Chair’s Column April 2012

Novel understandings of “energy” and information will shape the future of mental health care

J. Lake

Some “alternative” treatments not currently endorsed by biomedical psychiatry are based on well described forms of energy such as electromagnetism and sound. Examples include EEG biofeedback, music and patterned binaural sounds, full spectrum bright light exposure, micro-current brain stimulation, and high-density negative ions. Treatment approaches based on these classically described forms of energy and information have specific or general beneficial effects at the level of neurotransmitter systems or brain circuits. In contrast, treatments based on postulated non-classical kinds of energy or information, including quantum mechanics and quantum field theory, may have both direct and subtle effects on brain function and mental health. Non-conventional modalities based on concepts that are presently outside of the tenets of biomedicine include acupuncture, homeopathic remedies, Healing Touch, qigong, and Reiki. Ancient healing traditions and accumulating modern research evidence suggest that prayer and other forms of directed intention may help alleviate symptoms of physical and mental illness. This is the domain of energy medicine (Chen 2004).

In contrast to the materialist philosophy implicit in contemporary biomedicine and biomedical psychiatry, Indo-Asian philosophy is based on the premise that the nature of reality, including both inanimate matter and living systems, is best understood in terms of fundamental properties of a postulated “vital energy” (Di Stefano, 2006). The meaning and role of causality in non-Western systems of medicine is not constrained by physical processes interacting in a world ordered by linear time flow. According to this view states of both living and non-living systems are regarded as secondary manifestations of more primary energetic states. By extension “energetic” factors are believed to play important roles in the manifestations of all living systems including changes in functioning associated with illness and health. Although “Qi” in Chinese medicine and “Prana” in Ayurveda cannot be directly observed or measured using Western style research methods professional practitioners of Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda can infer the roles of specific energetic “imbalances” when particular illness phenomena are present. Because of the philosophical differences between the Western medical tradition and Indo-Asian medicine proponents of contemporary biomedicine often regard methods used in non-Western systems of medicine as highly subjective or arbitrary. By the same token, non-Western healing traditions often place little emphasis on the empirical methods of Western science that attempt to “reduce” subjective symptoms into mechanistic descriptions of discrete underlying biological “causes.” Indeed, from the perspectives of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, attempts to empirically verify relationships between energetic phenomena are regarded as unnecessary because a fundamental energetic principle is posited to exist throughout the universe.

Novel understandings of energy and information are also coming from recent theoretical developments in quantum physics. A fundamentally new direction in our understanding of consciousness and by extension the causes of mental illness—will come from an emerging theory that regards brain functioning from the perspective of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory (Naeqau & Kafatos 1999; Elitzur 2005; Lorimer 2004). Quantum brain dynamics attempts to explain subtle characteristics of brain functioning in terms of non-classical forms of energy and information (Jibu and Senta 2001). Pending further confirmation through advanced functional brain imaging studies quantum brain dynamics may eventually help explain reports of therapeutic benefits achieved through non-local interactions between the consciousness of the medical practitioner and the patient (Schlitz & Braud 1997; Astin 2000; Standish 2001; Wackerman 2003; Standish 2003). This work will eventually yield a testable hypothesis about the role of prayer and intention in health and healing clarifying therapeutic mechanisms associated with spiritual and mind-body practices including meditation, yoga and energy medicine.