Reiki and Science

No experiment can prove or disprove the existence of God, but if in fact [mental] intentions can be shown to facilitate healing at a distance, this would clearly imply that human beings are more connected to each other and more responsible to each other than previously believed. That connection could be actuated through the agency of God, consciousness, love, electrons, or a combination. The answers to such questions await further research.1Targ, E., Thomson, K.S. (1997) Can prayer and intentionality be researched? Should they be? Altern Ther Health Med. 3, pp. 92-6.

Study after study has shown that giving Reiki to sick people improves their wellbeing according to a variety of physical measures, such as heart rate and pain (see, for example, Catlin and Taylor-Ford, 20112Catlin. A. and Taylor-Ford, R.L. (2011) Investigation of standard care versus sham Reiki placebo versus actual Reiki therapy to enhance comfort and well-being in a chemotherapy infusion center. Oncol Nurs Forum. 38(3) pp:E212-20., Friedman et al., 20103Friedman, R.S.C., Burg, M.M., Miles, P., Lee, F. and Lampert, R. (2010) Effects of Reiki on Autonomic Activity Early After Acute Coronary Syndrome. J. Am. Coll. Cardiol. (56) pp:995-996., or Olson et al., 20034Olson, K., Hanson, J. and Michaud, M. (2003) A phase II trial of Reiki for the management of pain in advanced cancer patients. J Pain Symptom Manage. 26(5) pp:990-7.). The question is not whether Reiki is effective, but whether it is more effective than a placebo.

The gold standard of scientific research is the randomised controlled trial. In medical studies, some subjects receive a treatment (the experimental group) and some don’t receive any treatment (the control group). The study tries to ascertain whether there’s a significant difference between the two groups. In the case of Reiki, the experimental group would receive Reiki, and the control group would receive none, and the scientists would see if the experimental group were significantly improved compared to the control group. But the power of placebo is enough to bring about just such an improvement. The control group get nothing, and they know it, and they don’t expect to get better. The experimental group get some special attention in the form of Reiki, and expect that something special might happen. And often it does. But scientists want to know if Reiki has measurable effects over and above placebo effects.

To combat placebo (and other) effects, experiments often involve making subjects blind to which group they in. They only know that they might be receiving treatment, and so if the placebo effect is the only cause of improvement, we expect both groups to improve by the same amount.

This brings us to one of the problems with studying a traditional Reiki treatment: it’s difficult to blind the subjects. Reiki practitioners would find it impossible to do a treatment on one person (in the experimental group) and then do the same things with their hands but have Reiki ‘switched off’ for the next subject (in the control group). There is no off switch with Reiki.

There is another factor that can confound scientific studies. Even if the practitioner could switch Reiki off for some subjects and switch it back on for others, the practitioner still knows which subjects are getting real Reiki. This may cause the practitioner to unconsciously act differently towards the control subjects (who aren’t ‘supposed’ to get better) and the experimental ones (who she might, for example, treat with more empathy). Even if the subjects can somehow be blinded to whether they’re receiving a real treatment or not, we would like the Reiki practitioner(s) involved in the experiment and the scientists making observations to also be blinded. This is known as double-blinding, and often allows for more precise control to be obtained in the study.

Several studies have tried to achieve blinding by using some kind of ‘sham Reiki’. I’ll discuss these later. For now, we’ll turn our attention to a type of healing that allows us to get our ideal experiment, a randomised controlled trial with double-blinding. To do this, we’re going to look at an aspect of Reiki that seems hardest of all to believe: the power of distant healing.

Distant Healing

Existing medical understanding offers no mechanism to account for a finding of healing at a distance; however, science does not require a known mechanism to prove the existence of a phenomenon…for years no one knew how colchicine, morphine, aspirin, or quinine worked, yet they were known to be effective. Hand-washing, too, became standard medical practice well before a theory of infectious disease was described.5Sicher et al., 1998: 362.

According to practitioners, Reiki, like prayer, can be sent to heal someone who is far away. This is known as distant healing (or distance healing). Sicher et al. (1998)6Sicher, F., Targ, E., Moore, D. and Smith, H.S. (1998). A Randomized Double-Blind Study of the Effect of Distant Healing in a Population With Advanced AIDS. Western Journal of Medicine 169(6), pp. 356-363. conducted a double-blind, randomised controlled trial investigating the effects of distant healing on patients with advanced AIDS. They were not studying Reiki specifically, instead the healers in the study were from many different traditions, including Christian, Jewish Buddhist and Native American. The healers were not present with the patients, and the patients didn’t know if they were going to receive treatment or not.

The study found that the patients who received distant healing had statistically significant improvement when they were measured six months after the healing, as compared to the control group who received no distant healing. Distant healing-treated subjects experienced fewer AIDS-defining illnesses, had lower illness severity, required significantly fewer doctor visits, and less hospitalisation. They also showed significantly improved mood compared to controls.

The study was on a small scale, and is not ‘proof’ that distant healing works. Scientists are not looking for proof, but for evidence. It’s just one study. Astin et al. (2000)7Astin, J.A., Harkness, E. Ernst, E. (2000) The Efficacy of “Distant Healing”: A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials. Ann Intern Med. 132, pp:903-910. did a systematic review of over 100 studies of distance healing. Most of the studies didn’t meet their stringent inclusion criteria, however, the total number of patients that took part in the 23 included trials was nearly 3000.

The analysis found that 57% of the randomized, placebo-controlled trials of distant healing showed a positive treatment effect. Nine of the trials (39%) found no effect, and one study even found a negative effect. This shows the importance of repetition in science, and also how short-sighted it is to take one study that supports whatever it is you’re trying to prove and say that the story ends there.

Ernst (2003)8Ernst E. (2003) Distant healing–an “update” of a systematic review. Wien Klin Wochenschr. 115(7-8), pp:241-5. expanded on the above study by adding more trials to the analysis. The majority of these did not show statistically significant effects, shifting the weight of evidence against distant healing. This does not mean that we give-up. There are several reasons why studies might find no effect when actually there is one.

The first is related to making a control group, who are not supposed to receive any distant healing. These people are to be compared against the experimental group, who do receive healing. However, no-one can stop experimental subjects from praying for themselves, for example, or from receiving prayers or other types of distant healing from family and friends. If the people who aren’t supposed to be receiving any distant healing actually are, why would their improvement be any less than the experimental group, who are receiving distant healing as part of the experiment? The experiment finds no difference between the control group and the experimental group, and it appears that distant healing doesn’t work.9In statistical terms, this is referred to as a type two error, a false negative.

Other weaknesses with such studies include insufficient attention paid to subjective factors such as mood, and small sample sizes (which reduce experimental power). Also, it has been suggested that by putting subjects in an experiment and saying you may or may not receive distant healing, the scientists may unintentionally block receptivity to ‘healing energy’ by creating uncertainty in patients.10Dossey, L. (1997) The return of prayer. Altern Ther Health Med., 3, pp:10-7.

Scientists continue to conduct randomised controlled trials, such as Tsubono et al. (2009)11Tsubono, K., Thomlinson, P. and Shealy, C.N. (2009) The effects of distant healing performed by a spiritual healer on chronic pain: a randomized controlled trial. Altern Ther Health Med. 15(3) pp:30-4., who found significant effects. Science never ends, and the science of distant healing is only just beginning.

Reiki and belief

If belief is something you do with your mind, I don’t believe in reiki. I spent nearly twenty years in the pool of evangelical Christianity, which says that believing the correct thing is the only thing you have to get right in this life, and by the end of it I was sick of the pressure that belief can create inside of you. I told myself I was done with belief, and that has remained true to this day. But if belief is what you do and how you act, then I’m a believer. I practice reiki every day because self-healing feels like the very best thing I can do for myself. As practitioners we tell stories of healing success in our lives and in the lives of those we touch, not because they constitute scientific proof—they don’t—but because they represent the joy of human beings letting go of pain, and coming back to their true home.

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