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Reiki Nonsense

“You just have to believe" —Tinker Bell

Not long ago, the nurses at my University Medical Center decided to offer Reiki to their patients. I contacted the head of the nursing program and expressed my alarm that doing so would undermine the scientific credibility of my fellow scientists and our physicians who practice evidence-based medicine.

Some people obviously believe that it is beneficial: The Canadian Reiki Association recommends Reiki for ear or sinus infections, excessive fatigue, sudden strong desires for sensual gratification, and hearing voices. Reiki therapy is based on the transfer of their god-derived energy into a willing client. This energy has never been detected by scientific instruments; many scientists have tried. Physicists will assure you that if a form of energy cannot be detected by our current instruments, then a) it does not exist, and b) therefore it cannot interact with or influence matter (i.e. you). If a form of energy can interact with your body then our scientific instruments will detect it.

In defense of their profits, purveyors of this pseudoscience will always point to articles published in poorly-rated journals that require the authors to pay high prices for “publication” on the internet. We call these predator journals and they will publish literally anything at all. Libraries will never bother buying a hardcopy of these journals. The authors of articles about Reiki also usually, rather foolishly, acknowledge their devotion to the wisdom of their Reiki master, a practice that you will never witness in real scientific journals.

In my neuroscience seminars, I have sometimes required students to read papers that claim to defend Reiki because they demonstrate how easy it can be to produce results that support preconceived beliefs about energy healing. The studies usually involve just one session; after all, who needs a follow-up for such a perfect treatment? The studies typically involve very few subjects and monitor so many vague variables at one time, e.g. clogged sinuses, pain, depression, and fatigue, that it is always possible to “discover” that something amazing happened. Including too many ambiguous measures in any investigation is a common design flaw that statisticians warn us about all of the time.

One very young woman must have been paying attention during her math classes. Emily Rosa, at age 9 (!), devised a clever way to test whether or not Reiki, which is also called therapeutic touch, masters could really feel their clients’ energy. In 1998, Rosa became the youngest person to publish a research paper in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Notably, it was a really good medical journal: The Journal of the American Medical Association. Rosa tested her subjects under blinded conditions, i.e. the subjects had no idea what was happening to them and had no expectations about the outcome. Rosa discovered that the Reiki masters performed no better than random chance. The reason is that in order for Reiki to be effective the patient must be aware that they actually should feel better. It’s actually possible to induce the reverse effect, called the nocebo effect, and induce someone to think they should feel worse. This is a classic feature of all pseudosciences; double-blinding destroys the magic.

Since that time, numerous detractors have claimed that Rosa’s study was flawed. All of these arguments have recently been systematically debunked. [See the reference below.] The Reiki masters who purvey of this harmless handwaving make lots of money. The scientists who try to warn you about these nonsensical treatments are trying to save you money. So why do reasonable people still fall for pseudoscience nonsense? The answer is simple: People turn to bogus treatments because medical science has failed to discover a safe and effective treatment for our two most common ailments that lead people to seek out Reiki treatments: pain and mood disorders.

When it comes to therapies that claim to alleviate your pain or elevate your mood, never underestimate the power of your own expectations. Your mind plays a major role in how Reiki treatments affect you. We all want to believe that there is an amazing treatment out there that will help us feel and function better; fortunately, thanks to the poorly understood phenomenon of the placebo effect, we do sometimes, but only for a while, benefit even from the most bogus intervention. Essentially, we fool ourselves into thinking that Reiki works. After all, you’ve just spent a lot of money on this treatment. Patients also often wish to please their therapist by claiming immediate relief – that is the most obvious evidence for the placebo effect.

As Tinker Bell once said, “You just have to believe!” At least she didn’t charge so much for her advice.

© Gary L. Wenk, Ph.D.

References

Therapeutic Touch: Responses to Objections to the JAMA Paper by Larry Sarner, 2019, https://quackwatch.org/related/ttresponse/

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