Among the oldest formations on Earth, some believe crystals have power to heal ailments and improve moods. But mainstream medical practitioners are not completely sold on the healing powers of what are little more than organic geologic formations.

Still, even medical professionals admit that a so-called placebo effect, the phenomenon in which someone experiences a benefit after the administration of an inactive substance, may exist.

In 2001, University of London psychologist Christopher French conducted a study in which he gave 80 volunteers booklets that explained the feelings they might experience while holding certain crystals. He then gave 40 of the volunteers genuine crystals and the other 40 cheap plastic imitation crystals.

The result? French found that the volunteers holding the fake crystals were just as likely to respond to perceived physical sensations as the ones holding the real thing.

French concluded it was the power of suggestion, not flowing energy, that created the effect.

But others aren’t so quick to dismiss the powers of crystals.

Practitioners of crystal healing like Heather Nichols of Stones and Stuff are accustomed to the doubts of medical doctors and other health professions. She maintains that the energy of the crystals works with the energy in the body to soothe, heal, improve, treat or adjust whatever the person needs.

“Our bodies are made of chemical compounds and [our bodies] need the different compounds within the crystals,” Nichols said. “For me, it’s both science and emotion and I use both.”

What are crystals?

Tourmaline Credit: Jeff Scovil / BDN

Crystals are a solid material made up of compounds organized into a highly ordered structure. A solid crystal’s components can include atoms, molecules or ions. In nature, crystals often form when superheated liquid rock, like magma, cools and then begins to harden.

In Maine, the most recognizable crystal is the tourmaline, a compound of boron silicate with elements of iron, magnesium, sodium and potassium. It is considered a semi-precious gemstone that comes in a variety of colors including black, green, blue, pink, yellow, purple orange and grey.

Tourmaline was first discovered in Maine in 1820 in Paris. In 1971, it was designated the Maine State Gemstone.

“Tourmaline is good for so many things,” Nichols said. “It has a high content of lithium which is good for the brain [and] it has this electromagnetic energy so you can actually feel it pulsate in your hands — it is definitely Maine’s treasure.”

There are active tourmaline mines in Maine today in Oxford and Androscoggin counties, according to Dr. Al Falster, mineralogist and research technologist at the newly opened Maine Mineral and Gem Museum.

Tourmalines are associated with metamorphic rock and granite pegmatites — underground formations that hold interlocking crystals. These formations are easily spotted and identified, Falster said, as natural outcroppings scoured clean by glacial activity or more recently exposed by commercial blasting.

Quartz is another crystal used in healing and is one that is found abundantly in Maine, according to Falster. In 2017, a large cavity containing quartz was discovered in Oxford County. Measuring 80-feet across, it took three years to completely mine it out. According to Falster, western Maine is a bit of a hotspot when it comes to crystals and gemstones.

The placebo effect

Beryl, variety aquamarine. Credit: Mark Mauthner / BDN

Ted Kaptchuk is the director of Harvard Medical School’s program in placebo studies and he sees real value in their use.

According to Kaptchuk, the placebo effect is often wrongly assumed to be “all in your head” and a fake response to an inert substance. But he points out brain imaging studies have shown when patients are treated with placebo it can activate very specific regions in the brain and trigger the release of feel-good hormones like endorphins, dopamine and natural painkillers.

According to Dr. Stuart Vyse, an American psychologist specializing in belief in superstitions and critical thinking, when it comes to crystal healing, the placebo effect is often augmented by the mere act of a person doing something to take control of their destiny which can boost hope, brighten moods and improve the ability to cope with a chronic condition.

“There is no scientific evidence to support the medical effectiveness of any of [crystal] remedies,” according to Vyse. “But there is the possibility that they might have an indirect psychological benefit.”

Amanda Sohns, co-owner of the Rock and Art Shop, said that while she is not an expert on the healing powers of crystals, she hears from many people who come into her store that crystals have helped them.

“I really don’t have enough data to say definitively what they can or can’t do,” she said. “But [there are] a lot of people who say crystals help them.”

There are also a lot of people who, when they first walk into her shop, comment on the positive energy and warmth they feel right away, she says.

“Is that because of the crystals or because we have done a good job in placing items so they make people happy to look at?” Sohns said. “I really don’t know.”

How it works

Topaz Credit: Mark Mauthner / BDN

At its simplest level, those who subscribe to crystal healing say that placing crystals or gemstones of various types on the body will draw out negative energy and promote physical, emotional or spiritual wellness.

But there’s a lot more to it than that, according to Nichols, who over the years has developed her own method of healing that combines crystals and chakras.

“When I see a client I feel out where the person is depleted and what they need,” Nichols said. “Then I place the appropriate crystal on the body to repair or replace those needs.”

For example, if a person is showing signs of being anemic or having an iron deficiency, Nichols will use crystals with high percentages of iron compounds like tourmaline, hematite or rhodonite.

Just like pharmaceutical medicines, the same crystal can produce two different responses in two different people.

“A lot of it does depend on how open you are to the process,” Nichols said. “For example, some crystals with a high content of lead will bring relief to some people while it brings feelings of disgust to others.”

According to Nichols, the energy of the crystals is absorbed into the body via the chakras and those connecting channels much like a topical ointment is absorbed through the skin.

Obtaining your own Maine crystals

Tourmaline Credit: Jeff Scovil / BDN

There are two ways to get your hands on crystals in Maine. You can go prospecting among likely rock formations, or you can walk into shops like Sohns’.

“There are many, many more crystals besides tourmaline that grow in Maine,” Falster said. “Some are very beautiful and common like aquamarine [and] anytime you see exposed granite pegmatites, you should go look for the open spaces where [crystals] can form.”

As for their healing properties?

“I don’t have enough experience or knowledge to say if it works or not,” Falster said.

The Maine Mineral and Gem Museum also has hundreds of crystals on display.

At The Rock and Art Shop, Sohns said they have something for just about every crystal customer, from those looking for healing crystals to those who just want something pretty to look at or that want something that feels good when held in the hands.

“Individuals make friends with certain crystals,” she said. “People will sometimes burst into tears when they walk up to the crystals and they don’t know why, [but] it’s just a specific crystal amplifying their energy.”

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.