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The Electricity of Touch: Detection and Measurement of Cardiac Energy Exchange Between People

Rollin McCraty, Ph.D., Mike Atkinson, Dana Tomasino, B.A., and William A. Tiller, Ph.D.

In: Karl H. Pribram, ed. Brain and Values: Is a Biological Science of Values Possible. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers, 1998: 359-379.

1. Summary
2. Introduction
3. Methods
4. Experimental Examples
5. Discussion
6. Future Discussions
7. References


The data presented here clearly show that when people touch or are in proximity, a transference of the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart occurs. This energy exchange was evidenced by the registration of one individual's electrocardiogram R-wave peak at different sites on another person's body surface. The transference of the signal appears to depend on the distance between individuals, as would be expected if the signal transferred is electromagnetic in nature. The effect was evident when people were touching or positioned 18 inches apart, but it was not detectable when subjects were separated by a distance of 4 feet and 250 averages were used in the signal averaging process. However, it is quite possible that by measuring longer time periods and using more averages, signal transfer could be detected at greater distances. Russek and Schwartz's measurement of an exchange of cardiac energy between subjects separated by 3 feet certainly supports this possibility.23 The observation that the signal was still transferred when subjects were not in contact demonstrates that the transference occurs at least to some degree through radiation. However, the tenfold reduction in the amplitude of the transferred signal observed in both the non-contact experiment and in the hand holding trial in which one subject wore an insulated glove suggests that skin-to-skin contact plays an important role in facilitating the signal transfer. Interestingly, forming a hard wire connection between subjects did not increase the amplitude of the transferred signal with respect to the experiments in which subjects simply held hands or touched lightly. The signal amplitude was also unaffected in other experiments (data not shown) in which electrode gel was used to decrease skin-to-skin contact resistance.

There were a number of interesting observations made for which we feel there is not yet sufficient data to attempt to offer an explanation at this point. These include: (1) While in all cases a signal transfer between two subjects was measurable at least in one direction, a transfer was sometimes, but not always, detectable in both directions (i.e. In some cases the designated “receiver's” ECG was not observed in the “source's” recordings). From other experiments we have done, this does not appear to be related to the gender of the subjects. (2) Significant differences were observed in the amplitude of the transferred signal depending on the hand holding orientation adopted. The amplitude was highest when the receiver's right hand was held by the source's left hand, and the transfer was not detected at all when subjects held hands left hand to left hand. (3) In the light touch and wired together trials reported on here (Examples 4 and 5), the signal picked up on the receiver's right forearm was consistently 5 times greater in amplitude than the signal registered on the left forearm. This difference was observed in some, but not all, similar experiments performed. (4) In the non-contact experiment (Example 6), but in none of the other trials, a phase shift of 10 ms between the sender's ECG and the appearance of the signal across the receiver's arms was observed. All of these observations pose intriguing research questions and invite additional experimentation to determine whether they do, in fact, represent significant trends to consider in further characterizing this energy exchange.

It should be noted that the appearance of the source's ECG signal in the receiver's EEG does not necessarily indicate that the signal has produced an alteration in the receiver's brainwaves. These data simply indicate that the source's ECG signal can be measured on the receiver's scalp as well as at other sites on the receiver's body surface, such as the forearms and legs. The fact that the signal is indeed registered, however, together with the recent demonstration of nonlinear stochastic resonance effects in several biological systems, certainly raises the possibility that it may exert some effect on the receiving subject's brain and/or other components of the receiver's physiology.

This possibility is in fact supported by experiments conducted by Schandry and co-workers which demonstrated that cortically generated potentials are affected by one's own ECG. These experiments have shown that the registration of one's own ECG R-wave in the EEG is modulated by psychological factors such as attention and motivation, in a fashion analogous to the cortical processing of external stimuli.26, 28-30 This is also supported by work in our laboratory which has shown that when individuals focus their attention in the area of the heart and consciously generate a positive emotion, the heart rate variability patterns become more orderly and coherent.17 When a person is in this more coherent state, the portion of the heartbeat evoked potential which reflects cortical processes28 is dramatically changed. 27 The idea that the registration of another person's ECG across the scalp could also give rise to characteristic cortical potentials is certainly a possibility that deserves further investigation.

A biological response to an externally applied field implies that the field has caused changes in the system greater than those due to random fluctuating events, or “noise.” Traditional linear theory predicted that weak, extremely low frequency electromagnetic fields, such as that radiated from the human heart, could not generate enough energy to overcome the thermal noise limit and thus to affect biological tissue. However, a number of experiments have revealed cellular responses to electric field magnitudes far smaller than the theoretical estimates for the minimum field strength required to overcome the thermal noise limit in these systems.31-33 (cited in 34). It has been proposed that this discrepancy can in part be accounted for by biological cells' capacity to rectify and essentially signal average weak oscillating electric fields through field-induced variation in the catalytic activity of membrane-associated enzymes or in the conformation of membrane channel proteins. 20, 34 Signal rectification and averaging provide a mechanism by which a signal from an external periodic electric field could be accumulated over time by a cell, and would significantly lower theoretical estimates of the system's threshold of response to external fields, though still not enough to fully explain all the experimental data.

Theoretical estimates of the limitations on the detection of very small signals by sensory systems imposed by the presence of thermal noise (thermal noise limit) were traditionally made using linear approximation under the assumption that the system is in a state of equilibrium.35 More recently, it has been recognized that a linear and equilibrium approach is not appropriate for biological systems, which are intrinsically nonlinear, nonequilibrium and noisy. The recent advent of the nonlinear stochastic resonance concept15 has caused further revisions of the theoretical estimates for the minimum field strengths required to affect biological systems. The concept of stochastic resonance was first used in a theoretical study of the ion binding model for the explanation of weak EMF effects on biological systems. 19 The effect of very weak, coherent electromagnetic signals as small as one hundred to one thousand times smaller than the amplitude of the surrounding random noise was studied using numerical simulation. It was shown that coherent signals having an amplitude substantially below that of the background thermal noise could change the mean time it takes for a biological ion to escape from the binding site of a regulatory protein, and thus influence cellular response.19 Remarkably, in subsequent experimental studies36-38 the effect of subthermal, coherent signals was observed in different biological systems for signal amplitudes as small as one-tenth or even one-hundredth the amplitude of the random noise component. Whereas initial studies of stochastic resonance in biological systems dealt exclusively with single-frequency signals embedded in a broadband noise background, recent experimental work has shown that stochastic resonance can also be observed with broadband stimuli,37 thus further generalizing this phenomenon. In addition, a voltage-dependent ion channel system has recently been shown to exhibit stochastic resonance with no detectable response threshold.38 These data confirm that biological systems under certain circumstances are able to detect arbitrarily small coherent signals. Theory, simulation and experimental data all suggest that nonlinear stochastic resonance may play an important role in the dynamics of sensory neurons,15, 37, 39 and the demonstration of over a thousand-fold increase in signal transduction across voltage-dependent ion channels induced by the addition of external noise provides evidence that stochastic resonance may also be operative at a sub-cellular level.36, 38

Many healing modalities involving contact or proximity between practitioner and patient, including Therapeutic Touch, holoenergetic healing, healing touch, Chi Gong, Reiki, Shiatsu, the Trager technique and polarity therapy, are based upon the assumption that an exchange of energy occurs to facilitate healing. While there exists scientific evidence to substantiate the physiological and psychological effects of many of these treatments, science has as yet not been able to describe a mechanism by which this putative energy exchange between individuals takes place. This study, together with the work of Russek and Schwartz, represents one of the first successful attempts to directly measure an exchange of energy between people. As such, it provides a foundation for a solid, testable theory to explain the observed effects of these healing modalities. We propose that through cellular signal averaging and nonlinear stochastic resonance, a therapist's cardiac field, registered by the patient, may be amplified so as to produce significant effects. As a weak field signal becomes more coherent, the greater its capacity becomes to entrain ambient noise and thus to produce effects in biological tissue. Recent research has shown that the heart's electromagnetic field decreases in electrical coherence as an individual becomes angry or frustrated and increases in coherence as a person shifts to such positive emotional states as sincere love, care or appreciation. 17 Preliminary results indicate, further, that individuals who intentionally increase their cardiac coherence by maintaining a focused state of sincere love or appreciation can induce changes in the structure of water7 and in the conformational state of DNA.40 An obvious implication, if the stochastic resonance model is valid, is that the effects of therapeutic techniques involving contact or proximity between practitioner and patient could be amplified by practitioners adopting a sincere caring attitude, and thus introducing increased coherence into their cardiac field.

This may explain why many healing practices have as a core tenet that the therapeutic effects of the treatment are dependent upon the intention of the practitioner to help or heal the patient. The Therapeutic Touch literature describes the role of the practitioner of this technique as attempting “to focus completely on the well-being of the recipient in an act of unconditional love and compassion”.41 It has been demonstrated that hospitalized cardiovascular patients treated with Non-Contact Therapeutic Touch experienced a significantly greater decrease in post-treatment state anxiety than did patients who were administered a control intervention in which nurses mimicked the movements of the Therapeutic Touch technique but did not focus their intention on helping the patients. 8 Of particular relevance to the work described in the present study is Russek and Schwartz's finding that people more accustomed to receiving love and care appear to be better receivers of others' cardiac signals.23 In a group of subjects in late adulthood, those who in college had rated themselves as having been raised by loving parents exhibited significantly greater registration of an experimenter's cardiac signal in their EEG in a non-contact experiment than those who had rated their parents low in loving. This implies that the exchange of cardiac energy described here may be influenced not only by the degree of coherence of the transmitted signal (which, in turn, can depend on the source's emotional state and intention), but also by the degree of the receiver's receptivity to the signal. Individuals raised in an environment which they perceive to be loving are not only more accustomed to receiving others' love, but also often tend to be more loving themselves. Thus, it is possible that signal registration may be enhanced by increased coherence in the receiver's system. It is not surprising that many of the healing modalities mentioned above emphasize not only that the practitioner have the intention to heal but also that there be a mutually caring relationship between practitioner and patient.

It should also be mentioned that there is an extensive literature concerning nonlocal effects, prayer and distance healing. Larry Dossey has pointed out that the term “energy” as it is used in this paper may not be the appropriate term to describe nonlocal effects, which cannot be explained by conventional electromagnetic theory.42 We use the term “energy” here, as we believe that the results described in this paper can be explained by conventional electromagnetic theory. This paper does not attempt to explain nonlocal effects; however, it would be interesting to determine whether the effectiveness of nonlocal forms of healing is related to the degree of coherence in the practitioner's cardiac field. Gough and Shacklett43 as well as Tiller44 have proposed models which expand and connect conventional electromagnetic theory with an inherently nonlocal and multidimensional realm. Paddison has also written at length concerning the coupling between the electricity generated by the heart and more subtle levels of reality.45 According to these models, increased coherence in conventional electromagnetic fields would serve to enhance nonlocal effects.

If the electromagnetic field generated by our heart indeed has the capacity to significantly affect those around us, the implications of this would of course extend far beyond healer-patient interactions. It has long been observed that our emotions have the capacity to affect those in our proximity. Evidence that the cardiac field changes with different emotions experienced, combined with the finding that this field is registered physiologically by those around us provides the foundation of one possible mechanism to describe the impact of our emotions on others at a basic physiological level. In addition, if touch, as we have shown, serves to facilitate this exchange of cardiac energy between individuals, this would give new and more precise meaning to the concept of touch as the first and most fundamental means of communication46 and facilitator of human interactions. Future study of the effects of the electrical exchange that occurs when individuals are in contact or proximity may eventually foster increased awareness of our inner feeling states both in therapeutic interventions and in the broader context of our daily interactions with those in our immediate environment.