Action Potentials and Energy Lines; Science and Qi

Much of Complementary and Alternative Medicine is based on the concept of energy lines or meridians that flow through your body. So far, there is no physiological explanation as to the source of this energy nor is there an explanation for how this energy is transmitted. This energy does not flow along the understood connections such as the arterial or venous systems, nerves or muscles. It flows along indefinable meridians that have been arbitrarily determined by pre-scientific concepts.

The measurable electrical energy that does flow through the body is driven by the movement of ions through cell walls, most noticeably those of the nervous system. To keep things simple, here are some excerpts from entry on Understanding the Transmission of Nerve Impulses

Nerve impulses have a domino effect. Each neuron receives an impulse and must pass it on to the next neuron and make sure the correct impulse continues on its path. Through a chain of chemical events, the dendrites (part of a neuron) pick up an impulse that’s shuttled through the axon and transmitted to the next neuron. The entire impulse passes through a neuron in about seven milliseconds — faster than a lightning strike. Here’s what happens in just six easy steps:

  1. Polarization of the neuron’s membrane: Sodium is on the outside, and potassium is on the inside. Cell membranes surround neurons just as any other cell in the body has a membrane. When a neuron is not stimulated — it’s just sitting with no impulse to carry or transmit — its membrane is polarized. Not paralyzed. Polarized. Being polarized means that the electrical charge on the outside of the membrane is positive while the electrical charge on the inside of the membrane is negative. The outside of the cell contains excess sodium ions (Na+); the inside of the cell contains excess potassium ions (K+).
  2. Resting potential gives the neuron a break. When the neuron is inactive and polarized, it’s said to be at its resting potential. It remains this way until a stimulus comes along.
  3. Action potential: Sodium ions move inside the membrane. When a stimulus reaches a resting neuron, the gated ion channels on the resting neuron’s membrane open suddenly and allow the Na+ that was on the outside of the membrane to go rushing into the cell. As this happens, the neuron goes from being polarized to being depolarized. Each neuron has a threshold level — the point at which there’s no holding back. After the stimulus goes above the threshold level, more gated ion channels open and allow more Na+ inside the cell. This causes complete depolarization of the neuron and an action potential is created. In this state, the neuron continues to open Na+ channels all along the membrane.
  4. Repolarization: Potassium ions move outside, and sodium ions stay inside the membrane. After the inside of the cell becomes flooded with Na+, the gated ion channels on the inside of the membrane open to allow the K+ to move to the outside of the membrane. With K+ moving to the outside, the membrane’s repolarization restores electrical balance, although it’s opposite of the initial polarized membrane that had Na+ on the outside and K+ on the inside. Just after the K+ gates open, the Na+ gates close; otherwise, the membrane couldn’t repolarize.
  5. Hyperpolarization: More potassium ions are on the outside than there are sodium ions on the inside. When the K+ gates finally close, the neuron has slightly more K+ on the outside than it has Na+ on the inside. This causes the membrane potential to drop slightly lower than the resting potential, and the membrane is said to be hyperpolarized because it has a greater potential. (Because the membrane’s potential is lower, it has more room to “grow.”). This period doesn’t last long, though (well, none of these steps take long!). After the impulse has travelled through the neuron, the action potential is over, and the cell membrane returns to normal (that is, the resting potential).
  6. Refractory period puts everything back to normal: Potassium returns inside, sodium returns outside. The refractory period is when the Na+ and K+ are returned to their original sides: Na+ on the outside and K+ on the inside.

Transmission of a nerve impulse: Resting potential and action potential. Illustration from

There is much more to it than that, and a much more detailed description of the Human Nervous System can be found here. It is important to note that these action potentials are measurable using voltage meters and other tools. Basic description of the anatomy, function, and actions of these interactions have been described and refined since explained at the time of Leonardo da Vinci.

Let’s turn our attention to the energy lines used in CAM. The lines are meridians and the energy is qi or chi or some variation of these words. There are any number of places around the web where you can find descriptions of meridians. I just picked one that showed up near the top in a search: The Meridian System: Channels of Awareness.

What Are Meridians?
Like a network of rivers nourishing a landscape, the meridians are the channels through which qi flows, to nourish and energize the human body. These channels exist within the subtle body – you won’t find them on the operating table! Collectively, they form the matrix within which the physical body functions. They also act as a network of communication between the physical and the more subtle energetic bodies.
Where and How Many?
There are twelve main meridians in the body, each associated with a particular element and organ system. The meridians are typically listed in Yin/Yang pairs:

  • Lung (arm-yin) and Large Intestine (arm-yang) = Metal Element
  • Stomach (leg-yang) and Spleen (leg-yin) = Earth Element
  • Heart (arm-yin) and Small Intestine (arm-yang) = Fire Element
  • Bladder (leg-yang) and Kidney (leg-yin) = Water Element
  • Pericardium (arm-yin) and Triple-Warmer (arm-yang) = Fire Element (again!)
  • Gallbladder (leg-yang) and Liver (leg-yin) = Wood Element

The arm-yin meridians flow from the torso along the inner edge of the arms to the fingers. The arm-yang meridians flow from the fingers along the outer edge of the arms to the head. The leg-yang meridians flow from the head down the torso and along the outer edge or back of the legs to the toes. The leg-yin meridians flow from the toes along the inner edge of the legs to the torso. The qi in a given meridian is strongest during a specific two-hour interval of the twenty-four hour day. The way qi travels in this cycle through the meridians is referred to as the “Meridian Clock.” When this flow is balanced and harmonious, we experience physical and emotional well-being. When the flow is blocked, erratic or deplete, we experience physical or emotional dis-ease. Qigong and acupuncture are practices which help us to maintain a healthy flow of qi through the meridian system.

Along with the twelve main meridians, there are what are called the Eight Extraordinary Meridians: the Du, the Ren, the Dai, the Chong, the Yin Chiao, the Yang Chiao, the Yin Wei, and the Yang Wei Meridians. The Eight Extraordinary Meridians are the first to form in utero. They represent a deeper level of energetic structuring, and play an important role within the practice of Inner Alchemy.

Another description at HPS-online describes human energy flow in relation to the universal energy.

The planet earth- including the successive layers of core, mantle, crust, oceans, atmosphere, and radiation belts- is produced by interactions of the motions of contraction and expansion, which our ancestors called Heaven’s force and Earth’s force.

The human structure is generated by the same energies, and shares many similarities with the earth. For instance, Heaven’s and Earth’s forces create the primary channel in the human body just as they generate the intensely charged line that runs through the center of the planet- the earth’s primary channel. Humans have seven energy centers, called chakras, which correlate to the planet’s single energy center, the magnetic core.

From the chakras, Chee (energy) circulates to all areas of the body, charging each of its billions of cells. These currents of energy are called meridians in Chinese medicine. If we use the image of a swiftly flowing river to portray the primary channel, the chakras can be likened to whirlpools arising within this powerful current.

The meridians are tributaries of this river. Branching off from the primary channel, they divide and sub divide into increasingly smaller streams which finally join with the cells.

In this way, each cell is continually supplied with energy via the meridians, which in turn receive energy from the chakras, the primary channel and ultimately from the universe itself in the form of Heaven’s and Earth’s forces.

The meridians are often described as channels along which Chee flow, but this is somewhat misleading. Actually, there are no channels that direct or confine the flow of Chee. Think instead of streams of energy flowing actively from one of the centrally located chakras out to the body’s periphery and then back again to one of chakras. The meridians are these energy currents rather than any particular tubes of vessels that carry Chee.

This mechanism parallels the activity of the earth’s streams and rivers. It is not the river banks that determine the course of a river. Rather, it is the amount of water and the rate of flow that produce the banks. If and when these two factors change, new embankments are formed.

On the earth, the discharge of energy from lines comparable to the body’s meridians creates mountain ranges like the Andes, the Rockies, the Himalayas, and the great mountain ranges rising form the floor of the oceans. Divisions of these energy streams branch out across the planet.

Notice the difference. Unlike the description of action potentials, these latter descriptions are not based upon any known physical, chemical, or biological processes; they are not observable, measurable or predictable. Why? Because anatomical studies are performed on the dead.

The traditional Chinese view of human physiology differs significantly from the Western view in that the Chinese have always focused attention on the function rather than the form of the vital organs. The Western medical practice of studying human physiology based upon anatomical locations of various organs as revealed in dissected cadavers makes no sense to Chinese physicians, because cadavers have no living energy and their organs are not functional. How can a dead body reveal anything significant about the dynamics of living energy? Furthermore, in addition to their biological functions and anatomical locations, the Chinese concept of ‘organs’ also includes the specific type of energy that infuses each organ, as well as the energy meridians that channel organ energies to and from other parts of the body.

There are some people who try to retrofit these concepts into modern science such as Roger Gilchrist at the Wellness Institute.

Essentially, living beings are polarized energy systems. The basic energy dynamic repeats itself at an infinite number of levels. This dynamic, which consists of a positive, expressive pole; a negative, receptive pole; and a neutral, integrating aspect, is essential to all of the energy-based medical systems. While this energy dynamic is described throughout the non-Western medical texts (some of which are among the oldest literature of the world, dating back 5,000-6,000 years), modern research has validated the action of charged energy systems as the primary mechanism in many life functions (Becker & Seldon, 1985). Consider, for example, the electro-magnetic attraction of the sperm to the egg, the very beginning of a new generation of life. Other examples include oxygen transport in the bloodstream, the polarized helix of DNA, cellular metabolism, nutrient absorption, the electro-chemical action of neurons, and dipole functioning of the brain. Essentially, electromagnetism is the foundation of life.

Dr. Stone’s Polarity Therapy also includes insight into quantum physics and the relationship with life energy. One characteristic in non-Western medical systems is their description of five elements, or quantum levels of reality. Polarity Therapy follows Ayurvedic medicine in naming these levels Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether. These are archetypal labels for the quality of different phases (quantums) of energy. Notice the correspondence to the states of matter described by physics: solids, liquids, gases, and plasma. Ether, then, is the ground of being, or space, in which the other elements have their existence. Is it any surprise that physicists have begun calling the ineffible realm to which subatomic particles/waveforms disappear and from which they return “ether”? It would seem the ancients of other cultures had a profound insight into the nature of reality just beginning to be understood by empirical science!

This is as accurate as claiming that the bronze age middle eastern men had an intuitive understanding of the theories of the Big Bang and evolution when they wrote Genesis. It only works with an extreme stretching of the old writings and a severe bending of the new sciences. The use of the word ‘quantum’ is not in line with the concepts used in explaining modern quantum physics, the association is only used to put scientific sounding jargon in the mouths of believers.

There are no physiological explanations for chakras, qi energy, or meridian lines. No possible way to measure the force, location, or directionality of this imaginary energy. Explanations amount to hand waving and claims that we know it’s there, but we can’t measure it or find it yet—like the Higgs Boson was for so long. The difference of course, is that things like the Higgs, muons, quarks, and even electrons and protons were proven mathematically before experiments could be designed to find and measure them. No one, to my knowledge anyway, has ever put forward any basis in physics, chemistry, or math to advance a theory that encompasses qi as an essential force in the universe.

Work on that, and we’ll talk later.

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