Is the Mysterious Power of QI Grounded in Science or Magical Thinking?
According to Chinese philosophy, qi is the force that makes up and binds together all things in the universe.
To the confusion and perplexity of Westerners, it is sometime defined in ancient texts as “both everything and nothing.” I have found it difficult to make sense of that definition, but most practitioners of Qi Gong (the practice of cultivating qi) have no problem understanding this.
In English, qi is usually translated as “vital life force,” but qi goes beyond that simple translation.
A 2017 article from the Acupuncture and Massage College of Miami, Florida, discusses the two main branches of qi:
There is the physical or nourishing portion of qi that makes up the air, water, and food that we take in. The other branch of chi is more insubstantial. It is the vital fluids and the energy itself that flows through our bodies. The first…could be thought of as those things we take in and make a part of us while the second is what has already become part of us and is then released to continue the cycle of life. It is the imbalances and interruptions of this flowing force that is responsible for most human ailments whether physical, mental, or emotional.
Acupuncture is perhaps the most useful and practical application of qi. It is an excellent example of how something can be useful without being understood.
Quasi-scientific studies of qi in the 1980s did not meet the rigorous standards accepted by the scientific community, including lack of reproducibility of results. The emphasis changed within the Chinese scientific community to investigations the health benefits of Qi Gong practice in traditional Chinese medicine.
Today, millions of people worldwide practice qigong. They use it for strengthening, exercising, disease prevention, self-healing, meditation, and martial arts training. I personally find it calming and centering.
If You Feel It, Does It Really Exist?
Qi Gong practitioners of are convinced of qi’s existence. It’s easy to feel something within a few moments of starting a Qi Gong exercise. It ranges from a tingling sensation in the palms to a stronger feeling of “energy” coursing through the body.
If you feel it, practitioners say, it must exist. I have often agreed with this, especially when deep into a set of exercises I would move my hands down my flanks a few inches from my body and feel ripples in the space between my hands and my torso. Or I would hold my palms a few inches apart and move them slowly together. I would feel strong resistance in the empty space between them, a sort of magnetic repulsion.
I consider myself a rational person. I have a scientific background and I’ve spent many decades practicing Qi Gong. As far back as I can remember, there has been an ongoing debate about the existence of qi. Sometimes I debate this with myself: Is it real?
A 2019 study published in Scientific Reports verified “for the first time that the rat brain is capable of synthesizing and releasing DMT at concentrations comparable to known monoamine neurotransmitters and raise the possibility that this phenomenon may occur similarly in human brains.”
DMT is a hallucinogen structurally similar to serotonin and dopamine. Some forms of meditation are believed to open up different parts of our brains, and if these produce DMT, it may cause feelings of qi energy.
Healing or Hypnosis?
Many years ago, I met with a doctor from mainland China whose specialty was healing people up to a kilometer away, an area of expertise I’ve never heard a doctor claim.
We met at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan. Richard, my son’s Taiwanese brother -in-law showed me his book and translated our conversation.
As we ate breakfast, he noticed that when I raised my coffee cup, my hand and arm were shaking. He asked if I had had an injury. I told him that I had been playing a lot of tennis and was suffering for several weeks from tennis elbow.
He was sitting directly across the table for me at a distance of about three feet. He stared at my elbow for what seems like a long time but was probably 30 seconds. Then he sat back and pointed to my coffee cup. I picked it up. To my amazement, my arm had stopped shaking and my elbow no longer hurt. I was pain-free that entire day. Around midnight the shaking and the elbow pain returned.
Was this an instance of healing by qi, or was something else at play? Upon reflection, I thought that this doctor had hypnotized me without my being aware of it and planted subliminal suggestions that relieved my pain for an entire day. Or was it an instance of healing with qi?
The scientist in me had to ask, was there a less exoteric reason that I felt better so quickly? For example, was the doctor able to hypnotize me and plant suggestions without my noticing? I might have asked him to demonstrate healing somebody who was not looking at him or noticed that he was there. But there was no opportunity to set that up, and I never resolved the issue.
Science and Qi
The history of science is littered with ideas that were disproven.
For example, in the late 19th century scientists struggled to explain how light waves could propagate through empty space, something that waves were not supposed to be able to do. They invented the idea of an invisible field, the “luminiferous ether,” that was supposed to pervade space and carry light waves. In 1887, the Michelson-Morley experiment, one of the most important experiments ever devised, proved that the ether did not exist, and the concept was discarded.
Curiously, the ether sounds very much like Chi. Practitioners of Qi Gong believe that qi is a form of energy. As a physicist, I ask myself, what kind of energy it could be. Perhaps it is a type of electromagnetic wave, light or radio waves.
Human beings have a very narrow bandwidth for detecting electromagnetic waves. The electromagnetic spectrum ranges from tiny but lethal gamma rays to immense gravity waves. The tiny slice we call “visible light” has wavelengths of about 1 millionth of a meter. Evolution has designed the pupils of our eyes to admit rays of this size, but not larger or smaller. We cannot “see” infrared or ultraviolet light. In this regard, our brains are filters, keeping out almost all of the electromagnetic waves information coming in from the universe because we don’t have the capacity to process it.
Now suppose (and there is no proof that this is true) qi is an electromagnetic wave outside the visible spectrum. Our brains cannot detect radio frequencies outside the visible light spectrum. and if it has a part of the whole electromagnetic spectrum, perhaps we can train our brains in order to experience the wavelengths that constitute qi.
Consider that the qigong exercises that have been handed down for thousands of years activate parts of our brain that we don’t ordinarily use and that can channel qi throughout the body. These exercises often focus on the pineal gland, an organ near the brain stem (sometimes called the third eye.) Qigong masters and adepts claim that the pineal gland, once awakened, can deepen the benefits of qigong meditation.
Does it Matter if Qi is Real?
Can a person benefit from a religion if they do not believe in its deity? I think so. Most religions teach moral values that do not require a belief in God to live by these.
Similarly, qigong practice provides benefits that do not depend on the practitioner’s belief in the reality of qi. Sometimes in the middle of practice I feel a connection with an energy that I could believe is separate from me. It is a powerful feeling and one that I enjoy, although I believe it’s coming from me more than from the universe at large.
Either way, qigong exercises have become a part of my everyday routine. And I hope to enjoy them for many decades to come.