The word “frequency” ranks right up there with “quantum” and “energy” as a pseudoscientific buzzword. It is increasingly prevalent in product advertisements and in CAM claims about human biofields and energy medicine. It doesn’t mean what they think it means.

I have written about Power Balance products, the wristbands and cards that allegedly improve sports performance through frequencies embedded in a hologram. They amount to nothing but a new version of the old rabbit’s foot carried for superstition and their sales demonstrations fool people with simple musculoskeletal tricks. I addressed their ridiculous claims (including “We are a frequency”). I pointed out that

The definition of frequency is “the number of repetitions of a periodic process in a unit of time.” A frequency can’t exist in isolation. There has to be a periodic process, like a sound wave, a radio wave, a clock pendulum, or a train passing by at the rate of x boxcars per minute. The phrase “33⅓ per minute” is meaningless: you can’t have an rpm without an r. A periodic process can have a frequency, but an armadillo and a tomato can’t. Neither a periodic process nor a person can “be” a frequency.

There are a number of similar embedded frequency products with different names. I got an e-mail from a man who thought he had found the best one yet: Ancestor Bands that promised to put him in contact with his forebears and allow him to benefit from their wisdom.

The "Ancestor Band"

I thought he was pulling my leg, but he insisted he wasn’t. I asked him to wonder how they might have determined which frequencies the ancestors use. I asked him to question how he would know that any messages he got were really from his ancestors rather than from Pol Pot, from Hitler, from Jeffrey Dahmer, from an ignorant Stone Age caveman, or from some random village idiot. He said I had given him some things to think about, but he was trying to keep an open mind and really wanted to believe they worked. The website says

We are all uniquely connected to our ancestors genetically. The bands you see here will help you tap into the proper frequencies that your Ancestors transmit throughout the Cosmos. They are desperately trying to connect with you and impart their Newfound Universal knowledge of the Universe. The bands are designed to increase your mental power, physical strength, and reverse the effects of aging. Try it today, feel the difference tomorrow.

They start with the idea that all living things are interconnected and produce energy waves that we can tap into, apparently even after they have stopped living! The Ancestor Band uses “energetic therapy and informational balancing” to

directly address the energetic level using light, sound, electricity and magnetism as carriers of client- and condition-specific information… to remove tiredness, weakness, reduce pain, and eliminate stress… a group of spiritual advisors have transformed each piece into a Unique Genetic Communications link to the Past, Present, future, and beyond.

That’s about as silly a piece of gobbledygook as I have ever read. It would be impossible to test their claims because you can’t even figure out what they are claiming. For starters, I can’t begin to guess what “beyond the future” means.

Recently I’ve been getting e-mails advertising Philip Stein watches. They use “natural frequency technology” to embed frequencies in watches. This provides improved sleep. And they even have a published double blind randomized placebo controlled study that proves it. Only it doesn’t. It did not give statistically significant results, but they interpreted it as positive because 96% of subjects reported improvement on at least one variable. That is not a meaningful scientific finding. In fact, it reminds me of a clever ploy that is taught to chiropractors: instead of asking whether the patient’s back pain got better after the last spinal adjustment, they are supposed to ask “What’s better?” until the patient admits that something is better (he slept better last night, or his appetite has improved, or his ingrown toenail hasn’t been hurting as much, or whatever). Then they can say “See, the treatment is helping you.”

The frequencies they are talking about are electromagnetic frequencies, and several of these were somehow embedded in a disc in the watch. It is a metal disk that has been “infused with key frequencies.” One of the key frequencies is 7.83 Hz, the Schumann Resonant Frequency. (Actually, there are several Schumann frequencies, which are observed peaks in the Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum.)  It doesn’t make sense that they could embed electromagnetic frequencies without embedding something that produced those frequencies, with a power source. Or do they mean they are embedding something that will vibrate in resonance with those frequencies? It’s far from clear, and of course they won’t try to explain because of proprietary secrets.

They’re really proud of these watches. They charge anywhere from $1400 to $23,000 for them. Soon the company will launch a new product that, when combined with the frequencies found in Philip Stein watches, delivers even greater benefits in improved sleep. I can’t wait.

I’d love to see these products taken apart by engineers who are competent to analyze what is in them. Even if these products did contain something that generates electromagnetic frequencies or that resonates in response to certain outside frequencies, it would take a big leap of faith to imagine that process would have specific beneficial effects on health. You would first have to accept the concept of a human “bioenergy” field that can’t be measured. Then you would have to accept that the field changes in response to a specific frequency and that those field changes somehow produce a specific physiologic effect. Not only is there no plausible mechanism, but there are no studies showing evidence of benefit. It might work; but in the absence of evidence, believing it does work would require you to have such an open mind that your brain would be in grave danger of falling out.

Perhaps we should monitor the frequency of pseudoscientific claims about frequencies: it might serve to track the degree of idiocy in public misunderstanding of science.

Note: My spell checker didn’t like the word bioenergy any better than I do. (There is a legitimate use for the word, but this is not it.) The spell checker suggested I might want to substitute “beanery” or “baboonery.” I confess to being sorely tempted by the latter.

Another note: my title is a reference to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ classic 1842 article“Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions.”

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.