Does crystal therapy really work?

Crystal therapy has been around for donkeys’ years. The Mayans, Ancient Egyptians and Ancient Greeks used crystals for protection and health, and there are mentions of crystals in the bible, the Koran, and in other historical texts. Today, the practice of crystal healing is as popular as ever with numerous books, magazines and websites dedicated to the subject. As a professional crystal therapist you can attend conferences all over the world and even get your accredited diploma in crystal healing. It certainly sounds like a plausible treatment, but does crystal therapy actually work?

New Age believers attribute the powers of crystals to the small electrical charge held within their structure. This much is certainly true; at an atomic level crystals are made up of positively and negatively charged ions ‘holding hands’ in an ordered sequence. Because of these charges some crystals can even produce a special kind of electricity; piezoelectricity or ‘pressure electricity’, when they are mechanically squeezed or stretched. But this phenomenon is by not weird, New Age, or by any means hocus-pocus. In fact, it is commonly manipulated for use in gramophones, voice recognition systems, and quartz clocks and watches.

A picture of a quartz clock

Quartz clocks and watches use the piezoelectric effect to keep time

So, do these same electrical charges grant magical healing properties to specific kinds of rocks? New age therapists will tell you that when certain stones are held against the body their inherent energy acts like a tuning fork to reset electrical imbalances. This effect then enables the body to heal itself. A great number of health conditions can supposedly benefit including arthritis, asthma, chronic fatigue syndrome, chronic pain, diabetes, eczema, infections, infertility, insomnia, irritable bowel syndrome, leukaemia, kidney problems and migraines. Crystals are also said to raise personal energy levels, soothe emotion upset, aid meditation and awaken spirituality. But where is the scientific evidence?

Crystals are said to raise personal energy levels, soothe emotion upset, aid meditation and awaken spirituality. But where is the scientific evidence?

Well, in 1999, London scientists French and Williams figured it was about time that someone did the research. They conducted an experiment to investigate the power of crystals compared with a placebo. In doing so, they also explored the effects of priming and the power of suggestion.

The study consisted of eighty volunteers (forty male and forty female) and included undergraduates, health professionals, managers, and customers from a New Age shop. Each volunteer was scored as either ‘high paranormal belief’ or ‘low paranormal belief’ according to how much they believed in spooky-wooky stuff.

Before commencing the crystal therapy (real or placebo), half of the participants were ‘primed’ with an information sheet entitled ‘Introduction to crystals’. This described to the volunteers what they might feel whilst handling crystals. A hot sensation in the hand holding the stone, an increase in the participant’s personal energy level and tingling sensations throughout the body were all suggested as potential crystal effects.

All eighty participants were left to meditate for five minutes with either a real crystal (a quartz piece) or a fake crystal (made from glass) and then questioned about their experience. Now, we can only take the researchers’ word for it, but the crystals and the placebos looked and felt exactly the same. They say they made sure of this with prior testing.

A picture of a quartz crystal lying on a bluey green surface

Eighty participants meditated with either a real crystal, like this quartz piece, or a fake crystal that looked and felt exactly the same

After the meditation, the volunteers were asked to what degree did they experience the following: a hot feeling in the hand holding the crystal, increased energy levels, tingling sensations throughout their body, relaxation across their forehead, improved mood, or an increase in their swallowing reflex. Note that only the first three effects were mentioned in the priming information sheet.

A further question asked the participants how much they believed that crystal power could influence the following: stress and anxiety, luck or fortune, physical health, healing others, protection from physical or physchological harm, or extrasensory perception (ESP) abilities such as telepathy or clairvoyance. This was to assess their existing belief in crystal power.

The participants were asked to respond to each of the questions with Likert-scale answers. The researchers describe a questionnaire that sounds like it looked a bit like this:

Question 3; to what degree did you experience each of the following:

A hot feeling in the hand holding the crystal?

0 = None 1 = A little 2 = A moderate amount 3 = A lot

Increased energy levels?

0 = None 1 = A little 2 = A moderate amount 3 = A lot

Tingling sensations throughout the body?

0 = None 1 = A little 2 = A moderate amount 3 = A lot

When the completed questionnaires were collected, the responses were scrutinised to identify what affected the participants’ crystal experience. Namely:

• Whether the crystal was real or fake
• Whether the participant believed in crystal power or the paranormal
• Whether the participants were primed beforehand

Real or fake

Whether the crystal was real or fake did not produce any significant difference in the strength of the sensations reported by participants. As such, the researchers concluded that the effects the participants reported feeling were more likely to have been caused by the power of suggestion rather than ‘subtle energies unknown to science.’

Close up of two hands cupping a large quartz crystal

Whether the crystal was real or fake did not make a difference to the sensations reported

Belief in crystal power and the paranormal

The researchers found a significant correlation between participants’ belief in crystal power, and the extent to which they felt the effects of crystal therapy. The more the subject believed in crystals and the paranormal, the more they reported feeling crystal effects. This finding adds weight to the theory that the strange effects felt in the experiment were due to the power of suggestion. After all, it seems fair to assume that the participants who believed in crystal magic and other paranormal forces would be more receptive to this power of suggestion than sceptics.

Now, any research analyst worth their salt crystals (sorry, couldn’t resist) would not continue without flipping this correlation on its head, at least for a minute or so. It could be argued that the more sceptical a participant was, the less likely they were to report any crystal effects. They might have felt all kinds of strange sensations yet simply denied feeling anything. At the very least, crystal sceptics would ‘down-play’ their experience, surely. This would result in skewed conclusions. The thing is though, in this experiment the correlation between crystal belief and crystal effects reported emerged for both real and fake crystals. This lead the researchers to conclude that the reported effects had little to do with mysterious crystal forces.

Primed versus unprimed

Priming half of the volunteers with the information sheet ‘Introduction to Crystals’ had a significant effect on the results. The primed group reported significantly stronger sensations than the group who were not primed. Surprisingly though, whether or not certain sensations were mentioned in the priming sheet made little difference to the specific effects that were felt. Instead it seems that the primed volunteers, when questioned, simply reported feeling all kinds of unusual sensations to a greater extent than those who were not primed.

It cannot be established whether the volunteers in the study genuinely felt the reported sensations at the time of having crystal therapy, or whether they distorted their memories later and only thought they had experienced these effects. Perhaps the findings were a result of the way participants were questioned. If the subjects, whilst reading through the questionnaires, were influenced to think they should have felt all kinds of strange sensations, they may have  been inclined to report accordingly. This is known in research as responding to demand characteristics.

A group of participants sat writing their answers on questionnaires

It is unknown whether the participants responded to demand characteristics when reporting crystal effects

Regardless of how it came about, the correlation between priming and effects felt from crystal therapy was a pattern that emerged for both real and fake crystals. Again, the researchers concluded that ‘crystal energy’ from the quartz couldn’t possibly be responsible any of the reported effects. They reported this as the main finding of their study.

Two years later the researchers joined forces with another of their colleagues and  repeated their experiment. A double-blind component was added to the study design, with similar results produced.

Both of French’s studies investigating crystal power demonstrated interesting phenomena; of participant susceptibility, priming, and demand characteristics. However, these factors produced patterns in the results regardless of whether the crystal was real or fake. For this reason, the participants’ experience couldn’t possibly be down to minute electrical charges inside the quartz crystals. The researchers concluded that the ‘power of crystals’ is in fact the power of suggestion.

 Patterns in the results emerged regardless of whether the crystal was real or fake. It seems that the ‘power of crystals’ is in fact the power of suggestion

So, the question that has in fact been answered by this research is not ‘Does crystal therapy really work?’ but rather ‘Are the effects of crystal therapy down to minute electrical charges hidden inside the stone’s structure?’

And, whilst the evidence-base is limited to these two studies, right now the answer to that question is ‘No.’

It could of course be argued that no one really cares how a therapy works, as long as it produces the desired effect. No one could deny that the vast majority of the participants in the studies did indeed feel the expected effects. Perhaps the question should not be ‘Does crystal therapy really work?’ but rather ‘Is there a place in the world for crystal therapy when its benefits are merely due to the placebo effect?’

And the answer to that question is, of course, debatable.


References

French, C. C, & Williams, L. (1999). Crystal clear: Paranormal powers, placebo, or priming? Sixth European Congress of Psychology, Rome, 4-9 July 1999.

French, C.C, O’Donnell, H. and Williams, L. (2001) Hypnotic susceptibility, paranormal belief and reports of crystal power. British Psychological Society Centenary Annual Conference, Glasgow, 28 March 2001.


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