For me studying the history of esotericism has revealed some creamy pearls of wisdom–that every epoch has constructivist paradigms for medicine and disease, and that prognostic impressions, orthodox treatment strategies, and protocols are informed by internalized and largely unconscious assumptions about the way the “external” world is. Thanks to seventeenth century Cartesian philosophical discourse, the laurels of orthodox medical science, what little there has been, rest on the unchallenged postulate that biological systems are divisible, reducible, and transposable.
The repercussions of such rigid convergent thinking are there for all to see. We poison pathogens with pharmacological agents; we kill neoplasms with gamma rays and radiation; we carve out necrotic tissue with surgical blades and scalpels; we replace worn or damaged ligaments and bones with artificial ones; and we hope that by driving shifts in brain chemistry patients will spontaneously “feel better” about their lives. In many ways our medical science of best practices, with its emphasis on validated efficacy through the rigorous criteria of randomized controlled trial design, is a dramatic improvement on the blindsighted trial-and-error philosophies used by medical practitioners in ages bygone, and in other ways not.
For reasons to do with sociocultural conditioning and the prevailing hegemony of the Western biomedical model, dynamic inner mental processes or the mind, if you prefer, is all too often left out of the clinical picture and not factored in when clinicians formulate their prognostic impressions. How long will it be before Naomi, a nonfunctional TBI patient with penetrating brain trauma, can reintegrate into society, clinicians ask? How long will it be before Samuel, another patient with a malignant tumor metastasizing in his body, takes a downward plunge and capitulates? What about Tanya and Jeremy, patients just diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia? How long before they forget their names? What doesn’t get factored in and should, the proverbial elephant in the room, are the personalities and temperaments themselves.
Much to the embarrassment of orthodox health practitioners, healing has and does occur in the absence of evidence-based treatments. In medical parlance the terminology most frequently used to describe it is spontaneous remission. All too often elucidations offered for the latter are ambiguous and it is left to the patient’s own intellectual understanding to make sense out of the phenomenon in question. We don’t really hear about these cases because they are retrospectively attributed to some clinical misapprehension and/or because they never make it into peer-reviewed scientific journals. Perhaps the closest anomalous healing investigation ever got to the purview of orthodox medicine was when Benjamin Franklin and the French Royal Commission initiated an official inquiry into the efficacy of Mesmer’s animal magnetism and [quite ironically] attributed its potent effects to the human imagination.
On closer inspection it seems so bizarre that Franklin and his associates should forget that the human imagination, a world of eternal feasibilities, can move mountains and seas, a sentiment which had been allegorically echoed by the great Stagirite Aristotle more than two millennia ago when he decreed, “A vivid imagination compels the whole body to obey it.” A concrete example of that adage is the placebo effect. Healing studies employing double and triple-blind protocols consistently demonstrate that participants duped into believing that they’re receiving genuine medical intervention show marked improvements in health, sometimes as much if not more than the group receiving the actual treatment. Moreover, it appears improvements may occur in either the psychological or organic domains of functioning, adding weight to the postulate that mind and body are interdependent and not mutually exclusive. In their most orthodox form as water-based sugar pills, placebos trump psychotropic drugs when it comes to coupling beneficial psychosomatic interactions with the enduring Hippocratic ethical code of ‘do no harm’; they’re efficient, energy-based, environmentally friendly, free of insidious side effects, and most importantly, they’re absolutely free. Now here’s a treatment worth all its weight in gold!
Some anomalous healings have drawn attention because they appear to violate the conventional physical and biological laws. For me an exceptional case of a teenage boy suffering from fish-skin disease, a condition whereby black warts and horny skin are omnipresent on the body, comes to mind. After successive skin grafts had failed to yield improvements to the horny skin texture, the treating physician referred him to an anesthetist, a certain Dr. Albert A. Mason in hope that hypnotherapy might help where surgery had failed. Mason had successfully cured warts and other skin conditions before, so there was no reason to believe that this specific case should be any different. After placing the young chap in a hypnotic trance, he suggested that the leathery skin on his left arm would drop off in a few days, which it did. Mason’s triumph was met with an incredulous stare by the surgeon, who had recently discovered that the boy was suffering from a rare genetic disorder called ichthyosiform erythrodermia. If the diagnosis was correct, and sources suggest it was, then any treatment method was hopeless.
How could the horny coat resembling an arachnid’s exoskeleton soften and fall off to reveal a layer of soft, pink-colored skin beneath when the oil-forming glands responsible for such were absent? It was supposed to be impossible, and yet Mason succeeded in dissipating the vast majority of grotesque body warts and improving the boy’s physical appearance. Being able to venture out in public worked wonders on the boy’s confidence and self-image, and he even scored a job as an electrician’s assistant! The hypnotic cure was nothing short of a miracle.
Published in the British Medical Journal in 1952, Mason’s results spurred a medical furor. Individuals suffering from fish-skin disease, something long decreed by traditional medicine to be both rare and lethal, suddenly found themselves grasping at the straws of a visible lifeline again. They began turning up at his doorstep, demanding that he administer treatment. At this stage Mason was shrewd enough to realize that ceding to their requests was a formidable way of maintaining professional integrity and virtue, and he swiftly set about trying to program suggestions into his patients’ minds through hypnotic induction. In retrospect this case is characterized by the fundamental alignment of intentions unfettered by internalized schemas of what is and isn’t feasible, a phenomenon most scarce in our post-post-postmodern world where scientific data is easily downloadable and accessible through electronic mediums.
Another anomalous healing case that remains deeply etched in my memory involves a young girl suffering from a tumorous growth on her back. According to Arnold Mindell, multiple surgical interventions aimed at clearing out the cancerous tissue were unsuccessful, and it seemed almost certain the girl would die. With the case relegated to the hopeless or “too challenging” basket, the treating GP saw no harm in having a clinical psychologist step in and try his hand at eliciting some kind of sanguine response in what was evidently an overly despondent and depressed child. After the therapist succeeds in gaining her trust, the child opens up with a dramatic narration of an ominous dream in which her small hands relinquish their hold on the security fence guarding her lithe body from a deathly plunge into a deep lake.
Then comes the expression of an unconscious wish; she prostrates herself on the floor, spreading her arms out to creatively simulate the act of flying. Mindell expedites her inner process by engaging in the fantasy play with appropriate dramatizations able to reduce even the most cold-hearted and detached of sentient observers to tears. Together they soar into the azure blue of the heavens, weave their way through a bulbous army of cotton-textured clouds, and take turns ascending into the highest striations of the atmosphere, close to outer space. Before long she enunciates the earnest desire to explore the greater cosmos: “I’m going away to another world, a beautiful world where there are strange planets.”
Somewhat perturbed by the implications of this symbolic admission, Mindell assures her that the decision is solely hers to make: she may choose to fly away and explore the mystical dominions of space, or she may choose to descend and re-join the other earthlings in the only world she knows. Initially she chooses the first, but subsequent cogitation of the bond she’d just forged with a paternal figure casts a serious element of doubt in her mind. Now there was a social synapse on the horizon able to tap into the levitational wonders of altruistic and unconditional love, connectivity, and security where previously there had been none, now there was a reason to survive. Mindell believes that it was this meaningful event that precipitated her convalescence.
These anecdotal cases illustrate the notion that there are nonphysical energies at work in healing; it’s something more than a blind and mechanistic biological process. Also, the average layperson is mostly ignorant of an existing body of experimental research supporting the idea that mental imagery, imagination, positive thinking, call it what you will, can alter the trajectory of a disease. Conducted in the 1980s, the first of these ambitious experiments examined the role of prayer on patients in need of coronary care and involved three hundred and ninety-three patients, a considerable number for any prospective study. One hundred and ninety-two of them were randomized into an experimenter group and the rest into a control group, with the former receiving long-distance prescriptions of prayer from affiliates of the Catholic and Protestant churches. In scrutinizing the clinical notes, it becomes apparent that there were common medical denominators linking the participants, meaning that severity levels of the ailment, its known time length, symptomology, and the prescribed medications were comparable across the cohort of participants prior to their experimental engagement.
Byrd, the experimenter, compared the two groups following the allotted set of treatments and discovered that patients in the treatment group had benefitted somewhat from the long-distance prayer. In all, the prevalence of detrimental epiphenomena like congestive heart failure, cardiac arrest, and pneumonia was lower in prayer patients (p<.03, p<.02, and p<.03 respectively) which naturally meant that they were less likely to necessitate the assistance of artificial ventilators (p<.002), antibiotics (p<.005), or diuretics (p<.05).
Later, a researcher by the name of Daniel Worth used the same rigorous protocols as Byrd in designing an experiment that would examine the tangible effect of therapeutic touch on biopsy wounding. The empirical worth of Worth’s methodology was amplified with the deliberate use of deception so that participants remained ignorant of the fundamental nature of the study, thus thwarting external variables over which the experimenter has no control as with the placebo effect. Again, the study yielded meaningful results, with the experimental group displaying a statistically verifiable increase in the rate of healing roughly eight days after being punctured (p<.001). Consequently, the majority of patients in the experimental group returned to premorbid baseline functioning much faster than those in the control group and were completely healed by the sixteen-day mark (p<.001). Worth’s significant findings seem to vouch for the idea that nonphysical mechanisms other than the placebo phenomenon play a role in anomalous healing.
A third experiment investigating the effect of distant healing on individuals with HIV infection was conducted in San Francisco, CA. To strengthen the quality of the experimental design and eradicate possible compromise by way of observer and subject-expectancy effects, the patients, doctors, and research associates were kept in the dark as to which groups each participant was assigned to. Initially all prospective volunteers underwent stringent clinical assessments involving blood and psychometric tests, enabling research staff to pair match according to vital variables like illness phase, nutrition, and general lifestyle. They were then randomly separated into experimental and control groups, with the former receiving a well-rounded prescription of distance healing and clinical care. In contrast the controls only received conventional medical care, as is the norm in the industrialized West.
The experimental trials lasted ten weeks. When the progress of the two groups was amalgamated into a blind medical chart, it became apparent that AIDS-related conditions, ailment severity, the frequency of required medical attention, the frequency and number of hospitalizations, and the experience of undesirable emotions were all statistically lower in the experimenter group (p=0.04, p=0.03, p=0.01, p=0.04, p=0.04, and p=0.02).
What is there to make of all these “rogue” anecdotes and controlled experiments? How do these fit into the reductionistic biomedical agenda? Clearly, they don’t, which is why they’ve been overlooked, often denounced as fraudulent, and excluded from scientific debates revolving around evidence-based medicine. Do they relinquish clues and puzzle pieces pertaining to the ineffable teleological processes underlying Nature of which healing is a dynamic part? Probably. The phenomenal experience of meaning-making, of having something to live for, is clearly a crucial factor in healing. On the other hand, sociohistorical appraisals made by the collective prerogative of what adversity can and what adversity cannot be overcome trickle down to the ailing individual, and have either devastating or auspicious consequences.
Whether it be person, microculture, or global community, the whole has, is, and will always be greater than the sum of its parts.