In the minds of many in the dominant school of medicine, all of integrative medicine is frontier science. That bias often holds that the integrative frontier toward which one may sail is a chimera. Yet new continents have been found. Witness findings supporting acupuncture effectiveness and telomere lengthening through meditation. For integrative health, the frontier of that frontier is subtle energy and biofield healing. Spearheading efforts to quantify and advance science and action in this $2.8-billion industry is a self-styled “collaboration accelerator,” the Consciousness and Healing Initiative (CHI). CHI posits that the world they are mapping in their just published resources positions energy medicine as “the new mindfulness.” The multi-year CHI mapping project offers fascinating interactive journeys to 6,200 studies, 74,000 US practitioners, 250 energy devices, and a literal map that takes one to the location of 400 researchers globally who are examining these subtle therapies. Their goal is nothing less that systems change. They believe their work can be a model for all in the integrative health field who favor dramatic shifts in the health and medicine landscape.
The 81-page report – enhanced by multiple online resources – is entitled Subtle Energy and Biofield Healing: Evidence, Practice and Future Directions. The project was led by CHI founder and CEO Shamini Jain, PhD, CHI research director David Muehsam, PhD, CHI board member Cassandra Vieten, PhD, and CHI program manager Meredith Sprengel. The chief philanthropic partners for the $250,000 in supportive funding were the Walker Family Foundation, Emerald Gate Foundation and entrepreneur Tom Dingledine. Efforts are underway to create a philanthropic collaborative to move the field forward. (By way of disclosure, while I had minimal connection to the project, I serve on the CHI Education Advisory Council.)
The group took a “systems change” approach to map the field and identify best steps to integrate evidence-based healing therapies into healthcare and self-care sectors. In an e-message Jain described the approach: “Systems change is a process where one takes a bird’s-eye view of the system and identifies and acts on levers of change to foster desired impact. In our case, we chose to focus on domains of research, policy, education, communication, technology and practitioner communities – to identify globally, what resources are available, and what current barriers are to change. We also looked at which levers are most important to move and which key collaborations need to be formed in order to broaden healing impact for humanity.”
The aims of the CHI mapping project as shared in the report are ambitious:
The purpose guiding the Systems Mapping for Subtle Energy and Biofield Healing project is to foster progress in the field of subtle energy and biofield healing. To state our viewpoint clearly, our premise is that a purely materialist approach to healing is limited, and that addressing healing at the subtle energy and biofield levels holds the potential to help alleviate unnecessary suffering and enhance individual and collective thriving.
Despite widespread use of subtle energy and biofield therapies, a trained and willing workforce, and promising evidence for reducing anxiety, pain, trauma, and other ailments, scientific investigation and application of subtle energy and biofield healing modalities remain marginalized. Our primary goals are to advance scientific understanding and increase integration of evidence-based subtle energy and biofield healing modalities as healthcare options. Our overarching aims are to foster greater scientific and medical progress by considering the role of the biofield in cultivating healing processes.
In the field of research in psychedelics, a truism is that if a fear or anxiety arises during treatment, the optimal step is to turn and face the challenging forces. While psychedelics are not in the report’s scope, the CHI team recognizes the principle. Early in the Executive Summary, the authors directly addresses skeptics with “What are the Critical Viewpoints/Criticisms of Subtle Energy and Biofield Healing Therapies?” Individual studies and a small systematic review report negative outcomes. Even among the positive studies “many are uncontrolled, observational, cross-sectional, underpowered, and unreplicated.” While most systematic reviews have been promising, a comprehensive systematic review on the evidence has not been conducted in over 10 years. The jury on the science, they acknowledge, is still out.
In accord with the purpose of mapping the entire field, the report offers a link to all of the relevant studies in biofield science, a grand total of 6200 studies, that include cell and animal as well as human studies. The searchable data base they prepared includes studies of some more accepted therapies to frontier-of-frontier interventions like intercessory prayer. Quality ranges widely, from single cases, commentaries and thought pieces, to randomized controlled trials and full-blown systematic reviews. All are peer-reviewed published journal articles. The authors share information on the search terms that shaped the data base.
The authors drill in on those 396 papers that are clinical trials in their interactive “Landscape Map of Peer-Reviewed Clinical Studies on Biofield Therapies”. Click on a bubble and one gains a quick look at the study: modality, question, location of research project, number of subjects, and outcomes. One can sort by modality, primary outcome, research design, nation in which the research was engaged, and by studies reported during a selected 5-year period (e.g. 2015-2020). They urge readers to “Play with the Data.” One needn’t be a wonk to enjoy it!
The pleasure of playing with the data continues with the Biofield Technology and Devices Resources. This work was led by co-author and biophysicist Muehsam with whom I have worked closely through his services as an associate editor for JACM. This resource guides one through 280 “biofield-based technologies currently in the marketplace for diagnostic (measuring biofield activity) and therapeutic (modifying biofield activity) uses.” Who has not wondered at the multiple devices and claims, perhaps best known to many through internet pitches? With each device is the gist of the manufacturer’s claims. The devices range from FDA sanctioned and proven to the seemingly preposterous, though even the latter may still be useful to some. “We are not saying there is value in each of them,” states Jain, adding that the field suffers from a “wheat from the chaff issue of what is charlatanism and what is real.” Their job, as a first step, was to make visible the landscape.
The database includes: company and type of biofield tech, FDA/CE clearance information, manufacturers’ descriptions and contact information, and whether peer-reviewed evidence exists to support manufacturers’ claims. Biofield devices for pain are listed, and include pulsed electromagnetic field (PEMF), bioresonance and light therapies, and a large body of transdermal electrical stimulation (TENS), frequency specific microcurrent (FSM) and low-level laser therapy (LLLT). US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) clearances have been obtained for PEMF, TENS and FSM devices, which have helped them to enter mainstream medical practice.
The marketplace is indeed wild: dream weavers, cranio-electrostimulization, body harmonizers, aura measuring, psychic protection, biofield imaging, bioresonance, EMF protection, infrared therapy, radionics therapy, sacred geometry crystal therapy, and much, much more. This is not an arena with which I have much familiarity or have paid much attention, for better and for worse. Consider a visit to the these interactive CHI resources a COVID-19 allowable trip to the zoo. Or perhaps better, in the works of Theodore Geisel a.k.a. Dr. Suess, to realms that he seemed to suggest in On Beyond Zebra and If I Ran the Zoo. What do we know, for certain?
So who are the researchers, practitioners, and educators in this field? The CHI team used the internet and interviews with over 60 stakeholders to assemble a Subtle Energy and Biofield Healing Network – an interactive database of over 400 existing researchers in prominent universities and research institutions in the US and worldwide “who have conducted and/or are keenly interested in biofield science research.” The map takes you to 225 research centers (blue) and 125 healing organizations (red). I held the cursor on just one remote location I selected and it took me to the Center of Biophysical Ecology, Al-Farabi Kazakh National University together with its precise geographic location and its website. This is also “play” – to see who these people and institutions are, and their own missions, and where they are located around the globe. Also included are 203 education nodes, and 122 universities.
The CHI team identified 74,000 practitioners. With guesstimates that Jain considered conservative, of 12 sessions a week for 40 weeks a year at $80 per session, they projected $2.84-billion a year of revenues. And this does not include the device market. These biofield frontiers are inside the boundaries of millions of people’s lives.
Jain shared in an interview what she called a “key message” to the integrative health community: “We hope our approach will be used by anyone in the field to foster system change for integrative medicine. We are providing these resources and the model freely to the community both to empower and as a model of how to foster impact through systems change, for any holistic therapy.”
I asked Jain what change theory they followed. She pointed me to the portion of the executive summary and then to a series of resources including a Stanford Social Innovation Review article by one of the project’s philanthropic partners, Jeffrey Walker. The article is entitled Solving the World’s Biggest Problems: Better Philanthropy Through Systems Change. Walker, who was CEO and co-founder of CCMP Capital and JP Morgan Partners, also serves as the UN Secretary General’s Envoy for Health Finance and Malaria. Walker has fostered systems change approaches to solving global suffering from malaria, and is particularly interested in the promise behind what he sees as an emerging impact opportunity for biofield therapies to alleviate suffering. He, along with entrepreneur Jason Yotopoulos, are building a new philanthropic collaborative to help fund systems change in biofield science and healing. I wish them the best.
When I was a state senate aide from 1979-1981, the politician for whom I worked liked to comment on the “drop value” of the thickest of the pre-internet era printed studies that various interests would bring by his state senate office to attract his attention and that of other decision makers. CHI’s report, together with the interactive and data-base resources, build in grand style a case for the import of exploring these domains. These resources urge a more significant reckoning with the present and future meaning of subtle energy and biofield healing practices.
In a CHI announcement months ago during development of the mapping project, Jain wrote plainly and even plaintively that “we are at a pivotal point in history, where we can either awaken to our innate healing powers (for ourselves, our communities and our planet), or perish from actions and lack of actions, caused by our ignorance and inertia.” Has anyone ever sought to quantify the adverse effects of what the CHI team calls “a purely materialist approach to healing” in the dominant school of medicine?
Start with the Executive Summary. Or better yet, jump in where you wish to one or more of the multiple interactive tools noted above. Have fun. That might be the start of a system change in itself.