A salesman is demonstrating a new product at a sports store in the local mall. He has a customer stand with his arms extended horizontally to the sides; he presses down on an arm and the customer starts to fall over. Then he puts a bracelet on the customer and repeats the test; this time he is apparently unable to make the customer lose his balance. He has the customer turn his head as far as he can without the bracelet, and shows that he can turn his head a few degrees more after he puts on the bracelet. (Try this yourself: if you turn your head, wait a couple of seconds and try again, you will always be able to turn it further on the second trial). He similarly shows that the customer is stronger when he wears the bracelet. The customer and the onlookers are mightily impressed by the demonstration, by the salesman’s testimonials, and by the endorsements of famous athletes: they buy the bracelets to improve their athletic performance.

These so-called energy bracelets (also pendants and cards) allegedly contain a hologram embedded with frequencies that react positively with your body’s energy field to improve your balance, strength, flexibility, energy, and sports performance; and they also offer all sorts of other benefits (such as helping horses and birds and relieving menstrual cramps and headaches). The claims and the language on their websites are so blatantly pseudoscientific it’s hard to believe anyone would fall for them. Here are just a few examples from the Power Balance website:

  • We react with frequency because we are a frequency.
  • Your body’s energy field likes things that are good for it.
  • Why Holograms? We use holograms because they are composed of Mylar—a polyester film used for imprinting music, movies, pictures, and other data. Thus, it was a natural fit.
  • A primitive form of this technology was discovered when someone, somewhere along the line, picked up a rock and felt something that reacted positively with his body.

People have actually been convinced that this gobbledygook is a scientific explanation. Many sports celebrities swear by the bracelets. Millions have been sold.

Recently an account executive from a public relations/marketing communications firm contacted me about energy bracelets, asking if I would like free samples to check out for myself and if I would be interested in writing about the topic and maybe interviewing his “C-levels,” whatever those are. He represents one of at least 8 companies marketing such devices, but this company, EFX, is allegedly unique because it’s the only one that is embracing scientific studies. He says the other competing brands are avoiding any and all medical/scientific analysis, but EFX currently has “many independent studies being conducted, and is in the process of gathering funds to have an independent double-blind study implemented with seniors.” Are you impressed? They don’t have any evidence that their product works, but they are “in the process of gathering funds” to test it. After selling how many of them?

I don’t know how I got on his list, but he initially addressed me as “Ms.” rather than “Doctor” and he apparently had no idea that I had debunked (actually, ridiculed) a similar product, “Power Balance,” in an article in Skeptical Inquirer some time ago. An expanded version of that article is available online on Device Watch, a Quackwatch affiliate.I am not the only one to pick on them. Richard Saunders, the prominent Australian skeptic, has written about them and has even conducted a double blind test for Australian TV,where they failed miserably. He and Rachael Dunlop also produced their own video about applied kinesiology, explaining the simple biomechanical and psychological tricks that salesmen use to give people the false impression that the products improve their balance, strength, and flexibility. Brian Dunning has debunked energy bracelets on Skepticblog. And Time magazine recently did a story explaining that there is no science behind them but that users don’t seem to care and continue to use them as a kind of mechanized superstition.

When I wrote the Power Balance article, I pointed out that you can’t have a frequency in isolation. A frequency requires a periodic process; you can’t have “33 1/3 per minute” by itself but you can have “33 1/3 revolutions per minute.” A radio wave and a vibrating tuning fork can have a frequency: an armadillo and a tomato can’t. A person can’t “be” a frequency. I e-mailed the company and asked some simple questions like “How do you measure the frequency of a rock?” They didn’t answer.

So when I heard from the EFX account executive, I jumped at the chance to get some answers. I asked if he could ask a company representative

  1. How are the frequencies chosen? How do you determine which ones are beneficial?
  2. Why would one frequency work for different individuals? Aren’t we unique?
  3. What do they mean by frequencies, since a frequency can’t exist alone but has to refer to a number of repetitions of a periodic process per period of time. What is the periodic process that generates the frequency involved in the bracelet technology?
  4. How are frequencies embedded in a hologram? Yes, I know there are proprietary secrets, but perhaps you could provide a general answer that would give me a clue.

The proffered answers to my questions were revealing:

  1. We choose the frequencies based upon research. The electromagnetic spectrum is vast, but there are specific frequencies that have an immediate positive effect on the human body. We determine which ones are the best to use through a lot of trial and error.
  2. We are unique, and we think that no two people react exactly the same to our holograms. However, some frequencies are universal to the human body, which is why our holograms work with 95% of the people that try the product. Some have a relatively mild reaction, and with others the reaction to our holograms is profound.
  3. Yes, a frequency is the number of waves that pass a fixed point in a period of time. It is quite possible (I do it when I program) to use a frequency generating machine, modified to work for our needs to “embed” frequencies onto a hologram (that includes a metallic substance) that will hold those frequencies. You are not going to find much support for this “theory” in mainstream science. Many will say that it is “impossible.” I say that there is still much that science does not know. I have been doing this long enough to know that it does work, it is real, and I don’t worry about the people saying that the idea makes no sense. Time is on my side.
  4. Not going to give you any information about how we embed frequencies in a hologram. That is a trade secret.

The account executive was personally convinced because the headaches he used to get after 3-hour (!) cardio workouts vanished, and since he didn’t anticipate that, he can’t accept it as a placebo effect. He commented

My only estimation is that these frequency generating machines are somehow able to embed a self-sustaining frequency onto the mylar material. I haven’t had the opportunity to do in depth research on the theory personally, but from what I understand, this isn’t a theory that has much research discrediting or supporting it for that matter.

A self-sustaining frequency? In Mylar? I asked if he believed in perpetual motion. He answered

I’m not a scientist and I don’t know enough about how they “embed” the frequencies to verify how it works. All I know is that the team that I’ve met with internally at EFX are very adamant about the product, which is why they are willing to submit to the peer reviewed/double blind studies. “If this doesn’t work, we want to be proven wrong” was something the president once said to me. If he were a scam artist, I doubt very highly that he would be eager to submit his product to these tests.

I had asked if they could supply me with a bracelet that had not had the frequencies embedded, so I could use it as a placebo control to test the “active” bracelet. They couldn’t, because

We are currently engaged in independent peer reviewed double blind studies and would prefer to conclude those before sending blanks if you don’t mind.

I don’t think I need to point out what’s wrong with these answers and this type of thinking. The energy bracelet phenomenon is just one more demonstration that humans are a superstitious lot and that consumers can’t tell science from bullshit. This amounts to a high-tech version of carrying a rabbit’s foot for luck. At least the energy bracelets don’t require killing innocent bunnies: can this be considered progress of a sort?

Posted by Harriet Hall

Harriet Hall, MD also known as The SkepDoc, is a retired family physician who writes about pseudoscience and questionable medical practices. She received her BA and MD from the University of Washington, did her internship in the Air Force (the second female ever to do so),  and was the first female graduate of the Air Force family practice residency at Eglin Air Force Base. During a long career as an Air Force physician, she held various positions from flight surgeon to DBMS (Director of Base Medical Services) and did everything from delivering babies to taking the controls of a B-52. She retired with the rank of Colonel.  In 2008 she published her memoirs, Women Aren't Supposed to Fly.