Call it “the placebo effect” or “the power of suggestion,” but some turn to crystal healing and don’t turn back.
Mt. Shasta, California is something of a new age hub. Locals joke that the town has more crystal shops than bars. That’s true, by the way. The Crystal Room is one of those shops, though it’s more accurate to call it an emporium. The inventory sprawls across eight rooms, all bursting with precious stones.
I’m getting a tour of the rooms, led by long-time employee Rhea Summer Rain. She’s a small woman with smiling eyes and a soft, generous laugh. First, she takes me to the singing bowls—big bowls made of quartz and other minerals. She plays one by rubbing a wand around its rim, like you might do with a wineglass at a dinner party.
Then she leads me through the shelves, from tumbled stones worth a couple of bucks each, to a massive crystal with a price tag just shy of $19,000. As we tick through their stock, she tells me about some of the crystals’ healing properties.
Rose quartz works with the emotional body, she says, and citrine doesn’t hold any negative energy. I learn that black tourmaline is very grounding, while celestite connects you to the “angelic realms.”
Rhea says people have been using crystals as a healing tool for thousands of years: “They’ve been used by priests, they’ve been used shamans, they’ve been used by Native Americans, indigenous, aboriginal cultures, back before the pharaohs.”
Modern crystal healing is related to traditional concepts of chi and chakras. The basic idea is that all matter is composed of energy, and crystals have energy that resonates with natural vibrations in the human body, so they’re good for us.
“They help us through meditation, they help us through direct contact,” says Rhea. “They help us to find balance, and balance is true healing.”
Towards the end of the tour, Rhea and her co-worker, Saranam, let me hold a crystal, so I can feel the energy myself.
“Here’s a super high-energy stone…almost everyone can feel it,” says Saranam. He pulls a translucent pebble out of the display case and hands it to me. “Works best if you hold it with two hands…or you can put it up to your third eye if you want.”
I hold a little stone up to my forehead—my third eye—for the full effect. And full disclosure: I think I feel something. Like a focused, kind of zingy feeling. A little perturbed, I hand the pebble back to Saranam.
The power of suggestion
“There is no convincing evidence that crystals actually have any kind of healing properties,” says professor Christopher French, head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmith’s University of London.
French studies the science behind paranormal experience, and he thinks there’s a perfectly rational, psychological explanation for crystal power.
In the early 2000s, French’s team ran a double-blind study, where they gave participants real crystals and glass look-alikes. As they handed them out, they told them they might expect to feel warmth, tingling, vibrations, and other vague sensations commonly reported by crystal enthusiasts. French wanted to know if priming people like this would change what they felt when they held the crystals.
“And what we found was that people did indeed report the kinds of sensations that were suggested to them, and it didn’t make any difference whether we’d given them real quartz crystals or just fake crystals made from glass.”
Which suggests, says French, that crystal power is really just the power of suggestion. And all I felt when I held that stone up to my forehead, was the placebo effect.
A case study
Sandra Gonzales used to be skeptical of new age healing and alternative medicine. That is, until crystals healed her son.
For years, her youngest son suffered with respiratory problems, histamine reactions, and behavioral issues at school. Eventually he was put in special ed. Gonzales took him to lots of doctors, but nothing seemed to help.
“It was years of, ‘Oh he’s allergic to this, oh he’s allergic to that,'” says Gonzales. “And after so many tests…he was never better.”
Then a few years ago, Gonzales and her family visited Mt. Shasta for the first time, where they stopped at a crystal shop on the main drag. Inside, the owner noticed Gonzales’s son was having trouble breathing, and she asked if she could try to help.
“She picks up a large selenite wand,” Gonzales recalls. (As she would later learn, selenite is a gypsum, a natural fiber optic, and is commonly used by healers to unblock energy.) “She’s whispering to him and making different movements around his body, holding the selenite to his thymus chakra.”
Gonzales didn’t think much of it. At the time, she was more interested in the shop’s jewelry inventory than anything else. But when they left the store, she was shocked.
“My child’s running across the parking lot saying, ‘I can breathe I can breathe!’ And I’m thinking, ‘Oh yeah, he’s not really wheezing and laboring for breath like he normally does.'”
Since then, Gonzales has been treating her son with crystals and energy work, and she says it’s working. He went out for track last spring. He’s out of special ed, and on the honor roll.
Taking the “alternative” out of medicine
Paul Offit is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and the author of Do You Believe in Magic: The Sense and Nonsense of Alternative Medicine. He’s thought a lot about alternative medicine, and he says we should strike the term from our vocabulary.
“I think there’s no such thing as alternative medicine. If an alternative medicine works, then it’s medicine, and if an alternative medicine doesn’t work, then it’s not an alternative.”
But Offit says he understands stories like Gonzales’s. They happen all the time.
“Conventional medicine has limits, and I think there’s kind of a mysticism to alternative medicine to which people are drawn,” he says. “There’s kind of this guruism, this notion that they are absolutely correct, and I think we’re drawn to that surety, even though frankly, when it’s just the appearance of certainty.”
In clinical trials, most alternative medicine treatments are no more effective than placebos. But Offit says that doesn’t make them useless.
“I think the placebo effect is often dismissed as “just in my head” and that’s seen as dismissive.” But the mind can be a powerful healing tool, he says. The mind can regulate endorphins and cortisol, influencing one’s immune system, blood pressure, and level of stress. “So I think there is a physiology to placebo medicine.”
The problem, says Offit, is when people ignore conventional healthcare that could save their life, in favor of unproven treatments.
“I think doctors have in their minds somebody like Steve Jobs,” he says. “You know, Steve Jobs had a neuroendocrine tumor that was perfectly treatable with early surgery, but instead Steve Jobs chose acupuncture and fruit juices and coffee enemas and things that would have no chance of making his cancer better, and ultimately he died because of those choices.”
Thankfully, stories like that are pretty rare. Most of the time, alternative medicine is harmless. And on some level, it works. Even for Offit.
“I was in the hospital a few years ago for a surgery, and the chaplain came by late in the evening and asked if I wanted him to pray for me,” says Offit. “He was a young and enthusiastic guy…I just couldn’t say no, so he prayed for me and while he was praying. It was very calming.”
Offit thinks the physiology of that relaxing, therapeutic experience is worth studying more.
“And I think that this mysticism that surrounds alternative medicine also has, at some level, a positive effect because you’re turning yourself over to something greater, which I think can be very calming,” he says. “And so it’s all studiable, and I wish it was studied more.”
With more research, certain alternative treatments could go from inexact science with mixed results, to medicine we actually understand.
But back at the Crystal Room in Mt. Shasta, Rhea says no amount of data will change the way she feels about crystals.
“Because I feel energy,” she says, smiling. “You know, when people walk into the room, I can tell instantly if someone is centered and grounded, and they have a healthy relationship with themselves and with the universe. And if they don’t, I tend to just avoid them.”
When it comes to crystals at least, we’ve reached an impasse. A familiar stalemate between science and belief.