How does feng shui work? Short answer: placebo. The secret of feng shui is the power of intention, belief, self-fulfilling prophecy and placebo.
One way of explaining how feng shui works is through the power of your intention, belief (watch Dr Bruce Lipton’s explanation below), self-fulfilling prophecy or placebo. The placebo effect has been researched more than any other healing and medical modalities and meta-studies suggest that placebo outperformance many forms of medicine. Many doctors admit to regularly prescribing placebos (a 2013 survey showed that 97% of doctors in the UK have prescribed placebos at least once; in Germany, 40-80% of doctors prescribe placebos on a regular basis). A placebo is defined as anything that appears to be medicinal but actually is not and could take any form, be it injections, surgical procedures, pills, topical creams, etc. The way that a doctor interacts with a patient taking a placebo can have a significant impact on whether or not a placebo is perceived to be working. It works even when people know that they’ve taken a placebo. For example, researchers from Harvard University and the University of Basel found out that those who knew that they were taking a placebo (called open-label placebo) believed in its healing powers as much as those who thought it was medicinal (the study was published in the Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain). This adds to a huge body of research proving the placebo’s healing powers. The opposite of placebo is nocebo which is basically a negative suggestion, belief or a false problem. So in the same way, as positive expectations can lead to positive outcomes, negative expectations or limiting beliefs can lead to undesirable outcomes.
Feng shui = intention + energy + ritual
This short story below illustrates the concept of placebo in feng shui as well as the priming effect.
The wicked feng shui master and a trusting woman
The story of the wicked feng shui master and a trusting woman shows how the placebo effect works in feng shui.
Many centuries ago, there was a feng shui master who was known for his skill but who was also easily moved to anger. One hot summer, he was commissioned to assess a burial site in the mountain far from his home. It had taken him three days to walk to the site and a day to carry out his work. After sleeping in a small mountain shelter, he had packed his compass and papers and set off for the long journey home. On the second day, he had run out of water in the overbearing heat, but as he surveyed the fields of rice ready for harvest that lay across the plain before him, there was no sign of a well.
In the distance, he saw a woman and three of children working in the fields and so he headed in their direction. The woman stopped winnowing the long stacks of rice and her three sons lay down their scythes and baskets to stare at the strange.
‘Can I ask you for a bowl of water. I am exhausted and thirsty’, said the feng shul master, ‘I cannot walk any longer unless I have some water’.
The woman crossed to a nearby tree and bent down to uncork the pitcher of water that stood there. She poured clean, cold water into a wooden bowl but before she handed it to the feng shui master she threw a small handful of chaff onto the surface of the water.
The feng shui master immediately felt anger welling up inside him and grabbed the bowl from the woman without a word of thanks. As he sipped the water, be continually had to blow the chaff to one side. He was convinced that the woman had insulted him, and as he quietly emptied the bowl of water he thought of his revenge.
‘Do you live here?’ ask the feng shul master.
‘Yes, I live with my three sons in the hut at the far end of this field. My husband died two years ago and I have three sons to care for and feed. As you can see we are poor people.’
The feng shui master slowly gazed towards the hut and at the surrounding land. ‘No wonder you have such bad fortune’, he replied. ‘I can tell you now that the feng shui of your house is unlucky. As long as you stay here you will only know misfortune, but I think I can help you. Beyond the other side of that mountain there is a plot of land and a dilapidated house and although the land needs clearing and the house repairing, the feng shui is excellent. I suggest that you move there as soon as possible.’
The woman and her sons bowed down to the feng shui master in gratitude, and without reply, he raised his bags over his shoulder and left them. In revenge for the chaff thrown on his bowl of water, he had directed them to ‘Five Ghosts Dead Place’ a site so inauspicious that the sons would be lucky to reach the age of twenty.
Five years passed before the feng shui master returned to the area to see how the family had fared. As he approached the house the mother came out to greet him and bowed before him.
‘Do you remember me?’ he asked. ‘Of course, I do. How could I forget your kindness? We followed your wise advice and you can see how my land is fruitful. Two of my sons are studying for government jobs, my third son will soon be leaving to study with a wise teacher. Please come into my house and accept I meal,’
As the feng shui master sat eating the rice and vegetables offered by the woman he looked around in amazement at the newly plastered wall and the new furniture.
‘How can this be?’ he thought to himself, ‘the site hasn’t changed, there is still bad fang shul and she has no charms to protect herself. ‘I don’t understand what has happened here’, he admitted to the woman, ‘I sent you to a site that had such bad feng shui you couldn’t possibly have survived here and yet your family is flourishing. What have you done that Heaven can bless you in this way?’
‘Why did you decide to punish me when I am innocent? What have I ever done to hurt you?’ asked the woman in surprise.
‘When I needed water, you gave me water but instead of clean water you threw a handful of chaff on the surface to spite me.’
‘Didn’t you realise?’ laughed the woman, ‘It was a hot day, you had travelled a long way, and I knew you were exhausted.” You were too thirsty that you would have swallowed the water in one go and the shock of the cold water would have been too much for you. You had to blow on the water to clear the chaff each time you look a mouthful and so you drank it more slowly. I was trying to protect you.’ The feng shui master nodded his head in recognition.
‘Now I understand. I sent you to an evil place but your action has been rewarded. Everyday Heaven and the Buddha will bless you.’
From The Elements of Feng Shui by J O’Brien with Kwok Man Ho (Element Books ISBN t -85230-220-8)
How do placebos work?
The word ‘placebo’ comes from the Latin and means ‘I shall please’. Placebos rely on the power of your belief, and they work by convincing you that they will work – and they are much more than just your wishful thinking – they have more power than you have ever imagined. In medicine, it could be anything: a pill, a nasal spray, an injection, a fake surgery or just a longer visit to your doctor. In feng shui, it’s the feng shui remedies and interventions that work like the placebo, boosting the chances of feng shui working for you. Research has shown that an elaborate ritual of visiting a doctor can have a positive, placebo effect on your health and the longer the visit, the better (the GP’s average time consultation in the UK is 9 minutes and 22 seconds) because the attention and empathy you’re receiving from your doctor will reduce anxiety and lead to healing. The shape and colour of pills will affect how you respond to them. For example, blue and white pills have the greatest painkilling effect, while red and yellow have a stimulating function. Taking two pills twice a day is obviously better than just one pill/day.
Our brains can produce their own painkilling chemicals, as studies have shown how back pain can be relieved by placebos. Placebo is real, and in the right settings, it works on our physiology and neurology, causing chemical changes in our bodies as research scans have shown the activation of the alpha brainwave pattern, endorphin effect and your own painkiller opiates. It works also on mental health issues such as anxiety, depression and even painful breakups as an emotional painkiller. Dr Jeremy Howick, an expert on placebo from the University of Oxford, suggests that the main characteristic of people who respond to placebos well is that they’re open to new experiences as well as this powerful phenomenon (read about ‘honest’ placebos below). Also, any ritual of doing something positive for yourself is reassuring and powerful in itself. Rituals are placebos with props.
Examples of the placebo effect
In one study, beginner golfers who were told that they were using professional putters were more accurate as a result. In another study, people were told that by wearing designer sunglasses, they could more easily decipher small writing. In one placebo study, the power of expectation was confirmed by a simple demonstration that drinking pure water can increase alertness and raise blood pressure if you’re told it contains caffeine. In sport, there was a placebo study on marathon runners and debilitating fatigue, known as ‘hitting the wall’. The study showed that male and female runners who were merely expecting to ‘hit the wall’ increased the likelihood. A study run by Brian Clark at Ohio University demonstrated you can improve your fitness with the power of your mind just by thinking about the exercises. And finally, just changing your environment can make you feel younger, as the 1992 study has shown when pensioners were sent to a monastery and were told to behave as if they were 22 years younger (as if principle). The place was decorated as if the year was 1959 and filled with environmental cues, premiers, and anchors from that area ie music, films, fashion, interior design features, etc. Within just five days, the pensioners’ health improved, as well as their thinking and mood.
Placebo can even work if you know there is nothing in it
Studies in so-called open-label placebo (OLPs) or honest placebo at the Berlin Medical School with Michael Schaefer, who led the study, suggest that taking pills that contain no active ingredients appear to reduce exam anxiety even if the students know that they’re taking a placebo. Ted Kaptchuk of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston in the US, who led another study on placebo, says, “People associate the ritual of taking medicine with a positive healing effect. Even if they know it’s not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed.” The message here is to have a good relationship with your feng shui consultant because that has a very powerful effect or placebo all by itself.
The most extensive brain scan research on the placebo effect to date has shown that it appears to influence the brain’s systems that handle the emotional dimensions of pain. This discovery could shed light on why inactive substances, like sugar pills, can alleviate discomfort. The study was spearheaded by a team led by Botvinik-Nezer and fellow researchers who stated, “Expectations, suggestions, and social cues can all influence the placebo effect.” and “Our findings indicate robust behavioural placebo effects that are generalisable to new outcomes.”.
How to use the placebo effect in your daily life and feng shui
- For health, develop a good relationship with your doctor because that has a very powerful placebo effect, all by itself. The longer your visit to your doctor the better. Choose a doctor who is empathic.
In feng shui, have a good relationship with your feng shui consultant.
- Trust that placebo effect will work for you. Fake it until you make it. Research into ‘honest placebos’ shows that placebo works even when people know they’re taking placebos because it works on the subconscious level. For example, in one study, 59% of patients with IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) who were told that they were receiving placebos, reported improved symptoms compared to 35% in a control group.
In feng shui, surround yourself with your feng shui interventions and remedies which will remind you and anchor their positive implicit and explicit powers.
- Belief with conviction and you’re increasing your chances it will actually work. When taking any pills, say to yourself, “This is really going to do me good and help me to heal.” Never underestimate the power of your mind.
In feng shui, say positive affirmations and imagine the desired outcome when doing feng shui. For example, when switching off your wifi for the night, say “I’m going to have a great, deep and rejuvenating sleep tonight with less electro-smog. I will wake up fully refreshed and full of energy.” You can entrain and condition yourself for success with feng shui rituals. Research supports this idea based on a Pavlov response. Remember, feng shui = intention + relationship + ritual.
Watch Dr Bruce Lipton (Biology of Belief) explaining how feng shui works, what is chi/qi and how environmental factors affect our biology and behaviour
Adee, S. (2015). Happiness, the AI way, New Scientist, doi: 10.1016/S0262-4079(15)30350-X
Bargh, J. A. (2007). Social Psychology and the Unconscious: The Automaticity of Higher Mental Processes. New York and Hove: Psychology Press.
Bargh, J. A. (2012). Priming Effects Replicate Just Fine, Thanks. In response to a ScienceNews article on priming effects in social psychology. Psychology Today. https://www.psychologytoday.com/za/blog/the-natural-unconscious/201205/priming-effects-replicate-just-fine-thanks
Bell, C. M. (1992). Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bell, C. M. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Beres, D. (2000). Pattern recognition influences religious belief, according to new study. BigThink. https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/pattern-recognition-god
Bermeitinger, C. (2016). Priming In Psychology and Mental Health: Concepts. Methodologies, Tools, and Applications, doi: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0159-6.ch003
Chandler, D. (2017). Semiotics: The Basics. London and New York: Routledge.
DeCoster, J. & Claypool, H. M. (2004). A meta-analysis of priming effects on impression formation supporting a general model of informational biases. Personality and Social Psychology Review, doi: 10.1207/S15327957PSPR0801_1
Evans, D. (2010). Placebo: Mind over Matter in Modern Medicine. London: HarperCollins.
Harari, Y. N. (2019). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. London: Vintage.
Francis, R. C. (2011). Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Gene. New York London: W. W. Norton & Co.
Frumkin, H. (Ed) (2016). Environmental Health: From Global to Local (Public Health/Environmental Health).San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Meyers-Levy, J. & Zhu, R. (2007). The Influence of Ceiling Height: The Effect of Priming on the Type of Processing That People Use. Journal of Consumer Research, doi:10.1086/519146
Shalev, I. & Bargh, J. A. (2011). Use of Priming-Based Interventions to Facilitate Psychological Health: Commentary on Kazdin and Blase. Perspect Psychological Science, doi:10.1177/1745691611416993
Sikora, J., Evans, M. & Kelley, J. (2019). Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies. Social Science Research, doi: 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.10.003
Tian, A. D., Schroeder, J., Häubl, G., Risen, J. L., Norton, M. I. & Gino, F. (2018). Enacting rituals to improve self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, doi: 10.1037/pspa0000113
Wiseman, R. (2014). The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life. New York: Simon & Schuster.