Energy Flow In The Body – Do Components of Vitalism Theory Still Offer Something For Our Understanding of Life

I was watching a wonderful Open Day introductory session for potential students at out University, and I was struck by the almost tangible energy emanating from a huge gathering of the young final year school attendees, particularly when a band played some current chart topping music for them as part of the festivities. This ‘feeling’ of ‘energy’ in the mass of young folk got me thinking again of the the old concept of Vitalism, and the more recent concept of Bio-Energetics, both of which I have thought about often and have studied on and off during my career to date, though I feel never to a satisfactory degree or level of attention. Vitalism is the theory that living organisms are different to non-living organisms, because they have energy / a vital spark / ‘elan vital’. Perhaps unfortunately for the theory of Vitalism, this idea of “elan vital’ was related by some to be representative of or associated with the soul, whatever the soul of a human is or where or how it resides in the material body. In the Western scientific world, the concept developed in part as a reaction to more mechanical theories of the body such as that of the philosopher Descartes, who proposed that the body was simply a machine which performed mechanical functions when interacting with the environment in a mechanically generated way. Proponents of Vitalism theory believed that such mechanistic interpretations were not able to account for the characteristic of life which we ‘feel’ and ‘know’, and which manifestly ‘disappear’ when anyone dies and the ‘life force’ is no longer part of the body, which becomes a non-living entity we call a corpse when we shuffle off this mortal coil. In the last century, with the dawn of the reductionist era of science, and the primacy of genetic and biochemistry based research, the theory fell into disrepute, due to scientist folk saying that its concepts could not be tested (with the current laboratory test available), and that Vitalism was therefore a ‘pseudoscience’, believed in and used as the basis for clinical interventions only by alternative medicine practitioners, and should therefore be ‘relegated to the trash heap of science’, as it pretty much has as a scientific belief and discipline.

The concept of ‘energy as a life force’ is of course not exclusive to the Western scientific world, nor did it originate in the West, with Chinese and other Eastern Culture’s developing similar concepts thousands of years ago, which are still believed in and used as the basis for clinical practice today. For example in traditional Chinese culture, Qi (also known as Chi) is perceived to be the central underlying principle of traditional Chinese medicine, and describes natural ‘energy’, life force and energy flow. In order to enhance or heal patients with illnesses, Chinese medical practitioners believe that by enhancing the energy systems and flow, using techniques for example such as Feng Shui (arrangement of energy ‘space’) or Qigong (coordinating breathing, movement and awareness) and acupuncture, most illnesses can be healed. In the Hindu religion and culture, Prana describes similar energy forces, and the concept of Chakras suggest that energy points or nodes occur through the body in distinct regions and ‘lines’. These beliefs are underpinned by the idea that there is a ‘life force’ that is likened to, or is, an energy flow around and through the body, which forms a cohesive, functioning entity. Practitioners believe that by understanding its rhythm and flow, and treating imbalances in these energy systems, allows for the healing of illnesses and leads to enhanced ‘stability’ and longevity. Interestingly, unlike Vitalism, the Eastern practitioners of these fascinating healing techniques are generally unwilling to define terms such as Qi with reductionistic, ‘Western’ concepts such as ‘energy’ per se, though this is the best description of it. Similar to Vitalism, most of these concepts are generally given short thrift by most Western scientists.

This negation of bio-energy concepts by most ‘hard core’ Western scientists is both paradoxical and puzzling, given that several classical research techniques, particularly in neuroscience and psychophysiology, use bio-energetic principles as their core. For example, the electroencephalograph (EEG) clinical and research device is a non-invasive technique which measures electrical activity of brain tissue and neurones in the brain at a distance from the brain tissue itself (the measuring electrodes are placed by necessity on the scalp). Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), is a non-invasive technique used to stimulate different regions of the brain, using a magnetic coil which sends electromagnetic impulses into the brain tissue which creates physical outcomes in the peripheral muscles. I will never forget the first time I watched a TMS device in action in the laboratory I worked in at the National Institutes of Health Research Centre in Washington DC in the USA, where with my great colleague and friend from Austria, Dr Bernhard Voller, we were using TMS to stimulate the motor cortex, and by doing so, controlling and manipulating movement in the fingers and other peripheral muscles. I had the distinct feeling I was watching ‘magic’ happening each time the finger moved in response to the TMS impulse being delivered by Bernhard to the brain using the magnetic coil placed on (or just above) the participant’s scalp. Yet we have subsequently published several research articles in respected international journals of our findings using these two brain examination techniques, which ‘tap into’ non-physical bio-energetic / electromagnetic activity in, and emanating from, the brain tissue, in contrast to what would happen if we tried to get a research paper published which examined Chakras or Qigong energy practices. Even more interesting is what is seen when using a galvanic skin response (GSR) research testing device in the laboratory, which picks up electrodermal activity (electrical activity of the skin), and which shows drastic changes in activity when emotionally charged interventions are shown or given to participants in trials. The GSR device is what is basically used in lie detector tests – your bio-energetic activity changes when one lies, or are required to answer questions which are emotionally charged (interestingly psychopaths, who show very little emotional lability or affect changes, are able to ‘fool’ lie detector tests given that they show no response to such tests, as easily as they are able to demonstrate anti-social behaviour).

So why do concepts like Vitalism and ‘alternate’ therapies such as Feng Shui and Qigong produce a usually hostile response in so many ‘Western’ / classical scientific folk. Perhaps it is because such theories often become conflated with, or are discussed as being related to, issues such as the ‘soul’, which conceptually is beyond basic bio-energetic force theory principles, and usually brings in non-secular beliefs and religion into the debate, even if the bodies energy / life force and the ‘soul’ (if there is such a thing) can perhaps occur separately and / or be discussed as non-religious entities. It may be because of the predominant reductionistic view of life and science which currently occurs, in which gene theory (which is still very relevant, though surely cannot explain completely what ‘life’ is), biochemistry and mechanical explanations for phenomena and all behaviour in life still very much ‘hold sway’ in both scientific and general folk’s life view. Perhaps because of this, alternate energy related body control paradigms are often regarded with disdain by ‘classical’ scientists / research folk. It may be a result of not having the research techniques available still to adequately explore concepts like bio-energetics, Qi and Prana. It may be that most scientists are scared to research these concepts, given the risk of being labelled a ‘crank’ for not staying in ‘mainstream’ academic research, no matter how contrary it is/ paradoxical from a scientific exploration perspective, for academic folk to denigrate colleagues who choose to spend time examining these very interesting, but perceptually ‘lateral’, and very academically challenging concepts.

What I do know though, after more than 20 years working in science and medicine, is that I still have not read or heard one theory or idea that adequately explains what ‘life’ is, or how our body’s energy is maintained, or what is ‘extinguished’ in the body when we die. I do know that I feel ‘energy’ as part of my life and how life ‘feels’ to me, and that this energy waxes and wanes depending on how tired I am and my emotional state. I do know that when someone who is caring and kind gives me a hug or puts their hands on me, I feel a calming presence and a change in my own ‘energy’ and ‘feelings’. I do know that when I am sitting quietly, I often ‘know’ that someone I can’t see is looking at me or directing energy at me, and when I look around, indeed someone is doing so. I do know that I ‘feel’ the energy of people whom I meet in a negative or positive way, and those who I have ‘positive energy’ with usually become friends, and those who I feel ‘negative energy’ from generally remain challenges to me from an interactive perspective no matter how long I know them and try and warm to them (and probably vice-versa too). Us scientists have a long way to go to understand such phenomena and activities and behaviour, and instead of negating them or dismissing them as not existing, will probably find that the next major breakthrough in understanding life’s regulatory processes, and life itself, will come through from examining and understanding these concepts. As for watching the ‘group energy’ of the young folk who I saw dancing and clapping along to the music and enjoying the wonderful ambience of yesterday’s Open Day welcoming event, well, maybe for now I’ll just enjoy observing the ‘energy’ of all of them, revel in its positivity, and hope in the future how we can harness such ‘group energy’ for the greater good, not just from a scientific understanding perspective, but also from the perspective of using it as a method / potential ‘group’ gestalt healing tool in the future for challenging social and community interactions and behaviour. But as for understanding it, that is surely for another day / another epoch / another time way in the future!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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