Energy Medicine

A review of Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis
by James L. Oschman. London: Churchill Livingstone,
an imprint of Harcourt Publishers Limited, 2000. 274 pp.
ISBN 0-443-06261-7

“ENERGY MEDICINE” INCLUDES therapeutic touch, craniosacral therapy, homeopathy, acupuncture, and numerous other alternative medicine practices. It usually implies a vitalistic philosophy: something immaterial produces life and health in a material body. James Oschman believes that the phenomena of energy medicine can be studied, measured, and explained by science without invoking any mysterious life forces or unmeasurable subtle energies. He marshals a large body of experimental evidence and argument to try to support his thesis.

In the foreword, Candace Pert sets a strange tone for a scientific book by describing how Dr. Oschman “pulled” some energy away from her “stagnant” liver. She tells us the body is “a liquid crystal under tension capable of vibrating at a number of frequencies, some in the range of visible light,” with “different emotional states, each with a predominant peptide ligand-induced ‘tone’ as an energetic pattern which propagates throughout the bodymind..” If you are hoping the book will explain what this means, you will be disappointed.

Historical Background

According to Oschman, “In the past, the most remarkable success stories of complementary therapists (as well as healings in the religious context) were often dismissed because there was no logical explanation.” Here he makes two unsupported assumptions: (1) that complementary therapists have had a greater success rate than can be explained by placebo, natural course of disease, and chance; and (2) that dismissal is not simply due to inadequate evidence. He accepts kinds of evidence that most scientists would not. He believes that Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” was unjustly maligned, because in the scientific paradigm, “if a phenomenon is difficult to measure or does not fit into any of the emerging disciplines, it is excluded from investigation.” This is not true. No phenomenon that is shown to exist is ever excluded from scientific investigation. In the case of Mesmer, no documented phenomenon was there to exclude.

In 1873, Edwin Babbitt spent weeks in a darkened room to heighten his visual sensitivity; when he emerged, he said he could see energy fields around human bodies. Oschman believes him. Why? Because the pictures he drew were consistent with the pattern of neurocurrents in the corpus callosum. He also believes that the many quack electrotherapy devices of the early 1900s may have been effective, saying there was no evidence for or against them. The FDA officials who banned those devices would disagree.

Oschman believes that Harold Saxton Burr could detect ovulation by monitoring voltage changes. Others couldn’t replicate his findings, but Oschman attributes this to confounding signals from other organs. In 1974, an ovulation detector was patented; it supposedly filtered out the rhythms of other organs so that only the oscillating electrical field of the ovaries remained. Of course, a device doesn’t have to be effective to be patented, and no one uses this device today.

Burr also found electrical field changes that predicted subsequent development of cancer. Attempts to replicate his findings failed. Oschman thinks Burr’s theories of cancer detection were validated by the research of Reinhold Voll, who invented EAV (Electro Acupuncture of Voll). Most scientists would disagree. On the Quackwatch website Dr. Stephen Barrett says, in red warning letters, “I believe that EAV devices should be confiscated and that practitioners who use them should be delicensed because they are either delusional, dishonest, or both.” [1]

Core Argument

Electromagnetism can be detected for all body functions. The heart generates a signal that can be recorded by an electrocardiograph (EKG) and by magnetocardiography (MCG). Brain function can be monitored on an electroencephalograph (EEG). Magnetomyograms detect magnetic pulses when muscles contract. These are all well-established scientific facts.

We know that alternating magnetic fields (applied for 8-10 hours a day) help heal broken bones. From this fact, Oschman leaps to the assumption that brief application of healing hands can heal anything. Interaction of the patient’s and therapist’s biomagnetic fields could explain polarity therapy, therapeutic touch, and other types of energy healing. He firmly believes that energy healers can perceive electromagnetic fields and can adjust them to optimize health. His hard evidence for this boils down to two experiments.

1. A Japanese team [2] measured magnetic fields from the palms of 37 subjects who supposedly could emit External Qi. In three subjects only, they detected magnetic fields of 2-4mGauss in the frequency range of 4-10 Hz. This is 1000 times greater than had been previously measured in humans. In one subject, they attempted to measure the corresponding bioelectric current and found that this was not detectable. Oschman accepts this as solid evidence, without considering the obvious flaws:

-Generation of magnetic fields that strong would imply strong loop currents that would probably be enough to vaporize tissue. [3]

-They were not able to measure any current whatsoever, which would seem to indicate that the electromagnetic field was not really present.

-There is no evidence that Qi exists at all.

-It’s far more likely that inadequate controls or measurement errors caused these 3/37 positive results in three of the 37 subjects.

-The experiment was done in 1992 and has never been replicated.

2. Dr. John Zimmerman used a superconducting quantum interference device (SQUID) to detect a large biomagnetic field emanating from the hands of a practitioner during therapeutic touch –  so large it could not be quantified by the SQUID device. [4] It pulsed at a variable frequency, from 0.3 to 30 Hz, with most of the activity in the 7-8 Hz range. The study was published in 1990 in the journal of the Bio-Electro-Magnetics Institute, whose founder and president just happens to be… John Zimmerman! The findings have not been replicated elsewhere.

Oschman suggests that further experiments should be done to find out how this force affects healing; he doesn’t suggest that the original experiments should be repeated to confirm whether the force really exists: “If the phenomenon is as robust and repeatable as it seems,” this discovery will go down in history. At the same time, he admits the finding is “tenuous in that it has not been widely replicated.” Well, which is it? If it’s tenuous, it can’t very well be robust. “Unbelievable” might be a better word.

Electromagnetic Fields (EMF) in the Environment

Oschman thinks we are sensitive to a variety of electromagnetic influences: the magnetic field of the earth (which is constantly changing), the Schumann resonance (standing waves from lightning that resonate between the earth and ionosphere), extraterrestrial sources of X-rays and cosmic rays, geopathic stress (at pathogenic sites detectable by dowsing), and pollution by manmade devices. He cites carefully selected positive studies, but does not mention any of the many negative studies. For instance, he quotes a 1981 study that found a correlation between suicide locations and 50 Hz power lines in the West Midlands, England. [5] He fails to mention a 1986 follow up study that found no correlation with suicide or any of several other conditions, and, in fact, found the overall mortality lower than expected. [6] One of the researchers he cites was found guilty of scientific misconduct, but he feels that the verdict was unfair, and that the study results are inconsistent because different people have positive, negative, or neutral responses. In other words, there is no way to disprove the hypothesis.

Physicists have calculated fields, conductivity, noise from random thermal agitation, etc. to show that the signal/noise ratio prevents environmental EMF from having significant biologic effects. Oschman rejects this, saying weak fields can have stronger effects than strong fields because of frequency-intensity “windows” of response. He believes that electromagnetic “allergies” are widespread and under diagnosed. Simply standing next to a toaster can cause dizziness, nausea, or migraines in sensitive patients, because normal household electricity disrupts their body’s information systems. Multiple allergies can develop: if you are having a reaction to 60-cycle electricity and are simultaneously exposed to a chemical, you can automatically become allergic to that chemical. Sensitive patients can react to just being in the same room with a sealed glass tube containing a homeopathic dilution of an allergen. Reacting patients emit signals that can produce allergic reactions in other sensitive people.

Oschman says, “Virtually every disease and disorder has been linked by one investigator or another to electromagnetic pollution.” He recommends you buy a magnetic detector to find hot spots in your home. Key information about the effects of EMF is unknown to the public, Oschman explains, because: (1) it sounds like astrology, (2) people don’t want to be influenced by far-away events, (3) the idea that the body radiates and is sensitive to invisible energy fields is menacing, and (4) public knowledge would lead to economic and legal consequences. (Yes, conspiracy theories are alive and well!)

Information Flow

The cell is not just a sack of fluid; it has a structure-a cytoplasmic matrix-that we are just beginning to understand. Cells are interconnected through molecules in the cell membrane called integrins that regulate most functions of the body and play a role in arthritis, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis and cancer. Oschman sees the entire body as one interconnected organism, a living matrix of communication analogous to the nervous system. “Each fiber of the living matrix, both outside and inside cells and nuclei, is surrounded by an organized layer of water that can serve as a separate channel of communication and energy flow.”

Communication also occurs, he claims, through solid-state biochemistry, crystalline arrays, piezoelectricity, and a living tensegrity network that forms a mechanical and vibratory continuum, absorbs healing energies, and converts them into acoustic signals. “Each molecule, cell, tissue, and organ has an ideal resonant frequency that coordinates its activities.” The perineural tissue forms a distinct communication system that regulates nerve function; acupuncture accesses this network. Energetic bodywork somehow opens and balances the information channels to prevent disease and maintain health. Acupuncture, acupressure, Shiatsu, massage, and structural integration all activate tissue repair processes, possibly by simulating injury.

Heart rate variability (HRV) relates to emotions. With training, you can achieve a state of internal coherence with a HRV of almost zero. This is a calm state where you are aware of your electrical body. It promotes health. DNA acts as a resonant antenna to receive and transmit information coded in the heart’s electrical rhythms and in the oscillations of the DNA molecules themselves. “A sensitive individual can begin to tune in to these phenomena by focusing on any body rhythm” such as heart rate or cerebrospinal fluid pulsations or breathing.

Another kind of communication occurs when changes in collagen density form somatic “memories.” Application of therapeutic pressure can release a vivid recollection of trauma, as well as releasing toxins that have accumulated in connective tissues. Physical and personality structure are related, and structural integration can be achieved through Rolfing, osteopathy, chiropractic, Feldenkrais, yoga, Alexander, craniosacral, myofascial release, and similar methods. Body shape and patterns of movement tell (1) our evolutionary history, (2) the history of our personal traumas, and (3) the story of our present emotional state. There are seemingly no limits to the claims of energy medicine.

Benveniste and Homeopathy

Chemistry was once described in terms of “billiard-ball” reactions; today it is better understood as electromagnetic interactions. Oschman believes that the electromagnetic signature of a drug works as well as the drug itself, or better; homeopathy, colorpuncture, sight and sound therapies, healers’ hands, aromatherapy, flower essences, and crystals can all supply this signature. Homeopathic succussion makes the molecules continue to vibrate coherently for a long time. “Current thinking is that ‘water memory’ does not violate any laws of physics or nature. It simply means that our understanding of water is incomplete.”

Oschman’s take on the late Jacques Benveniste’s experiments is revealing. Benveniste published a paper in Nature in 1988 [7] purporting to show that a homeopathic remedy retained biological activity after a dilution process sufficient to remove all molecules of the original substance. Water could “remember.” When a team from Nature, including James Randi, observed his lab procedures and enforced proper blind methodology, he was unable to reproduce his original results. (Benveniste has been a figure of ridicule to many scientists, and had won two “Ig Nobel” prizes, [8] the most recent one for digitally recording the biological activity of a homeopathic solution, sending it over the Internet as an attached document, and transferring it to another water sample at the destination!) Oschman feels Benveniste has been unjustly maligned:

James Randi, a magician with no scientific credibility or credentials, does not like Benveniste’s work, and his disparaging remarks have been published in Nature. Now, Nature is usually regarded as a respectable and discriminating scientific journal. Unfortunately the magazine has published Randi’s comments even though they contain no logical arguments or evidence of any kind for rejecting Benveniste’s discoveries. [9]

The experiment did not work when others were watching – isn’t that evidence for rejecting it? Whether Randi “likes” Benveniste’s work is irrelevant, even to Randi himself. Randi has offered a million dollar prize to anyone (liked or not liked) who can demonstrate biological effects from a homeopathic dilution; a British team tried it recently and failed, on BBC television, no less. [10]

Energy Circles

In a chapter on “Energy Circles” the author claims to demonstrate the flow of energy in groups of people. After a series of preparatory exercises (“smiling vigorously and ridiculously,” deep breathing, Tibetan bells, visualization of happy times, etc.) participants form a circle between an energy practitioner and subject, the hands of each person almost but not quite touching the back of the next. Strange things happen. People feel energy, resolve emotional traumas and are cured of physical symptoms. One even gave up his hearing aid, sure that these effects cannot be due to suggestion, because when a branch of hawthorn was brought into the circle, a woman who had lost her sense of smell to an injury 20 years before said she sensed the smell of hawthorn.

Quantum Theory Strikes Again

Pseudoscience and new age philosophies frequently invoke quantum theory out of context. Oschman’s book is no exception. If there is a God of Quantum Physics, he ought to smite those who take his name in vain. Physicists such as Victor Stenger [11] assure us that quantum theory does not apply to large objects or to human consciousness. But quantum theory says strange things can happen, so it provides a convenient excuse for believing ideas that don’t make sense to science. For example, Oschman borrows the concept of scalar potentials from quantum theory-the idea that when two waves cancel each other out, residual information is still available. He then argues that physics allows for spooky action at a distance and instantaneous propagation of scalar waves (not bound by the limit of light velocity), proposes that this has biological effects, and claims the only way to study this is to observe electromagnetically sensitive individuals. He discusses microgenesis, “a unified theory that brings together language, perception, learning, action (movement), feeling, time awareness, and the nature of the self.” This isn’t recognized by neuroscientists “because it is based on a wealth of clinical detail that few are familiar with,” but it has something to do with quantum units of consciousness with a bottom-up unfoldment, and storage of traumatic patterns that can be released in a lifechanging instant of clarity. Yeah, right.

The author believes in subtle actions at a distance, Jung’s synchronicity, transference of evoked brainwaves to another subject in an EMF shielded room, and telepathic experiences correlated with calm periods of global geomagnetic activity. He also believes in dowsing and in the “bone-out-of-place” theory of chiropractic, which even chiropractors themselves have given up because it doesn’t show up on X-rays. Come to think of it, he never mentions anything he doesn’t believe. He has a very open mind. Too open by half.


Oschman concludes that energy medicine was discovered before its time, but now the time has come to integrate it into scientific knowledge. There is probably no single “life force” or “healing energy.” Instead, there is an interaction of many electrical, magnetic, elastic, acoustic, thermal, gravitational, and photonic energies, and possibly other subtle energies that remain to be discovered. He claims that there is a growing body of evidence for energy healing, but that even carefully controlled studies have been dismissed, simply because science does not recognize their rationale. This is not true; the positive evidence is of poor quality and is outweighed by the negative evidence that this book consistently refuses to acknowledge.

Science is not a matter of cherry picking whatever supports your hypothesis. Rather it is a self correcting methodology where all the evidence is considered and critiqued, and competing hypothesis are tested. This book masquerades as science, but it amounts to little more than speculation and polemic in support of a preconceived belief. The tragedy is that energy medicine believers now have a book whose very title may lead them to think there is “proof” that their experiences have a scientific basis. Many scientifically naïve readers will be convinced. Critical thinkers will not.

[1] Accessed May 17, 2004.

[2] Seto A, Kusaka C, Nakazato S, Huang WR, Sato T, Hismitsu T, Takeshige C. Detection of extraordinary large bio-magnetic field strength from human hand during external Qi emission. Acupunct Electrother Res. 1992;17(2):75-94.

[3] Accessed May 20, 2004.

[4] Zimmerman, J. Laying-on-of-hands healing and therapeutic touch: a testable theory. Newsletter of the Bio-Electro-Magnetics Institute 1990, 2(1), 8-17.

[5] Perry FS, Reichmanis M, Marino A, Becker RO. Environmental power-frequency magnetic fields and suicide. Health Physics 1981; 41:267-277

[6] McDowall ME. Mortality of persons resident in the vicinity of electricity transmission facilities. Br J Cancer; 1986 Feb; 53(2):271-9.

[7] Davenas F, et al. Human basophil degranulation triggered by very dilute antiserum against IgE. Nature 1998; 333:816-818.

[8] Accessed May 20, 2004.

[9] Oschman, JL. Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis. London: Churchill Livingstone, an imprint of Harcourt Publishers Limited, London, 2000. Page 254.

[10] Accessed May 17, 2004.

[11] Stenger, V. The Unconscious Quantum: Metaphysics in Modern Physics and Cosmology.. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 1995.

This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine..

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.