Unlocking the ‘qi’

by Sumiko Oshima

Dressed in a white robe, a female qi master calmly stands in a room. Her face a mask of concentration, she puts her hands into a metal box. She quietly waits for three minutes. Then concentrates for seven minutes.

Her hands rest on a black cloth. Under the cloth is a metal cup, in which there are two anesthetized mice.

The woman is a Japanese healer, trained in the qi healing technique in China. The mice are not pets — they are experimental subjects being used in a research program at the National Institute of Radiological Sciences in Chiba.

“With the help of trained masters, we are trying to find the scientific basis of qi,” says Mikio Yamamoto, head of the Bio-Emissions Laboratory.

Qi, or ki in Japanese, literally means breath and air. But the word also encompasses the ideas of vital energy, spirit and aura. The traditional Chinese psychosomatic practice known as qi gong involves moving the body’s qi in order to keep the body in good condition.

It is believed that physical imbalance or sickness occurs when the qi is blocked within the body. In addition to reducing pain and stress, a well-balanced qi is also believed to be a powerful energy source.

Literature has it that qi-gong masters demonstrated their power by using qi to move people through the air and to cure physical and mental ailments.

Although the effects of qi are widely recognized both in China and Japan, its physical basis has not been explained. Western scientists have said that qi is imaginary — that its effect is just like the placebo effect, psychologically inducing a physiological reaction.

Taking advantage of a culture in which the qi tradition and cutting-edge science coexist, Yamamoto and other Japanese scientists, with the help of government research funds, have been exploring paranormal phenomena.

Between 1995 and 2000, 90 million yen went into a program titled A Study of Methods of Analyzing Body Functions Using Simultaneous Measurements, a series of pilot experiments aiming to map out research methods. Then last year, a new 100 million yen three-year project, Toward the Creation of a New Paradigm, was embarked on, involving 10 universities and research institutes in Japan.

“The research is still at an initial stage, so we have yet to find out what qi is all about,” says Yamamoto, a doctor of both engineering and medicine who heads the project. “But we are finding clues.”

Japanese researchers have been able to demonstrate a difference between the influence of imagination and what may be the effect of qi, Yamamoto claims. In one experiment, a Chinese qi-gong master and a “layperson” sat opposite each other at a table, separated by a panel. A hole in the panel allowed the master to put his hand into a box on the layperson’s side of the table.

In a one-minute trial, the master was asked to send a qi signal for either the first or the second 30 seconds, as determined by the researcher. The layperson was asked to tell in which 30-second period qi was sent. Correct answers were given 77 percent of the time on average — higher than the 50 percent that would be expected by chance. Although the number of correct answers fell to about 50 percent when the layperson’s hand was shielded from the master’s by a metal panel, the layperson’s electroencephalogram showed changes in brain areas involving vision and bodily sensation at the time qi was sent — even when the layperson had not realized.

Meanwhile, another study with two trained practitioners found qi is transmitted between people even in different rooms. In the study, published in the Journal of the International Society of Life Information Science in 2001, a master of shintaido, a Japanese martial art that uses qi, was asked to stay on the second floor of the lab building and send qi to a student on the first floor.

The master was told by the researcher when to take an action just once in an 80-second period. Meanwhile, the student was asked to respond when he felt qi — but only once in the same period. The receiver responded at the same time as the master sent the qi signal 75 percent more often than would be expected by chance.

“These studies, and other experiments that eliminate the possibility of cheating, suggest that information is sent through qi,” Yamamoto says.

The ongoing project not only aims to investigate qi, but also other paranormal phenomena, and to seek clues to their mechanisms and principles.

Researchers have gradually begun to investigate what happens to the body of a person sending and receiving qi, or who is in a state of meditation. A Tohoku University group is trying to detect qi effects with imaging techniques such as Positron Emission Tomography. Scientists at the Tokyo Institute of Technology are seeing how qi and other altered states of consciousness affect the body’s endocrine and immune systems.

There is still a long way to go before researchers fully figure out the true nature of qi, but what is really important is to keep research going, Yamamoto says.

“It was once very difficult to believe the existence of invisible things, such as air, electricity, electromagnetism and radiation,” Yamamoto says. “Some people view our research with suspicion. But we believe there is something conventional science can’t explain. When we solve the mystery, the 21st century will see a paradigm shift.”