Noetic Sciences Review, Winter 1993, pages 30-32
Bioelectromagnetics: Old Roots of a New Science 
Christian de Quincey
  • The word "bio-electro-magnetism" combines three scientific concepts–"bio", meaning life, from biology; "electricity" and "magnetism" from physics.
  • Physicists talk of unified electromagnetic interaction as one of the four fundamental forces of nature (the other three being the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity).
  • Biophysicists recognize electromagnetism as the force responsible for all atomic and molecular (chemical) interactions, and therefore essential to the chemistry of life.
Less than 50 years old, bioelectromagnetics (BEM) is the study of electromagnetic phenomena within and between biological systems. Current BEM research focuses on whether organisms interact with each other and their environment through specifically bioelectromagnetic fields. However, since the subject matter of BEM seems to overlap an allied discipline sometimes referred to as "subtle energies", these may constitute the next research frontier for the new science. An important question for BEM as a science is whether all "subtle energies"–such as bioluminescent auras, prana, ch’i and kundalini–are essentially manifestations of one (or more) of the four fundamental forces of physics, or whether, along with electromagnetic interactions between organisms, there exist other, non-material, fields or energies. 

Standard scientific methodology, following the principle of Occam’s razor, takes the path of least assumptions and aims to exhaust all known physical interactions before considering the possibility of any non-physical phenomena. A promising avenue of research regarding "subtle energies" appears to be investigation of electromagnetic interactions (particularly subtle electromagnetic interactions) which may be associated with complex ordering of matter, as occurs in living systems–hence bioelectromagnetism.

The science of BEM has its roots in the physics of electromagnetism, which combines the phenomena of electricity and magnetism. A brief historical sketch outlining the roots of this new science may be helpful in understanding its scope and where it might lead.

In physics, the coupling of electricity and magnetism was first discovered by Hans Christian Oersted in 1820, and solidly established by the work of Michael Faraday in the 1850s and James Clerk Maxwell in the 1860s. Before Oersted, scientists had assumed electricity and magnetism were unrelated forces, but Faraday and Maxwell demonstrated that in fact they were aspects of a single fundamental force: electromagnetism. 

Whenever an electric charge moves, it is always accompanied by a surrounding magnetic field. Conversely, when a magnetic field is moved through a loop of conducting material, such as a copper wire, an electric current is generated in the wire (this is the principle underlying such everyday technologies as dynamos, electric generators and transformers). 

Electromagnetic interactions are usually described in terms of "fields" or radiation. And because the phenomenon consists of a moving electric charge and its associated fields, physicists often refer to the "dual-nature" of this force, meaning it may be detected either as a particle (such as a photon) or as a wave (a radiation field). 

Electromagnetism is believed to be active everywhere in the universe except within the nuclei of atoms, where the strong nuclear force dominates. Measured in wavelengths, the universal force of electromagnetism spans a wide spectrum of energy, or radiation, from radio waves at one end to gamma rays at the other. In between these two extremes, a thin slice of the spectrum is occupied by light, from infrared to ultraviolet. The units of light (the "particles" which carry the electromagnetic force) are called "photons", and are distinguished by their respective wavelengths. "Biophotons" are photons of light associated with electromagnetic radiation from biological systems.

Electricity was familiar to the ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago from the action of rubbing fur against amber (the word "electricity" comes from the Greek elektron, for amber). The scientific evidence for bioelectricity (electricity in the body), however, came much later, though it has been well established for centuries. Historically, electricity was first associated with organisms in the 1780s when an Italian anatomy professor, Luigi Galvani, experimented by inducing the muscles of a dead frog to twitch in response to an electric current. His physicist colleague Alessandro Volta proposed that the nerves acted as conductors of electric charge so that, when a current flowed, the nerves activated the muscles. These experiments showed that electricity is not simply a phenomenon unique to physical processes but occurs also in biological systems–hence the term "bioelectric".

With increasingly sophisticated technology we can now measure and monitor electrical activity in various parts of the body. For instance, electrical activity in the heart is monitored by an electrocardiogram (EKG); electrical activity in the brain is monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG); and electrical activity on the surface of the skin is monitored by measuring electrodermal, or psychogalvanic, response. At the turn of the century, psychologist Carl Jung was one of the first medical scientists to monitor electrodermal activity as an aid in diagnosing mental illness, such as schizophrenia. 

Knowledge of magnetism, too, goes back to the early Greeks who discovered the magnetic properties of "lodestone" (an iron oxide). The word "magnetism" came from the ancient Greek town of Magnesia. The scientific evidence for "biomagnetism", however, has a less substantial history than that for bioelectricity. The notion that magnetism played a significant part in the behavior of organisms was first proposed in the late sixteenth century by J. B. van Helmont, a scientist who claimed that all humans radiate a magnetic fluid. In 1704 an English physician, Richard Mead, suggested that magnetic-like emanations from the sun and the planets influenced processes in the human body.

But the name most readily associated with the notion of a universal magnetic fluid influencing humans and animals is Franz Anton Mesmer, a late eighteenth century Viennese physician. In Vienna and Paris, Mesmer experimented with what he called "animal magnetism", speculating that it constituted a physical force exchanged between organisms, including humans, and their environment. He worked extensively with people in clinical settings, using his "animal magnetism" to treat a wide range of psychological and physiological symptoms. Mesmer developed a detailed metaphysical cosmology around the concept of "animal magnetism", proposing that it constituted a fundamental force of nature, akin to gravitation. 

Although "mesmerism" later became known as hypnosis–today used effectively for a variety of clinical purposes–Mesmer’s metaphysical speculations along with his concept of "animal magnetism" were completely rejected by the scientific and medical community. Consequently, the notion of magnetism as a phenomenon within or between living organisms fell into disrepute and was neglected in science until about 30 years ago, when scientists in Eastern Europe began new experiments.

Compared with data confirming effects of electricity on organisms, the evidence for bio-magnetic effects remained scant. Nevertheless, relationships between magnetic phenomena and biological systems gradually accumulated. Reports on the behavior of some fish and birds, for instance, suggested that these animals had some kind of magnetic detector in their bodies. During the past decade, researchers have discovered a magnetic substance called "magnetite" in the brain cells of some species, and more recently have even isolated magnetite in the form of "magnetozomes" in the brain cells of humans.

Growing evidence for the sensitivity of organisms to magnetic and electric fields led scientists to wonder about the role of combined electromagnetism in living systems. Given the physiological role of electric currents within organisms (including humans), biophysicists took the next step and began to investigate the influence of external electromagnetic fields on microorganisms, plants and animals–and so the science of bioelectromagnetism was born.

Bioelectromagnetism: A Challenging Frontier
As a frontier discipline, the territory of BEM has yet to be clearly defined. Its practitioners, eager to establish BEM as a respected science, must balance the challenges of conventional scientific methodology and theories with the urge to encompass a broad range of anomalies. Investigating a variety of "subtle energies" within and between living organisms–from applications of electromagnetic radiation to assist bone growth, through attempts to account for the puzzling healing effects attributed to therapeutic touch and homeopathy, to the study of auras and non-conventional "energies" such as ch’i, kundalini, prana–the young science of BEM is challenged to explain these phenomena within the parameters of the known four forces of physics–or to question the basic assumptions and methodologies of current science. 

The nature of the phenomena being studied in BEM raises long-standing heuristic issues in biology and other sciences: whether the phenomena should be explained according to reductionistic (classical or quantum) or vitalistic (non-physical) principles, or perhaps approached from within the context of a third option–emergentism–involving explanations derived from the new sciences of complexity and chaos theory, and non-linear dynamics. (See accompanying articles by Jan Walleczek and Beverly Rubik.)

Whichever approach is followed, it seems that sooner or later the young science of bioelectromagnetism may also need to account for consciousness-related phenomena, such as intention, awareness, purpose, and non-local "sharing" of information. Applications of "subtle energies" or "subtle interactions" in healing processes take science to the frontiers where consciousness and biological matter interact. With evidence from medical science supporting the phenomenon of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI), the question of mind-body interaction appears to be critical to our understanding of health and healing, demanding a new, creative expansion of science and medicine.

Go to: Sitemap
Bioelectromagnetics: The Question of Subtle Energies 
Bioelectromagnetics: Energy Medicine - A Challenge for Science