy is from a scientific point of view. Many of the definitions felt like cop-outs, like the fact that it’s the ability to do work, the latter being the movement of an object against an opposing force. That is accurate but it feels like sleight-of-hand: what is this “ability” to do work? What does it look like? What does it even smell like?

I doubt there exists a truly satisfying definition of energy out there. If there is, I haven’t found it. The best encapsulation of it I heard came from the Science Asylum YouTube channel. Energy is a weird, abstract property of the universe. It’s not a flash of light, it’s not a mystical heat, it’s not a series of tiny balls filled with universe juice.

It’s a number.

And in a closed system, like our universe, that number can be tracked by an accountant. Imagine having a million dollars in the bank (ain’t that nice?) and never receiving a single cent more or spending any of it. But you can put some of it in a special account called “kinetic energy” (that’s tied to movement) and the rest in a different account called “potential energy” (tied to the possibility of movement). And you can keep moving the money around between these two accounts but it will always add up to a million. Energy is like that. In a closed system, energy is never created, never destroyed, only transferred or transformed.

The Rube Goldberg machine of our body

Some forms of energy are easier to visualize than others. The energy of a falling apple can be imagined as coming from the gravity field around our planet. The apple falls because the Earth’s gravity draws it toward the ground. But what about the food energy of that apple? Where in the fruit is the sustaining energy our body needs?

An apple contains molecules known as sugars. In our digestive tract, these sugars are broken down into a very simple one, glucose. We all know glucose holds energy we can use, but where in this ring of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen is it?

Glucose gets broken down into smaller molecules and, in the process (and to simplify the fascinating biochemistry quite a bit), two molecules of ATP emerge.

These ATP molecules are key. They each have a tail of three identical groups called phosphates. That last phosphate can be broken off and sent to bind to a different molecule. That, right there, is energy. It’s not the phosphate itself, but its transfer from one molecule to another, allowing for a cascade of chemical events to take place which grant us the ability to move and to stay alive.

Can mystical energies really be felt?

Actual energy, like gravity and the energy contained in food, is studied by scientists and its properties can be discovered, leading to predictions. But to come back to the “spiritual universal energy” of our local Reiki practitioner, the word “energy” can be mangled and appropriated. Many alternative medicine practitioners believe in a form of energy—alternatively called qi, prana or universal energy—that our body has and that they can manipulate, with no evidence of its existence. That doesn’t stop them from claiming they can feel it, unblock it, or balance it. But there is no evidence for the existence of this form of energy, and actual evidence that its believers can’t even feel it.

A nine-year-old girl, Emily Rosa, working with her parents and Dr. Stephen Barrett (who runs Quackwatch), designed an experiment in the late 1990s to test whether practitioners of therapeutic touch could actually detect the mysterious energy field they claimed surrounded the human body and which they said they could “repattern”. Fine, Rosa said: if that’s the case, you should be able to do it blind. So the practitioners were each sat in front of a large screen with cutouts at the bottom so they could slide their hands underneath it. Rosa hovered her hand over either the left or right hand of the practitioner. Said practitioner had to feel the little girl’s energy and say over which of their hand was Rosa’s own hand. This was repeated several times with a total of 21 practitioners, and the end result was that they might as well have flipped a coin. They simply could not feel Rosa’s energy over their open hand, despite their claims.

There is real energy all around us, potential and kinetic energy scientists can measure, harness, and manipulate. But because of energy’s slippery nature—it’s a mathematical property of stuff, not a glowing orb—and because of our intuitions and wishful thinking, it’s a concept that lends itself well to pseudoscience. Trying to manipulate this non-scientific, mystical energy turns out to be, well, a waste of energy.

Take-home message:
- Energy cannot be easily defined, as it is not a thing so much as a number, a property that objects have in our universe
- Because of the abstract nature of energy, it has been used by many believers in alternative therapies but we should be skeptical of claims of the existence of “non-scientific” energies


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