Immigrant families tend to have deeply-held opinions on certain things. My parents had a really strong distrust of Western medicine. For perspective, I've taken ibuprofen maybe a handful of times in my life - it was reserved only for the most intense fevers.

My family would instead rely on naturopathic treatments, which assume the body's ability to heal itself and support that process. This included more common home remedies, such as drinking tea or taking vitamins, to less conventional treatments, like homeopathy and energy-based therapy.

Growing up, I remember being conflicted about whether to believe in the process.

Energy-based therapy was particularly bizarre, with the doctor using their hands as a conduit to balance my body's energy. It looked something like this:

Energy-based therapy. Source.

A quick Google search brings up hundreds of articles condemning energy-based therapies as pseudoscience. The mainstream view is that the explanations for how it works don't add up logically and there is no strong evidence to demonstrate its therapeutic value.

The criticism is fair but ultimately misguided. An emerging field provides a novel framework for studying energy-based therapies, and it has the potential to completely change how we think about health and disease.

A new foundation for energy-based therapies

Over thousands of years, numerous Eastern cultures have developed healing practices based on the assumption that living organisms contain a vital force or energy. This goes by many names - the Indian prana, the Chinese ch'i, and the Japanese qi. Independently, each culture invented techniques to help people balance their energy and stimulate the body's healing process.

Although these practices have been used for thousands of years in several different indigenous systems of medicine, only recently have they been examined more rigorously from a scientific perspective.

It turns out that all living systems generate a dynamic electromagnetic field, called a biofield. This might be the missing link that we needed to understand this mysterious concept of energy.

To understand the biofield, think of it as biological WiFi.

Biological WiFI. Source

We're already familiar with the properties of WiFi:

  • our devices use it to send and receive information
  • it radiates outwards in all directions from a router or hotspot
  • it has a limited range

Now let's map on these features to the biofield. Imagine that every cell in your body has its own personal WiFi signal!

Physics tells us that moving, charged particles generate electromagnetic (EM) fields. Every cell in our body consists of these particles, so an EM field is generated around them. Just like WiFi, this field similarly radiates in all directions and has a limited range.

Cells interacting via WiFi

Cells have evolved to use WiFi to wirelessly send information to nearby cells within their range, which is useful for coordination. This is not the only way that cells communicate, though. They also send and receive physical molecules, the cellular equivalent of snail mail.

Different types of cells have different compositions and so their WiFi signals operate at distinct frequencies. As we build up towards tissues and organs, which are just groups of similar cells, we get larger and more complex WiFi networks.

Organs with different WiFi signals

These signals are important for the regulation and self-organization of these organs and the body as a whole. When an organ is under stress, its WiFi network reflects this state with irregular signaling. The surrounding organs pick up on the spotty WiFi and respond accordingly.

From this perspective, the techniques used by energy therapy practitioners make more sense. They are trained in detecting the subtle EM fields generated by different parts of the body and notice irregularities when there is dysfunction or disease. In fact, recent research has shown that humans are capable of perceiving EM fields.

We're used to thinking about our bodies in physical terms, contained by the surface of our skin. Conventional biology places heavy emphasis on the structure of molecules and the physical interactions between them.

But to fully understand the mechanisms behind energy-based therapies, we need to reframe how we think about our bodies.

The human biofield is a complex, dynamic EM field that's made up of trillions of smaller fields generated by individual cells. Importantly, this energy field extends well outside of our skin and interacts with the outside world.

A few challenges to overcome

The biofield hypothesis is exciting because it offers a plausible explanation for how objects or fields may interact with a living system, and creates the foundation for starting to understand the mechanism underlying energy-based therapies such as Reiki, acupuncture, homeopathy, and so on.

So far, the scientific literature related to energy-based therapies remains scarce. One of the challenges for studying biofields is that they are extremely weak compared to the geomagnetic fields exerted by the Earth. This means that novel measurement tools and quantitative techniques are a necessary precursor before any real progress can be made.

This is further complicated by the fact that each individual particle, cell, tissue, and organ both generates and responds to the relevant components of the living system's biofield. As the number of possible interactions becomes extremely large, it will be necessary to borrow machine learning techniques from computational neuroscience, which are designed to analyze millions of neurons simultaneously.

When the biofield is better understood in the future, we could expect AI health assistants that monitor your health and wellbeing directly through your biofield via wearable sensors. These would be an incredible improvement over the status quo of today's health wearables (think Apple Watch). Imagine an AI health assistant that monitors and manipulates your biofield to enhance your wellbeing!