Adapted from "Ask the Everyday Scientist" with permission of the writer.
Q. A movie and a book said that water molecules are affected by human thoughts. The movie showed water being exposed to negative human emotions and then forming strange shapes. How does that happen?
A. Despite the claims made in the cult hit "What the Bleep Do We Know?" and in the best-selling book "The Secret Life of Water," this water theory is not supported by any scientific evidence whatsoever. The tip-off comes on page 126 of the book, where writer Masaru Emoto notes that "sometimes fantasy is the best way to get a clear picture of reality." Sorry, not where science is concerned.
Emoto claims that negative or positive words, emotions, and music can influence water's form, producing either beautiful crystals or ugly shapes when freezing. "Water's reaction will differ depending on whether the heart of the observer is filled with appreciation or with anger..." he says. After that, the next step is to attribute this property to the water inside your own body, and then to all the water on the earth. The theory is that positive thoughts make a happy planet via this water-based mechanism.
Emoto starts with an accurate scientific fact: Snowflakes can take on an incredibly diverse variety of forms and crystal structures. Every snowflake has six-fold symmetry, but within that constraint the diversity is amazingly great.
Water itself is a pretty simple molecule, H2O. In liquid form, many simple molecules rattle around bumping into each other all the time. When frozen, H2O forms a regular crystal lattice of molecules locked together, for which we use the term “ice.” But there is absolutely no "vibration" or emotion from humans associated with the formation of crystals.
If, following the book’s directions, you take a very shallow layer of distilled water in a petri dish and freeze it quickly to well below 0 C, you will get irregular crystal formations, the geometry of which is subject almost entirely to the mathematics of chaos. There is no serious long-range order, just the short-range order of one crystal influencing the growth of the one next to it.
Emoto also ignores the inconvenient fact that some of the water in his experiment (such as lake water) was combined with other substances. If there are chemicals in water (either dissolved or suspended solids), a different, irregular pattern of freezing can occur. Impurities may lead to additional nucleation centers where crystal formation can begin more easily. So there will be more small crystals, starting at many different sites, and therefore less order among the adjacent crystals.
In addition, water can freeze into an amorphous state, where the beautiful order and symmetry of a single snowflake is lost in the jumble. This would undercut the essential claim that how the water freezes is determined by thoughts and words.
This author freely admits that he picked and chose particular crystals that fit his own definition of "beautiful" and even admits that isn't scientific. He then goes off into a digression about how science really isn't that sure of anything in the first place, erroneously invoking Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.
The crystals are simply random. That's all there is to it. Are they affected by "the personality and thought of the photographer"? Only in one very important way: Due to personality and thought, the photographer selects certain crystals and ignores others, from an initial collection that is totally random. As Emoto says, "the whim of the person doing the selecting certainly comes into play” and "I admit that the selection process is not strictly in accordance with the scientific method, but.."
It's always convenient to invoke science to buttress pleasant ideas. In the water case, the bottom line is “be positive and the world will be happy.” It may be true that positive thoughts help make a better planet, but it's not because those thoughts affect water.