‘Healing’ crystals are having a pandemic moment, but science says they’re just pretty rocks

When my friend, a massage therapist, learned I was pregnant last winter, he gifted me a stunning large, clear piece of quartz he had bought during a recent crystal-foraging trip to Brazil. I welcomed the gift and the positive protective energy my friend said he could feel with his hands. I even placed it on the dinner table the night of my induction. It couldn’t hurt, could it?

Although the market for diamonds has seen a decline during the pandemic, “near-gemstones” (crystals and minerals) have maintained their appeal among consumers, making it a $1 billion business. Even classy art giants Sotheby’s and Christie’s have joined the mom-and-pop incense-burning shops in selling crystals. Katy Perry claims her rose quartz helps her attract men, and Adele swears crystals decrease her anxiety onstage. According to trends on Google, there has seen a steady climb in searches for “crystal healing” in the past year, including “crystal healing shops near me.”

Purchasing crystal merchandise is not just a basic shopping trip anymore; it’s an experience. You can sign up for a crystal-mining adventure at Sweet Surrender Crystals in Arkansas, or attend a crystal altar offering to Mother Earth (Pachamama) led by a shaman at the Sumaq hotel before ascending to Machu Picchu. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand, Goop, offers a “medicine bag” complete with crystals to encourage clarity, creativity and emotional strength. Perhaps you prefer your water with youth-energizing crystals: VitaJuwel’s Forever Young Gem-Water bottles have you covered.

Crystals through history

For centuries, these enigmatic rocks have captivated artists, writers, healers and religious leaders, many of whom believed the crystals contained a certain concentration of the earth’s energy. Egyptians sometimes carved crystal sarcophagi to protect the body from evil spirits on their way to the afterlife. The word “crystal” comes from the Greek “krystallos,” meaning ice. Crystal divination was described by Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and naturalist, in the 1st century A.D.

Physical healing powers?

Science does not back the idea that crystals have special powers. “I am not aware of any (National Science Foundation)-supported studies into the healing powers of crystals,” Peter Heaney, a mineral sciences professor at Pennsylvania State University, said via email. “Such a proposal would frankly never survive peer review, because there is not any theoretical reason to expect crystals to have healing powers.”

Heaney recounted a story from his days as a graduate student, when his adviser was asked whether crystals have energy. “It is a tricky question,” Heaney wrote, “because the answer is ‘yes’ with respect to Einstein’s mass-energy equivalence (e=mc^2) or with respect to thermodynamic conceptions of free energy in crystals. But as my advisor noted, crystal healing posits that there is an energy transfer between crystals and people … and there is simply no scientific foundation for those assertions.”

Mineralogist Jeff Post, the Smithsonian Institution’s curator-in-charge of gems and minerals, said in an email: “The simple fact is that there is no scientific basis for any kind of crystal healing. No doubt, beautiful crystals can bring joy and some happiness just by looking at them, like looking at beautiful art or beautiful flowers, but I think that is the extent of their power.”

Stuart Vyse, a behavioral scientist and author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition,” said “there is no evidence that there’s a mechanism by which (crystals) could heal that’s understood by science. It doesn’t make logical sense from a scientific viewpoint.” He attributes the uptick in crystal interest to a desire to believe that crystals have some special power.

But believing in the healing benefits of crystals can be harmful to your health — and your wallet — if, for example, you depend on them to cure you of cancer instead of seeing a physician, or if you choose to carry a clear quartz crystal, known as the master healing stone, rather than wearing a mask to protect yourself and others from the coronavirus.

Although crystals can help people focus spiritually, experts attribute any “healing” to the placebo effect. (Getty Images)

Although crystals can help people focus spiritually, experts attribute any “healing” to the placebo effect. (Getty Images)

The placebo effect

Many psychologists attribute perceived crystal healing to the placebo effect, according to Thomas Plante, professor of psychology and religious studies at Santa Clara University and adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.

Your belief in anything you think might help you — whether it be crystals, herbal supplements or experimental medical treatment — may do so, even if there’s no active ingredient involved. “When these beliefs are supported by friends and family or various social media blogs, they become more powerful,” Plante said.

“It’s hard to argue against people who believe in the psychological effects of crystals,” said Zhuo Job Chen, a professor who specializes in the psychology of religion and spirituality at Clemson University. “Those are genuine experiences we have to respect.” His research looks at how people around the world use spirituality to enhance their well-being. “We have to separate the difference between the stone’s symbolism and the material,” Chen said.

So people who wear a necklace strung with tourmaline stones to decrease anxiety might feel a sense of peace, not because the stone itself is physically endowed with power, but because they believe in the stone’s meaning. In a similar example, rosary beads facilitate prayer, but people don’t necessarily believe the stones themselves have power, Chen said.

Role in spiritual development

Like rosary beads, crystals can help cultivate personal spiritual development. During an era in which our brains are burned out by digital distractions, having something to hold can help you focus during meditation, said Marisa Galvez, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford University studying the use of crystals in medieval poetry.

“A crystal combines the earthly with the spiritual. It helps you reflect on yourself and your place in the world while also helping you transcend the world,” Galvez said. “This found object refracts light, which lends itself to reflection. Its brightness and weight endow it with a presence, but its transparency allows it to disappear.” This paradox is part of crystal fascination, Galvez said. “It belongs to the common earth, but also can be personalized depending on how you interact with it.”

Crystal community

At the same time that you might be cultivating your individual spirituality with crystals, you can join a greater community of those who believe in the healing powers of the earth. “The social connections that people create and maintain through these associations may be far more important than the beliefs themselves,” said Phil Stevens, an anthropology professor at the University of Buffalo. Based on his research on New Age thinkers, Stevens argues that people persist in these scientifically unfounded beliefs largely because of their social associations: “People are clinging to whatever will connect them to other people.”

Research shows that people who believe in paranormal phenomena, including crystals, demonstrate a higher level of patternicity: a tendency to detect patterns in randomness. This can be a boon or a curse, Chen said. Studies show these individuals are better at word associations and facial recognition, but they’re also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories or see ghosts.

Crystals and COVID

The Terror Management Theory says that when individuals are confronted with the threat of mortality, they develop new ways to cope, and for some Americans, that way may be by turning to crystals.

“During times of uncertainty, people seek clues that will give them a sense of being, seeking ways to create coherence and make meaning out of the world — transcend the person to something greater. Crystals can be a source for some,” Chen said.

People’s fears, anxiety and depression are “through the roof,” Plante said. “We are talking about a mental health tsunami. People want to be consoled. They are clutching whatever brings them solace.” This is especially true of those unaffiliated with religion, he said, a number that is growing in the United States. “Religions tell you what to do, and people don’t like that, especially Americans,” Plante said. “Those who don’t come from religious traditions are more susceptible to unregulated things like crystals or tarot cards, because you can do with them as you wish.”

The pandemic also is forcing people to reinvent themselves, and as they do so, they also may be changing what provides them solace. Some people might find pandemic comfort in turning to swirling agate for rebalancing, for example.

And, finally, while our suitcases gather dust, crystals allow us to travel. Galvez describes crystals as a “passport” to a higher spiritual plane. “They give you permission to go somewhere else,” she said. “And if people can be more meditative or develop a spiritual practice, that’s a good thing.”

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