A Psychiatrist Examines Fears of Healing
Despite this impressive body of evidence, healing continues to be ignored by conventional medicine. Part one of a paper by Daniel J. Benor, MD.
The efficacy of spiritual (psi) healing has been reported for many centuries. It is claimed to accelerate recuperation from a wide variety of illnesses and occasionally to produce instantaneous cures.
Research evidence supports these claims. Out of 191 controlled studies of healing, 124 show significant effects -- on humans, animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, cells in vitro, enzymes and DNA. Selecting out the more rigorous studies, 25 show effects at p< .01 and another 12 at p< .02 -.05.
Despite this impressive body of evidence,healing continues to be ignored by conventional medicine, or worse, denigrated and denied to sick people who might otherwise enjoy its benefits. This paper examines some of the reasons spiritual healing has not been accepted by the Western scientists. The parallels with other psi (parapsychological) phenomena are obvious.
Spiritual healing (which I shall abbreviate as 'healing') has been recognized as an effective mode of therapy in most cultures, with recorded observations dating to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. I define healing as the intentional influence of one of more people upon one of more other living organisms, without intervention through physical or chemical means. Healing may be done through the laying-on-of-hands or through mental influence alone. It appears to be effective form a distance of a few inches to thousands of miles.
I have identified 191 controlled studies of healing, of which 124 show significant effects -- on humans, animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, cells in vitro, enzymes and DNA. Selecting out the more rigorous studies, 25 show effects at p< .01 and another 12 at p< .02 -.05 (Benor 2001a; b).
William Braud (1989) considers 149 experiments with living targets. (He includes experiments on telepathic influence over movements of humans, mammals and fish, as well as imagery projections, all of which are bio-PK but outside the category of psi haling.) He finds that "53 per cent of these 'bio-PK' studies yielded significant outcomes, as judged buy the original experimenters."
Despite these many experiments, dating back to the early 1960's, there has been little recognition according to spiritual healing as an established phenomenon -- even among parapsychologists. Healing continues to be viewed by most scientists as a 'fringe' phenomenon and most of them avoid having anything to do with it.
In part this derives from the practitioners of healing. Most healers are strong on intuitive faculties and weak on linear functions. They keep few, if any records, while making broad claims for their successes in treating any and all of the ills of man and other living things.
In part this shares a common problem of devaluation of all psi phenomena.
I am not saying that healing practice and research should not be criticized. Critical analyses of healers' unsupported claims, of research methodology in healing, and of weaknesses in theories are salutary. As James Lovelock said, "Good criticism is like bathing in an ice-cold sea. The sudden chill of immersion in what seems at first to be hostile medium soon stirs the blood and sharpens the senses."
I criticize those who reject healing out of hand. I hypothesize that many critics would cloud the evidence with any excuses to support their disbeliefs rather than examine either the phenomena or their own discomfort with them. In this paper I emphasize my area of expertise: psychotherapy, spiritual healing practice and research, leaving the reader to draw the parallels with the rest of psi research.
Fears of healing and psi
Various fears are aroused by the assertions of healers that they can perform accurate clairsentient diagnoses and that they can influence the body by touch or by intention from a distance:
1. Healing conflicts with prevalent paradigms, forcing us to re-examine our basic hypotheses about how matter, energy and mind interrelate (LeShan, 1974; 1976); similarly with psi (Tart, 1984). Healing suggests we may have to postulate new scientific paradigms which include information transfer and action at a distance without physical interventions.
Modern physics took several decades to demonstrate through experiments and mathematical formulae that rules of classical physics do not apply in the quantum physics domain -- however counter-intuitive this appears when translated in to everyday language (Benor, 1994/ 2003; Capra, 1975). Healing is currently facing a similar struggle.
2. Our material culture shrinks from non-material interventions. Western medicine has been particularly stringent in avoiding Type I research errors, fearing to accept as being valid any treatments which might possibly be mere placebos.
Modern psychology, dealing in non-material, in intrapsychic and interpersonal problems and interventions, has denigrated parapsychology lest it have greater difficulty itself in being accepted by the dominant medical establishment. Parapsychology has been uncomfortable with healing for the same reasons.
We forget a truth elucidated by Francis Bacon: "...all the perceptions both of the senses and the mind bear reference to man and not to the universe, and the human mind resembles these uneven mirrors which impart their own properties to different objects..." This was restated by Albert Einstein: "it is the theory which decides what, we can observe."
A placebo actually represents a combination of clinical suggestion and of self-healing. Viewed in this light, it is not to be avoided, but rather explored, refined and utilized to maximum benefit -- especially as it has no known dangerous effects.
3. Western materialistic beliefs exclude the possibility of healing. We are indoctrinated in our Western society, which is expert at manipulating matter, to believe that accumulation of material wealth is the primary goal and measure of personal success in life. We build elaborate safeguards around our material possessions, including our bodies. We see ourselves as existing only in the flesh and come to fear excursions outside of or potential intrusions into our bodies, be they through healing, psi, out-of-body and near-death experiences or death.
We have become separated and distanced from that which is not matter. (Even our language prejudices us, telling us that mystical and spiritual things are 'immaterial' and that things which are unimportant 'do not matter.')
Healing wakens us to the limited range of our material explanations of our world. It threatens our grasp on linear reality. Whately Carington (1946) speculated that people with a grounding in Cartesian, linear causality may fear that if psi is accepted (not having examined the evidence. and believing psi to be a magical belief) then a Pandora's box of magical explanations will he opened for all science to he attacked on irrational grounds.**
4. It is human nature to resist change. Consensual descriptions of reality provide culturally comfortable norms for relating to our material, social amid psychological worlds They provide a psychosocial constancy which saves one from frequent readjustments, but at the same time can become rigid and bind one into beliefs and manners of relating to the world which are limited, thus distancing one from reality and eventually stultifying.
Our materialistic Western world discredits the world of healing and of the spiritual -- to which healing opens experiential doors. Even many of those who might benefit physically from healing shy away from it when they sense it is starting to challenge their agnostic or religious beliefs.
Most people accept the word of authority figures rather than investigate matters themselves, it is easier to reject 'paranormal' evidence that to question accepted beliefs.
5. Cognitive dissonance is a perceived conflict between several perceptions or between perceptions and belief systems (Festinger & Bramel, 1962), which often creates discomfort in a subject experiencing perceived differences between reality 'as it ought to be' and reality as it is experienced. A person is strongly motivated (often unconsciously) to resolve such tensions. Once having made a choice between the dissonant possibilities, a person then tends further to reduce her anxiety by derogating the rejected option (Brehm, 1966)
Healing realities conflict with sensory reality. Any exposure of a person to such experiences creates cognitive dissonance, with its drive to reduce the inherent tension. The easiest path to a resolution is to reject evidence for healing. Jule Eisenbud (1983), who has studied psi and psychotherapy extensively, commented, "...Let something appeal to us and we will make sense out of it. Let something offend us, disturb us, threaten us and we'll see that it doesn't make sense."
There was another physician with me when I observed a dramatic healing for the first time. Had the other doctor not been there, I might have allowed myself to resolve my cognitive dissonance by convincing myself that I had mismeasured the lesion (which shrank drastically in only half an hour) either before or after the healing.
6. As children we work hard to differentiate between inner and outer realities and then to integrate them (Freud, 1963). In crossing these boundaries, healing revives early childhood anxieties and conflicts associated with such confusions about these boundaries. Once having established a firm foothold in sensory reality, there is commonly a fear of getting lost its the cosmic 'All' of mystical experiences and other alternative states of consciousness (ASCs).**
7. Healing/psi phenomena occur without the conscious control of the individual (Garrett, 1949). This is frightening, as our conscious minds do not trust our unconscious minds.**
8. Fears arise that others might not respect or might violate one's own physical and psychological boundaries through a misuse of healing powers. With healing there are potential telepathic, clairsentient and PK invasions of our privacy, of out very being, by another person who may do this with the express intention of changing us. Reassurance that competent, ethical healers only produce positive results may be of little avail against such fears, especially if they are unconscious.
We know from studies of non-verbal communication (Weitz, 1974) that in sensory reality people will respond to encroachment on their personal space with anxiety and withdrawal. How much stronger must this anxiety be with potential healing invasion of inner space on various levels of reality. It is far easier to deny and reject these fears than to face them (Eisenbud, 1983).
9. There is a fear of one's own potential misuse or abuse of healing powers. Being unfamiliar to us, our intuitive and healing powers may appear potentially to approach omniscience and omnipotence. What mischief of nastiness might one's angers be responsible for if they activate negative healing effects? We are aware (consciously or unconsciously) that our wishes and emotions may influence the world around us (Eisenbud, 1983). It is far easier to deny healing exists and then not have to deal with or take responsibility for one's negative feelings.
Fortunately, modern societies protect the lives (if not Always the professional rights) of those who believe in and are involved with healing. In other times, fears of looking inward were projected outward and even led to torture and murder in witch hunts -- as ways of eliminating sources of discomfort over these matters.
10. Sophisticated psychological defenses may be activated to deny healing. Michael Balint (1955) points out how researchers in healing may utilize the psychological defenses of projection and idealization in ways which are quite sophisticated -- to protect the observer/participant from psychological discomforts of dealing with unconventional phenomena.
Projection states that the uncanny power which produces parapsychological phenomena dwells not in us, everyday normal people, but in mediums, in healers, in waters, in woods and caves, or in God's unfathomable grace. We research workers must be acquitted without any question, since we are only studying the phenomena, and not producing them. Our interest in them is entirely objective and has nothing to do with our own emotions, our instinctual gratifications, our unsolved problems, or our personal involvements.
...idealization, the second defense mechanism, comes into force... The working of these two defensive mechanisms can perhaps be demonstrated in the case of religious healing as at Lourdes. By invoking unfathomable supernatural forces, i.e. God's grace, any human involvement is eo ipso excluded, and the religious or scientific research worker can get away with him 'professional hypocrisy' unchallenged. However, his guilt feelings compel him to maintain a hyperobjective attitude, demanding unrealistically strict standards...
Balint points out that unreasonably strict criteria have been required by parapsychologists for physical improvements to be accepted as true healing, including instantaneous recovery and permanence of changes.
...these criteria are grossly exaggerated, i.e. ambivalently idealized. They correspond only to very old and profound human desires, but never to reality...
Thus may researchers intellectualize their ways out of their own discomforts. By insisting, for instance, that healers perform on demand, researchers have assured themselves that they will be unlikely to encounter an event which might upset them.
It is a sad aspect of these defenses that has led parapsychology to respond to its critics' intransigent doubting with intensified efforts to prove to them that psi exists. They appear to suffer from the same anxieties and activate the same psychological defense processes as their critics. I talked not long ago with a member of the Society for Psychical Research who has patiently searched over many years for evidence of spirit phenomena which would stand up to scientific scrutiny. He recently obtained a proof which no one has been able to refute. Rather than he happy with this, he finds himself uncomfortable! My impression from nearly two decades of association with parapsychologists is that many are not comfortable with psi and actually would rather find reasons to disbelieve than believe in it.
11. Car/Jung (l967) pointed out that everyone has a personality style which is dominant on one or two or four parameters which ore paired in polar opposites. (See Figure 1.)
Figure 1. Jungian polarities
Most people who elect to study and work in academic or industrial scientific pursuits are superior in thinking and sensation functions. These are requisites for their work. This means that they will he uncomfortable with material which relates to feelings or intuitions, respectively, their inferior functions.
This can relate to haling in several ways. First, the thinking and sensation types will have difficulty grasping that which pertains to non-material interventions, and even more difficulties with spirituality, ineffability or noesis. If it cannot be spelled out clearly, measured and repeatedly and reliably reproduced, its existence for them is more than just questionable. It would demand the activation of their inferior (intuitive/feeling) functions to perceive and appreciate. It is thus hard for them to understand that such material has any validity. Second, they would not even want to invest of themselves in exploring these realms, as this would require the activation of those inferior functions with which they are uncomfortable. Third, since psi functions are present in everyone and seeping via unconscious channels into conscious awareness, they are likewise functioning in those whose superior functions are sensation and thinking. These types would then have to work extra hard (unconsciously) to repress and deny awareness of inner aspects of themselves which make them uncomfortable.
It is far easier to denigrate and reject that which a healer presents that to explore within why one is uncomfortable with it (Randi, 1987; Benor 1989).
12. Left-brain dominance may prejudice one against healing. Selective openness to or rejection of healing may be associated with right- and left-brained styles of dominance. These have been better studied and validated that the Jungian polarities. The right brain is more specialized in intuitive functions and the left in linear ones. Left-brained dominance is common in males in our society and right-brained dominance in females. In my discussions over a decade with numerous people about healing, I find that women intuitively accept healing more than men, who demand logical explanations for it.