General Mechanisms Somatosensory therapies

What does quantum theory tell us about complementary medicine? Not much!

Last week I found myself strolling through the “health / self-help / esotericism” section of a local bookstore. I sometimes do this to get an idea of the latest trend in complementary medicine literature. Although I found nothing interesting this time, I got the inspiration for a new blog post. It happened when I was passing by a large number of books with the word “Quantum” on it.

I cannot help but grin when I read titles, like “Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind Body Medicine”, “The Quantum Doctor: A Quantum Physicist Explains the Healing Power of Integrative Medicine”, or “Quantum-Touch Core Transformation: A New Way to Heal and Alter Reality”. Many of these books are linked to websites, where people can enroll in programs to become a Quantum Healer, a Quantum-Touch Practitioner, or even reach Quantum Enlightenment. Believe it or not, there is even a Quantum University in the United States offering a degree in Quantum Health Entrepreneurship. Apparently, a lot of people think that quantum theory can tell us something about complementary therapies. Since I am a physics graduate with a former focus on quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, I thought this might be a chance to add my perspective and clarify some things.

Quantum theory is for small things

One of the first things one learns in an undergraduate course on quantum mechanics is that the theory works fine for describing small things. And small means things with the size of an atom or a molecule or maybe a bunch of molecules. But that’s it. Anything larger is not adequately described by quantum mechanics. Instead the laws need to be replaced by those of so-called classical mechanics. Admittedly, this transition from the quantum to the classical scale (called the classical limit) is still a bit of a mystery for physicists. But it is clear that quantum mechanics fails when one tries to explain the behavior of large things, like humans. We simply do not behave like quanta. Unlike an electron in a double slit experiment, we have to choose if we take the left OR the right door instead of entering in a superposed state of taking both doors at the same time.
Although the constituents of our body on the molecular scale obey the laws of quantum mechanics, it is entirely unclear, how this should have any relevance for inter-personal phenomena, like healing. A concept that is frequently cited in this context is that of quantum entanglement. Two quanta can be linked in a way that they form a joint quantum state rather than separate states. This means that as soon as the state of one of the quanta is determined by measuring it, the state of the other one is instantaneously determined, too. So in theory an atom in your body could get entangled with an atom in someone else’s body. However, while it has recently been accomplished to entangle objects of macroscopic size, this is limited to very special kinds of matter, like artificial diamonds. Those materials have a very simple and highly organized structure that bears little resemblance with the cells in our body. Furthermore, the link established by quantum entanglement lasts only for a couple of picoseconds, that is a millionth of a millionth second.

The abuse of the word quantum

While I fail to see, how all this relates to the connection between a therapist and a patient, I do understand, why some people in the field of complementary medicine use terms borrowed from quantum theory to motivate therapies, like homeopathy or laying on of hands. The fact that the world of quantum phenomena is so radically different from our everyday experience fires our imagination. At the same time the word quantum conjures up associations of cutting-edge science and high technology. For some people in the complementary medicine field, however, quantum theory seems to be an empty vessel into which all sorts philosophical, esoteric or even religious concepts may be poured. Those people abuse the language of quantum mechanics to create the impression that they actually understand the theory behind it. Instead of saying “Patients may benefit from laying on of hands, although the underlying mechanism is currently unknown.” they say something like

Using the Quantum-Touch techniques, we can create a high frequency of life-force energy. If we place this field of high energy around an area of pain, stress, inflammation, or disease, the body can entrain to the higher frequency, thus amplifying the body’s ability to heal itself.”

Many people seem to accept such explanations without questioning them. This is partly understandable, as the reader assumes that the person who has written it has obviously studied and mastered one of physics’ most fundamental theories.

Mind the language gap

While I believe it should be prohibited to attract patients by creating the impression that a therapy is based on well-understood physical principles, the problem does not end here. Once we believe that quantum theory can actually explain the therapeutic effects of touch healing (if there are any), we stop thinking about other more plausible mechanisms. In my quest to understand the physiological mechanisms behind what I call somatosensory therapies, I often encounter pre- or para-scientific concepts, like the interference fields of neural therapy or the Qi concept of Chinese medicine. While these may be helpful for practitioners to reduce cognitive dissonance during treatment, they do not lend themselves to scientific investigation. What is worse, the excessive use of such terms in scientific discussions can distract people from the obvious similarities that those therapies exhibit. So in order to understand, how complementary therapies, like acupuncture, neural therapy, cupping or massage may work, it is best to take a step back and look at things from a distance. If one forgets the vocabulary for a moment and focuses instead on what constitutes a typical treatment session, it soon becomes clear that the acupuncturist, the neural therapist, and the body worker in fact do very similar things to help their patients. And I strongly believe that we do not need quantum theory to understand it.