Where Does The Idea That Crystals Are Healing Come From?

Where Does The Idea That Crystals Are Healing Come From?

This article first appeared in Issue 19 of our digital magazine CURIOUS

It’s a busy Saturday morning in the local New Age store. Everywhere I walk, I have to maneuver around islands of individuals and families eagerly examining everything from candles and Tarot cards, to dream catchers and incense (I had no idea there were so many things to burn and smell). It seems the new year is the perfect time to stock up on your supernaturally charged knick-knacks. But at the back of the store, I find what I’m looking for: two (locked) display cabinets filled with multicolored, iridescent, and, admittedly, beautiful crystals and gemstones. 

The objects are of various sizes and prices, some are small and fixed into jewelry, while others are enormous structures that look as though they have just been hewn from the naked earth.

Then there are the novelty pieces, amethyst in the shape of coffins, obelisks, and quartz crystal in the shape of mushrooms (I think they are mushrooms, some look suspiciously like they could be used in the bedroom). 

Humans have a long and complex relationship with these naturally occurring minerals or fossilized resins, but today this is big business – and it’s not just because the crystals on display are pretty.

The modern enthusiasm for crystals is driven by the belief that they hold healing properties, a concept that has been endorsed by various high-profile individuals. In this context, crystal healing forms part of the growing wellness culture offering a range of alternative therapies with mystical and/or pseudoscientific festoonery. Despite there being no evidential basis for their claims – and there have been plenty of studies – the world of crystal healing continues to grow in popularity. So, what’s going on here?

Rose quartz, a soft pink crystal, purportedly promotes love and restores harmony and trust in a relationship (which feels like a lot of pressure to put on a mineral).

It’s all about energy or something…

According to their advocates, crystals and other gemstones can promote physical, emotional, and spiritual “healing”. Although the supposed mechanisms for this vary depending on who you speak to, the most common explanation is that crystals somehow interact with the body’s “natural” energy fields, or “vibrational energy”, and help redirect it to clear blockages or disruptions. In this respect, the modern expression of crystal healing blends ideas from multiple Asian cultures, such as chi or qi, the concept of life energy in Chinese traditions, and the concept of chakras, specific energy points distributed through the body, from Hindu and Buddhist beliefs. 

But the power of crystal healing is a broad category, as a casual glimpse of the description cards accompanying the crystals in the local New Age store informs me. 

For instance, hematite, a heavy and hard oxide mineral with a black sheen, is apparently effective for memory and increasing focus. Amethyst, a classically purple or lilac colored variety of quartz, can supposedly improve motivation and makes you achieve more “realistic goals in life”, while rose quartz, a soft pink crystal, purportedly promotes love and restores harmony and trust in a relationship (which feels like a lot of pressure to put on a mineral). And then there is the star of this show, the simple clear quartz crystal, which is referred to as “the master healer”. 

Healing how and what?

Today, advocates of crystal healing will refer to the medical or magical traditions of various past cultures, such as in Mesopotamian medical remedies or Ancient Egyptian religious devotion and funerary rites, as a way to add a veneer of historical prestige to their claims (another example of how “old” seems to be shorthand for “authentic”). 

To the Greek physician, Dioscorides, lapis lazuli was only useful for “healing” when it was ground up and ingested as part of a treatment for scorpion stings (don’t try this at home).

However, these claims tend to assume that the appearance of a crystal or gemstone in a given culture automatically means past people shared the same beliefs about the nature of these objects, how they worked and what they could do, and, more importantly, that this is the same as today. In fact, some New Age websites overtly project modern language onto these past examples and talk about “energy” and “healing” in ways that would have been completely alien at the time, all in an attempt to tidy an otherwise messy and textured history.

What do I mean by this? Well, today a practitioner of crystal healing may tell you that lapis lazuli, a popular gemstone among the Ancient Egyptians, can encourage “self-awareness” and “reveal inner truth”. But to the Greek physician, Dioscorides, lapis lazuli was only useful for “healing” when it was ground up and ingested as part of a treatment for scorpion stings (don’t try this at home).

This does not mean there were no “magic” associations at the time. Dioscorides also described the idea that jasper is effective for warding off evil and promotes a speedy birth, as well as selenite, which was given to those with epilepsy in powdered form, and was also worn as an amulet for protection. But there is something more “tangible” about the nature of these supposed powers when compared to those promoted by today’s practitioners.

In the Middle Ages, people wore gemstones and crystals in amulets to protect them from demons, malevolent forces, disease, or even lighting strikes – threats that were seen to be in the world. Alternatively, if they were used to promote healing, it was for specific ailments and conditions, or to aid natural processes such as giving birth. Moreover, protective amulets were usually marked with sacred names or incantations, as the specific gemstone was not necessarily sufficient on its own. 

Why do we believe in crystal healing?

Today’s enthusiasm for crystal healing largely stems from the New Age spiritual movement of the 1970s, which is eclectic and unsystematic in its purview. It should not be surprising then that the fixation on crystals as modes of healing borrows and blends ideas and sentiments from various traditions.

For many practitioners, the New Age movement offers spiritual connection and meaning at a time when organized religion is in decline (in the West at least). But these ideas are also easily accessible to anyone; there is no need for any specialist training.     

As Professor Marisa Galvez from Stanford University explained to IFLScience, “We live in a secular age” where people are “grasping for some kind of spiritual practice. And, there’s something about crystals that kind of entered into the [current] scene in which it was accessible.”

Galvez, who has conducted extensive research into the long history of our fascination with crystals, especially clear quartz crystal, has found that there is an established history of “folk practice” or popular beliefs surrounding crystals that often depart from contemporary orthodox (philosophical or theological) thinking. 

There is evidence to suggest that all forms of magical thinking tend to increase at both the personal and the societal level at times of stress and uncertainty.

“When I look at medieval text”, she explained, the authors are “not necessarily reading Aristotle or Pliny”, who had complex ideas about the physical and metaphysical properties of various minerals. Instead, she says, there’s a kind of popular belief or “local world knowledge” that runs alongside the official thinking “that to me is more connected to this current resurgence of interest in crystals that have certain properties that are accessible to everyone.”

In addition, the idea that crystals come from “the earth” adds to a sense of authenticity that, Galvez added, “really speaks to people. At the same time, they can create their own spiritual kind of thing, […] whether it’s a meditative practice, whether it’s a local knowledge that doesn’t require going to school or being part of a religious community.”     

It becomes crystal clear

But why is the belief in crystal healing increasing today? Well, in addition to the spiritually flexible nature of New Age philosophy, there are the wider uncertainties within political and economic milieu. 

“There is evidence to suggest that all forms of magical thinking tend to increase at both the personal and the societal level at times of stress and uncertainty – and most people would agree that the last few years have been the most stressful and uncertain for a very long time,” Christopher French, Emeritus Professor and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths University, told IFLScience. 

In addition, there are numerous psychological mechanisms that could allow someone to continue believing in the assumed power of a given crystal, even when confronted by evidence that contradicts it. This is essentially how confirmation bias operates. 

“Confirmation bias is arguably the most pervasive cognitive bias that affects all of us. It refers to the tendency that we all have to pay more attention to evidence that appears to support what we already believe or would like to be true,” French added.

“Thus a believer in crystal healing may pay more attention to those occasions where crystal healing appears to have worked than those where it didn’t. There are numerous ways in which someone might conclude that crystal healing works even if it doesn’t. For example, most ailments clear up on their own without any form of treatment thanks to the body’s natural recuperative powers. But people often attribute any improvement to how they feel to the treatment they tried prior to feeling better.”

So, crystal healing may be on the rise in certain circles, but its latest manifestation is very much tied to our current political and cultural moment. Ultimately, the practice is largely harmless, as far as pseudoscience goes; it only becomes an issue if someone starts using gems instead of tried and tested medical treatments for life threating illnesses. But then again, “harm” can be interpreted as broadly as the New Age movement defines “healing”, and things start to look less harmless and certainly less sustainable if you consider the impact the demand for crystals has on the planet. 

CURIOUS magazine is a digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 22 is out now.

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