Electricity is basic to all life as we know it, and we continue to discover roles for electricity and magnetism in healing. The idea of using electric currents and magnets for healing has ancient roots: in China, approximately 2000 years ago, “magnetic stones” were advocated to correct health imbalances1, and in Europe, Scribonius Largus, court physician to the Roman emperor Claudius, recorded the use of torpedo fish for treatment of headaches and gout in his Compositiones Medicae of 46 AD2, and for pain, by standing upon the fish at the seashore3. In the 16th Century, the famous Swiss physician and alchemist, Paracelsus (1493-1543) declared that, “The magnet is the king of all secrets” and used it to treat a variety of conditions including headache and rheumatic problems4.
Into the 20th century, Burr and Northrup studied the role of bioelectric signals in embryonic development and regeneration5, and in the 1940s, Marsh and Beams made the remarkable discovery that applying electric fields of different polarities to flatworms (planaria) could change the direction of regeneration6. Significant steps forward were also made by Robert Becker, who mapped the bioelectric potentials associated with growth and repair processes, and found that regeneration could be enhanced by applying electricity to wound sites at the wound when there was a negative potential outside the amputation stub11. Robert Becker popularized these and other advances in our understanding of the role of electric and magnetic fields in healing and regeneration in the 1985 publication in of The Body Electric 12. In the 1970s, it was found that EMFs could promote bone repair7, and later, a seminal series or research by Colin McCaig showed that electric potentials naturally arising in wounds were critical for healing and regeneration8, and a variety of therapeutic uses of EMFs have been developed, including bone and soft tissue repair9,10.
Today, Michael Levin and colleagues at Tufts University are continuing to forward the exploration of bioelectromagnetics and physiology by demonstrating that patterns in the electrical activity of biological cells act as key regulators of a variety of critical processes such as embryogenesis, regeneration, tumorigenesis and metastatic transformation, and that electrical patterning plays key roles in regenerative processes such as limb regeneration in salamanders, eye induction, craniofacial patterning, and head-tail polarity in planaria13. Levin has shown that patterns of bioelectric signaling constitute “…an autonomous layer of control not reducible to a biochemical or genetic account of cell state”13. In a recent review dedicated to Robert Becker, Kelly McLaughlin and Michael Levin point towards the future, noting that, “The ability of bioelectric signaling to direct cell behavior has been described in the literature for over a century, yet only recently are we gaining sufficient insight about mechanisms and global dynamics to enable biomedicine to unlock this valuable information”14.
This exciting chapter in today’s science is bringing new understanding of bioelectricity as a basic element of life. The modern biofield viewpoint that is emerging from this work – of an informational field-based view of life – has striking parallels in ancient viewpoints such as the Tibetan, Vedic and Jain medical traditions, where concepts of energy and information patterns are fundamental. For example, Jain teachings describe the interaction of the soul’s consciousness with the karmic field, producing emanations known as adhyavasāya which interact with a subtle body called the tejas sarir (“fiery body”) which supports mental and physical health, and are described in a manner resembling modern descriptions of electromagnetic fields15. Similarly, the Vedic concept of the energetic body known as prānamayakoṣa, and the Tibetan Buddhist description of a subtle body known as the “vajra body” (Sanskrit:vajradeha; Tibetan: sku rdorje or rdo rje lus) refer to a network of invisible energy channels that guide bodily functions15.
Is ancient wisdom being reflected in the science of today, and today’s science can help us to better understand this ancient wisdom? Feel free to respond in the comment section below!
- Unschuld PU, Huang Di Nei Jing Su Wen: Nature, Knowledge, Imagery in an Ancient Chinese Medical Text, UCLA Press. 2003.
- Bullock TH, Heiligenberg W, et al.,editors. Electroreception. New York: Wiley; 1986. pp. 157–181.
- Jensen JE, Conn RR, Hazelrigg G, Hewett JE. The use of transcutaneous neural stimulation and isokinetic testing in arthroscopic knee surgery. Am J Sports Med. 1985 Jan-Feb;13(1):27-33.
- Mourino MR. From Thales to Lauterbur, or from the lodestone to MR imaging: magnetism and medicine. Radiology. 1991 Sep;180(3):593-612.
- Burr HS, Northrop FSC. Evidence for the existence of an electro-dynamic field in living organisms. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 1935;25:284–288.
- Marsh G, Beams H. Electrical control of growth polarity in regenerating Dugesia tigrina. Fed. Proc. 1947;6:163.
- Ryaby JT. Clinical effects of electromagnetic and electric fields on fracture healing. Clin Orthop Relat Res. 1998 Oct;(355 Suppl):S205-15.
- McCaig CD, Rajnicek AM, Song B, Zhao M. Controlling cell behavior electrically: current views and future potential. Physiol. Rev. 2005;85:943–978.
- Pilla AA. Mechanisms and Therapeutic Applications of Time-Varying and Static Magnetic Fields. In: Handbook of Biological Effects of Electromagnetic Fields, 3rd Edition. Barnes F, Greenebaum B, eds, CRC Press, 2006.
- Funk RH, Monsees TK, Ozkucur N. Electromagnetic effects—From cell biology to medicine. Prog Histochem Cytochem. 2009;43(4):177-264.
- Becker RO. Stimulation of partial limb regeneration in rats. Nature 1972;235:109–111.
- Becker RO, Selden G. The Body Electric: Electromagnetism and the Foundation of Life. William Morrow, New York, NY; 1985.
- Levin M. Endogenous bioelectrical networks store non-genetic patterning information during development and regeneration. J Physiol. 2014 Jun 1;592(11):2295-305.
- McLaughlin KA, Levin M. Bioelectric signaling in regeneration: Mechanisms of ionic controls of growth and form. Dev Biol. 2018 Jan 15;433(2):177-189.
- Jain S, Daubenmier J, Muehsam D, Rapgay L, Chopra D. Indo-Tibetan Philosophical and Medical Systems: Perspectives on the Biofield. Glob Adv Health Med. 2015 Nov;4(Suppl):16-24.
Learn More About The Author
David Muehsam, PhD
CHI Director of Technology Innovation
David Muehsam, CHI Director of Technology Innovation, is a biophysicist with research focus on the biophysical bases of EMF bioeffects and therapeutics, the biophysical bases of yoga, meditation and mind-body therapies, and the connections between the Arts and Sciences. Dr. Muehsam holds a BA in Physics from Hampshire College, and PhD in Neurophysiology from the University of Bologna, and has authored on biophysical mechanisms of EMF bioeffects, EMF therapeutics, mathematical modeling of EMF bioeffects, and complementary and alternative medicine. Dr. Muehsam is Senior Biophyscist at VID Art Science, National Institute of Biosystems and Biostructures, Italy, and is also a yoga/meditation teacher and an accomplished musician, performing on flute and saxophone since childhood.