The Living Matrix: A Film on the New Science of Healing is an atrociously bad movie that falls squarely in the tradition of What the Bleep Do We Know? In his book Nonsense on Stilts, Massimo Pigliucci characterized the “Bleep” movie as “one of the most spectacular examples of a horribly tangled mess of science and nonsense,” and this new movie is more of the same. Bleep was just silly, but The Living Matrix is potentially dangerous because it might persuade patients to make poor decisions about their medical care.
It purports to be a documentary about the “new science of healing” but really amounts to an infomercial for various forms of quackery based on so-called “energy medicine.” It’s not about science, but about pseudoscience and mythical misinterpretations of physics and quantum theory. It says things that are simply not true and misrepresents them as indisputable scientific facts. The film features interviews with patients, with non-scientists, and with a veritable Who’s Who roster of infamous fringe scientists like Rupert Sheldrake and Dean Radin. But it doesn’t offer a single word of comment by any mainstream scientist or by the many skeptics who have examined the “evidence” for so-called energy medicine and found it pathetically inadequate. It doesn’t even acknowledge that dissent is possible.
I’m going to give this movie more attention than it deserves. It wouldn’t merit taking seriously if it weren’t for the fact that legions of energy medicine practitioners are promoting these same false ideas to justify bogus treatments, relieve customers of their hard-earned money, and sometimes even contribute to a premature demise by convincing patients that lifesaving science-based treatments are unnecessary. For that reason alone, the movie’s claims demand a skeptical rebuttal.
The concept of energy healing is vague and incoherent, so poorly thought out that it is nearly impossible to explain. It involves quantum holistic energy fields that somehow hold all kinds of information, that unite us with everything in the universe but also somehow govern the functioning of our individual bodies, and that respond to thought and intention. “The Field” encompasses the entire universe, but there is also a hierarchy of smaller fields for our bodies and for each of our limbs and organs. There is no hypothesis to explain how our thoughts know what to do to which field, much less how they might actually do it. It also has something to do with morphogenetic influences and with static scalar waves. Trying to make sense out of all this is as unedifying as trying to make sense out of a schizophrenic’s word salad. “We’re not in this field, we are this field… we’re denser, we’re lighter in between.” What does this even mean?
There are so many things wrong with the film that it’s hard to know where to start. The testimonials are as good a place as any.
- A 5 year old with cerebral palsy was allegedly healed by “reconnective healing” by a chiropractor who is shown waving his hands a few inches away from the child’s body. Problem: There was no medical evaluation before and after to determine whether anything had objectively changed, and video of the child after treatment shows that his gait is not normal.
- After a motorcycle accident, a woman was told there was a possibility her injured leg might require amputation. She visualized her immune system and rallied it with her thoughts, claiming she could feel the healing happening. The idea for trying this came to her directly through a noetic process: she just knew intuitively that her mind was important to her body. Problem: There is no reason to think this woman would not have healed just as well without any imaginative mumbo-jumbo. Injuries usually do heal.
- A woman who wanted children was diagnosed with prolactinoma, a brain tumor that causes infertility. She believed that she had somehow created the tumor. She refused drugs and surgery and relied on neurolinguistic programming (NLP), a discredited psychological therapy. It helped her discover that deep down some part of her unconscious did not want to be a mother. She let go of that, and let go of the anger against her tumor. She realized that having a tumor had taken her on a journey she would not have taken otherwise, and she liked herself better. So the tumor wasn’t totally bad – what if it had a purpose for being here? She gave it permission to stay for the rest of her life, and 6 months later her prolactin blood tests were normal. Her doctor said “This can only mean one thing: your tumor has gone.” He didn’t bother confirming that with follow-up imaging studies. Problem: A change in hormone levels is not proof that the tumor had resolved. Prolactinomas are benign and they have been known to spontaneously stop producing excess prolactin, to infarct, and to otherwise resolve without treatment, so there’s no reason to attribute her improvement to anything she did.
- A woman was so impaired by chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia that her husband had to feed and carry her. A Nutri-Energetics System (NES) practitioner found that she was “allergic to almost all foods” and that her energy fields were weak, with distortions in the body field. For 6 months she took drops that the practitioner had imprinted with an information pattern, and she was cured. Hard to believe even if you are the White Queen and have practiced believing six impossible things before breakfast.
- Former astronaut Edgar Mitchell (who is notorious for believing in strange things like UFOs and ESP) had an MRI that showed an “irregularity” on one kidney. His doctors wanted to do a biopsy, but he refused. Instead he was treated by a teenage intuitive healer, Adam Dreamhealer. Adam’s healing ability developed after a vision directed him to go to the forest where he met a big black bird. The bird imparted complex information to him from the field of information. Adam can look at a photograph and perceive a holographic image of the body and see where energy flow is blocked, indicating illness or injury; then he clears these blockages using only his intention to heal. On follow-up tests 6 months later, Mitchell’s kidney irregularity had disappeared. Unlike all the other fields and energies known to physics, the healing energy fields are undetectable by scientific instruments and do not diminish with distance according to the inverse square law: in this case the healer was in Vancouver, BC and the patient stayed in Florida. Problem: we have no way of knowing what the “irregularity” was. Could it have been an insignificant lesion that was likely to resolve on its own? Could it have been some kind of imaging artifact? Even if it was kidney cancer, that is a disease with a known propensity for spontaneous remission.
The plural of anecdote is not data: all these testimonials add up to no evidence at all. They are not properly documented and have other natural explanations. And they are a mish-mash of different techniques with no commonalities and no coherent explanatory mechanism. If healing can occur across thousands of miles by intention, why would the chiropractor need to wave his hands over the patient and why would the nutritionist have to administer information via drops? Do they ever try to compare these different energy healing methods to see if one is superior to another? Or to try to investigate their parameters or study what features they have in common? Of course not. Scientists would do that, but this isn’t science.
The movie claims that there are amazing healings taking place all the time that mainstream medicine can’t explain. In fact, medical science has not tried to explain them because it hasn’t seen any credible evidence that there is anything to explain. These alleged healings are poorly documented and/or have other natural explanations. True, conventional medicine can’t explain everything; but neither can these guys. Their “explanation” amounts to a confused, untestable hypothesis that a quantum holistic information-containing energy field can do strange and miraculous things. It pretends to explain everything but it actually explains nothing.
They try to make their belief system sound like science. It isn’t. They get the science spectacularly wrong, using words like “quantum,” “field,” and “energy” in nonscientific ways. According to physicist Eugenie Mielczarek, writing at Sciencebasedmedicine.org, “Studies of equations for these forces and the enumeration of the strength of their fields underlie our current technology. When energy fields are used as a medium for conveying information, scientists ask and answer the following key questions: How large is the signal? What is the transmitter located in the source, and what and where is the receiver? How can the device be tuned and detuned? Lastly, how can one replicate this by a device to be used for medical intervention?”
The “scientists” of energy medicine don’t even ask such questions, much less answer them. Their “field” concept has no real explanatory power. For instance, they say that we don’t have a full understanding of how wound healing occurs. In fact, we do know plenty of scientific details about the healing process, while they offer no details about how the “field” might cause healing. They just offer vague generalities that “information” is somehow transmitted to the body. The information field is apparently all-knowing and all-powerful, like God. This is essentially a version of the “God of the gaps” excuse of creationists. If you don’t understand something, you just claim God or The Field did it – somehow.
Many of their arguments are versions of the logical fallacies “argument from ignorance” and “argument from personal incredulity.” How could the body know to heal itself? They find it inconceivable that the entire gamut of physiology and human behavior could be explained by a physical brain and nervous system. They claim that the coherence of neuron firing is faster than the ability of the cells to communicate and that this proves that the brain is communicating at a higher level than is possible through physical factors. They can’t imagine how molecules could find each other in the cell for a chemical reaction to occur. They say we can’t explain how the body maintains homeostasis or how DNA guides development of the embryo unless we realize that the body field turns the knobs. They say we may understand how cells work but we don’t understand how they talk to each other and how they deal with information. They say the coordinated turning of a flock of birds could only occur with the help of fields that transfer information with no time delay.
Scientists are working on these problems, have made considerable progress, and are confident that the remaining mysteries are ultimately explainable. Believers in energy healing don’t want to work on trying to explain the mysteries: they are content with the pseudo-explanation of invoking “The Field.”
Intention, belief – can these factors influence healing? They fall back on the “you create your own reality” myth. “If you think you have an incurable disease, you are right. If you think your problem is curable, then you are also right.” This is nothing but wishful thinking.
They make many statements that are distorted misrepresentations of scientific facts or are simply false. Here are some examples:
- You can read the mind with EEG or magnetoencephalography.
- The brain is not the central repository of information.
- DNA doesn’t explain much. Chimps and humans have similar DNA, so that couldn’t explain the difference between them. The explanation is the morphogenetic field that informs which parts of DNA the body will access for its development.
- Genes do not control our biology.
- Children adopted into families with a genetic tendency to cancer will have the same risk of cancer.
- Beliefs and attitudes shape cancer, not genetics.
- Chemotherapy only works 9% of the time, and works only if you believe in it.
- “Modern physics understands that it is not matter but mind or spirit [defined as intelligent energy fields] which is primary.”
- The body can’t distinguish between action and thought.
- A belief can override biology.
- Epigenetics is proof that DNA doesn’t matter. It can cause 30,000 different variations of each gene, so we have unlimited potential.
- Properties like memory are diffuse throughout our brain and we access them from the field. Memory might not exist in the brain at all – it might be somewhere out in the field.
- Illness is just a lack in the information system. Disease is scrambled information.
- Matter is compressed energy.
- The acupuncture system is a system of information flow in the body itself, arranged in a certain order, that communicates in a certain direction.
- Thought field therapy instantly healed 100% of cases of PTSD in Kosovo.
- We have a resonant frequency and coherence is its natural state.
- A scientist has shown that when you start using reconnective healing, enough excess free thermodynamic energy is released that it could raise the room temperature over 300 degrees C. But our temperature doesn’t rise because we’re accessing something new and different.
- By changing your mind, you change your biology and your genetics.
- The heart is a functional brain. It may be the master organ for imprinting information into the holographic body field.
Edgar Mitchell, the astronaut, tells us that it has been proven in the lab that intention has physical effects. In one study, spouses of cancer patients got compassionate intention training. When their partners sent loving intentions, the patients’ physiology showed changes. They put the subjects in different rooms and shielded the rooms and thought they had ruled out conventional explanations; but they allowed the receiver to watch the sender on a video monitor, so they didn’t rule out subtle visible signals from body language. Another study allegedly showed that the heart has precognition and responds before an anticipated good or bad picture can register on the brain and even before it is randomly selected by a computer.
Ioannidis has shown us that most published research findings are false; and energy medicine research consists mainly of poorly designed, poorly controlled, isolated demonstrations like these that are not likely to be reproducible and have not merited attempts at replication by less credulous researchers. Real science gradually builds an edifice of experiments that confirm each other and achieve progress and fuller understanding. Energy medicine research is usually hit-and-run. They find an apparent phenomenon and instead of checking for flaws and seeing if it can be falsified, instead of trying to better define it and study its properties, they quickly move on to another kind of experiment to demonstrate another phenomenon. The totality of their research is an unconnected mishmash that proves nothing and that has resulted in no progress.
They say that 1/3 of all healings (drugs, surgery, etc.) have nothing to do with the treatment but are due to the placebo effect. That we could cut health care costs by exactly 1/3 by just using the placebo effect. That an inert substance is somehow able to manage a whole cascade of responses in a complex system to target the liver or the kidney: it’s a great mystery. That what medicine calls the placebo effect is really a phenomenon of energy fields.
This is a complete misunderstanding of what science has learned about placebos. It’s an absurd distortion of the fact that in a controlled study, 1/3 of the patients in the placebo control group typically report improvement. That improvement is mostly due to factors like regression to the mean and the natural course of the disease, and when those other factors are controlled for by adding a no-treatment group, most of the apparent placebo response disappears. And while placebos may reduce pain perception, they have never cured cancer or pneumonia.
Mitchell asks us to walk into any cathedral and feel the palpable experience of awe and reverence. He says we have this experience because for hundreds of years the people going in have been in such a state of mind that the quantum emissions from the body-brain were emitted, absorbed into the cathedral, and now are being transmitted back to us. Yeah, sure. Or maybe it’s angels. It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with any natural explanations like psychology, conditioning, suggestion, environmental influences, sensory effects, aesthetic responsiveness, and expectation, could it?
They suggest one possible mechanism for our body’s connection to the field: the biophoton. Biophotons are a random by-product of cellular metabolism; they can only be detected by powerful photomultipliers. Energy healing advocates claim that biophotons create some kind of dynamic coherent web of light within our bodies. But how could they measure that and what would it even mean? They think this web might be regulating the body’s metabolism, since molecules can’t regulate themselves. But it’s not plausible that these ultraweak photons could have any significant effect, or that a whole-body coherent web could result; and it’s even less plausible that it could carry information.
The movie claims that informational medicine is going to be the future of medicine. Yes, it is; but it’s going to be real information from advances in fields like neurophysiology and genomics. It’s not going to be mystical information transmitted by thought and intention and quantum holistic flapdoodle.
A good rule of thumb is to never accept any new claim without first asking who disagrees with it and why. The movie doesn’t ask such questions. These people are not seeking the truth: they are certain that they already know the truth and they are only seeking to persuade others to accept their belief system. The Living Matrix made my brain hurt. It was only worth watching as an appalling demonstration of the human capacity for self-deception and as a reminder of how badly our error-prone human brains need the discipline of rigorous science and critical thinking.
 Ioannidis JP. Why most published research findings are wrong. PLoS Med. 2005 Aug;2(8):e124. Epub 2005 Aug 30. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pmed.0020124
This article was originally published in Skeptic magazine.