Immigrant families tend to have deeply-held beliefs, especially when it comes to health.
My parents have always been wary of Western medicine because of the emphasis on managing symptoms with drugs rather than treating the root cause. Most people wouldn’t think twice about taking ibuprofen for a headache, but in my family, it was reserved only for the most intense fevers.
That’s not to discount the incredible progress that has been made by Western biomedicine, from eradicating diseases with vaccines to making life manageable for people with incurable diagnoses.
We would go to a conventional doctor for serious health problems, but it would be complemented with a visit to a Reiki practitioner. Reiki is a type of therapy, under the umbrella of energy medicine, in which the practitioner would use their hands to detect and release energetic blockages in the body to facilitate healing.
A typical session looked something like this:
I remember being conflicted about whether it was real. A quick Google search brings up article after article criticizing energy medicine as pseudoscience. The general consensus is that there isn’t currently enough clinical evidence to demonstrate its therapeutic value.
The biofield hypothesis is a novel framework for understanding energy medicine, and it has the potential to completely change how we think about health and disease.
Biofields as biological wifi
Over thousands of years, several Eastern systems of medicine have developed healing techniques based on the assumption that living organisms contain a vital force or energy. Each culture has their own explanations and terminology - the Indian prana, the Chinese ch'i, and the Japanese qi.
Without a standard definition of the energy referred to in energy medicine, and lacking tools to objectively quantify it, many of these techniques have been relegated to the domain of spirituality.
In 1992, a committee of scientists at the National Institute of Health (NIH) sought to make the various energy-based techniques more legible to the scientific and broader healthcare communities. They coined the term “biofield” to describe a biological electromagnetic field that practitioners were detecting and interacting with in their practice.
To understand the biofield, think of it as biological WiFi.
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 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 have evolved to use WiFi to wirelessly send information to nearby cells within their range, which is useful for regulation. 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.
These signals are important for the coordination and regulation between 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.
A new foundation for energy medicine
We're used to thinking about ourselves in physical terms, contained by the surface of our skin. Conventional biology focuses on the mechanical and chemical composition of our bodies, which leads to the assumption that all medicine must be physical in order to have a therapeutic effect.
The biofield paradigm instead emphasizes the electromagnetic nature of our bodies. The biological field of energy and information is essential for the self-regulation of our various systems and extends well outside of our skin.
From this perspective, energy medicine techniques start to make more sense. Practitioners scan the biofield with their hands and detect irregularities that correspond to dysfunction.
In fact, recent research has shown that humans are capable of perceiving EM fields, and this sense can be improved through practice.
Mapping the way forward
Energy medicine, which has been practiced for thousands of years by various Eastern cultures, is finally being examined more rigorously from a scientific perspective.
The wisdom ingrained in these healing practices will expand our understanding of health and disease to encompass our electromagnetic nature. Conversely, all of the medical advances we have today will help us improve on the healing practices.
For biofield science to reach mainstream adoption, there are a number of barriers to overcome:
- Efficacy. High-quality evidence is needed to substantiate the therapeutic effects.
- Measurement. Novel tools and techniques are needed to quantify the biofield. Measurement devices will also eliminate the subjectivity of practitioners.
- Mechanism. Understanding the biological mechanism helps legitimize the field.
To learn about where the field is today, I’d recommend the Biofield Healing Report.
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