Dr. Charles T. Tart on February 14th, 2014


Here’s a question I’m posing to some of my experimental parapsychologist colleagues.  It might stretch your imagination a little.  If a good answer turns up, I’ll post something on it.

For the last couple of years, my wife and I have been going to classes in Tai Chi Chah, a form of the Chinese art of Tai Chi, adapted to older folks who really aren’t up to balancing on one leg, but would like to get some good stretching.  At various times during the exercises, we hold the palms of our hands facing each other and see if we can feel the subtle energy of chi.  I’ve been able to do that from the beginning.  From the Tai Chi perspective, I’ve learned to detect a subtle, “non-physical” energy.

But when I was very active in hypnosis research some 50 years ago, one of our standard ways of assessing suggestibility and hypnotizability was to have a subject hold their hands in front of them, palms facing each other, and suggest they would feel a force between them.  This is not a difficult suggestion, in that most ordinary people would feel something, and often feel it quite strongly.  By wording the suggestions appropriately, you can make it an attractive force, so the hands move together, or a repulsive force, so the hands move apart, experientially “all by themselves.”

So have I been learning to detect a subtle energy, or just exercising my imagination?

When I trained in the Japanese martial art of Aikido back in the 1970s – ki is central there, Ai (Harmony), Ki (subtle energy), Do (way)-  I knew I could look at this either way, maybe a real subtle energy, maybe imagination, but the distinction didn’t seem important, because clearly the idea of flowing ki (the Japanese word for chi) as part of attacking and defending, clearly provided a unifying mental template for the many different techniques we learned, and seemed to make the techniques work more smoothly and effectively.  When I occasionally taught Aikido to new people, I would talk about chi flows, sensing them, and sometimes correct students whose techniques weren’t working right by saying things to them like “It feels like there’s a gap in your ki flow at your elbow right here.”  It helped.

What I thought about this morning (instead of further developing my ability to concentrate by just sticking with the exercises) was whether we could ever really make discriminations between several possibilities.

(1) Is there really some kind of “subtle energy” called chi or ki, which in arts like Tai Chi or Aikido people learn to sense and direct?

(1A) When, in my hypnosis research, I thought I was controlling subjects’ imagination to sense an unreal force, might I have actually been, at least sometimes, teaching them to sense ki or chi?

(2) Or, a purely physicalist perspective, assuming our current knowledge of physical energies is essentially complete, then sensing or directing ki must always be a matter of just imagination?  (No doubt it is imagination sometimes)

(3) Or might we sometimes detect effects (biological, experiential, physical) when a person feels they are sensing and manipulating ki that we cannot find a conventional physical explanation for, but we can, drawing on parapsychological findings, attribute to the parapsychological phenomenon of psychokinesis, “mere PK?”  Or to some psychic “healing energy” form of PK, as in Bernard Grad’s classic experiments on healing?

(4) Or, since it’s not at all clear to me how to do this, are some of my colleagues smart enough to figure out an experimental design or designs to clarify things here?

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7 Responses to “Chi/Ki, Imagination, or Mere PK?”

  1. Craig says:

    Dr. Tart, I used to be skeptical about chi/ki until I heard an account of a close friend of mine, a 3 Don in a traditional Japanese martial art (to protect the anonymity of her and her teacher, I will not disclose which one). Once, she asked her master, ranked a grand master, what “ki” was. He responded by putting his fist to his belt and throwing her something that she saw as a bright spark of energy fly across the room toward her face. Nothing hit her. That was his answer. She thought she was the only one to experience that energy until, after class, another student asked her, “What did Hanshi throw at you?”

    I’m no martial artist, but as someone interested in Eastern philosophy and ideas, I feel that her teacher’s answer was just about as honest and accurate an answer that he could have given her.

    • Very poetic, I like it! Not too convincing that there was something “real” being thrown, though, as our brain has evolved to predict the trajectory of thrown objects – like rocks thrown at us. Run that subsystem a little faster, as it were, a the brain could fill in an “object.” Or maybe be sensitized to see actual ki…. ;-)

  2. Dave95694 says:

    Perhaps as in the observer effect, it is one thing when observed in location (particle) or another when observed in action (wave)?

    Then, non dualisticly, it can be both imagination and real, subject and object.

    We know something is there, but the closer to a precise description, the less real it is.

    Makes using it a real zen exercise!


  3. Sky Hoorne says:

    I am far from an expert (i do practice kiko/qi gong on a regular basis), but from my understanding and intuition i regard ki/qi mostly as “active information” that flows within and without, if that makes any sense?

    The work by the late Japanese philosopher Yasuo Yuasa might interest you, as he also touches upon parapsychology:

    • You can think about ki/qi many ways, depending on what you want to do with it. When I was on the mat doing Aikido, I just accepted its “reality” as a way of helping me focus and it helped my process. If I think about it as a scientist, is it more than a useful concept, there are experiments that suggest (but a long way from proving yet) that it might have an independent reality. PK studies, e.g., and psychic healing studies – sometimes something happens….

  4. Nick Mott says:

    I´m a professional riding teacher in Germany. While my work with horses I made the experience, that horses do perceive a lot of information over their own “body-field”.
    Recognizing this, I started to get control over my own “body-field”, first of all defining, what this could be concretely.
    Over trial and error there emerged a picture of that “body-field” as a “simple” electro-magentic field (like the electro-magnetic field of your heart, which is proven by physics).
    So far, so well known.
    But with some training it is possible to “build” specific “field-patterns”, which are perceived by the horse as a clear information and induces correlating reactions and behaviour without moving yourself.
    Two things referring to martial arts:
    1. You can scan your opponent faster and more precisely with such a trained body-field.
    2. You can induce to your opponent predefined actions that you are then prepared for.
    Using Tai Chi or similar techniques you train to calibrate the dipolarity of cells like aligned magnetic particles of magnetic stuff.
    This increases the field.
    Ch´i would be to be understood then as an effect of emergence by a controlled alignment of cellular dipolarity.
    Magnetism is like that:
    There is no one without alignment, but instantly ocurring after an alignment.
    I don´t think, that a pure energy transmission through air is possible like a sparkling Tesla-Generator^^
    The energy-level of human body-cells in tuto is too low for that kind of action.
    But an induced imagination may be possible over the entangled fields of two persons.
    Any perception of energy out of this origin is presumable subconscious.
    Anyway it work´s.

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