Noetic Sciences Review, Vol. 28, Winter 1993, pages 33-36 
Bioelectromagnetics: The Question of Subtle Energies 
Jan Walleczek 
Jan Walleczek is a biologist specializing in bioelectromagnetics. For the past five years he has conducted research at the Radiation Biophysics and Research Medicine Division of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Loma Linda, California, in an attempt to build a bridge between work in this pioneering field and mainstream biomedical science. Dr. Walleczek is a board member of the Bioelectromagnetics Society and a Fetzer Institute Fellow. The following article was adapted from a presentation at the IONS’ Heart of Healing conference.

Bioelectromagnetics is a relatively new interdisciplinary science at the interface between biology, physics and medicine. The spectrum of modern bioelectromagnetics research runs from concrete applications, such as therapeutic applications of electromagnetic (EM) fields, to studies that seek to reveal how living cells, tissues and organisms can usefully interact with EM signals. Therapeutic applications include the EM stimulation of wound and bone healing, the use of magnetic pulses to alleviate arthritic conditions, and the treatment of sleep disorders and anxiety with electrical currents. 
In this presentation, I will highlight key aspects of modern bioelectromagnetics, and discuss new findings and future research directions. Additionally, I hope to stimulate thinking about the relationship, if any, between EM bioenergy and unconventional "subtle energies" concepts. Normally this question lies outside the scope of bioelectromagnetics research, although it is possible that bioelectromagnetics–in conjunction with the new science of complexity–may yet provide a scientific framework for studying so-called "subtle energy" therapies. Since we are covering such a wide field, I’ll begin with a brief overview to introduce some common terminology, and to draw important distinctions. 

Electromagnetic Vibrations and Energy Medicine 
Electromagnetic energy surrounds us all of the time. Throughout the entire process of evolution, all organisms have grown and developed in the presence of EM fields. We are immersed in all sorts of EM energies covering the spectrum from the Earth’s geomagnetic field, radio frequencies and microwaves, to visible light, all the way up to cosmic rays. It should be no surprise, therefore, that organisms have adapted to use EM fields in important ways as part of their normal physiological functioning. Such phenomena are increasingly being studied in laboratories today. If organisms, including human beings, have naturally adapted to environmental EM energies and make use of them in their normal physiological functioning, it makes sense to inquire: Can such energies be controlled and used for healing? 
As in any new and growing scientific field, terminology differs from group to group. Medical applications of EM energy are variously called "energy medicine", "electromedicine", "electrotherapy", or "magnetotherapy". These are all terms used among different healing practitioners, ranging from conventional medics to alternative healers. The term "energy medicine" is often used as an umbrella to cover the whole range of therapeutic modalities.
The modern era in bioelectromagnetics started only about three decades ago, although efforts to use EM signals in therapy have a much longer history. Beginning in the 1960s, there has been a growing interest in the possibilities of applying EM fields and radiation to treat a variety of health conditions–cancer, immune defects or bone fractures, for example–and now there are even claims that EM fields may be used in AIDS therapy. Many scientists still believe, however, that weak EM fields cannot have significant effects on human physiology, not to mention the power to heal. They say that the energies involved appear to be far too weak to be able to trigger any biological responses. Besides the experimental challenges to investigating bioelectromagnetics, the major problem is the continued absence of a thorough scientific foundation. This represents the single most important obstacle in developing effective EM treatments, and for achieving mainstream scientific acceptance. 

The Scientific Approach
Thousands of research reports have been published by Eastern and Western scientists on bioelectromagnetic effects. I should point out, however, that although these reports have raised many hopes for possible therapeutic applications, so far only few such EM applications have begun to find their way into the clinical setting. Basic laboratory studies include the investigation of EM effects on:

• the nervous and endocrine systems;
• muscular-skeleton system, especially on bone growth and the prevention of osteoporosis;
• the immune system; 
• carcinogenic processes;
• reproduction and development;
• wound healing;
• psychological parameters (cranial electrostimulation therapy, for example, uses EM fields to treat withdrawal symptoms in drug abusers). 
The independent confirmation of laboratory results–a prerequisite for scientific progress–still poses a great challenge to scientists in the field. As a result, the replication of findings and the use of strict experimental protocols has become a primary concern in bioelectromagnetics.
My own work at the VA Medical Center in Loma Linda addresses how EM signals interact with the immune system. Our ultimate goal is to identify EM signals which are capable of stimulating the body’s immune system and, therefore, can be externally applied to boost immune activity. Our current focus is to develop new methods for measuring the impact of EM energy signals on bioregulation. With our techniques we now can directly observe the often subtle field effects on living immune cells at the very moment the EM field is applied. This enables us to identify the most effective EM signal frequencies, intensities and signal combinations.

Searching for Answers
As this field opens up, some important questions need to be addressed:

• What is the physiological role of EM signals generated by organisms internally?
• Besides regulating nervous and muscular activity, what other body systems are controlled by EM energy?
• What field distributions and organization occur naturally within the body, and what is the nature of the body’s own EM signals?
• What kind of measurable signals are emitted from the body? (For decades, we have used EM emissions for diagnostic purposes by mapping EM fields associated with brain [EEG] and heart activity [EKG].)
• What is the role of the body’s internal EM fields, specifically in the self-healing process? 
• Could part of the body’s healing system be controlled by bio-information encoded in EM signals? 
Insights into this last area could dramatically improve the effectiveness of energy medicine and possibly other alternative modalities.
One approach to studying these questions would be to look at the extraordinary sensitivity of some animal species to weak electric and magnetic signals. Sharks, for instance, can detect electric fields in sea water on the order of a few billionths of a volt per centimeter. That’s a tiny amount: Picture placing the plus pole of a standard 1.5-volt battery in the sea off San Francisco and the minus pole off San Diego–a shark would be able to detect the intervening electric field. We have an explanation for such sensitivity with sharks. During their evolution over hundreds of millions of years, they used electric fields in the ocean for navigation and to detect prey. In sharks and other fish, biological EM detectors have evolved that enable them to respond to minute signals.
However, in humans we have no clear idea of what or where EM detectors would be. One fascinating observation is related to the pineal gland–often associated with the "third eye" in mystical literature. Laboratory studies demonstrate that this brain gland is sensitive to field levels matching the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. In fact, when the natural EM environment fluctuates with weather changes or sunspot activity, statistical analyses show above-chance correlations with human disturbances such as epileptic seizures or traffic accidents. Something seems to go wrong in the brain–possibly via the pineal gland. This evidence is purely statistical; it has not yet been confirmed in the laboratory.

Magnetic Crystals
Research has now confirmed the presence of small magnetic particles in living cells, and these could possibly act as natural magnetic detectors. Samples of human immune cells (leukemic T-cells) were found to respond to magnetic fields in experiments my colleagues and I conducted at the VA Medical Center in Loma Linda. When Dr. Kirschvink, at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, analyzed these cells, he confirmed the presence of tiny magnetic crystals, called magnetite
This was the first hint that there might be detectors in the human body that could explain the sensitivity of the immune system to EM fields. Previously, Kirschvink and his colleagues had also discovered magnetite in the human brain, providing a possible basis for interactions between EM fields and the brain. 

The Next Frontier in Bioelectromagnetics 
It is almost certain that present bioelectromagnetic theories alone cannot account for all alternative medical practices which claim the involvement of "subtle energies". Practices such as acupuncture, healer-healee interactions (as in qi-gong, "therapeutic touch"), bio-resonance therapies or homeopathy are used by tens of millions of Americans. Patients feel, in many cases, that these treatments work better for them than the conventional therapies. Their use is spreading despite the lack of substantial laboratory evidence to prove unusual energetic interactions. 
Mainstream medicine remains skeptical of these modalities. Not only is there a lack of convincing laboratory evidence, but the relationship is unclear between unconventional "subtle energies"–such as ch’i in traditional Chinese medicine, prana in the ancient Indian medical system, the vital force of Hahnemann’s homeopathy, or the novel bioenergy concepts proposed by Russian scientists–and the EM signals studied in bioelectromagnetics. Definition of terms is also a problem: There is no consensus on what is meant by "subtle energies". Are they electromagnetic in nature? Are they highly organized and complex EM patterns which, so far, can be decoded only by living organisms? Are they at all related to the known physical forces such as electromagnetism? No one knows for certain. 
These questions raise deep issues regarding the nature of "subtle energies" and bioelectromagnetism (not to mention the nature of electromagnetism itself). At this level of questioning we encounter the interface between physics and metaphysics. But since we are concerned here with the scientific investigation of possible "subtle energies", it will be helpful to distinguish between three radically different philosophical approaches to biology: vitalism, reductionism and emergentism. 

Ever since the Western scientific study of life and health began about two and a half thousand years ago with Aristotle, two opposing views on the nature of life have vied for acceptance: vitalism and reductionism. 

Vitalism: The Belief in a Universal Life Force
The notion of a vital force (a special force which endows matter with the properties that are unique to living systems) is the subject of vitalistic philosophies of biology and medicine. Vitalism introduces the notion of a metaphysical form of energy or a causal factor that is unique to living matter. Consequently, vital forces must exist outside the realm of conventional physical forces, including electromagnetism. On the other hand, a more recent interpretation of vitalism–called neo-vitalism–denies the existence of a life energy of metaphysical origins. Instead, neo-vitalists argue that the phenomena of life must be due to a new physical force still undetectable with existing technology. 

Reductionism: Successes and Limitations
In contrast to all forms of vitalism, reductionism maintains that animate and inanimate matter basically consist of the same materials and are subject to the same physical laws and forces. Radical reductionists believe that biomedicine can ultimately be reduced to physics and chemistry at the microscopic level of atoms and molecules. Accordingly, many scientists believe that medicine can eventually be reduced to molecular biology–"all life is chemistry" is an example of this view. Without a doubt the reductionist approach of mainstream biomedicine has proven highly successful in some areas. The promise of gene therapy, for example, where the repair of a chemical defect in a DNA molecule remedies an otherwise fatal physical condition, makes a convincing case for the power of molecular reductionism.
But there are limits to the explanatory power of the reductionist view–because the complexity of organisms confounds this approach. Organisms are not simply made up of large numbers and varieties of molecular components but, most important, these "parts" are highly organized and often involve unpredictable interactions and interrelationships. Biological function, including the restoration and maintenance of health, depends on this interconnectedness. The capacity of living matter to organize itself into highly coherent, dynamic structures during development or regeneration is an example of an organism’s dynamic and emergent complexity. Reductionist mechanical models cannot cope with the immense complexity of organisms, nor explain the spontaneous emergence of self-organizing properties in living systems. A third possibility is now gaining attention and momentum in biology: emergentism.

Emergentism: The New Science of Complexity
Emergentism neither invokes an unknown immaterial vital force, nor agrees with the reductionist position that life processes can be completely deduced from physico-chemical laws. Computer models, based on nonlinear dynamical concepts used in complexity theory, have already provided fascinating results. For example, some models show that qualitatively new properties, which would be essential to life and health such as self-organization, can spontaneously emerge from the nonlinear interaction of the old properties. Remarkably, the models also demonstrate that the phenomenon of self-organization itself cannot be explained–not even in principle–based on the previous properties. Reductionism would be unable to account for this observation. 
These results also indicate that no special vital force is needed to account for the irreducible complex behavior of living organisms. This insight is of great significance because vitalism has always rejected the idea that the capacity to self-organize, a seemingly fundamental quality of animate matter, could spontaneously emerge on the basis of physical laws alone. 
Emergentism may finally be putting an end to the historical conflict between (neo)vitalists and reductionists. The new science of complexity, with its ability to describe spontaneously emerging qualities, recognizes that the whole must not be broken down into its constituent parts in order to account for previously unexplainable properties of life. Therefore, emergentism may form the foundation of an adequate epistemology for biology and medicine. Importantly, since emergentism represents a kind of non-vitalistic holism, it could also provide a holistic scientific framework for biomedical research in general, and for bioelectromagnetics in particular. 

Subtle Energies or Subtle Interactions?
Given the new perspective of emergentism, we now can see why vitalistic or neo-vitalistic "subtle energies" have been proposed throughout history. It simply seemed unimaginable that the emergence of self-organizing features in matter could occur in the absence of a special vital force. However, complexity theory now shows us that this kind of emergence is indeed possible. More importantly, the sensitive dependence of this process on subtle microscopic interactions opens up a whole new possibility: The question of "subtle energies" may ultimately become a question of "subtle interactions" of electromagnetism–in all possible forms–with the organism. This new vision may provide a more powerful framework for research than previous approaches.
In line with this, one can speculate that subtle nonlinear EM interactions at the microscopic level may give rise to unexpected healing responses at the level of the whole organism. Could it be, then, that alternative therapies and healing systems have learned to utilize this potential, whereas mainstream medicine remains unaware of it? In my view this possibility deserves further exploration. Seen from this angle, the mystery associated with "subtle energy" therapies would be a consequence of our lack of understanding of the complexities and subtleties in the organization of living matter. 
Further, we don’t know yet how bio-information, carried by exceedingly weak and possibly highly organized complex EM patterns, could be detected, decoded and processed by the organism. Bioelectromagnetics, in combination with the new science of complexity, may help provide some of the answers. The exploration of this possibility and its application to clinical therapy will pose an exciting challenge to future generations of bioelectromagnetics researchers. The potential rewards for medicine could be immeasurable.

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