Woo-woo to true-woo

There’s a dictionary definition of woo-woo. It goes like this: “Unconventional beliefs regarded as having little or no scientific basis, especially those relating to spirituality, mysticism or alternative medicine.”

While having a conversation about my intention to write a book about woo-woo topics that would present some of the evidence in support of them, a friend of mine referred to things like reiki, energy therapies, even meditation and visualisation as a “load of bollocks.” 

I asked why he thought that. There’s been plenty of research, I assured him. He said that as far as he’d heard there’s “no evidence of any of it.”

That’s an assumption that many people make but the truth is there is quite a lot of evidence.

I’ve been using the term ‘true-woo’ to describe something that routinely gets called woo-woo but where it does have a scientific basis that most people simply don’t know about.

Let me start with a few examples of woo-woo that have become more widely accepted in recent years, then I’ll share a few that also have a scientific basis but that many people just don’t believe.


I worked as an R&D scientist in the late 90s, developing drugs for cardiovascular disease and cancer. Meditation was big time woo-woo back then, certainly in most professional settings. It wasn’t to me because the practice had helped my Mum cope with post-natal (partum) depression through the 70s and 80s after my youngest of three sisters was born.

I hid the fact that I was dabbling in it from some of my colleagues out of concern that having such ‘unscientific’ beliefs and practices might damage my career prospects. 

Yet, even at that time – in the late 90s – there were many peer-reviewed scientific papers about meditation and many reporting on its health benefits: that it could help a person manage stress, for example, that it could help keep blood pressure in check, and more. There was even talk that it quite probably achieved these ends because it produced physical changes in the brain.

We now know all of these things to be true today and, further, that meditation practices can help reduce anxiety and depression. The practices induce neuroplasticity in the brain in regions related to the specific style of practice. This is where brain regions undergo some physical change, akin to how a muscle changes when you work out. 

I wrote about meditation and how different styles impact us in different ways in another blog a few weeks ago, which you can find here.

As more scientific data mounted up, meditation gradually moved from woo-woo to true-woo. It’s always been true-woo. Most people just didn’t know it.


The mind body connection has made a similar journey. I was once laughed at (in a friendly fashion) for trying visualisation to enhance my athletic ability. As I wrote in a previous blog, I was an amateur long jumper and competed during the time that I worked in pharmaceutical R&D.

Yet, there is no question that visualisation practices shape brain regions and have a physical impact on the body. Several studies show that, like meditation, visualisation induces neuroplasticity in the brain, but can also enhance strength and sports performance, and even help stroke patients more quickly recover their movement. 

In fact, at that time I was mocked, Sally Gunnell had already used visualisation practices as part of her training in the lead up to winning the 1992 Olympic gold medal in the 400 metres hurdles. She said that 70% of winning an Olympic gold medal is mental.

Another great hurdler, Ed Moses, who was unbeaten on the track for almost 10 years through the 70s and 80s, winning 109 consecutive finals, setting four world records and winning multiple Olympic and World Championship gold medals along the way, also routinely used visualisation practices.

In defence of those who mocked my attempts, they simply didn’t know about this, nor had any knowledge of the sort of research being undertaken by scientists active in the field. What they passionately believed to be woo-woo was very much true-woo. Their beliefs simply betrayed their lack of knowledge.


Reiki and other similar therapies are also dismissed as woo-woo, and much more widely so than meditation and visualisation are. Yet reiki is used all around the world and offered to some patients in several large hospitals. 

Randomised controlled trials and meta-analyses report that it is very helpful for relieving pain and for reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression, as well as improving quality of life over several different medical conditions.

Some of the bias and roots of the woo-woo label lie in a misunderstanding of how reiki is supposed to work. Detractors typically denounce it because they think supporters believe that a special magical energy flows from healer to patient. 

However, it can be better understood as how the state of the healer influences, and calms, the state of the patient.

Like meditation and visualisation, even though many believe reiki to be woo-woo, it is true-woo.


Perhaps the strongest and seemingly unshakable woo-woo label goes to psi – a collective term for things like ESP, telepathy, presentiment, prayer, distant healing intentions. Even the words themselves sound like science fiction to many people.

I read this morning about a new breakthrough in particle physics. For years we’ve understood that a proton (a particle inside an atom) is composed of three quarks: two up-quarks and one down-quark. It’s standard in physics textbooks and something I learned in my studies (My PhD is in chemistry, but I’ve been studying part-time for the past five years towards a mathematics and physics degree. I love learning new things.).

But a new breakthrough at Vrije University in the Netherlands found that protons also contain a tiny quantity of what’s known as a charm-anticharm quark pair. I won’t bore you with the details, outside of the fact that this quark supplies only about 0.5% of the proton’s momentum.

How certain are physicists, given that some textbooks may have to be updated? It’s known as a 3-sigma result. It means three standard deviations from the mean and a 99.7% confidence level. The chances of it being anything other than a charm-anticharm pair is about 1 in 300 or so.

Physicists usually think of a 3-sigma result as a sign of something pretty interesting. Most will accept it.

The discovery of the Higgs boson (the “God particle”) in 2012 was even more certain. It was a 5-sigma result, so near certainty, with odds against chance of 1 in 3.4 million.

Yet, much of the data in support of psi exceeds the 6-sigma threshold, which is odds against chance of 1 in a billion.

Yet, most people just don’t believe this. There’s a strong bias against psi in Western culture and the field is quite polarised and punctuated with too much hostility and aggression for my taste. These are attitudes which close minds and can often set science back by making it difficult for people to conduct research.

I’m all for open minded scepticism, but so long as it’s offered kindly and respectfully. Many think that all psi research is either flawed or that the researchers are charlatans. Most dismiss psi without ever reading a peer-reviewed paper on it, or at the very most by only reading an opinion piece. 

This sentiment was captured by Jessica Uts, then chairman of the American Statistical Association, in her 2016 presidential address to over 6,000 statisticians, when she said:

The data in support of precognition and possibly other related phenomena are quite strong statistically and would be widely accepted if they pertained to something more mundane. Yet, most scientists reject the possible reality of these abilities without ever looking at the data.

Part of the bias lies in the typically Western belief that consciousness is produced by neurons in the brain. Note that it is a belief, not a fact, but it is believed to be a fact by most people. In academic philosophy, the question about consciousness and where it comes from is known as the ‘hard problem of consciousness’.

In philosophy, the belief that it is produced by the brain is known as materialism. Yet, many Eastern traditions who are much more supportive of psi believe that consciousness is something fundamental to nature and exists in all things. You can read more about different beliefs about consciousness in my blog (Is consciousness inside your head or is the world inside consciousness).

In my opinion, psi is true-woo, but I think it will be a while, if at all, before it becomes more widely accepted. It will take a shake-up of how we think of consciousness in the West.

Where do we go from here?

So overall, I would say there are quite a lot of subjects that are routinely labelled as woo-woo but that really are true-woo. In my investigations while I was researching for my book, Why Woo-Woo Works, I found that most people either don’t know about the available research, or if they have heard of some of it, they just don’t believe it.

Certainly, practices like meditation and visualisation, once ridiculed, have come a long way into mainstream culture in the past two decades, helped by research studies, brain imaging, and a better understanding of the underlying mechanisms behind the placebo effect and the broader mind-body connection. 

Practices like reiki are on the way, but still have a way to go. I don’t know if some people in the current generation will ever be convinced about psi, but beliefs shift with each new generation, so who knows where things will go in the future.

At the end of the day, I started researching these things because I think there’s a lot more about this world that we don’t know than what we do. I’m very open minded and passionately curious about things and how stuff works.

There is a lot of true-woo out there. There’s also plenty of woo-woo that may, in time, become true-woo as more data becomes available, or it may not.

When it comes to true-woo or woo-woo that have potential clinical applications, I think we needn’t be so dogmatic that things always have to be one or the other, West or East, allopathic or alternative. Perhaps a good way forward is a bit of both, a fusion, a meeting somewhere in the middle that might better serve the needs of individuals.

Sometimes more of one and less of the other, depending on the situation and the person, and sometimes more of the other and less of the one, depending on the situation or person, but some kind of fusion that best serves each person.

I think we’d do well to move past our arguments about what is right or best and adopt a more open-minded and inclusive approach. I believe we would do well to seek to build bridges between different approaches and belief systems, to work together with kindness and respect in ways that best serve all of us.

Who knows where that might lead us.


  1. Elaine Quinn on August 19, 2022 at 2:10 pm

    Very interesting.
    Have you narrated any of your books into Audio Books?
    If not is this something you may consider?
    Thank you

    • David Hamilton on August 26, 2022 at 9:59 am

      Thanks Elaine. Yes, my last four books are audiobooks as well as print and e-books: The Five Side Effects of Kindness, I Heart Me: The Science of Self Love, How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body, and Why Woo-Woo Works. 🙂

  2. Rosie on August 19, 2022 at 2:28 pm

    Thank you so much. You have reminded me to practice meditation again. Why did I stop?!

    • David Hamilton on August 26, 2022 at 9:57 am

      That’s nice to hear, Rosie. I hope you enjoy being back in a regular practice. 🙂

  3. Vida Green on August 19, 2022 at 10:10 pm

    Fantastic David. When I first meet you in Sutton Coldfield many many years ago, you signed your book How your mind can chance your body. That’s where it all started for me. At 80 I’m still fit strong and I might day look 2oyrs younger. I believe in medication it has helped me through some tough times. Thank you v

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