Steven Cartwright holds a PhD in molecular biology from Edinburgh University. He also trained in homeopathy at the College of Homeopathy in London and the School of Homeopathy in Devon and has practiced for over 20 years. Since 2009 he has carried out research on homeopathic medicines at the Cherwell Innovation Centre in Oxfordshire. Recently he discovered that Solvatochromic dyes display changes in their spectra in the presence of homeopathic potencies. His study can be viewed here: http://hoacuoidep.info/scientific-research/solvatochromic-dyes-detect-presence-homeopathic-potencies/
AS: Homeopathy continues to be attacked as “just placebo” by much of the medical community. This occurs in spite of massive clinical successes and some very sophisticated research. Most people, including doctors are not scientists or physicists. For this reason, I’ve long thought that homeopathy needed some graphic demonstration that remedies are different from water. In your research on Solvatochromic dyes, you seem to have provided just that. Can you tell our readers what you discovered and what it may impact?
SC: I have always felt if we could understand the physico-chemical nature of homeopathic medicines then that inevitably would lead to an understanding of how homeopathy works. The two questions “What are remedies?” and “How do remedies bring about their clinical effects”? are to me much the same question. So my research into the interaction of potencies with solvatochromic dyes could, I believe, in due course not only lead to fundamental questions about homeopathy being answered, but also to significant improvements in how we practice.
There is no question in my mind that we need to move on from the defensive position of trying to prove that homeopathy works. Anyone who has had personal experience of homeopathy knows it works, and yet at the same time critics will never be satisfied with clinical evidence in the absence of a testable hypothesis. We need to move to a position in which we are striving to understand how it works. The potential benefits from such an approach would be enormous. Not only in terms of greater confidence and consistency in practice, but also in improvements in how remedies are made and stored, for instance. In short I have never sought solely to demonstrate that remedies are different from water but to find out in what way they are different!
In terms of the research itself it appears that potencies interact with a particular class of dyes called solvatochromic dyes. Without going into the chemistry involved, it seems that the fact that these dyes have an oscillating electron in their structure is what allows them to interact with potencies. The implications of this discovery are that potencies themselves may in some way be electromagnetic in nature. This is not a new suggestion of course but to have a chemical system that demonstrates this potential allows many more searching questions to be asked than I think has been possible before.
AS: So this interaction between solvatochromic dyes and potencies is a useful testing tool but it may also hold clues to the deepest questions about homeopathy. Before we move on to those questions, let’s clarify the use of the dyes as indicators. Will the dyes allow us to tell when a remedy has been neutralized and also what environmental influences affect remedies, such as heat, (what temperature?), sunlight, electromagnetic fields, volatile substances etc.? Will we learn if glass containers hold a remedy frequency after being washed? How accessible will this test be to people doing research into homeopathy. Until now, one needed expensive electronic equipment to detect potencies.
SC: I certainly hope that the current research will allow a whole host of questions to be asked about the stability of homeopathic remedies. At the present time various agents are suspected to be deleterious to potencies but most of this information is merely hearsay or supposition. We simply do not know if magnetic and electrical fields, X-rays, volatile substances and so on affect potencies and if they do, crucially to what extent.
Let me take the example of camphor for instance. If we go back and read what Hahnemann says about camphor in his Materia Medica Pura, his actual phraseology is that camphor antidotes the action of most remedies. That is quite different from saying camphor inactivates remedies themselves. The idea that volatile substances might neutralize potencies I think comes from Phyllis Speight writing some 150 years later and somehow her view has permeated into homeopathic consciousness. I personally see no reason why camphor or any other volatile should affect remedies themselves, but only a robust method of detecting potencies will enable the issue of remedy stability to be clarified.
In many ways knowing what agents neutralize potencies is essential in carrying out detailed research in homeopathy, as cross contamination is otherwise a constant concern. One needs to know that a solution is definitely a control solution or conversely, definitely a potency solution for any results to be meaningful. In addition, knowing what agents are deleterious will provide significant clues as to the identity of potencies. So I see that one of the most important aspects of this research is to establish unequivocally how remedies can be safely stored and conversely how they can be effectively neutralized.
Of course – as you point out – there is also the intriguing issue of whether potencies remain in glass containers once all solvent has evaporated. A closely related issue to this question is what kinds of agents can act as carriers for potencies. Is it just water/ethanol or can other solvents, or indeed other substances, carry potencies? These are the kinds of questions that I hope detection systems based on the use of solvatochromic dyes will be able to answer in due course.
The current research emphasis is therefore on the continuing development of solvatochromic dye systems that are robust, reliable and simple enough to be accessible to anyone carrying out fundamental work in homeopathy. This has always been my view – that in homeopathic research we need to be able to walk before we can run. Only then can we begin to ask – and answer – the really big questions.
AS: You’ve said that understanding how homeopathy works could have implications far beyond homeopathy itself. Might it solve the mystery of why a person can resonate to the frequency of a honey bee, a windflower, or the element gold, or why each of those can trigger a specific mentality? What might those phenomena suggest about the boundries between living things and between living and non living things?
SC: These are deep questions but I will try to answer them to the best of my understanding. There is a widely held belief within the homeopathic community that remedies must be some kind of frequency and that similarity means resonance. This conclusion may be true but I think it is a premature conclusion or possibly only part of the picture.
Just to go back to Hahnemann for a moment. To my mind he was a great scientist in the true meaning of the word. He was a consummate experimentalist and an acute observer. Moreover he often wrote about his observations without offering an explanation for them. Rather than speculate he was prepared to admit he didn’t know and live with uncertainty and the unknown. For me then his observations become even more valuable because he wasn’t trying to fit observations to theories, he was presenting them as pure observations. Consequently I would accept his results as reliable and whatever hypothesis we come up with today has to accommodate them. And that is difficult because his results are full of paradoxes. However I think it was Ernest Rutherford who is quoted as saying “Ah a paradox –now we are getting somewhere!” Paradoxes mean we aren’t thinking simply enough or deeply enough. We haven’t got to the root of the issue.
I have allowed a detailed reading of Hahnemann’s writings, as well as correspondences between Hahnemann and his contemporaries to inform my research at every stage. For some reason many of his observations have escaped present day writers or their full impact hasn’t been appreciated. Let me list a few.
Dose is a function of volume. (This refers to potencies in which no molecules of starting material remain). There must be between medicine and patient.
Remedies can be given by olfaction.
Pills (and bottles) are still medicinally active even when solvent has evaporated.
Contact between medicated and un-medicated tablets results in the latter acquiring medicinal activity.
Finally I would leave you with the entry on silica in Chronic Diseases. See if you can spot what to my mind is a quite extraordinary statement of Hahnemann’s with regard to its manufacture as a remedy.
Any hypothesis as to the action of homeopathic potencies must take account of Hahnemann’s results, as well as results from modern researchers. I don’t think we are anywhere really close yet, but I do hope that research with solvatochromic dyes will take us a little closer, along with research being done by others in the physico-chemical field.
So to go back to your questions -yes I do think that understanding how homeopathy works could have implications far beyond homeopathy itself. Do I think that remedies are frequencies and that these frequencies resonate with patients who need them? In truth I don’t know, but it seems unlikely to me that frequencies will explain everything. We can definitely talk of similarities but whether similarity equates with simple resonance, I wouldn’t like to say. As for boundaries between living and non-living, I could bring in the shamanic and say ancient wisdom sees all things as alive, but does it help us to understand homeopathy?
My view is – Are we asking the right questions or are we jumping to conclusions and thereby denying ourselves the answers we seek? I think we have to keep ourselves open to all and every possibility, no matter how bizarre or counter-intuitive. And that is very uncomfortable. No-one likes to live with the unknown – but I feel we have no choice if we are ultimately going to understand one of the great mysteries of the world.
AS: Yes, some of the hypotheses are quite tempting. But as you say, we need to stay focused on what is actually known. Some years ago you visited the Shipibo tribe in the Amazon rain forest and spent time with a Shaman. How did that influence your thinking about illness and healing?
SC: I think even before visiting the Shipibo I had come to see illness as needing to be approached holistically. Homeopathy necessarily demands that we look at the whole person after all! From the early 1990’s onwards I had been involved in Shamanism and was very familiar with the idea of soul loss for instance as a primary cause of illness, so visiting the area around the Ucayali river in Peru and learning in more depth about traditional forms of healing was a natural progression for me.
The experience of living with the Shipibo, experiencing their rituals and seeing people with serious illnesses being healed by shamanic practices had a profound effect on me. Perhaps more so through listening to their world view, their cosmology- why the world is the way it is and our place in it. For the Shipibo and other traditional peoples everything is permeated by spirit and moreover, we ourselves are fundamentally spirit. So if we become ill it is because there is a sickness in our spirit and that is what needs to be treated. That to me is what holistic means. Now this may seem a far cry from work in a laboratory on solvatochromic dyes! Actually though it isn’t. Medical science may be lagging far behind but the physicists I have spoken to are beginning to embrace many of the traditional world views and see them as providing valuable insights into what reality is. One only needs to look at proposals like the Top-Down cosmology of Stephen Hawking or Complexity Theory to realise the universe is anything but the mechanical model that still predominates amongst medics and in the life sciences.
I hold that science needs unlimited open-mindedness and imagination to progress and medicine especially so. We should not dismiss anything out of hand but look at all traditional wisdom – for as many scientists are beginning to realise, there are profound truths expressed in those traditional beliefs. So for me I draw on many different strands in my research. Some are esoteric, some are shamanic, some intuitive, some straight forward chemistry. All are valuable. Science (or more strictly the scientific method) is a tool after all. Nothing more. It is not a religion. It is a tool for investigating the world, but there have always been other ways. In the end it’s what works and what gives results in the context of ever deeper understanding that matters.
QUESTION: You have said that homeopathy is not about matching symptoms, but rather about matching meaning, and that the totality of a case is its meaning. Could you elaborate?
SC: I think I talked about the meaning of illness in a paper I wrote shortly after returning from the Peruvian jungle some years ago now and my view on this hasn’t changed. I would perhaps use the word context as a more specific term now though. For me the big difference between mainstream medicine and homeopathy is their respective views of the context of an illness. Mainstream medicine essentially doesn’t see illness in context. Illness is something out there separate from us that senselessly attacks us, and in so doing makes us victims. We can see this in the language of mainstream medicine. The ‘war against cancer’, the ‘battle to secure antibiotics against new drug resistant species of bacteria’, the ‘fight against Alzheimer’s’, ‘we have eradicated smallpox’ and so on. Of course various conditions have been removed from the list of diseases that were common in previous generations. But at what cost when new diseases rise to take their place, often more insidious and more chronic than the ones we have ‘conquered’?
Homeopathy differs so fundamentally from mainstream medicine in this respect in that each and every illness is viewed in context – within the context of the person as a whole, within the family dynamic, within the wider social group and most importantly within the context of the person’s life story so far. Context means an illness is part of something larger. So we need to understand that larger picture, not push the illness away and fight it as if it had nothing to do with us, but understand why at this time and in this place we have fallen ill. This approach is empowering because it gets us to see how we have been part of a process- an illness process. Illness isn’t an event that comes at us from outside. This is the mainstream medical view and it is actually very disempowering. We are part of an illness process that may have been going on for many years and only now has come to a head. In turn we are part of the healing process. Homeopathy embraces that view and medicines are given on the basis of the context/meaning of an illness. The whole person is treated in the sense that the process that has led to their current condition is treated. To my mind this way is truly holistic and ultimately the only viable approach to illness.
Of course the earlier in the disease process this approach is used the better. Understanding how we have arrived at the illness we may now have, and starting the reverse process can take time, and crucially our involvement in the process. Sadly however we often are afraid and hand over responsibility for our current state to someone else- and mainstream medicine steps in at that point.
I think medicine is one of the most emotionally charged subjects and one of the most difficult to have an objective discussion about. I hope I have managed to answer your question and in so doing highlighted some important issues that do need to be discussed if our approach to illness is to change for the better.
AS: You found something like a Rosetta stone in the Solvatochromic dyes and there is huge potential for that. Thank you for sharing with us today, and for your important research.