Reiki is one of the fastest growing alternative therapies in the world with millions of supporters and yet the claims made by practitioners are extraordinary by any standard. The essence of the Reiki business is that the therapist claims to be able to transfer a form of energy to the patient which enhances their body’s own healing potential.
Some Reiki practitioners claim to be able to do this at a distance, some even say they can work across states and continents.
Practitioners say they can channel this energy, often called Qi, and obtain new quantities of it by first downloading it into their own bodies. They undergo training in the techniques and acquire qualifications based on three levels.
The first level simply involves self-healing, accessing their own native reserve of healing energy, but on progressing to the second level they get to transfer the energy to someone else. Finally, they are taught by a Master and can attain the third level. Once the practitioner has reached level three, they can train others. The refer to the levels as degrees.
Someone coming to the idea of Reiki for the first time will be struck by the appeal of the body’s own natural healing mechanism, the non-invasive nature of the treatment, the appeal to notions of a surrounding healing energy.
The idea that the body can heal itself is fundamental to conventional medical treatment too, but in clinical science there is a recognition that some illnesses, some traumas, will not heal themselves.
Where the body’s systems are too damaged, perhaps through infection or trauma, self-healing doesn’t take place and clinical intervention is needed. Reiki argues that in all cases, the healing energy can restore the body to health.
Most Reiki practitioners, cautious of the legal implications of some of their claims, state clearly that they would not contradict the diagnoses of clinical medicine.
How do we assess Reiki claims?
In a normal investigation, we would identify a phenomenon, show evidence of its existence and some reliable way of interacting with it. We would typically make some measurements and change the circumstances to see how the phenomenon behaved.
That would give rise to some theories of how it works, and we would make some testable predictions. We would experiment to test the theories and deepen our understanding.
In the case of Reiki, we encounter some major difficulties. Firstly, there is no evidence for the existence of Qi itself, the very basis of Reiki practice. Not only can we not detect it, but Reiki practitioners themselves claim only to feel its presence, and even then no discernable change is evident in the physical state of the person.
If Qi exists, it cannot be detected. If it cannot be detected, we cannot even speculate on its potential effects.
So we are left with a personal claim of Reiki practitioners that they can feel the energy. If they are lying, no-one can tell the difference.
But let’s assume for a moment that they genuinely believe they have in them a store of healing energy even though it cannot be detected. The next difficult step to understand is how it can be passed from one person to the next, especially across large distances.
Such a transport mechanism is unknown to science and would be of huge technological importance if it was possible.
But since the presence of the energy is undetectable, so too is its transfer. So there is no way of telling whether or not it was successful, nor even if it went astray. The only means of inferring that anything happened is the verbal statement of the recipient that the feel different.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. If the patient has an illness, the healing energy transferred would have to interact in a detectable way with the human body, accentuating the self-healing property of the body. But since the mechanism of interaction is mystical and not detectable, literally any change could be attributed to the energy transfer.
It is therefore equally plausible to blame a worsening of the condition on the same cause. Unless there is a clear mechanism to show how healing is improved rather than worsened, no claim can be made that healing energy is indeed healing.
So we have an undetectable energy which can be stored by someone who says they feel it, transferred by them by an undetectable mechanism, received by a patient whose state is unchanged but who claims they too feel it, and no mechanism to relate any of this to changes in the physical state of the body.
The placebo effect
This effect is a change in the brain chemistry based on conditioning and expectation. When we expect to catch a ball, the brain areas associated with the motor response in catching a ball are activated. We anticipate and that anticipation mimics on a smaller scale, the actual response to the actions. Our brain reacts as if we are already catching the ball.
This allows the brain to test the accuracy of its mental picture of the world. When the anticipation conflicts with the real action, the model is adjusted. The same mechanism is used in empathy, and in the placebo effect.
When a patient anticipates that a visit to the doctor will make them feel better, the brain releases endorphins and other opioids which makes the patient feel a little better. We are conditioned to expect that a visit to a doctor will make us better and so this is a conditioned response.
Of course, the placebo effect is not reliable since it depends on a sustained belief. If the belief is lost, the placebo response will fade too.
Since Reiki patients have already paid for the treatment, they have a clear expectation that it will do them good and will make them feel better – that is what they are buying. The expectation will produce the placebo effect, but the sale itself will provide a psychological predisposition to claim the treatment had an effect.
Such an inherently biased response cannot be accepted as evidence of anything happening. For that we need some independent, controlled trial.
In 1998, a schoolgirl in Loveland, Colorado called Emily Rosa, conducted an experiment with 21 therapeutic touch practitioners who claimed to be able to detect this energy. She conducted the trial under controlled conditions and demonstrated that their results were no better than chance. The practitioners could actually detect nothing.
Fraud requires the wilful deception of someone else for personal gain and claiming the existence of something undetectable isn’t legally fraud. If it was, all preachers would be in court. But nor is the claim to be able to transfer something immaterial to another person. Since there’s no evidence one way or the other, it is simply a statement of belief. Again no fraud.
If the Reiki practitioner goes through some ritual and makes the claims to have transferred energy, no-one can show that it hasn’t happened, and therefore no-one can prove deceit. In that sense, Reiki is immune to the law on fraud. The complete absence of evidence takes it out of the courtroom.
Is it a scam?
Reiki claims cannot be justified and therefore can be addressed under consumer legislation. If you sell someone something, you have to be able to demonstrate that you are in fact selling them something. The problem here is that even if the claim was made, there is no way of proving one way or the other if anything happened.
There is no evidence that any Reiki treatment has any medical effect whatsoever and therefore paying for it is throwing money away. At best they are selling relaxation but any other claims are fanciful and misleading.
The organisation of the business is a traditional pyramid scheme in which practitioners recover the cost of their outlay by buying the Master qualification. That entitles them to organise training courses and recover their costs by charging others for similar qualifications. Reiki practitioners understandably claim that their “skills” cannot be self-taught.
It is undoubtedly a scam though the participants may genuinely believe they are doing good. Practitioners have little or no understanding of evidence and the nature of controlled clinical trials, and are often lamentably poorly educated in science. They have little or no understanding of the human body and the aetiology of illnesses.
A single effective question allows you to assess a Reiki practitioner. How can I, not you, tell if you are a fraud? They have no way of demonstrating this and so you are well advised to have nothing to do with them.