Amethyst is a beautiful purple stone. Some people see it as a simple type of quartz that makes a lovely conversation piece for the coffee table or maybe even a paperweight.

But there are many others who believe the violet stone has healing powers. They believe it offers protective and purifying benefits, can help with sleep and ease pain and stress. Amethyst is one of many "healing crystals" — the name given to crystals and other stones in the world of alternative medicine that are believed to have health benefits.

Krista Mitchell, author of "Change Your Energy" and "Crystal Reiki" says people turn to and take comfort in crystals "because they contain and emit frequencies of the pure essence of nature. It’s like sitting by the ocean or under a tree, we benefit from nature’s energy," she tells MNN.

Mitchell, who teaches classes in crystal healing, says she uses the stones "to provide myself and others with natural energy that can help us affect holistic healing and transformation, primarily through wearing crystals, meditating or sleeping with them, and/or doing therapeutic crystal layouts on the body."

Crystals aren't going to heal a sprained ankle or cure cancer, but some people believe they can help with the stress and anxiety that comes with those pains and illnesses. Mitchell calls them "energy medicine for the spirit and the emotions."

"Doctors can help us with our physical and (to an extent) mental health, but our feelings and our souls also need healing and nurturing," she says. "Many find this when working with crystals."

The science behind crystals

crystal healing Crystals are used by some people as healing therapy. (Photo: wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock)

There have been few scientific studies on the effectiveness of crystals. Most publications point to two studies led by Christopher French, a psychologist in the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths College at the University of London.

For the more recent study, 80 psychology undergraduates between the ages of 18 and 65 (average age 22) first filled out a questionnaire about their beliefs in the paranormal. Before the experiment, half of them were primed on what they might expect — like tingling sensations or heat. Then they were asked to meditate for five minutes while holding either a real quartz crystal or a fake one made of glass that they believed was real. Afterwards, people filled out another questionnaire about any sensations they felt.

In the study, which wasn't published but was presented at several conferences, the researchers found that those who believed in the healing power of the crystals were about twice as likely to experience sensations as those who didn't. But it didn't matter if they were holding real or counterfeit stones. Also, those who had been primed to believe they would experience sensations reported stronger feelings than those who had not been primed.

"The results provide no support whatsoever for the validity of claims relating to the alleged mysterious powers of crystals," the researchers wrote. "The power of suggestion, either explicit or implicit, seems to be the not-so-mysterious power that may convince many that crystals have the potential to work miracles. The data presented are consistent with the idea that believers in the paranormal are more susceptible to this power."

"What we learned from these studies is that the power of suggestion can be so strong in some people that it can lead them to experience sensations that are generated purely by their own imaginations not by any external stimulus," French tells MNN.

"We know from other studies that when we imagine something, those parts of the brain are activated — albeit to a lesser extent — that would normally be activated by actually experiencing the same thing. So parts of the visual cortex are activated if we imagine a beautiful landscape, parts of the auditory cortex when we imagine a symphony. When people with very good imaginations imagine something — possibly as a result of suggestion — the activation may be so strong that they experience it as objectively real."

The power of the placebo effect

jewelry with crystals Crystals are popular elements of jewelry, whether people believe they heal or not. (Photo: LaineN/Shutterstock)

Psychologist Stuart Vyse, author of “Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition," believes there are a number of reasons people turn to crystals.

"Some people find traditional medicine cold and aversive and prefer a more spiritual, non-traditional therapy. In a time when many young people are seeking new spiritual outlets, and as a result, crystals and other non-traditional approaches my have an added benefit," he tells MNN.

"Also, sometimes the best traditional medical interventions do not produce complete relief, which may draw people to alternative medical approaches. More recently, there seems to be a fashion component to interest in crystals as they have been incorporated into jewelry and clothing accessories. The profit motive promotes advertising, of course, which increases visibility and sales."

Vyse says sometimes crystals seem to help people in various ways just because they expect them to.

"The most likely explanation is a placebo effect, which is made possible by the user's expectation of improvement or benefit," he says.

"In certain contexts, placebos can be very powerful. Studies estimate that over half of the improvement provided by standard anti-depressant medications is due to the placebo effect. There is an additional benefit of these drugs beyond the placebo component, but it is actually smaller in size."

For her part, crystal healer and author Mitchell doesn't downplay the power of believing.

"There's a lot we don't yet understand about placebo effect. It demonstrates our potential to effect great healing simply from belief, which I think needs to be studied much more," she says.

"That being said, there's no evidence to suggest it's placebo as opposed to being exposed to naturally occurring vibrations and frequencies. All matter in the known universe is ultimately made of energy, it's still a field of science to explore! Skeptics are entitled to their beliefs, too. I just focus on the work and the people who are seeking out what I have to share."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.

Do healing crystals work?
Many people believe in the healing benefits of crystals, but is it science or a placebo effect?