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A Grain of Truth: Recreating Dr. Emoto’s Rice Experiment

Poppycock

Carrie Poppy

March 11, 2014

Are you a human? Do you have access to the internet? Then you may already know about Dr. Masaru Emoto, the Japanese “scientist”[1] who magically turns normal rice into gross rice, simply by yelling at it.

But for the uninitiated, Dr. Emoto gained international fame from the film What the Bleep Do We Know?!, which praised his experiments on the cellular structure of water. Maybe you remember this dramatization, in which a science docent describes Emoto’s experiments, and a creepy guy creeps up on Marlee Matlin to explain everything, just in case she’s a complete buffoon.

During his studies, Emoto separated water into one hundred petri dishes and assigned each dish a fate: good or bad. The good water was blessed or praised for being so wonderful (“Oh look at you wonderful little water droplets! One day you shall be a water slide!” I imagine him saying). The bad water was scolded (“May you become that gross grey sludge that builds up under a Zamboni,” he maybe said). Each petri dish was frozen, allegedly under similar conditions. Lo and behold, when the frozen water was viewed under a microscope, the water which had been praised and valued had rearranged itself into beautiful crystalline structures. The “bad” water was as ugly as ice crystals can get (which, to be honest, isn’t that ugly), showing a lack of symmetry and more overall jaggedness. Emoto started to get a little giddy with his findings, trying new methods like taping the words “Adolf Hitler” to a glass of water and seeing what happened (allegedly, the water was very ugly).[2]

He even had a team in Tokyo transmit their thoughts to some water across the world, to California, in a double-blinded study. According to the abstract, “crystals from the treated water were given higher scores for aesthetic appeal than those from the control water.”[3] We are all made up largely of water and, as Emoto explained, that is why this study is so important and the findings are so serious.

Except that they aren’t. As Stanford University professor Emeritus William Tiller (also featured in What the Bleep) pointed out after the film’s release,[4] it is extremely easy to manipulate the crystalline structure of water, especially by adding contaminants or tinkering with the cooling rate of the water. In Dr. Tiller’s words, “In Dr. Emoto’s experiments, [supercooling] was neither controlled nor measured, a necessary requirement to be fulfilled if one wanted to prove that it was the new factor of specific human intention that was causative.”[5] Apparently, Emoto’s experimental protocols are so lacking as to be unrepeatable, and even the most basic attempts at scientific controls are absent. Regular Skeptical Inquirer contributor Harriet Hall reviewed Emoto’s book about his experiments herself, giving it the honor of “the worst book I have ever read. It is about as scientific as Alice in Wonderland.”[6] In one portion of the book, Emoto recalls watching a priest perform incantations into a lake, causing the lake to become more and more clear. And then things get really weird:

The crystals made with water from before the incantation were distorted, and looked like the face of someone in great pain. But the crystals from water taken after the incantation were complete and grand... A few days after this experiment, an incident was reported in the press. The body of a woman was found in the lake, and when I heard about this I remembered the crystals created from the water before the prayer, and remembered how the crystals had looked like a face in agony. Perhaps through the crystals, the spirit of this woman was trying to tell us something. I would like to think that her suffering was alleviated in part by the incantation.[7]

As What the Bleep faded to memory, Emoto and his water evaporated too.[8] But recently, Emoto has made a comeback in the form of a viral video meme of people carrying out yet another Emoto water experiment, now in their own kitchens. The experiment, seen here in its original form, had Emoto pouring water over cooked rice[9] in three different beakers, then labeling one “Thank You!,” one “You’re An Idiot,” and leaving one unlabeled (the control).

Every day for one month, Emoto spoke whatever was on the bottle to the rice inside (since this is about intentionality, it doesn’t matter whether the other rice “overhear”). And after thirty days, what happened? Well, the “Thank You!” rice “began to ferment, giving off a strong, pleasant aroma.” The “You’re An Idiot” rice turned mostly black, and the control rice “began to rot,” turning a disgusting green-blue color. Well, the jig is up when your control rice rots, right? Apparently not. According to Emoto, the “ignored” rice fared the worst because negligence and indifference are the absolute worst things we can do to water, rice…and ourselves. He goes on to explain that “we should converse with children,” a piece of monumental parenting advice that is sure to forever be attributed to this rice experiment. “Indifference,” our narrator tells us, “does the greatest harm.”

Egad! All I’ve ever been doing with my rice is ignoring it! It sits in my pantry, quietly waiting for use, when I should at the very least be calling it an idiot, to stave off some rotting, and at best thanking it for its existence. But did others get the same results? Well, the internet is on it, and people are doing this experiment in their homes and featuring their results on YouTube. Some found that the results roughly replicated Emoto’s, like this couple, who didn’t use a control, and this fellow who didn’t pour water over his rice at all, causing obvious questions to arise.[10] Those who followed the experimental protocols most diligently, and ensured that all their materials were sterile, like this guy, found that all of their sterilized rice samples came out about the same, and that any mold came from bacterial contamination, either from the jars themselves, or from the top of the rice being exposed to air as it was cooling.

So I decided to try it myself. I got out three jars, and labeled two of them “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot,” and left the third blank. I was tempted to think of this third jar as a control, but since Dr. Emoto decided that controls are merely victims of neglect, I thought I would add another type of control: a fourth jar, bearing the name “Michele Bachmann.” Every day, I would read to Jar #4 a quote from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. Depending on the rice’s political affiliation, perhaps it would be inspired, or perhaps it would commit suicide.

For the rice, I chose Trader Joe’s organic brown rice (tasty; I recommend). I measured one cup of cooked rice for each jar, and added one cup of water on top of it.[11] Then, for thirty days, I talked to my food.

Day One

jars of rice on day one

Everyone looks pretty happy and healthy. No discernible difference between any of the rice family.

Day 5

The whole family is looking good (check out their new digs, with an antique 1950s bread box behind them). I got these pretty ribbons for “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot.” I thought they deserved them. As you can see, all the kids are looking pretty identical. Today, I read Baby Bachmann this nice quote from her namesake: "I find it interesting that it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out…under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter. I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence." No mold, no dark spots. I would still eat every one of my children.

jars of rice on day five

Day 10

The whole damn family is starting to seem a little too happy, you know? Suspiciously happy. It’s a little Brady Bunch in here, how clean-cut these rice kids are. I am going to have to work a little harder at yelling at “You’re An Idiot.” I scrunch up my face and point at him and yell, but he never seems to react.

jars of rice on day ten, looking unchanged

Day 15

I’m starting to regret becoming a parent. These kids just sit there like bumps on a log. Maybe I’m doing something wrong? No one’s molding, no one’s turning colors, no one smells. I try to really play favorites, too. “Thank You!” is getting kisses now and gentle caresses, and “You’re An Idiot” is screamed at like Ricky screams at Lucy after she buys a hat. And yet, nothing. Baby Bachmann is getting a workout, too. Today, she heard her namesake’s retelling of her success at the 2012 Republican presidential debates: "I was very proud of the fact that I didn't get anything wrong that I said during the course of the debates." She who shall not be named (the unlabeled rice jar) is being outright ignored like the mistake she is.

jars of rice on day fifteen, looking unchanged

Day 20

Hallelujah! Something is happening! One of my kids is finally sick. Who do you think it is? The negligence victim? The one I yell at all the time? The one who gets ambiguous political quotes seemingly written by a cartoon?

It’s “You’re An Idiot.” He’s finally showing a tiny patch of green mold on one corner of the top of his ricey body. It’s not large, maybe a centimeter across, but it’s there. My little boy has become a man. But, not to be outdone, “Thank You!” is showing a bit of battle scars. A couple of her grains have turned blackish-brown. I think she’s on her way.

jars of rice on day twenty

Day 25

God, I hate “You’re An Idiot.” Every time I talk to him, I find myself screaming at him. He’s such an idiot! Anyway, his green mold has about doubled in size, no doubt because of my screaming and not at all because the mold is exposed to air. “Thank You!” is turning a little blackish around the edges of a few of her grains, as is “Michele Bachmann.” My completely ignored child, who we’ll call “Uglo,” is actually faring the best. A single grain has turned a sort of brown-green color, but overall, her body is just as healthy as the day she was born.

jars of rice on day twenty-five

Day 30

Finally, the day has come. For thirty days, I have cheerfully thanked, “Thank You!,” angrily yelled at “You’re An Idiot,” confusingly read Bachmann quotes to “Michele” and completely ignored “Uglo.”

So, what happened?

Here’s “Uglo”:

ignored jar on day 30 compared to Emoto experiment

According to Dr. Emoto, “Uglo” should turn out the worst (rotting, in his experiment). But as you can see, our neglected rice is just fine. Apparently, you can ignore your kids completely and nothing will happen…if we’re still using rice as an experimental stand-ins for kids.

Here’s “You’re An Idiot”:

insulted jar on day 30 compared to Emoto experiment

He should be second-worst (completely black in Emoto’s experiment), due to all that negativity going his way. Well, he was the only one to mold, though the top of the rice in his jar ended up being the most exposed to air of all four samples.

Here’s “Thank You!”:

thanked jar on day 30 compared to Emoto experiment

“Thank You!” should be fermenting, turning yellow and making sweet, delicious smells. As you can see, she is anything but yellow. In fact, she seems to have lost some of her pigment during the experiment, since she and the others started out brown and are now nearly white.

As for fermenting? She’s certainly doing that, but the smell is anything but delicious. Like the others, it’s downright disgusting.

And here’s our old friend, “Michele Bachmann”:

michele jar on day 30 compared to Emoto experiment

“Michele” should be either disgusting or delicious, depending on her party affiliation and reaction to her namesake’s quotes. But as you can see, she looks nearly identical to “Thank You!” and “Uglo.”

all jars on day 30

In the end, it appears that Dr. Emoto’s assertion that intention can affect soppy rice doesn’t hold water. I can’t help but wonder if the well-meaning re-creators of this experiment on the internet didn’t help their rice along, exposing the neglected or hated rice to more air, changing the jars around to put them in different temperature or humidity conditions, or performing other tricks in an effort to support a well-intended but ultimately self-evident point: that being ignored or belittled hurts.

When all is said and done, apparently it was only Emoto’s voice that had the power to ruin water. To be fair, Moses had the same problem.


[1] Emoto’s doctorate is in Alternative Medicine, from the Open University of Mumbai. According to their website, the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.

[2] Ho, Mae-Wan, “Crystal Clear: Messages from Water.” Accessed from the Institute of Science in Society, February 2014. http://www.i-sis.org.uk/water4.php

[3] Radin, Dean, PhD. “Double-Blind Test of the Effects of Distant Intention on Water Crystal Formation.” Published by EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 2006. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1550830706003272

[4] Tiller later explained that he didn’t quite understand what What the Bleep was all about when he gave his interview.

[5] Tiller, William A. “What the BLEEP Do We Know!?: A Personal Perspective.” Vision in Action, Volume Two, 2004. Pg. 18. http://www.via-visioninaction.org/via-li/journals/What_the_Bleep_Perspectives_Vol2_No3-4.pdf

[6] Hall, Harriet. “Masaru Emoto’s Wonderful World of Water.” Originally published by Skeptical Inquirer, November/December 2007. Retrieved on RedOrbit.com, February 2014. http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/1144934/masaru_emotos_wonderful_world_of_water/

[7] Emoto, Masaru. “The Hidden Messages in Water,” Atria Books, 2004. Pg. 90-91.

[8] To his credit, he doesn’t appear to have ever marketed Emoto Blessed Water, showing either real sincerity or a lack of entrepreneurial creativity. I would like to suggest the name H2OMG.

[9] There is some disagreement over whether Emoto used dry or cooked rice, in his various versions of this experiment. The rice appears cooked in the documentary, and so I used cooked rice. Presumably this wouldn’t matter too much, as long as all samples received the same treatment.

[10] He did still cook his rice, which means it contained some additional water.

[11] Astute scientific readers will note that my two control jars have slightly different tops to the other two jars. They are right. Although I made certain that my “Thank You!” and “You’re An Idiot” jars were identical, as they are the most important to compare, I admit there could have been some slight variation in the conditions inside because of the different kinds of tops. However, they were all basically airtight and differed in size only slightly.

Carrie Poppy

Carrie Poppy's photo

Carrie Poppy is the cohost of the investigations podcast Oh No, Ross and Carrie. She regularly writes and speaks on social justice, science, spirituality, faith, and claims of the paranormal. She also performs, mostly in funny things. She only has one fully functioning elbow.