Crystal Healing? The Power of Placebo

Since 2010, Google searches for the phrase “crystal healing” have doubled, as this trend that lost steam in the early 2000s has returned with a vengeance, appearing arm in arm with a resurgence of other “new age” healing trends, such as Reiki, sound baths, and cupping. Urban areas across the nation are seeing growth in holistic healing businesses. Many feature a front-end shop with an assortment of colorful stones from around the world, each with a little placard explaining what type of energy they channel. A quick online search for a crystal healing course returns thousands of virtual and in-person options for learning to work with crystal energy, many of which have sprung up within the past two years.

What exactly do people think they do? There are many versions of the justifications behind why crystals are believed to have powers. The microscopic structure of a crystal forms a highly organized lattice, giving them their characteristic shine and flat facets. A common claim is that this geometric structure interacts with the body’s invisible energy field and helps realign imbalanced energy. Of course, an invisible energy field has never been scientifically verified, and it is unclear what a particular crystal could do to shift it if it had. However, many crystal practitioners stand by the claim that these shifts in energy are too subtle to detect by modern methods.

Very little research has been done in crystal healing, primarily because there is no mechanism by which a crystal could affect biological processes by merely being held. The results that people describe are often attributed to wishful thinking.

In a 2001 study conducted at the University of London, researchers offered participants a brief pamphlet on the benefits of crystals. It suggested that patients would experience increased energy and focus while holding certain kinds of crystals. They then offered participants crystals to meditate with. They found that while most participants reported an effect, the experiences described were similar regardless of whether the crystal the participant was holding was genuine or cheap plastic. This indicates that the impact of the crystal treatment was not related to the crystals themselves, but the result of a psychological phenomenon known as the placebo effect. The placebo effect occurs when a patient who is not receiving a real treatment still experiences an improvement in their condition. Often this is based on nothing more than the expectation that the treatment will make them better.

The word placebo often carries a negative connotation, but in recent years researchers and practitioners have begun to recognize the powerful effects that it can have on patient outcomes. While they may not be easily predicted or repeated, the effects are often substantial when they occur, hinting at the power of the mind to transform responses in the body. Placebo outcomes are highly influenced by what patients are told will happen, and thus are highly malleable to a patient’s unique situation.

While there is no evidence for a medical effect that can be attributed to the use of crystals, there is a potential psychological effect that is very real and powerful. The trouble lies in balancing the potential benefits of belief in crystal healing or other new age therapies with the risks that patients may abandon traditional treatments.

When used in conjunction with standard medical and psychological therapies, practices such as crystal healing can promote a sense of control in the patient and may ease the healing process. This is a best of both worlds scenario, where both empirically proven medical techniques and the placebo effect can work in harmony, promoting positive patient outcomes.

This technique has taken hold in many addiction treatment therapy groups, where the amethyst crystal is purported to provide the same self-soothing properties of alcohol, without the ugly hangover. Perusing the testimonials on sobrietystones.com, many people report that their crystals serve as a visual reminder for their new path. It may be that these stones work to bolster the effects of group therapy to promote staying on the wagon.

The flip side, of course, is that those who would turn to a crystal instead of professional help are highly unlikely to stay sober or receive the help they might need. The same is true of any disease. The placebo effect may boost the results of medical treatment but is unlikely to heal someone on its own.

Researchers are still exploring how to harness the power of the placebo effect without introducing the risk that a patient might abandon traditional medicine if a placebo treatment is legitimized. While crystal healing holds no scientifically validated medical power, the shiny rocks can provide psychological comfort to patients undergoing conventional treatments. Hospitals of the future may make more use of these phenomena as we continue to learn more about how our expectations affect our experiences.

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