inFact with Brian Dunning inFact with Brian Dunning


New Age Energy

Do you ever hear people talking about energy fields? What does that mean?

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Especially when the subject of New Age alternative medicine comes up, you'll often hear people refer to energy fields. Life energy, spiritual energy, the body's energy fields. That sure sounds pretty cool; is it actually a real thing that we can detect and use somehow?

To answer that we have to start by understanding what energy really is. In short, energy is a measurement of something's ability to do work. It's measured in joules, after the 19th century physicist James Joule. Think of Einstein's equation E = mc2. Energy is a function of mass. How much mass you can move a certain distance, is exactly how much energy you have.

The electrical energy in this battery contains enough joules of work to move an electric train a certain distance. If I raise this weight, I input enough joules of potential kinetic energy to break six bones in my foot. That's basically what "energy" is.

But that doesn't seem to match very well with how we hear the word "energy" being used. We're told there are energy fields, that enlightened people can tap into and draw strength from. Like a glowing, hovering cloud of power, how you might envision a highly evolved creature from the original Star Trek series. That's kind of what it sounds like an energy field is. New Age concepts like reiki or feng shui are entirely built upon the presumed existence of such fields.

But the scientific definition of energy seems inadequate to explain these. Why is that? It's because the word "energy" has been hijacked for its scientific-sounding value.

Real energy fields, like the electromagnetic field surrounding a magnet, the heat radiating from a warm body, or the gravitational field around a planet, have definite properties -- and their strength, and thus their energy, can be precisely measured.

On the other hand, New Age energy fields, like your bodies supposed "life energy", have no describable properties, cannot be detected, and do no measurable work. We can't say they don't exist, but since they are undetectable, we can say that their existence has yet to be demonstrated.

When you hear the word "energy" being used in a sales pitch or an advertisement, pay very close attention to how it's being used. If it's anything other than a quantifiable measurement of work, the word is being misused and you are being misled. And now you have the tools to respond.

— Brian Dunning

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References & Further Reading

Castro, J. "What Is Energy?" LiveScience. Purch, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Sep. 2015. <>

CEC. "Energy Story. Chapter 1. What is Energy?" Energy Quest. California Energy Commission, 22 Apr. 2002. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <>

Duff, M. The world in eleven dimensions: supergravity, supermembranes and M-theory. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. 1-4.

Hoffman, F., Bailey, W. Mind and Society Fads. Binghamton: The Haworth Press, 1992. 198-201.

Kurtz, P., Stenger, V. Skeptical Odysseys: Personal accounts by the world's leading paranormal inquirers. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2001. 363-374.

Sanatan Society. "Raising Kundalini energy with Kundalini Yoga through the chakras." Kundalini Yoga. Sanatan Society, 8 Apr. 2004. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <>


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