Your Body's Alleged Energy Fields
Years after Skeptoid's original episode #1 on New Age Energy, talk of energy fields — particularly the human body's energy fields — continues to permeate pop culture. A quick Google search for "human energy field" yields an avalanche of New Agey sciencey-sounding results: biofields, noetic balancing, auras, chakras, cleansing and activating your fields, bioenergetics, science unlocking the secrets, luminosity, sensing, negative energy, positive energy, and the human bioelectromagnetic field. Does the human body indeed have any characteristic that can be reasonably described as an energy field?
Although most of the usage you'll hear of the term sounds like something from Deepak Chopra which is clearly without any factual meaning, the idea that a living body has some measurable effect on its immediate environment is not necessarily an unsound concept. Our bodies generate heat, we have mass, fluids move within us, and millions of electric signals are constantly being transmitted through our nervous system. Might we not actually produce an energy field?
A useful place to begin is with definitions, namely those of "energy" and "field". Energy is a measurement of something's ability to perform work. A liter of gasoline has potential chemical energy in that, when it burns, molecular bonds are formed that produce exothermic chemical reactions. Put it into the engine, and this reaction will cause the engine to run, converting that chemical energy into kinetic energy. We can precisely quantify the amount of energy stored in that liter of fuel. A basic unit of energy is called the joule, and a typical gasoline contains about 42 megajoules of energy per kilogram. A typical alkaline AA battery contains about 9,000 joules. The calories of chemical energy that my bloodstream absorbs when I eat a Power Bar charge up my muscles enough to dig some specific, and measurable, amount of dirt in my garden.
That's all that energy is: a measurement of work capability. But in popular culture, "energy" has somehow become a noun. "Energy" is often spoken of as if it is a thing unto itself, like a region of glowing power, that can be contained and used. Here's a good test. When you hear the word "energy" used, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability." Does the usage still make sense? Remember, energy itself is not the thing being measured: energy is the measurement of work performed or of potential.
OK, so that's energy, a measured, quantified amount of work capability. So let's wipe the slate clean and look at what a field is.
A field is the measurement of some value at every point in space. It's a bit of an abstract concept. Consider gravity, one of the most familiar fields. The gravitational field is described by a measured vector at every single point in the universe. A vector consists of direction and magnitude. Thus, the gravitational field consists of the direction and strength of gravitational pull at every point in space. In conversation, we might often refer to the Earth's gravitational field, but as you can see, there isn't really such a defined place. Close to the Earth, the gravitational field is largely determined by the pull of the planet, but it's also influenced by other bodies far away. There isn't really a line that we could draw to define what's inside and outside of the Earth's gravity. Even all those points in the field that are very close to (or even inside) the Earth are influenced by distant bodies as well. The gravitational field is one field, full of complexities, that extends throughout the whole universe.
All other fields are similar. The electromagnetic field is another one, also defined by a vector of direction and magnitude at every point in space. Wherever you take a compass, whether you're at home, in a spaceship orbiting Jupiter, or way out in deep space, that compass needle will point some direction. In many places the electromagnetic field may be too weak to move a real compass' metal needle, but at every point in space, there is a quantifiable vector describing that spot in the electromagnetic field.
Temperature is another type of field that's defined only by a single value, not a vector. At every point throughout the universe, there is a temperature. That's the temperature field. If I move my hand closer to the fireplace, the measurement at that point in the field goes up.
So really the biggest difference between the actual definition and the popular understanding of a field is that it's just a set of measurements, it's not whatever force or characteristic that measurement describes. As an example, let's take a look at the most famous energy field in all of fiction, the Force. In Star Wars, Obi-wan Kenobi described the Force as:
A field does surround us and penetrate us, because it includes every point everywhere. But it does not bind the galaxy together; that's done by a set of forces. Gravity, inflation, electromagnetism; there is a whole slew of complicated mechanisms by which things are held together and that put the stuff in the galaxy wherever it is. But in Obi-wan's more metaphysical sense, the Force is doing both of those things and more: it is the fabric of a vitalism shared by all living beings. It is essentially the same concept held by many ancient cultures who tried to explain the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects: one had qi, the other did not.
Using real scientific concepts, we can extrapolate what the Force might be. As a field, it would be measurable at every point in space, as Yoda described:
Since the Force is able to push the ship up away from the land — but is also able to not to move things if not requested by a controlling Jedi knight — something external would have to be involved. If I want the gravitational force to move an asteroid, I need to move something massive into position so I can change the vector and magnitude of the gravitational field in the vicinity of the asteroid. Whatever type of field is described by the Force would also have to be similarly altered in a highly specific manner.
And this is where the fictional Force recalls today's New Age usage of the concept of the energy field. This is a clip from a Reiki practitioner describing her process as she passes her hands over the body of a subject:
From a physical perspective, we can see there are a lot of things wrong with what she's saying. She speaks of John's "auric field", his aura, the "field of energy" surrounding him. As we've discussed, a field and energy are two unrelated things. If you move your hand through air or water or some other medium, you may well encounter hot spots, cold spots, or some pressure or force that pushes or pulls on your hand. If you had a metal ring on, you may be able to feel the pull if your hand passes through a point where the magnetic field is strong. If John's feet are very cold, and you passed your hand very close to them, you might be able to feel a cold spot where the ambient heat energy was absorbed by his feet. If his forehead was very hot you might be able to feel the air in its immediate vicinity slightly warmed.
Human bodies, like any other physical objects, do influence physical fields. Our bodies are a certain temperature, so we affect the temperature field. We have mass, so we affect the gravitational field. Temperature is easily measurable, but such a tiny amount of gravity is not. Gravity is the weakest of the four fundamental forces; it takes a tremendous amount of mass for its effect to be detectable. We are visible, we make noise; other than that, our bodies don't really have much of an effect. So what are all these effects the reiki master claimed to be able to feel from John?
Some believe we create magnetic fields. This is a difficult proposition, as the very idea is easily disprovable. Humans don't affect compass needles or more sensitive magnetometers. Nor should we; the only ferromagnetic element that exists in our bodies in any significant amount is iron, most notably in the hemoglobin of our red blood cells. They're suspended in liquid, and are jumbled and tumbling in every direction. The molecules have to all be aligned and bonded firmly in a lattice to be a magnet.
She used other words too: his aura, his qi, his reiki energy. None of these have any counterpart in the physical world. Although she attempted to described their properties as heat or magnetism, those properties are already taken by — well, heat and magnetism. There are no properties attributable to the mysterious field she describes, thus it cannot be authoritatively said to exist. Even the most elusive concepts in the farthest reaches of physics, such as dark matter, are known because they have detectable properties.
Thus, this New Age concept of the body having an "energy field" is fatally doomed. There is no such thing as an energy field; they are two unrelated concepts. Nor is there any evidence or sound hypothesis suggesting the body emanates some type of intangible cloud. If we really wanted to stretch definitions, we could say the human body has potential energy. Everything that has mass and is within a force field has potential energy, like a rock within the Earth's gravity. The stronger the vector in the gravitational field and the more mass in the rock, the more potential energy it has. John has as much potential energy as anyone. But potential energy is potential, it's not currently being expressed. It does not produce warmth or tingling sensations any more than would a rock; if it did, it would constantly be reduced as it's used up. We don't see humans constantly withering away as their life force energy is being used up projecting a strange field of something.
So the takeaway from all of this is not to be moved when you hear a product or service advertised as interacting with your body's energy field. It is simply word salad, as we say; a collection of sciencey-sounding words thrown together, tossed around, and scooped onto a plate. Learning to recognize goofiness like this is the perfect intersection of science education and consumer protection, which is the core of skepticism. So whenever you hear a word salad, you should always be skeptical.
Correction: An earlier version of this said that when burning gasoline, energy is released when molecular bonds are broken. In fact the opposite is true: energy is released when stable molecular bonds are formed, which is what's happening when gasoline burns. —BD
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