University funds Therapeutic Touch

Why is Canterbury University fostering an alternative therapy at its Health Centre?

Should Canterbury University be funding pseudo-science? It was implied that this was occurring in a recent university press release:

Staff development awards of up to $5000 are available every six months for general staff. They are designed to recognise and assist professional development activities… One of the recipients this year is Wendy Risdon, who works at the UC Health Centre as a practice nurse. She will use her award to fund a trip to the US, where she will attend the 12th Annual Healing Touch International Conference in Milwaukee.

According to the Healing Touch International, Inc. website:

Healing Touch works with your energy field to support your natural ability to heal. It is safe for all ages and works in harmony with standard medical care.

When people start talking about someone’s energy field, especially with respect to medical treatments, alarm bells should start going off in your head. A simple Wikipedia search reveals several critical evaluations of the therapeutic touch practice.

In the press release, Wendy goes on to say: “I will be going to facilities that use complementary therapies such as Healing Touch as part of their mainstream care… Healing Touch is not particularly well-known or used here in New Zealand but I think there is a big role for it. My goal is to incorporate complementary therapies into mainstream medicine.”

It wasn’t clear what was happening down at the Health Centre, so I went to find out for myself. Wendy Risdon is a Registered Nurse at the UC Health Centre and a Level 5 Healing Touch practitioner. She was more than happy to talk about her work.

DM: How does Touch Healing work?

WR: It”s a biofield therapy, that means it”s utilising the magnetic fields of the body of both the person and the practitioner. And it”s helping to move energy around the body. And I guess people are more familiar with things like acupuncture when you talk about moving energy. It involves the energy centres of the body called chakras.

DM: Have you ever considered that the simple act of massaging could act as a placebo effect and that there are no auras involved?

WR: To a certain extent I do think that the simple interaction between two people in a caring environment has positive benefits. There are measurements which have been done on practitioners and the actual frequency or the Hertz of the vibrations that they”re sending out and so we know that different organs of the body vibrate at different frequencies. What I think happens is that the practitioner can influence those frequencies by the energy that they”re sending out.

Looking through the literature suggested by Wendy revealed many complicated scientific terms used in an attempt to explain the mechanisms behind Healing Touch. Terms borrowed from quantum physics, or just the word quantum were used with audacious frequency. To a person who has studied advanced quantum mechanics, it is clear that the words were being misused. This is known as argument by poetic language; the ‘if it sounds good, it must be right’ argument. Unless you’re a scientist, these things are sometimes hard to detect, but the measurements claimed to have been carried out on the auras are obviously junk science.

So who chooses the recipients of these awards? A panel of senior staff from the Human Relations department determines the best applicants and then makes a recommendation to the Vice-chancellor, Roy Sharp, who has the final say. He was ill in this case, so the final decision became that of Paul O’Flaherty, the Director of Human Resources.

DM: Do you know what Healing Touch is and did you do any research into Healing Touch?

PO: In the application, the application was supported by all the general practitioners at the Health Centre and the director of the Health Centre. One of the panelists rang the director and said, “We understand this is an alternative therapy. Just wanted to check that you did in fact support the application.” When they confirmed they did, we worked it on that basis.

DM: Do you believe the university should fund pseudoscience?

PO: I wouldn’t describe it as that. I took the view with this that this was endorsed by mainstream professional health practitioners.

It doesn’t seem like Human Resources are at fault here. They consulted with the on-campus experts in medicine. It also turns out that there were only three applications for the General Staff development awards this year and all three applications were successful.

Dr Joan Allardyce is the Medical Director of the UC Health Centre.

DM: When you first heard about Healing Touch were you at all sceptical and what research did you do regarding Healing Touch?

JA: I was interested to know how it would be applied and what benefits would be derived. Wendy gave a presentation to all the doctors and nurses and all the doctors and nurses were all happy about it. So basically what it is, is massage. She’s applied it when people have severe neck pains or migraines or really stressed. People go away feeling really improved.

DM: If Healing Touch is acceptable in your health centre, can other members of staff also use other alternative medicines such as homeopathy and magnetic therapy?

JA: No, they are not acceptable. I cannot believe in iridology. We’re not going in that direction. We are absolutely not going down the track of opening our doors to any crackpot out there. Definitely not.

DM: The Healing Touch practitioners, including Wendy believe the healing mechanism is manipulation of an aura. As far as you’re aware, does Health Touch vary from normal massage?

JA: Who knows, it probably doesn’t actually matter. It’s the outcome that matters.

And, of course, Joan is right. Massage Therapy is a well established treatment with peer-reviewed research to back up the results. However, when you rename Massage Therapy as ‘Healing Touch’ and try to explain it with auras and the transfer of energy it becomes pseudoscientific. Massage itself should be sold as such; there’s no need to use mystery and make-believe to help relieve someone’s physical manifestations of stress by giving them a massage, especially intelligent young university students who surely are trying to seek truth in their academic pursuits.

If alternative medicines worked beyond a placebo effect then they wouldn’t be alternative anymore, they’d just be medicine. Alternative medicines become dangerous when they are used in place of conventional medicine to treat more serious conditions. Treating a headache/stress or other psychological ailment is different from treating physiological conditions such as infections or cancer. People believe they’re getting a treatment that works, but they’re paying for something that is ineffective. And in many cases they”re not only paying for the treatment with money, but with their lives. There are many examples listed on the website In this case, it seems very unlikely that anyone will be harmed by the practice of Healing Touch at the UC Health Centre. All the medical staff are extremely competent. Healing Touch might work for you. But it has nothing to do with manipulating an aura around your body.

Auras by Polaroid

At the Festival of Possibilities in Nelson, all the usual New Age paraphernalia were on display. A current vogue is “pulsing” which is already available in at least two varieties, holistic and Tibetan. (I later experienced a pulsing; it’s a variety of massage involving having different parts rocked or shaken, quite pleasant.) People at one stand tried to sell me Matol, a mixture of herbal extracts “that works at the molecular level” to increase the uptake of oxygen by my blood. I told them I trusted my body to take up just the right amount of oxygen.

New was “Aura Vision Photography”. On a tripod was a locked black box the size of an upright shoebox, containing a Polaroid camera with the filmpack sticking out the back and the lens visible through a hole in the front. From it came a flat grey cable about 40 wires wide, leading to another locked black box about the size of two stacked shoeboxes beside the subject’s chair, with a mains power connection and about 12 electrodes on top in the shape of a hand. Subjects laid their right hand on these while their picture was taken. (What if the subject was left-handed?)

The pictures showed the subjects dimly, with blobs of coloured light beside and above their heads — white, fading to saturated colour at the edges. Several pictures showed the same subject with different coloured lights. An attendant told me the apparatus had been designed by a scientist, with some assistance channelled through a clergyman when the scientist got stuck.

Unsurprisingly, the information supplied is unhelpful:

Surrounding the physical body is an electromagnetic energy field which vibrates and fluctuates at different levels. The frequency at which your energy field is vibrating is a direct reflection of your inner state of being and often affects the well-being of others around you….

This prototype camera is the world’s first and only patented electromagnetic field photographic system. Our electronic equipment measure [sic] then maps your personal energy vibration which is then analysed and translated into the colour vibration that corresponds to your unique energy levels.

Note that it does not say that the lights shown actually originate in the space around the person. It was not explained why or how electrodes on the hand could cause lights to appear in the picture (or whether they are the same shape and colour as those that appear to people who can see such things), but LEDs fitted inside the camera suggest themselves.

Another handout shows the colour interpretations:

Blood red: life force fed into the body to keep them [sic] physically strong.

Crimson red: around head and hands of Male, balanced emotionally and physically.

What if it is elsewhere, or around Female?

Green: healing vitality to be fed into the body to keep it going. Natural Healer gifts could be massage, reflexology, some form of natural healing.

Dark leaf green: indication of a healer. Healing could come through Counselling, Reflexology, etc.

Blue: indicates a person who could use colour healing.

Sky blue: indicates Healers. Special gift of laying on of hands. Massage, Aura Healing, Reflexology.

The other handout says “The colours in your electro-magnetic energy field can change from moment to moment” — so do the gifts come and go?

But the big whammy is:

White: indicates degree of spiritual level within the soul.

White glowing light — shows the divinity of a highly evolved soul that shines and radiates brightly.

White auric energy is a magnetic life force lead into the body through the crown chakra.

Christ light or Life force.

I suppose it’s a silly question to ask how these interpretations were reached — who was their test subject for white light…?

All the indications were positive: no colours were assigned to criminals or psychopaths or just rather dull people. The price to have your picture taken was $20 with interpretation or $25 for two subjects. People were queuing up to hand over their money and have their pictures taken.