Any Power Crystals Hold Is Thanks to the Placebo Effect
Crystals are pretty but they do not store healing, stress-relieving energy. The magic is in your mind.
Kara Riley / Stocksy
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Above my bed, I have arrayed: A glacial hunk of rose quartz; a craggy piece of blue lace agate; a slice of amethyst; a citrine trapezoid; two jade pebbles; a marbled lump of carnelian; and a quartz micropenis (yes, a tiny crystal peen). These crystals don’t do anything except entertain my handsy cat.
According to people who believe in crystal healing, however, my display should have engendered a raft of positive side-effects since I installed it—more love and less resentment; improved communication and tranquility; heightened intuition and a deeper capacity to trust; amplified optimism and energy; spiritual healing and prosperity; luck and passion; and general well-being, respectively. Disappointingly, these rocks have betrayed no special talents. I like their looks, I like to fidget them in my fingers while I think, but their utility ends there.
It’s pretty to think that I could manifest the aforementioned emotional bounty just by scooping them into in my bag, and it would be convenient if the basic premise of crystal healing—that different types of crystals harbor different energetic properties, which can affect our mental (or, taken to extremes, physical) states—held water. Slap a crystal on your problem chakra, and the rock will siphon off the venom, replacing it with whatever more helpful property you’re looking for.
As one crystal healing practitioner proposed to Women’s Health, you might mend a broken heart by clutching a hunk of rose quartz to your chest and channeling all your cognitive energy into imagining it “melting away any sadness.” Or, to cure a fear of public speaking, place kyanite on your throat and concentrate totally on the feeling of it spongeing up your social anxiety.
Spencer Pratt, who reportedly shelled out more than $1 million on his crystal collection, Kate Hudson, Adele, Kim Kardashian West, the Hadids—a frankly baffling number of famous people extoll crystals’ ability to cleanse emotional wounds. That celebrity endorsement probably helps explain why internet searches for “crystal shops near me” and “crystal healing” have reportedly rocketed upward by 35 percent and 40 percent, respectively, since 2013.
Some crystals can conduct and store energy, which explains why they show up in things like certain radios. In order to use a crystal as a conductor, though, you have to alter it in ways that allow it to modify and hold energy. But “energy” in this context doesn’t mean “positivity” or “creativity” or anything similarly abstract; rather, it means things like electricity.
Further, as James Giordano, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, tells me, “It’s not as if the crystal itself is generating the energy.” You have to manipulate the material to make it cooperate within a specific setting. The idea that an inert crystal could transmit energy into “another biological agent”—like, say, a human—“without some engineering of the system or coordination of the system’s properties, that’s where science goes off to science fiction,” he says.
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But perhaps you’ve squeezed your favorite rock and, after a few minutes of mental exertion, enjoyed the physical sensation of a weight evaporating from your shoulders. Those of you who’ve felt crystals work, consider this 2001 experiment: Researchers at the University of London had 80 participants meditate for five minutes, some holding a piece of quartz, and some holding a piece of glass they believed was quartz. Half were briefed on the sensations the crystal might impart, and surprise: Many (especially those who’d been warned beforehand) described warmth emanating from whatever they held in their hand, and an escalated sense of well-being.
You probably know the name for this particular phenomenon: The placebo effect.
Placebo responses, Giordano explains, occur in reaction to a set of stimuli that trigger “key areas and network properties of the brain to...produce one or both of two outcomes. One is that the individual subjectively feels better. Two is that there is some objective change in their physical state.”
Biological, experiential, and even cultural factors make certain people more receptive to placebos than others, he says, and placebo responses can be conditioned. They can also be very powerful, because your brain dictates the function of all your other systems: Your endocrine system, which rules your hormonal—and therefore metabolic, sexual, muscular, and emotional—function; your nervous system; your immune system; everything. (Within reason: Placebos can’t cure cancer, for example.)
In people susceptible to placebo response (which is roughly a third of the US population, he says), and in those who’ve learned to associate a certain crystal with a certain feeling (the conditioning), the rock itself triggers the brain to produce the expected effect, Giordano says. The magic isn’t in the crystal; it’s in your mind.
As a means to an end, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with crystals. Stuart Vyse, a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, tells me that superstitions may hold some psychological benefits. Research indicates that carrying out small rituals before performances (in this case, a karaoke rendition of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," staged in front of strangers), helps mitigate anxiety and may even improve the outcome. “People feel better having done something,” Vyse explains. Carrying around your pocket rock may reinforce an “illusion of control” that makes you feel better, he says.
“It’s like keeping a rabbit’s foot in your pocket,” Giordano says, “or having your lucky bandana on when you come up to bat. Getting a home run every time you have the bandana on? Don’t take the bandana off, there’s something about this that’s working for you.”
Things can become dangerous when you pull that bandana over your eyes, though, and both experts underscored the risk of eschewing Western medicine for crystals. Ultimately, capitalism drives the crystal craze, and there’s money to be made in selling people snake oil, especially the kind that doubles as home decor. "They’re not giving them away," Vyse points out.
“If you’re doing what you should be doing, from a scientific viewpoint, to take care of yourself and take care of the problems that you face, and you also [use] crystals, I don’t see any real harm in that,” Vyse says. “Superstitions about being lucky are perfectly fine—until you become a compulsive gambler and your superstitions keep you at the gambling table when you should really get up and go home.”
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