Popular Delusions X: Crystal Power

To mark the tenth installment of Popular Delusions, I’m turning my attention to one of the most common and enduring superstitions among the New Age set: the belief that naturally occurring crystals have some sort of special power to store, concentrate, or focus vaguely defined “energies”.

A web search readily brings up hundreds of sites discussing the magical potencies of various crystals, most of which have to do with their supposed healing powers. Here’s an entirely typical example:

Bloodstones are believed to have mystical and magickal powers, thought to be able to control the weather and have the ability to banish evil and negativity and to direct spiritual energy. It heightens the intuition and stimulates dreaming. It is a powerful revitalizer of your body and your mind. Bloodstone calms the mind, dispels confusion and aids in the decision making process. As the name suggests, they are very good at cleansing the blood and are known to be a powerful healer. It is used for an energy cleanser and immune stimulator for acute infections. It aids the circulation and reduces the formation of pus, neutralizing over acidification. It cleanses the lower chakras and realigns their energies.

All that in one stone! Others even discuss the supposed side effects or dangers of improper crystal use:

If a woman is trying to get pregnant or is in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, she should avoid any direct contact with Green Tourmaline…. Manipulating a woman’s male energies by wearing Green Tourmaline could upset her endocrine system and could compromise the pregnancy or possibly harm the fetus.

Who knew ordinary crystals could be so dangerous? If this was true, one would think the many sites that sell green tourmaline should come with warnings. They might be exposing themselves to serious legal liability by selling those stones to just anyone! (I have to admit, I would just love to see that lawsuit…)

On the other hand, other crystal-boosting sites seem to shrug off these dangers. For example:

RULE NO. 1 – There are no rules for use of crystals or minerals in healing.

Now how could this be? If crystals do anything at all, there must be correct and incorrect ways to use them. If all methods of using crystals work equally well, the only possible explanation for this is that crystals are completely useless.

As with the green tourmaline example, one of the most ironic things is that different crystal-hawking sites often disagree about what the crystals they sell are supposed to do. One site says, “Fluorite’s ordered crystalline structure brings stability and order into the wearer’s life.” But a different site advertising purple fluorite explains that it is for “Change. Helps one get out of ruts.”

And how exactly do crystals work their magic? Do they have their own power? Apparently not:

There are a lot of people who think that crystals have power. They don’t… Crystals are only tools which extend the power of intent of the healer and a medium.

On the other hand:

…we have proof that all crystals have power. The Power of love, from deep in the earth.

This flood of conflicting claims presents the sincere believer with a variety of serious dilemmas. Is there a right way or a wrong way to use crystal power? Which crystals are most effective for a given aim? Can crystals be dangerous? Is it possible that some crystals are dangerous in ways not yet recognized? Plainly, all of these are important questions, especially the last two. But how is the crystal enthusiast to go about answering them? There are a multitude of conflicting answers. What answer should we believe, and why?

As with all cases of religious confusion, these conflicting claims have come about because there is no evidence whatsoever that crystals have any supernatural or magical abilities. As one pseudoscience site puts it:

…no instruments can pick up these vibrations or record any difference in energy around a crystal as crystals are things of Mother Earth not of man.

But if this alleged energy can’t be measured or recorded, then how does anyone know it exists in the first place? What is the basis for all these grandiose and fanciful claims about the ailments and maladies that specific types of crystals can solve? The above mentioned site calls it a “hard and fast intuitive fact”, which is just another way of saying that all of this is made up. Crystal use can be rescued from danger and chaos, but only by consigning it to irrelevance.

As often happens, New Age misunderstandings are built on a kernel of genuine scientific fact. Some crystals, such as quartz, display a useful property called the piezoelectric effect: they generate an electric voltage when stretched or compressed. This property has led to their use in a wide variety of industrial applications, including sensors that measure pressure, vibration and frequency. They’re also used to build miniaturized motors, record player needles, radio transmitters and receivers, and even loudspeakers. The piezoelectric effect is a well-understood and precisely measurable phenomenon, however, and has nothing to do with meaningless handwaving about healing powers, chakra points or positive energies.

There’s no doubt that crystals are an elegant example of the beauty that arises from the laws of physics. Fantastic formations like those of New Mexico’s Lechuguilla Cave prove the point. But we don’t need to believe crystals have any kind of magical power to appreciate their beauty. Such superstitions cheapen and undermine what there is of genuine wonder in the world. We need no supernatural add-ons to place between us and nature.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • terrence

    What you said. As further proof, not even the power of the crystal skull could rescue the latest Indiana Jones flick. Except for Karen Allen, of course.

  • http://wordsthatsing.wordpress.com/2008/02/22/reliable-signposts-for-personal-growth/ Lirone

    I think it’s important not to forget that crystals can have a placebo effect, in the same way as any “alternative” remedy, depending on the significance that people attach to them.

    At one point I had a keyring made of some substance (pink quartz I think though it’s utterly irrelevant) which was a) pretty and pleasant to the touch and b) was something that I deliberately associated with being kind to myself and feeling good about who I was, at a time when I was feeling low and wasn’t taking care of myself. It “worked” even for a sceptic like me, because every time I used my keys I was reminded to be kind to myself. Could have been anything, of course, but a nice heart shaped bit of pink stone was a convenient symbol!

    Which is in no way to say that crystals have magic potency etc. But it’s always useful, in demolishing these arguments, to accept that there are ways in which people can derive genuine benefit, before going on to point out that these benefits have nothing to do with the “power of love” or “resonance with the human energy field”!

  • http://www.yunshui.wordpress.com yunshui

    Excellent post, although as you so ably demonstrate, one can damn crystal therapists using little more than their own words.

    “…we have proof that all crystals have power. The Power of love, from deep in the earth.”

    That had me gawping defunctly at the screen for at least 20 seconds. Your proof is the power of love, that well known function of modern physics? And it comes from the ground, hmm?

    It would amaze me that people believed this twaddle if I hadn’t been so cringe-inducingly keen on it myself at one point. You are absolutely right, Ebon, the tiny bit of accurate science is often enough to interest even comparatively sensible people (or do I flatter myself?). The other problem with the dissemination of this nonsense is the personal testimony from friends and family. “I wore a tourmaline crystal, and it cured my lumbago!” that sort of thing.

    You might also be curious to know that crystals are highly individual – you shouldn’t let anyone else handle one that you own, because their aura will fuck it up mightily. Then the only solution is to wash it in clear sping water, or cover it it with salt. I swear, this stuff is made up as they go along…

  • Polly

    Funny, I just watched Penn & Teller’s “Bullshit” on exactly this kind of…well…bullshit. One “healer” actually admitted that her only expertise in administering “treatments” using crystals was “having the machine.” This was a contraption that looked like something from the set of Star Trek, the old TV series, not the movies. She admitted that she couldn’t read the instructions (in Portuguese) so she just went by “whatever she felt.”
    I think the same can be said of herbal supplements. Though they may contain beneficial nutrients and trace minerals, you could just opt to eat fruits and vegetables.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    You know, back in the early 1990′s, when I was a wee lad of… well, 20 or so, so not that young, I let myself get drawn into the whole Newage/Wicca thing for a few years. Mostly out of curiousity and boredom, I think in retrospect. Plus it was what a lot of my friends were doing, so there was probably an element of peer pressure.

    Even back then, though, I knew most of it was very silly, and couldn’t help but roll my eyes at all the crystal stuff, pyramdiocy, and especially magick (gotta have that special “k” on the end, or people won’t take you seriously!). I remember one of the “spells” for finding a job involved some elaborate ritual that then ended with “now go out and apply for at least five jobs a day”.

    The line in the article about the energy being measured and recorded reminds me of something someone said to me about chi, where he was claiming it couldn’t be detected by any scientific instruments, yet it could still be manipulated. I was too polite to point out that anything that can be manipulated can be measured, except perhaps his level of gulibility. Oh, well. :)

  • Rowan

    There’s a very good clip of Randi investigating crystals – should be easy to find by searching for “crystals Randi” on youtube. It shows him testing a woman who claims crystals have powers by having her select a crystal from several covered samples. She did so, and the item she selected turned out to be rat poison. Three cheers for Randi!

  • Alex Weaver

    There is such a thing as “crystal power.” Hell, some watches run on it.

    Though how this is supposed to heal anyone is beyond me. ^.^

    (“A little knowledge” and all that…)

  • Juan Felipe

    Nice, post. Specially informative are the contradictions between crystal advertising sites, I had never seen such a great approach. Seems like it could be expanded to include many kinds of minerals by taking in count plenty of sources; that would certainly make a great article on skeptic dictionary.

  • He Who Invents Himself

    Religions at least have scriptures and holy books which apologetics base their ideas on. I wonder; where do all of the varied, and contradicting, claims of the New Age movement come from? How do new ones keep popping up? When I read about that bloodstone’s description, I feel like I’m reading a delusional version of the description on a bottle of cosmetics. Total or almost total nonsense stretched into nice, fancy wording. So unlike religion, which has theological and cultish aspects to it, the New Age movement seems more like a pop culture phenomenon.

    P.S. James Randi Tests Crystal Power and Applied Kinesiology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lDTuoXygZKk (As referenced by Rowan)

  • Wrongun

    Yunshui and others might like to know the psuedoscience website article that states:

    “..no instruments can pick up these vibrations or record any difference in energy around a crystal as crystals are things of Mother Earth not of man.”

    is the same one that says:

    “…we have proof that all crystals have power. The Power of love, from deep in the earth.”

    If you want to read the whole thing it is definately worth a second look. It can be found here:
    crystal healing

    While there check out the Hopi Ear Candle and Old Moores Almanack (astrology) articles

  • Christopher

    Many of the people I knew at college were into the whole “crystal power” movement – but no one could explain just *how* the “energy” (they never were clear as to what that was…) interacted with the human body to achieve the health benefits they claimed it brought them. At least my Tai Chi instructor (I was experimenting with that around this time) developed a hypothesis about how “chi” interacts with the nervous system by being channeled through movement (it’s nonsense in retrospect, but at least he gave some thought to what he was doing!) – the “crystal power” folks didn’t even have that much going for them.

  • http://gretachristina.typepad.com/ Greta Christina

    Wow. I don’t even know where to begin.

    Wait. Yes I do.

    …no instruments can pick up these vibrations or record any difference in energy around a crystal as crystals are things of Mother Earth not of man.

    Um…

    Is the writer saying that instruments can’t measure vibrations or energy in any natural, non- man- made objects?

    So all those instruments measuring heat, sound, lightning, earthquakes… is that just made up, or what?

    And like others, I’m very entertained by “The Power of love, from deep in the earth.” I thought that deep in the earth was pretty much molten rock and metal. How exactly does that generate love?

  • Matt R.

    AS one poster already mentioned, the placebo effect is likely the source of the crystals’ power. There are some studies which indicate that the placebo effect is able to account for 30% of improvement with some treatments. I certainly see,in my practice, how a positive attitude and encouraging words seem to help patients improve more quickly. My experience is anecdotal, not experimental, but it certainly seems to be there. I am very comfortable chalking up crystal power to tapping into the same energy source as prayer, the power of positive thinking, which can be considerable in some cases.

    All the best,

    matt

  • LindaJoy

    I know I am going to get slammed for this, but, on my path to atheism, I went through a Native American/New Age/Celestine Prophecy/Chrystals phase. One of the experiences I had with chrystals was going to a rock and gem show where I held my hand palm down over various large chrystal samples a few inches above. I felt definite tingling/prickling sensations in my palm. Some samples emitted more than others, and one was downright unpleasant. Now being a skeptic, I have to question that whole experience. One the other hand, I know what I felt. At the time, I assumed it was some sort of energy emission. Who knows? I still have two very large clear chrystals that I hold sometimes when I feel out of balance. Probably just that placebo effect, but something from that phase in my life that I haven’t been able to let go of. There is a very strong pull, no matter how skeptical you are, towards the sense of mystery in the universe. I am content to let that be undefined, but that sense allows me to acknowledge the awe that I feel when I consider nature and all that we are learning about the universe.

  • LindaJoy

    I just noticed that I spelled crystals wrong throughout my whole post! :)

  • mikespeir

    Hey, we’ve all been embarrassed like that from time to time, LindaJoy. Wish Daylight Atheism would allow us to go back and edit earlier posts.

  • TEP

    “…we have proof that all crystals have power. The Power of love, from deep in the earth.”

    They must be very lonely indeed to be looking for love in pieces of rock.

  • paradoctor

    Aside from the mystical hogwash, there’s a lot to be said for crystals on aesthetic grounds. They’re tough, durable, and some of them come in pretty colors. What’s not to like? They appeal to our magpie love of bright shiny things.

    Crystal-love is a downscale version of the love of gold and gemstones, which also are tough durable bright shiny minerals central to an irrational cult. The difference is that gold really does have power; for its cult rules.

  • Christopher

    Paradoctor,

    “The difference is that gold really does have power; for its cult rules.”

    Now that you mention this, I remember my old anthropology teacher mentioning that many acient cultures did believe that metals like gold held magical powers to attain material goods – perhaps this association between gold and material wealth that exists today is descended from tha mentality?

  • velkyn

    having my degree in Geology, “crystal power” just makes me giggle. What’s even funnier is the water that you can get that has the “power” in it from having crystals soaking there.

    I mean, really, if crystals have power, these babies http://giantcrystals.strahlen.org/america/naica.htm must be lighting up the sky.

  • Steve Bowen

    One of the experiences I had with chrystals was going to a rock and gem show where I held my hand palm down over various large chrystal samples a few inches above. I felt definite tingling/prickling sensations in my palm.

    Hey Lindajoy. I had similar feelings when I joined my ex-wife on a Reiki course. Even hardened skeptics can be victim to suggestion, which is why people get suckered into believing this stuff.
    However the serious point here is that all sorts of beliefs can “work” even if the believer knows deep down they are just woo woo. To go back to my ex, she is wiccan and practiced (practices) all sorts of rituals with crystals and wands and cups and herbs and… etc. However she will happily admit that it does nothing in reality, it’s just her way of dealing with stuff, an illusion of control in a random world. In some way I think it’s a vindication of belief in belief, although I couldn’t live that way myself. At least the new age types don’t insist we all wear crystals unlike the fundies who would have a fish on every bumper.

  • LindaJoy

    Well Steve- our bodies do produce an electromagnetic field and perhaps there is some science in the reaction between bodies and rock crystals. It would be interesting to investigate. There are some serious scientific studies being done on ESP experiences. There are things we don’t know about the universe that look to be woo-woo on the outside that may come to be explained scientifically. Quantum physics still can’t explain the mysterious connection between particles that causes two bits of a split particle to instantaneously respond to an action on only one of the bits. We may eventually come to a scientific explanation for ghost phenomenon or other paranormal experiences. I understand and agree with the skepticism expressed here about the types of claims made about rocks and gems referenced in this article, but a true scientific mind would not close the door completely to this area being studied for proof.

  • LindaJoy

    Hi Stacy!:)

  • velkyn

    I have also done dowsing and was sure it worked, but when actually using the scientific method to determine what was really happening, it doesn’t.

    After doing a bit of googling, strangely enough, though I find much about how “scientific research” supposedly supports crystal “power” there is not one instance of the claimant actually providing any peer reviewed studies (or any studies at all) to check out. This is a big sign that there isn’t any research, which begs the question, why haven’t these “believers” ever done any themselves to validate the idea? Belief is worthless with no evidence and vague claims of “healing the aura” or make the heart “stronger”, or acting as a shield against “psychic attacks” aren’t evidence. Let me see the crystal heal a open wound or a tumor. The big new thing is claiming that lumps of rock salt from the “Himalayas” is somehow “magic”. Shades of promises of Xanadu or Shangri-la, yes? The “crystal skulls” have also popped back up again, to be discredited again. The Skepdic has a good entry on it: http://skepdic.com/crystals.html

    At best, the attempt to say that “magic” might be there if we could only find it *and* that the scientific method could support it, is more than a bit specious. We don’t even have the slightest evidence that anything is happening. There are no theories about this since there is no empirical evidence to base theories on. To further equate this “mysterious force” that has no evidence to quantum physics which does seems to be the usual use of misunderstood science and simple wishful thinking that anyone who supports the unproveable. Creationists do it all of the time.

  • LindaJoy

    Velkyn- I worked at at high energy particle physics facility, and I did not bring that issue up because I think that there is any connection between quantum observations and new age thinking. Deepak Chopra does stuff like that. So does Amit Goswami- who is a physicist. I am saying that people have experiences, like I did with the hand sensation that I experienced when holding it over the crystals, that may have some kind of scientific explanation behind them. I did not say that crystals heal or anything remoting related to “powers” of crystals. You had said that there was a scientific explanation for your dowsing experience. (I’d be curious to know what that is). That is exactly what I was talking about. People have these experiences and tend to leap to unscientific conclusions, when there may be an opportunity to find a scientific one. I highly doubt a scientist would want to bother with finding the reason my palm had the physiological response that I experienced. So I just will file it away as an unexplained event. While I appreciate skepticism and lean towards it for the most part, sometimes skeptics just dismiss experiences that reasonable and rational people have as bunk to be discarded from consideration, and I get uncomfortable with that rigidity of thinking.

  • LindaJoy

    PS to Velkyn- I certainly hope that you were not insinuating that I am some kind of “creationist”!

  • velkyn

    No, I’m not insinuating that you are any type of creationist. However, the blind acceptance of any claims with questionable support is a commonality to those who accept creationism, crystal power, pyramid power, “magik”, etc. That’s all I was noting.

    Dowsing is quite a bit like using a Ouija board. You “think” you are finding something by the movements. However, the actual chance that anyone can immediately confirm the presence of whatever you are dowsing for, be it water or minerals, is very rare. Also, the substance claimed to be found is often to be expected. Water will likely be found wherever you drill, the depth might change but that variablity is often what “saves” dowsers when if they come up with a dry hole. Another example is that a natural gas well on my parents farm was supposedly dowsed. However, the farm is in western Pennsylvania where you can hardly drill a deep hole without finding gas. In any double-blind study, you won’t get a positive correlation. A study was done in Germany and CSICOP has a good article about it: http://www.csicop.org/si/9901/dowsing.html

    I’m sorry if you didn’t intend to connect quantum physics with magic. To me, it did seem that you did intend that since you seemed to be indicating that the evidence of its being valid was the same as a “feeling”. Your response may have been physiological but without some, say black boxes, with nothing, a lovely crystal and a lump of limestone, and you with your hand over them and finding the right one a reasonable percentage of the time, I still have to doubt. I’ve gotten “feelings” from tarot cards, but couldnt’ tell the difference between them and stack of paper. And I do think that investigating such a response, if it does exist, would be quite interesting and important. Any effect over distance that hasn’t been explained would have many potential applications. As for experiences that “reasonable and rational people” have, who does the defining of reasonable and rational? :)

    I don’t consider the questioning of claims to be “rigid”. I do ascribe to the idea that if you keep your mind open, anything can fall in. Some caution and skepticism is always good.

  • LindaJoy

    Velkyn- I still get the impression that you think I declared that I thought the crystals that gave me that physiological effect in my hand was a result of them having some “power”. I did not say that. I did not draw any conclusions from the experience because there was no way for me to test that experience scientifically. I did try to get that effect from other objects, but was unable to reproduce it. I brought up the “spooky action at a distance” particle phenomenon (as physicists call it) as an example of something in science that has a sort of woo-woo appearance and has yet to be explained. I also did not mean to imply that skeptical questioning of claims is rigid. I meant that drawing conclusions that something is “delusional” and therefore not to be considered anymore can sometimes be a rigid response. Einstein figured out his greatest theories by keeping an open mind and using his imagination, and lots fell into his mind that was quite successful. Thanks for the info on dowsing.

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    When I was a young teen, my grandfather provided me and my sister with our choice of hand main gemsotne jewelry of our chosing, as Christmas gifts. My sister chose a small ring with a small opal stting. I chose a pewter belt-buckle with a polished oval bloodstone setting.
    Why did I pick the bloodstone? There were several reasons. First, I like the color green and the bloodstone was mostly a nice shade of gree, with contrasting blood-red flecks of iron oxide. Second, It polished up really nice and simply looked really cool. Third, it wasn’t very common where I lived, so people would often ask what it was, which brings me to the last, but certainly not the least of reasons: Bloodstone is a really cool sounding name for a rock. It sounds like something from a Conan the Barbarian comic book.
    A few years later, I happened on someone who believed in all that crystal magic nonsense, who not olny recognized the piece of rock as a bloodstone, but started “informing” me of all the magical properties it alledgedly possessed. The encounter made me wonder what she had been smoking that morning.
    After all, it was just a pretty rock.