Want to know how to harness the power of pessimism? In dire need of new friends but no clue how to make them as a full-grown adult? Read the rest of the VICE Guide to Self Improvement here. I understand we're living in desperate times and are therefore willing to clutch onto anything that might offer meaning or solace, but crystal healing does seem like an extravagantly misguided way to go about solving personal or global problems.
People sure are spending a lot of money on crystals lately, though. Thanks largely to Instagram, they've transcended from dorky New Age Etsy purchases to chic, celebrity-endorsed high fashion accessories. Suddenly it's acceptable to refer offhandedly to the mercury retrograde, to carry a piece of rose quartz everywhere you go, to use star signs as a relationship compatibility test. Buy like, a million $80 candles. Get tattoos of Stevie Nicks lyrics. This entire paragraph could be read as a personal attack by any number of my close friends, and I apologise.
The alleged powers of healing crystals are various. Some proponents claim that they unblock the sacral chakra, others that they amplify or transfer positive energy. Different stones have different abilities: quartz stimulates brain function, tiger eye increases awareness, pyrite wards off danger, amethyst cures hangovers.
Is any of this true? Absolutely not. The magical attributes of crystals have been roundly debunked, most notably in a study by University of London psychologist Dr. Chris French in 2001. He gave crystals to 80 volunteers, as well as an informational booklet about their supposed restorative properties. Half the study participants had been given cheap plastic crystals, while the other half were using genuine ones. Both groups reported feeling the tingling, energy-enhancing sensations that were promised.
"Is the power of suggestion really sufficient to explain the sensations that people often report when handling crystals? Our experiments showed conclusively that this is so," French tells me. He notes that many people are skeptical of New Age medicine, and probably with good cause, but the study provides proof beyond general cynicism that rocks do not possess a magical energy.
"Those who are sceptical of paranormal and related claims are often able to come up with alternative explanations for ostensibly paranormal experiences. But it is a very different thing to simply propose a plausible non-paranormal account as opposed to supporting it with strong empirical evidence."
French's original study aligned with the New Age hysteria of the late 1990s and early 2000s, but it feels even more relevant in 2017, a year in which people are spending large amounts of money on crystal-embedded water bottles. ("Water acts like a natural prism for the crystal's radiant energy," one such water bottle company claims. "This effect can be tasted by sensual water lovers and has been proven by lab analysis.) French thinks the explanation here is pretty simple: "We are living through a period of almost unprecedented political, military, economic and environmental uncertainty at the moment, so it's not surprising that magical thinking is flourishing in all its forms."
Why do so many middle class women believe that crystals can cure their ills? a 2014 Daily Mail article rudely asks. Because believing is often enough to make something at least appear to work, and that feels nice. French doesn't advise entirely against using crystals, especially if they make you feel something close to happiness or contentment. "In general, using crystals for treating minor ailments that will get better on their own even without treatment is not going to cause much harm—and people should be free to make such decisions for themselves," he says.
"It is, however, important that people are aware that there is absolutely no strong scientific evidence that crystals really can have any effect over and above a placebo."
For some people, French's study might suggest that healing crystals are a lie, and nobody should buy them. For the more optimistic, it's convenient proof that there's no point in paying $200 for a hunk of rose quartz—you'll get the same buzz from a cheap bit of polished glass, hell yeah. If it looks like a crystal, and you're willing to believe it's a crystal, you are probably able to achieve some kind of positive effect.
Which might mean more than you think. Recent research suggests the human mind possesses untapped healing abilities thanks to its capacity for positive thought; leading academics from Harvard's renowned placebo studies department suggests that the mind can be a source of healing for some conditions, and that in the future doctors might actually benefit from giving patients medicines that they know will not work.
But when I contact the Harvard placebo research team they're understandably unwilling to comment either way on the relationship between placebo effects and alternative medicine. "I will say that research suggests that 'the mind'—some would say the brain—is indeed powerful and can be the source of healing for some conditions," says department manager Deborah Grose. "And they are primarily conditions that depend on self-report, for example pain, that cannot be measured by objective means."
It will not surprise anyone, least of all the people who buy them, to read that crystals are bullshit. As with Aesop skincare products and turmeric lattes, the billion dollar crystal industry sustains itself by asking people to believe in the power of something because it is aesthetically pleasing. And those people seem really happy to do that, right? Maybe it's fine.
Still seeking answers, I hit up my local crystal shop after work. It's very standard: a shelf full of Tarot decks, bowls of positive affirmation cards, and a truly hideous jewellery selection. By the counter there is an extensive range of crystals and gemstones, with an accompanying chart explaining what each rock can do for you. You're allowed to rifle through and test out the crystals for yourself, so I do. Close my eyes and beg for some kind of spiritual calm to wash over me.
The amethyst, I think, creates a very slight tingling sensation.
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