The Magic Feather Effect
1 Donna’s Eden
Under the influence of an energy healer
It’s Friday night in Asheville and the banquet hall is nearly full. The room buzzes with a giddy hum as people gather in little communities along a neatly assembled perimeter of chairs. Middle-aged women are the best-represented group, but I spot a few men and some young people, too. A few even look like teenagers. Above us, three chandeliers disperse a warm glow over the room.
I make my way past the tables scattered with paraphernalia about the weekend’s “Introduction to Energy Medicine” and notice that, to everyone’s delight, Donna Eden, the woman we have all come to see, has made an impromptu appearance on the stage. She darts from end to end, seemingly to retrieve something. Then she turns to the crowd, gives an enormous smile, and hoists her arms up over her head in a two-handed wave. The room erupts in applause.
When the program starts for real some fifteen minutes later, there is no introduction. Donna simply marches onto the stage with her husband, David Feinstein, who was once a psychologist on the faculty at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is now an enthusiastic proponent of “energy psychology.” David takes a seat at the back of the stage. Donna glides to the front, arms outstretched.
“Hello, everyone!” she says, beaming. “I welcome you all sooo
much. I’m so glad you came. I’m so glad I came. I feel like there’s a part of Asheville that’s home for me. My mom was born here.
“I love teaching this. The world needs some really good healing tools that we can all use and depend on, and these are simple. They look like magic sometimes, but they work.”
Donna’s head is framed by a halo of blond curls, and as she speaks, her face lights up with a perpetual smile. “Our bodies produce the most profound medicine inside us already. It’s energy. Energy is the oldest medicine there is. It’s the safest and most organic and it’s free. We need a medicine that’s free. We need tools to be able to heal ourselves.”
David gets up from his chair and moves to the front of the stage. “Donna isn’t just talking here,” he chimes in. “She’s living proof of how energy medicine works. Several weeks ago, she celebrated her seventy-second birthday.”
Around me, I watch a few eyes widen at the thought that this spunky, effervescent woman onstage is one of the oldest people in the room.
“What I’m going to share with you this weekend are basic hands-on techniques you can use every day to give you more vitality and joy. These can clear energy blocks, help you feel younger, and relieve pain.”
As Donna talks, shadowy streams of pedestrians glide past the windows, which are dark now apart from the starry blips of light from the chandeliers. Asheville’s streets are like this, never crowded but always busy. Nestled into North Carolina’s ancient Blue Ridge Mountains, the town is populated by a motley assortment of college students, artists, hippies, retirees from the Northeast, and those who want to go to “healing sanctuaries” and open stores selling “gifts for the soul.” It is a fitting place for energy healing.
Energy healing is a nebulous category. It encompasses older practices such as Reiki and newer ones such as Therapeutic Touch, Donna Eden’s Eden Energy Medicine, and many other approaches you may never have heard of, such as polarity therapy, BodyTalk, Matrix Energetics, and Quantum-Touch. The simplest way to think of it is as a practice in which adherents believe the human body possesses a subtle force that can be harnessed for its own rejuvenation
and repair. Energy healers say they manipulate this force through some combination of light touch, moving their hands at a distance over their clients’ bodies, and merely holding a thought or intention about how they want someone’s energy to move.
Although this mystical energy has never been validated by science—by which I mean replicated, rigorous, controlled studies—I haven’t come here as a debunker. I’m not interested so much in how Donna Eden and other alternative practitioners are wrong, but in how, against the odds, they may be right. I am trying to stay open to possibilities.
Donna looks out into the audience. “I’m going to need a volunteer. Most people understand all this a lot better if I demonstrate it. Over the course of the weekend, I hope to have a lot of you up here.”
About thirty hands shoot up, and Donna picks a stocky woman named Penny. When Penny arrives onstage, Donna reaches affectionately for her hand.
“I’m going to use a biofeedback tool that’s built into our bodies. It’s called energy testing. Sometimes it’s known as muscle testing, but we’re not testing muscle strength; the strength of a muscle doesn’t change from moment to moment. What changes is the muscle’s ability to resist pressure based on the amount of energy flowing through it. We’re testing energies and how they’re flowing and where they’re stopping.”
Donna looks intently at Penny for a few seconds. “Okay, now put your arm out like this.” She props Penny’s arm up at a ninety-degree angle from her body and puts one hand on Penny’s shoulder and the other on her outstretched arm. “Now I’m going to push down on your arm and you try to resist.”
Donna gives Penny’s wrist a firm downward push. Her arm doesn’t move. “Nice and strong,” Donna notes.
Then she walks backward so she’s about ten feet away from Penny. “I’m going to trace your meridians.”
Donna starts swooping her hands through the air as though she were conducting an experimental orchestra. She traces the invisible outlines of Penny’s body, from her head down to her brown suede boots. Then she walks back to Penny for another test. Just as before, she puts
one hand on Penny’s shoulder, the other on her wrist. This time, Penny’s arm falls like a lead balloon, as if she weren’t resisting at all.
A look of surprise streaks across Penny’s face while the crowd exhales in amazement. I’ve watched Donna and others do this online before, but I still don’t have a reasonable explanation of what’s going on. Donna never appears to alter her level of effort, and Penny didn’t look as if she were intentionally caving. Nor does it feel like a cheap setup. Donna radiates such enthusiasm and certitude that it’s hard to conclude she is actively making any of this up or doesn’t believe 1,000 percent in what she is telling us.
“What I did,” Donna says, “is trace a meridian backwards. That takes energy out of the flow. Every single person in here has healing in their hands. I’ve never met anybody in my whole entire life who couldn’t use their hands to move energy.”
I shift about in my seat, suddenly aware of just how distant is the parallel universe I have entered. Meridians, a concept that originally hails from the traditional Chinese practice of acupuncture, are said to be invisible lines within the body along which energy flows. Each meridian is named after an organ—liver meridian, lung meridian, gallbladder meridian, etc. But just like healing energy, scientists have never pinpointed or otherwise identified such a thing inside the human body, much less figured out how someone might trace meridians backward or use them therapeutically. Donna doesn’t typically do onstage healings, but in her 1998 book, Energy Medicine, she describes ridding people of all kinds of emotional and physical afflictions during the twenty years she spent doing one-on-one sessions. On her Eden Energy Medicine website, the fourteen hundred
people she has trained as practitioners of her method also tell of often dramatic, life-changing improvements in their patients’ migraines, arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, autoimmune skin disorders, and sleep, fertility, and digestive problems. Many of these accounts include a testimonial of profuse gratitude from the person who was once suffering. Donna attributes her recovery from multiple sclerosis in her early thirties to moving energy in her body.
When I began telling people I was writing a book on alternative medicine, I couldn’t avoid accounts like this. People would tell me that they had been helped by some unconventional approach or that they knew someone who had. “Everyone has a story to tell,” my husband marveled one day after a string of conversations with colleagues inquiring about his wife’s daily activities.
There is reason to be skeptical of healing claims. As critics of alternative medicine rightly point out, people get better for many mundane reasons. Sometimes medical problems spontaneously and inexplicably disappear or improve on their own—the “treat a cold, it will last a week; leave it alone, it will be gone in seven days” principle. Such natural healing happens with many viral and bacterial infections, and from time to time with chronic pain and
even cancer, particularly of the kidney, brain, lymphatic system, and skin. In other cases, symptoms wax and wane, particularly those such as pain, fatigue, and stiffness. Since we tend to seek help when things are awful, the chances of feeling better in the days after some particular treatment can be high. It’s also easy to overlook that some diseases have natural quiet periods when symptoms temporarily disappear or improve. If you do a particular therapy just before this period of remission, it’s normal to assign credit to it. Finally, people sometimes don’t actually have the disease they’ve been diagnosed with. According to a 2014 study,
diagnostic errors happen to one in twenty Americans.
But can we dismiss all such healing claims as misattribution or wishful thinking? As I look around at the rapt faces watching Donna, I can’t help wonder about the way belief can sometimes create healing. In 1997, Arthur Shapiro, a noted psychiatrist, wrote, “
Until very recently, the history of medical treatment was largely the history of the placebo effect.” By this he meant that throughout history many popular medical treatments—crab eyes, lozenges made from dried vipers, pigeon and turtle blood, horse dung, and bloodletting to name a mere few—surely did not work as advertised, but did have occasional efficacy due to the placebo effect, the phenomenon whereby our expectations about a treatment’s effectiveness can actually make
it effective. Just as the generously eared elephant Dumbo believed he could fly after his trusted mouse friend, Timothy, gave him an ordinary crow’s feather to carry in his trunk, telling him it was magic, it seems the human body has ways of eradicating illness based entirely on what’s in our minds.
Once called the “coolest strangest thing in medicine” by the British doctor and writer Ben Goldacre, the placebo effect has been the subject of much eager research in recent years.
In any given year, across the US 19 million people see a chiropractor, 3 million do acupuncture, 3 million practice the slow, mindful exercises of tai chi or qigong, and 1 million visit an energy healer such as Donna. At least 24 million do meditation or breathing exercises, which also haven’t yet met the standards of evidence necessary to make them mainstream medical treatments. The popularity of alternative approaches—which can be defined as treatments not taught widely in medical schools, not broadly available in hospitals, or not possessing a clear scientific basis—is due to a variety of factors.I
Most commonly people are seeking natural, noninvasive, side-effect-free ways to ease the symptoms of health problems that doctors can’t cure and don’t always have satisfying treatments for.
Proponents of these therapies all have their theories about how they work, and for this book I will spend time hearing them. But since I regard science to be, as the astrophysicist Carl Sagan put it, “
by far the most successful claim to knowledge accessible to humans” and the best safeguard we have against our biases, I am more interested in what the surprising number of placebo researchers, neuroscientists, and psychologists studying alternative healing techniques or mind-body interactions have to say. What are the scientific reasons that seemingly unscientific practices might work? In this inquiry, I do not attempt to be comprehensive. Rather than catalog the vast universe of alternative treatments, I focus on a subset of those with the
greatest potential to elicit placebo effects and potentially other types of mind-body healing.
Donna calls for more volunteers and does additional demonstrations in which she studies someone for several moments and then does something to either weaken or strengthen the person’s energy patterns, which she says she can see. To “disrupt the energies” of a tall middle-aged man named Karl, she flutters her fingers over several points on his chest and arms. As she pushes on his arm, he strains mightily to prevent a seventy-two-year old woman from overpowering him in front of two hundred people. The energies of an elderly man in a wheelchair, which initially test strong, are described as becoming weak when he reads from a textbook. “Half your meridians run in one direction, and half run in the other,” Donna explains. This man’s energies, she says, are flowing in a way that makes it difficult for him to perform mental activities such as reading. Donna leads him in an exercise she says is designed to shift his energies back into balance. When he reads from the book again, his arm tests strong.
I stare at the elderly man and try to imagine the meridians in his chest stopping in midstream and reversing course, either thwarting or restoring some internal zest. But I can’t seem to get past the stripes on his sweater, which, when I glare at them, blend together in a hazy blob. By the time Donna dismisses us for the evening, I realize I am ready for a break.
* * *
The next morning when I arrive at the event hall, Donna’s daughter Titanya is waking everyone up with an “energy dance,” with loud Middle Eastern music and lots of arm and hip swinging. I try to join in but quickly realize I can’t dance and drink coffee at the same time, and I opt for the energy swirling in my cup.
Donna appears, fully awake and raring to go, and tells us that we will be learning exercises to get our energies moving freely and in the right direction, to give us more of that vitality, joy, and pain relief she mentioned yesterday. These exercises consist of rubbing, holding,
or tapping various points on our bodies, many of them the same ones used by acupuncturists. But instead of poking thin needles into the skin, Donna uses hands. She has us tap with both sets of fingers on our “K27” kidney meridian point, located on either side of the chest just below the collarbone. This is intended to deliver oomph when we are tired and to keep the immune system strong amid stress. A notch below that, in the middle of the chest, is the thymus gland. We thump our fingers on that. “Also excellent for your immune system,” Donna chirps. We rub spots just below our rib cage—our so-called spleen meridian. All I can feel is my actual spleen, which isn’t sure about being kneaded. At one point, I glance around the room and see two hundred people hitting themselves in the face. Of course, I’m one of them.
We also team up with a neighbor to practice. Donna says we should gently press on certain points on our partners—their hands, their forehead, their feet—to see if we can get their energies to move, testing it before and after with the arm push. If their arm proves weak, we are supposed to do something to see if we can strengthen it, and vice versa. I partner up with Charity, a twentysomething from Georgia, who drags her fingers around my face and head to stimulate my gallbladder meridian. Later, I clutch her two naked big toes in an attempt to create deep relaxation and promote the release of toxins. This is called a Brazilian toe technique.
None of it seems to be working. Charity is a wisp of a woman and I am five feet ten. Every time I test her she is weak. Her arm flops right down. I know it isn’t a fair setup, but Donna has said this isn’t supposed to be about strength. So either I’m hopeless at fortifying Charity’s energies or she has some serious deficiencies.
Donna tells those of us having trouble to take it slow and try practicing at home with some simple exercises, such as tapping on our cheekbones, which “grounds” a person by sending energy down the body and out the feet. “You become more sensitized over time and then can eventually feel the actual flow of energies in your body,” she says. “When I hit my cheekbones, I can feel energy going down my legs, but it doesn’t start like this.”
This is just one of many of Donna’s experiences. In her book, she explains that ever since she was a little girl, she’s seen multiple bands of color around and within other people. Some of them had texture and shape; others moved and vibrated. For a long time she didn’t think this was strange and assumed others saw such colors, too. Her mother, who also said she saw them, encouraged her daughter’s perceptions. Donna writes that when people are physically and emotionally healthy, their energies have a harmonious flow, appearing as “an endless waterfall,” spilling over the top of the head and caressing the body. With illness, energy looks blocked, frenzied, or chaotic, like static on a TV screen (back when TVs had static).
The next day, we see Donna only briefly. She leaves us with more inspiring messages about our ability to heal ourselves and take control of our health with our energies, though not necessarily, she is careful to point out, at the expense of conventional medicine. “Modern medicine is wonderful and has its role,” she notes. The rest of the morning is given over to Donna’s husband, David, who does a presentation on energy psychology, which uses tapping on various points and meridians to try to cure phobias or past traumas. I duck out early to meet Donna, finding her in the eleventh-floor hallway of her hotel, saying good-bye to one of the event’s organizers. “Ooohhh, I was looking for you at the book signings,” she says, referring to the breaks during which she signed copies of Energy Medicine. “I thought, ‘Where is that journalist Melanie?’ Did you get your book signed?” Then a big laugh and the enormous, infectious smile.
Donna wraps her hand around mine and pulls me into her hotel suite, where she is frantically packing for her next trip. Just a few days ago, she was in England, and tonight she and David leave for Arizona. I tell her that my copy of her book is digital, which left me with nothing to sign.
“Oh, that explains it. Well, I like to use that time to really get to know people, and I sign their books in different colors depending on what I see for their life color, which is the outermost layer of the aura.”
This, I realize, is why a giant pile of markers was sprawled on
the table in every imaginable color. Of course, I want to hear my life color anyway.
“Well, first of all, you’re violet. That’s really interesting to me. I don’t know what your life has been about or anything. . . .” She stops and looks at the window behind the couch I’m sitting in. “Can I trade places with you? There’s just so much energy from outside. I just want to look at you.”
We swap couches. “So the aura has all these auric fields or bands that go around a person, and I can always see at least seven layers out. There’s so much information in all of them, but there’s one band that never changes. You’re born with and you die with a certain color, and you’re a violet. You are soooo violet. When I saw you coming in the hallway, I thought, ‘Oh, God, here comes a violet!’?” She laughs. “And then I saw your yellow sweater and thought, ‘It’s so complementary with your purple.’
“Violets are really smart, but I always think that in past lifetimes they have either been the victims of the world or ruled the world, and when they got to the end of their lives, they said, ‘This is it?’ So this is the lifetime to crash through that. They never reached that spirituality or what they hungered for. There’s always introspection, but their challenge is to surrender and let go and have some fun. My husband is a violet life color. More left-brained; they rely on their intellects. So that’s you.”
Setting aside that I don’t believe in past lives, I think it’s not a bad read. I have on occasion been told that I need to lighten up and not take things so seriously, which always annoys me, probably proving the point. For some reason, hearing Donna tell me this isn’t the least bit irksome. Her way of conveying information is disarmingly modest and devoid of any judgment. It’s as if she just knows it.
Donna says she is a blue life color. “Blues are all about healing other people, they’re caregivers. A lot of nurses are blues. They also don’t have a lot of critical thinking. They just want to believe in the positive. So it’s not like I want to see the positive, I actually see it. That pure place. Even the darkest person, at the soul level, has a
beautiful place of purity that is stronger than evil if it’s fostered. Connecting with people at that pure energetic core happens in the deepest healing work.”
“So if a guy sleeps with his best friend’s wife, you don’t think, ‘What a douche bag’?” I ask.
“I don’t. And it’s gotten me into trouble because even if I see really wretched things in their energy, I tend to look deeper to see their pain and their struggles, and I connect with them at that level. Witnessing them in this deeper way brings out their natural goodness and somehow sparks their healing. I love engaging people at this soul level.”
I must have knitted my eyebrows in confusion.
“Here, I’ll tell you what it looks like.” She describes a man who was standing outside a bodega near her house in California “looking really puzzled.” Donna went into the store but couldn’t help looking at him through the store’s open front. “His etheric field, the band closest to his body, looked totally smashed in. That would mean he did not have any good reflections of himself, no real mirror for himself. I thought, ‘What a hard world for him to have that out of commission.’?”
The second band in the man’s aura looked “flimsy,” and the third showed that he was what Donna calls a kinesthetic, someone who easily senses and takes on the feelings of others. “This would make it even harder for him because he felt it all. He didn’t have any kind of hard shell from feeling everything or from worrying for others. If you just looked at his face, you might have thought, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t park my car there.’ You might think he was dangerous and someone to stay away from. The truth is he probably has had a really hard life. His auric field was just decimated.”
Donna walked out of the store, went up the man, and handed him a bag of avocados. “They gave me these, but I really don’t need them. Would you like them?” she asked.
Suddenly, Donna says, there was a different man. “Not only did his whole face light up, his auric field brightened and expanded.” It wasn’t the avocados, but the spirit of empathy in which they were given. “We human beings need one another. We heal one another just by
recognizing each other.” This ability to pick other people’s emotional cues—or “energies”—was of immense value during Donna’s two decades of one-on-one practice with patients. Today, most of her time is spent on the road teaching and doing presentations such as this weekend’s, but she says that her unusually vivid perceptions enabled her to form hunches about what was driving someone’s illness and what might be done to help relieve it. Sometimes she saw past or current relationships causing emotional stress. Other times there would be a deep sadness or personal failure. Some people, like the California man, were crushed and overwhelmed by their abundant feelings. Often people were profoundly fearful of their illness or other problems in their life, and Donna focused on soothing their panic.
Before I leave her warm, affirming orbit, I ask Donna about the arm pushing and energy testing she did so many times onstage. The practice is widely used in alternative medicine. Many homeopaths and naturopaths employ it to test people for food allergies or to see which particular homeopathic remedy to choose. Some chiropractors also use it. In his book Serve to Win,
Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic says he found out he was sensitive to gluten after his nutritionist told him to hold a piece of bread against his stomach and then was able to push down on his weakened arm. Although this energy or muscle testing is alleged to reveal something factual about a person, nearly every time scientists subject it to properly controlled conditions, the method falls apart.
In one of the more recent examples, three experienced chiropractors pushed on the outstretched arms of fifty-one patients while they were holding either a vial of saline solution, which was presumed to have no effect on someone’s energies, or a toxic compound, which was agreed would weaken one’s energy. Neither the chiropractors nor the subjects knew which vial contained which. In 151 of these blinded iterations, the toxic substance was identified correctly only 80 times, or about the rate you’d get from guessing. The chiropractors, in other words, were wrong nearly as often as they were right. And this wasn’t research done by a skeptic. The lead investigator told me that he is a believer in remote viewing,
which is what we’re now calling ESP. He would have loved to verify energy testing as a “nonlocal” phenomenon.
I mention all this to Donna, who reacts with excitement and no hint of defensiveness. “It’s so interesting—can I talk about that? I totally understand why some of the studies wouldn’t get it. There are several things.”
This leads into several threads of conversation—about a group of curious doctors she taught in the nineties and a far less friendly group in the seventies that sued her for practicing without a license (she eventually got a license as a massage therapist since there are no licenses for energy healing)—before she remembers I had a question. “What were you asking about again?”
“Energy testing studies.”
“Oh, right. People often think they’re so intuitive when they get into any kind of healing, so you have the thought in your mind that this one is going to be strong, this one is going to be weak, and then you transfer that energy to the other person. You’ve got to have your mind completely out of the way.”
It takes me a moment to realize that Donna is saying that energy testing can be wrong because the tester may unintentionally be altering the other person’s body in some way.
“Isn’t that a bit far-fetched?” I ask, picturing some kind of Jedi mind trick.
“Here, I’ll just show you.”
Donna moves next to me on the couch and takes hold of my right arm, propping it up at the ninety-degree angle I’d seen her do so many times onstage. She pushes down on my wrist. My arm wiggles against her force but doesn’t move.
“Okay, so you’re nice and strong. I’m going to do something.”
The next few seconds are quick and undramatic. She closes her eyes, then opens them, takes my arm, and pushes down. This time my arm collapses as if it were raw chicken. I am stunned to realize that I have no ability to prevent this. As my arm is dropping, I am thinking that I will at any moment locate the strength to halt the fall.
“I didn’t test you with more pressure,” she says, before I can even ask. I can’t say I felt more pressure either. “I just thought, ‘Oh, she’s going to be weak.’?”
I walk out of Donna’s hotel with an itchy, unsettled feeling. Despite my skepticism about healing energy, I find myself catching glimpses of the appeal of Donna’s worldview. Maybe it’s her perpetually cheery disposition or the way she seems to size up someone’s spirit by reading their “energy fields,” but I find myself trusting that she somehow knows exactly what she’s doing. I start to realize that in the right hands, belief can become contagious, especially when it contains the promise of relief from physical suffering. As
William Osler, one of the founders of modern medicine, wrote in 1904, “Faith in the gods or in the saints cures one, faith in little pills another, hypnotic suggestion a third, faith in a plain common doctor a fourth. In all ages . . . the mental attitude of the supplicant seems to be of more consequence than the powers to which the prayer is addressed.” But how far could such magic feathers take you? If you believe a person can help heal your body by moving energy, flipping your meridians, clearing your chakras (the seven centers of spiritual energy along the midline of the body), or putting thin needles into carefully designated points on your body, is there any scientific evidence that this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy? And for what kind of ailments? I have no idea, but that’s what we’re going to find out, starting with one of the world’s oldest surviving medical practices. I
. A word about terminology: Although the terms complementary medicine or integrative medicine are more accurate in that most people do not use these therapies to the exclusion of standard medicine, I’ve chosen to speak about alternative medicine because it’s a more recognizable term.