Understanding Deepak Chopra's 'Biofields'

Why does the concept sound so sketchy to rationalist ears?

Michael Jackson and Deepak Chopra were longtime friends, although it's doubtful that Chopra ever levitated in Jackson's bedroom. (Google Images)

Deepak Chopra “is someone who is challenging many of us who live somewhat comfortably in what we consider to be the ‘rational,’” admitted Atlantic editor Steve Clemons during their interview at The Atlantic Meets the Pacific on Thursday. Chopra, who was trained as a doctor, has written more than 65 books, built friendships with stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson, and created his own “center for wellbeing” in California. Clearly, he has an audience for his way of understanding health and communities, which includes a belief in synchronizing people’s personal energy fields and shedding light on crime by analyzing a city’s “states of consciousness.”

So why does his way of thinking make Clemons and other “rationalists” uncomfortable? The language he uses to talk about health and wellness is only slightly edgier than what you might hear in a yoga class. Practices like meditation are fairly common – even Oprah is doing it. But while self-respecting rationalists might be able to wave away talk about inner peace and well-ordered biofields during recreational activities, when it comes to science, for god’s sake, that kind of spiritualism doesn’t belong.

This distinction came up in casual conversations about Chopra with a few of the event’s attendees, who mostly work in health and the sciences. “It’s not science, but it’s a personal belief that I kind of have,” one person said. “It’s not science, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” said another. Chopra doesn’t seem to see things that way, though – throughout his interview, he used specifically scientific language, referring to biological measurement, quantum physics, and human physiology.

“There are biofields – every part of our body, every cell of our body, has a magnetic field that it transmits,” he explained toward the beginning of the conversation. “Our biofields are going to interfere with each other. If you all hear the expression, ‘I went into this room, and it was very stressful, you could cut it with a knife, it was so tense,’ or, “I went into this holy temple or this shrine and I felt at peace’ – now we can biologically measure that.”

To Chopra, these magnetic fields are an important indicator of what’s going on in communities, too. “[You can] correlate states of consciousness with states of biology using mathematical algorithms and correlate that with crime, with hospital admissions, with traffic accidents, with social unrest, with quality of leadership,” he said. “I can tell you intuitively at this moment, the biofield of Syria is not a coherent biofield – or of Washington, D.C., for that matter. What does that mean for the state of the world?”

When an audience member asked him what people should do to alleviate this global discord, here was Chopra’s response: “Create coherent biofields collectively – be the change you want to see in the world. You’re not separate from that which exists – every shift in you creates a shift around you.”

There is some science to back Chopra up, particularly when it comes to using these concepts in medical therapy that complements traditional treatment. In a 2010 study of studies published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, researchers found:

Biofield therapies show strong evidence for reducing pain intensity in pain populations, and moderate evidence for reducing pain intensity hospitalized and cancer populations. There is moderate evidence for decreasing negative behavioral symptoms in dementia and moderate evidence for decreasing anxiety for hospitalized populations. There is equivocal evidence for biofield therapies' effects on fatigue and quality of life for cancer patients, as well as for comprehensive pain outcomes and affect in pain patients, and for decreasing anxiety in cardiovascular patients.

The paper also concluded “there is a need for further high-quality studies in this area.” Although there might be some value to this approach to health, “the research field itself is in its infancy, with many larger scale clinical studies currently underway.”

Chopra said reactions to his work have been mixed, particularly among his colleagues. “My generation is still very reductionist, mechanistic with science. It’s not science and spirituality, or spirituality at all – it’s science as we understand it today. It’s looking at bits and pieces when it should be looking at everything,” he said.

Although he has earned nicknames like the “poet-prophet of alternative medicine,” Chopra is certainly self-aware about how people might perceive him. “I’ve been called a pretender. A long time ago, I started telling my patients, ‘I have good news and bad news for you: The bad news is that you have a bad condition with a poor prognosis, and the good news is that I’m a quack,’” he joked.

Chopra occupies an uncommon space in 21st century Western public life: He is both a scientist and a spiritualist, and he refuses to separate those roles into different spheres. Perhaps that’s why he's is such a perplexing celebrity for the modern age. There may be studies to back him up, but that won’t change the reactions of self-styled rationalists – beneath the science, there’s a long history of ancient spiritual ideas like qi and Ayurveda, which seem at odds with scientific inquiry. That’s why Clemons and others like him feel “challenged” by Chopra: He’s a deeply spiritual, thoroughly un-“modern” scientist.

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Emma Green is the assistant managing editor of TheAtlantic.com, where she also writes about religion and culture.

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