Energy Crisis – Vitalism Pseudoscience

October 2000
by Robert Novella

Of all the scientific terms that have been usurped by pseudoscientists, the word “energy” would have to be the most abused. This word has a very specific meaning to physicists, but the lay press, and many people who are not familiar with its proper usage, distort its meaning and use it in misleading ways. This is especially true when the term is applied to organic matter such as the human body. This erroneous belief exists, in part, as a remnant of ancient beliefs in vitalism and chi in which a mysterious animating life energy pervades the human body, distinguishing it from non-living matter. Modern concepts of biology and energy, however, are diametrically opposed to this belief, exposing it for what it is, an ancient superstition with no place in modern scientific society.

The concept of vitalism dates back to the 1600’s. It is part of the philosophy of idealism that contends that abstract immaterial aspects of the universe give rise to the material world. Proponents of the vitalism theory believe that the primary distinguishing factor between animate matter and inanimate matter is a “Vital Force” or “energy” that suffuses organic matter, rendering it “alive.” So widespread was the belief in vitalism in the scientific community, that Isaac Newton himself spent years fruitlessly searching for evidence of this energy in his many alchemical experiments.

The concept of a “life energy” itself, however, is not a mere four centuries old. Many ancient cultures have had similar beliefs since recorded time. China’s version, chi or qi, is probably the most well known. It still has millions of faithful adherents. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), itself at least 5,000 years old (Ivker, 1999), is a vast collection of folk-wisdom based on mystical thinking in which chi is one of the central concepts. Practitioners contend that “life-energy” courses through our bodies in pathways or channels called meridians (Homola, 99). These meridians branch off to all the major organs of our body. An inextricable part of the belief in chi is the concept of harmony or balance. All problems with life and health are directly related to an imbalance or interruption of these life-giving energies. Once harmony and balance is achieved, good health inevitably returns.

One of the modalities of TCM most familiar to western society is acupuncture in which needles are inserted into specific “acupuncture points” that are said to be located throughout the body. When performed properly it is claimed that this rebalances and stimulates the body’s pattern of life energy, restoring health and equilibrium in the patient.

Belief in chi is not limited to China, however. The concept exists in many countries and goes by many names such as prana in India and ki in Japan. Franz Anton Mesmer called it animal magnetism, and to philosopher Henri Bergson it was the élan vital (vital force). Many alternative health practices employ the concept of a vital life-energy (or in modern parlance, bio-energetic fields) as the cornerstone of their belief systems.

Chiropractic, developed by Daniel David Palmer in 1895, is entirely based on the vitalistic, chi-like belief that an energy or spiritual life-force pervades the human body. This energy, referred to as “innate-intelligence,” is said to emanate from the brain, travel through the spinal cord and peripheral nerves to all the organs of the body (Novella ‘97). It is only when this energy is intact and its flow is unimpeded that we can attain a healthy state. The primary culprit of illness is seen as spinal misalignments or subluxations that impinge spinal nerves and obstruct the flow of energy resulting in disease. Manipulating and correcting the subluxations is said to restore the flow of innate intelligence, creating a state of optimum health.

Therapeutic Touch, developed in the early 1970’s by Dr. Dolores Krieger, is a relative newcomer to the “life-energy” belief system cavalcade. There are, however, key similarities between it and its older brethren. Therapeutic Touch (TT) posits that there is a human energy field (HEF) that surrounds human bodies and that illness or injury results in an unbalanced or depleted HEF (Turner). Treatment by TT Practitioners includes “centering” to align their field with the patient’s, “unruffling” to smooth out the field and remove knots or blockages, and finally they perform an “energy transfer” to transmit some of their HEF to support and repair the patient’s HEF.

Physical manipulation of the human energy field is a common concept in many alternative healing beliefs. In Andrew Weil’s book, Spontaneous Healing, he comments; “…with practice you can learn to feel it move, move it about the body, and even transmit it to another body” (Weil, 1996). Using the hands as a sort of energy conduit is not particular to therapeutic touch alone. In China and Japan alone many alternative practices include this ability such as reiki, jin shin jyutsu, and juhrei.

A quick perusal of the Internet yielded many websites that subscribe to a belief in harnessing the energy of the human body. For example, in “Master” Clyman’s website ( he claims that by using his “Energy For Life Systems” one can “Never get sick. Never get tired” (Clyman, 2000). Strong similarities to many alternative health practices are evident in claims “…to remove energy blockages related to traumas and negative belief systems stored in the body.” Clyman also claims to that his “healing Energy” can be transmitted from one to another.

The fast and loose usage of the word “energy” in all these alternative health care systems might sound compelling and authoritative but what relationship does it have with the concept of energy as employed by modern physics?

Physics defines energy as the capacity for doing work (Williams, 1980). The concept is not merely fundamental; it is the unifying concept of physics. As such it has been deeply studied and the knowledge we have gained after centuries of investigation of the subject would fill many libraries. Much of what we call energy is subsumed under the umbrella term “mechanical energy.” This consists of two broad classes called potential and kinetic energy. Potential energy is the energy of a stationary object solely due to its position in a gravitational field. Kinetic energy is the energy associated with movement. A boulder on a hill has a tremendous amount of potential energy and no kinetic energy. As it starts rolling down the hill the amount of potential energy decreases but the amount of kinetic energy increases. On smaller length scales these concepts go by different names but they are essentially the same. For example, thermal energy (or heat) consists of the microscopic movements of the constituents of a material. Thus, thermal energy is really kinetic energy in the form of heat. Similarly, chemical energy is the stored energy in chemical compounds. This makes it a form of potential energy in that chemical energy can be released from the compound under the right conditions. There are many types of energy including electrical energy, radiant energy (light, x-rays, etc), nuclear energy etc. Biological systems, however, clearly have a preference for chemical energy so it is here where we will delve a little deeper, looking for a possible source of the life energy espoused by many alternative health practices.

Living systems take energy from the environment and convert it into forms that they can use. For many decades it was believed that all life ultimately relied on photosynthesis. Plants create chemical energy from sunlight, animals eat the plants, and other animals eat these animals. This changed, however, when scientists discovered that certain organisms exist completely outside any influence from the sun and photosynthesis; instead relying on what is now called chemosynthesis. These chemosynthetic organisms derive energy from the chemicals released from ocean floor vents. We humans, however, are heterotrophs in that the food we ingest is derived from photosynthetic organisms and the animals that eat them. Blood circulation transports the sugars from these food sources to all the cells of our body. From within all our cells the sugars are then metabolized and combined with the oxygen from the air we breathe to produce the energy we need to repair and maintain ourselves, the energy to live. Metabolism is the sum total of all chemical reactions within an organism. It consists of anabolic reactions in which complex molecules are synthesized and new cell protoplasm is created. It also consists of catabolic reactions during which molecules are broken down and energy is released. It is in this domain that the molecule ATP (adenosine triphosphate) reigns supreme. It doles out energy stored in the covalent (electron sharing) phosphate bonds for all catabolic and anabolic reactions in the human body. It is therefore this stored chemical energy that the body makes use of for all the significant processes associated with living matter and is the true energy of life.

Are there any other types of bio-energy that could assume the role of chi or the HEF? Adherents rarely mention specific details about this ephemeral energy but when they do they often talk about electromagnetism. It is true that special infrared cameras can pick up aura-like images surrounding human bodies. This is nothing more than the heat or infrared radiation that all humans emit in copious amounts. This thermal radiation is the end result of all the chemical reactions taking place in our bodies. Indeed, from one perspective, humans can be accurately described as heat producing engines since it is the form of energy we produce the most. It is not only living beings that produce this radiation, however. This heat energy, also called black body radiation, is emitted by all objects with a low albedo (reflectivity) and is caused by the random thermal movements of the charged particles contained in the object. Since all types of matter produce this radiation it cannot seriously be considered a candidate for a form of energy said to be specific to living systems alone.

Electromagnetic radiation at frequencies other than infrared are also emitted by human bodies and have often been cited as evidence for the elusive life-energy I have been discussing. Indeed, this radiation provides invaluable diagnostic information to mainstream medicine in the form of (for example) electro encephalographs (EEGs). This weak radiation, however, “shows no special characteristics that differentiate it from the electromagnetic waves produced by moving charges in any electronic system. Indeed, they can be simulated with a computer. No marker has been found that uniquely labels the waves from organisms “live” rather than “dead”” (Stenger 1999).

Some might be thinking now about the possibility of Kirlian photography that to this day is purported to show evidence of a human energy field vital to life. Discovered in 1939 by Semyon Kirlian, these photographs show a multicolored halo of light surrounding, reportedly, only living objects. These images are created by objects on a photographic plate, which are subjected to a high voltage electric field. Claims have even been made that these photographs produce full images of living objects that are missing parts such as a leaf torn in half. “This is not due to paranormal forces, however, but to residues left from the initial impression made by the whole leaf or to fraud” (Carroll, 2000). The photographs themselves, although genuine, are no mystery. The effect is called a corona discharge and was reported as far back as 1777. This well understood phenomenon is affected by many variables (especially moisture) but living systems are not one of them. I have seen beautiful kirlian images of a penny. Additionally, since a corona discharge requires that the electric charge ionizes the gas surrounding the photographed object, the colorful image naturally disappears when photographed in a partial vacuum. If, however, kirlian photography actually revealed a fundamental living energy field this would not be the case.

The common theme running through all the alternative health care systems I’ve discussed is a belief in a pervasive and mysterious energy that supports and maintains the processes associated with life. For pre-scientific cultures living systems were a complete mystery and it is understandable that in their attempts to comprehend it they built a belief system around a magical form of energy to distinguish living from non-living. But now in the twenty-first century the energy of life is no longer a mystery and has not been for many decades. There is still much to learn about biochemistry and physics but our current knowledge is far beyond needing to resort to mysterious energies to explain why life is so different from non-life. If living systems required an unknown force or energy to exist, this would be such a Grand Canyon gaping hole in our understanding that biochemists would probably talk about little else. There are no experiments, observations or even viable hypotheses that require the fundamental change in our conceptions that chi or the HEF would demand. No proponents of acupuncture, chiropractic, therapeutic touch or any of the others have ever produced the proper double blind, placebo controlled, reproducible scientific evidence to support their energy claims. “The bioenergetic field plays no role in the theory or practice of biology or scientific medicine. Vitalism and bioenergetic fields remain hypotheses not required by the data, to be rejected by Occam’s razor until the data demand otherwise.” (Stenger, 1999)

1) Steven Novella M.D. The Connecticut Skeptic Vol. 2, Issues 2-3. 1997
2) Gary J Clyman. Energy For Life Systems. Http:// 2000
3) Samuel Homola, D.C. Inside Chiropractic: A Patient’s Guide. Prometheus 1999
4) Grant No. MDA 905-94-Z-0080. Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Project Title: The Effect of Therapeutic Touch on Pain and Infection in Burn Patients (N94-020A1), p. 35. Awarded to: University of Alabama at Birmingham. Principal Investigator: Joan G. Turner.
5) Andrew Weil, M.D. Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996
6) Robert Ivker, D.O., Robert Anderson M.D., Larry Trivieri Jr., with Steve Morris, N.D. and Todd Nelson, N.D. The Complete Self-Care Guide to Holistic Medicine Treating our Most Common Ailments Tarcher/Putnam Books, 1999
7) John Williams, Frederick Trinklein, H. Metcalf; Modern Physics, Holt, Rinehart and Winston Publishers, 1980
8) Victor J. Stenger, Bioenergetic Fields, Published in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1999.
9) Robert Todd Carroll, Kirlian “Photography”, The Skeptic’s Dictionary,, 2000