Alternative Therapies & Imagination

by Perette Barella, circa January 2010

The argument for New Age therapies

It seems everybody and their brother has some kind of "alternative healing" technique these days. Massage therapists perform shiatsu, chiropractors and others do acupuncture, foot-obsessed individuals use reflexology. Touch isn’t necessarily required; those that prefer touch-free alternative therapies can find it in many variations: the Christians call it faith healing, Pagans find it in reiki, medical people name it healing touch, New Agers give it a nondescript “energy work” title.

Despite a growing body of science that says these therapies are not more effective than a placebo, proponents argue that they work. They declare that science is a sort of religion that refuses to believe anything that can’t be proven through deduction, observation, or measurement while they simultaneously bless their therapies with terms from scientifically-based research and medicine: energy, therapy, medicine, charging (as in charging crystals, like you do a battery), and so forth. They even do studies, though most often not double-blind, peer-reviewed ones.

From personal experience, I can say that many of the techniques do, in fact, have positive effects. When my girlfriend Sue performed reiki on me, it felt pretty terrific. Using a common visualization of growing roots that soak up energy from the earth, I can revitalize myself and clear my mind. By working with different colors and manipulating the flow of "chi" through parts of my body, I can alter my mood, eliminate pain, and provide myself assorted other benefits. On the other side of the equation I’ve used hand-waving energy techniques to release people’s tensions and pains, eliminate depression, and restore them to a state of calm using energy-based mysticism.

But when I experienced or did these things, was there some magical, unseen medium at work or were we just playing with our imagination? The common answer is that such a range and tangibility of the benefits cannot possibly be our imagination, and therefore there must be unseen energies at work. Really?

Horror Movies

To study the power of human imagination, I’m going to consider movies. And because it’s a genre that provides such identifiable effects, both during an after a movie, I’m going to consider the horror genre.

See a decent horror movie and what happens? You enter the theatre a perfectly happy, stable person in the evening. Then you see something like Saw, The Texas Chainsaw Massacare, or The Hills Have Eyes.

The physiological changes start during the movie. Hollywood uses a combination of clever scripting, cinematography, background music, and other techniques to create a mood for a movie, so as we’re watching, we feel fear for the characters as they approach the creepy old house that’s far off the beaten path. We feel tense with anticipation, feeling butterflies in our stomach as they enter the house and search around, only to find that the banging noise is a loose shutter. But then someone opens a cabinet and an animal that's made a nest scoots out, startling us, and our heart skips a beat and pounds to make up time afterward. As the movie goes on, it sets up other scenarios that keep us ready to jump; if we’re not heavily doped with deodorant, our armpits begin to sweat. By the time our characters finally do get attacked by the spirit, ghost, or psycho, we’re shaking from a combination of fear, anticipation, and that adrenaline that is by now pumping through our arteries.

Even when the movie ends, the effects aren’t over. When we leave the theatre, it’s dark out, and we’re on extra alert walking through the parking lot. Now hypersensitive to the shadows and possible hiding spots, we feel nervous walking to the car. Our mind reminds us that it’s over, that it’s just a movie, but nevertheless we can’t help but check the back seat to make sure there’s no one hiding there, like in that scene in the movie.

As we lay in bed later that night a little gust of wind shakes some leaves in a tree or rattles the window. Or was that someone creeping around outside the house? Every sound, even though it has been there every every night for ages, brings our attention back to our surroundings, the risks that the movie has suggested could exist there, even if we know they're obscure or ridiculous.

Horror Movie Effect, Alternative Therapy Style

If we apply the same principle to movies that pseudo-therapy proponents do with their respective modalities, then we must come to the conclusion that the movie is endowed with special powers. How else could a story have such a profound effect on our experience?

As the movie is produced, the very cellulose in the camera must capture the energy radiated by the characters. Their fear is sort of “bottled up” in with the photosensitive silver nitrate chemicals and embedded in the plastic filmstrip. Never mind that the characters are really actors, that the set we see is the only scary part and is actually surrounded by lights, crew, electrical and electronic equipment, and other stuff. Forget that the movie is not filmed linearly, and only put into the proper sequence during post. Forget that scenes are repeated over and over, trying to get it perfect, with people making silly mistakes, joking around, experiencing technical frustrations, and generally doing what people do in between takes.

No, if alternative therapy proponents are correct, all that "energy" is prepared by the actors while rehearsing, then pushed out during their performance, and captured into the media. Then during editing, it’s rearranged, possibly loaded into a digital editing suite, cut, marked up, effects added, color corrected, and finally printed into a final edit. That goes off to the duplicator, who makes hundreds or thousands of copies, wherein the processing must duplicate the energy too.

Then, during projection, all that energy that was projected by the actor and captured in the cellulose is magnified and released as the photons pass through the distributed print of the film. Thankfully, the photons duplicate the energies and so they are not used up no matter how long or often a film runs.

If human imagination can not dramatically effect our lives, both spiritually and physiologically, then this is an explanation we must fall back on. If, however, this explanation seems utterly ridiculous, then we must reconsider the original premise: maybe human imagination is a lot more powerful than we originally thought.

Conclusion

In claiming alternative therapies work via means we don’t understand, we deny the influence of imagination as a source of the benefits of such pseudo-therapies, and we must willfully deny what we can otherwise see: that the human imagination, equipped with the right stimulus and fantasy, can have tremendous effects on our experience, spiritual, emotional, and physiological. Refusing to acknowledge imagination also leaves us with a problem: there are numerous vaguely similar but incompatible forms of alternative healing (Christians pray, Reiki practitioners wave hands, shiatsu folk press on invisible, undetectable meridians) which somehow achieve similar results, even though there isn't a shred of evidence to back a single modality's purported theory of operation. All that exists are the practitioner's assertions that “it works”.

If we accept the power of imagination in our lives, then an examination of alternative therapies with an open and logical mindset leads to an inevitable conclusion: that human imagination, and the resulting placebo effect, are a straightforward and adequate explanation for the healing abilities of the myriad (and growing number) of pseudo-therapies.

Effects

An argument could be made that though it is only via a placebo, the effects of pseudotherapies still improve people's lives and therefore they should be allowed. Moreover, that people's faith in such cures should not be debunked, as doing so may inhibit their method for managing pain or other symptoms.

Returning to the movie analogy, though, we all know a movie is just a fictitious story. Nevertheless, we suspend disbelief and enjoy the storyline, even when it it involves aliens, spacecraft, or even superheroes that defy that laws of physics.

With this in mind, and considering my own positive experiences even as a skeptic, it seems that the effectiveness of a given "therapy" is not affected by awareness that it has no objective, measurable value. Given an experience that offers something for our hearts to believe in, it is easily possible to suspend disbelief even when our heads know the truth of the situation. Thus, I see no problem of allowing pseudotherapies to continue, so long as they are accurately described as substantially inert and limited to placebo effects. If people want to give away their hard-earned money for a placebo, by all means they are entitled to do so. The biggest danger is that they will be tempted to believe the nonsense.

Do Your Own Experiment

As I said earlier, I’ve participated in mystical therapies and have experienced positive results. The power of the imagination is quite amazing; harnessing it leads to my experience of life being significantly alterable using dogmatic, ritual techniques that implant ideas and expectations into my mind.

But while doing some of these, I’ve questioned them. While playing with “energy” with my best friend Kevin back in college, we could both “feel” the energy I was providing. So I began playing with field strength, color, and other aspects. That’s where our shared delusion broke down: although he claimed to feel the energy in response to my positioning hands certain ways, he could not accurately describe the details of the energy I believed I was delivering at that moment. If the energy really was there, shouldn’t we have been able to agree on that?

It's an easy experiment to do yourself. If you choose to do so, remember that a variable feedback schedule is extraordinarily tempting to humans—look at gambling. On every success, you will feel a strong temptation to believe, you will want to neglect the failures and focus on the success. Remember that only by looking at the greater picture—the number of failures along with successes—can you reach a true, reasonable conclusion.

Update

August 2015—I was recently watching an episode of a TV show in which a character is applying "energy techniques" to perform healing. The interesting thing: I felt the energy. Our imaginations can be inspired to fear, disgust, joy and other emotions and sensations by movies and television—and we can be inspired to feel the "energy" just as well by the same trigger. It seems we fill in experience to match expectations set by the things we see and hear—and it doesn't matter if what we see and hear is live, or if it's Memorex™.