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Psychic (Distant) Healing
Mario Varvoglis, Ph.D.

 
 
News item: 7 June 2000:
A paper released on June 6, 2000 in the Annals of Internal Medicine entitled 'The Efficacy of "Distant Healing': A Systematic Review of Randomized Trials" concluded:
"The methodologic limitations of several studies make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions about the efficacy of distant healing. However, given that approximately 57% of trials showed a positive treatment effect, the evidence thus far merits further study."
 

Over the centuries, miraculous recoveries from illnesses have been associated with the work of God, saints, healers, shamans, witch doctors, and power spots. Depending on the circumstances, we describe these different forms of recovery with terms like psychic healing, spiritual healing, faith healing, laying-on-of-hands, etc. What's common to all these phenomena is that a person has recovered from illness or injury without the use of any known curative agents - whether physical or psychological. But the question I'd like to address here is whether such healing really involves some paranormal element -- like some 'cosmic energy,' or a form of psychokinesis -- or whether, appearances notwithstanding, it can be attributed to more mundane factors.

The issue is very complex, actually, because people sometimes do recover even from extreme illnesses, apparently without any intervention whatsoever -- whether medical, psychological, or psychic; in medical vernacular, this is called 'spontaneous remission.' Beyond this, we also know that people have an enormous self-healing potential, given the right conditions. It's been known for some time now that many illnesses are at least partly caused by psychological and mental issues. More recently, medical science has come to also recognize that the mind can have a very beneficial influence on the body, as well. For example, many studies show that people who are hypnotized and given the right suggestions can rid themselves of warts, or resist skin poisoning when touched by plants like poison ivy, or even undergo dental operations and surgery without anesthesia.

Even in the absence of hypnosis or mental training, people can heal themselves of a specific ailment, simply because they believe that they will be cured by a drug. The well-known placebo is an inert chemical substance, like a sugar pill, which is typically prescribed by a physician as if it were a "real" medication, along with the standard reassurances that it will cure the illness or alleviate symptoms. Controlled studies examining the effects of this "white lie" are truly incredible.

In one review of the relevant literature, it was found that placebos gave substantial relief to diabetics, peptic ulcer, rheumatoid arthritis, Parkinson's disease, radiation-sickness, and other serious health problems. [The clinical study of the effectiveness of minoxidil, the drug that is used to regrow hair in balding men and women, showed the surprising result that 11% of the patients in the placebo condition regrew new hair!]

People will even develop some of the adverse side-effects associated with the 'real' medication (e.g., headaches, nausea, insomnia, constipation, etc.)! Given that there is no active substance in the placebo, this research shows that the cures and symptom alleviation are triggered by the patient's own mind -- even though the person is completely unaware of it.

If the unconscious mind can accomplish such feats of self-healing, then it is likely that much of what goes by 'psychic healing' is in fact more like a placebo effect: it seems likely that many instances of psychic healing are due not to a mental force or cosmic energy channeled from healer to patient, but rather to social and psychological factors that trigger self-healing mechanisms in the person's unconscious.

People who come to a healer may be desperate; they may have abandoned hope with conventional treatment methods. To many, it might feel like the healer is their last hope. Others, having developed a solid distrust of allopathic medicine, may feel that mental or psychic means of treatment are the only way to go. Either way, many coming into a healing session have high hopes and expectations, or are in a hyper-suggestible state. If, coupled with this receptive state of mind, we have a healer who engages in all kinds of unusual rituals -- magnetic passes, prayer, chanting, etc. -- then the situation may be just right to trigger a self-healing process, leading to alleviation of symptoms or even a cure. Of course, as in classical placebo studies, the patient will tend to attribute the healing to the external agent (in this case, the healer); but the real agent would be the patient's own unconscious mind.

Now, I'm not saying that all psychic healing is necessarily a placebo; far from it. What I'm getting at is that the many, many anecdotes and testimonies about miraculous healings, even if genuine, don't permit us to infer what kind of mechanisms are involved -- whether the healing was based on 'normal' psychophysiology, or whether it involved a truly 'paranormal' element. Generally, it is very difficult to distinguish psychic healing from self-healing.

Of course, you might ask yourself -- so what, as long as it works? Who cares if healing is really a fully internal process, the 'healer' being just a convenient trigger of self-healing, or if it is a genuinely paranormal process actually caused by the healer's intentions, thoughts, or energy?

Well, for one thing, scientists do care: the theoretical or metaphysical implications, if you will, are mind-boggling (that's one of the reasons there's so much resistance to accepting psi phenomena in general). But, beyond this, there are also some very practical issues: a world in which people can only affect their own bodies through mental means is a very different world from one in which they can affect each other at a distance.

For example, if we were sure that psychic healing is just self-healing, then all we need to do, in order to encourage such self-healing, is to understand the psychological and interpersonal factors that trigger it. On the other, if the healer really 'does' something to the patient, then we would want to understand how to enhance or amplify that healing 'power' -- and, also, how to protect ourselves from its possible misuses.

EXPERIMENTS WITH HUMANS: REACH OUT AND [PSYCHICALLY] TOUCH SOMEONE

So, how do we go about testing the existence of 'paranormal' healing effects, over and above the more common (though equally astonishing) self-healing effects? Generally speaking, researchers have adopted two different approaches: One approach, which I will be presenting in the next column, investigates healers' influence on non-human organisms, which wouldn't know a psychic healer from a Neanderthal. Mice or plants, presumably, are not subject to unconscious suggestion, so we can conduct all kinds of studies without worrying about placebo effects and such.

The other approach, which I'll be presenting here, is quite straightforward: experimentally investigating healers' influence on human physiology. One of the earliest studies of a healer's influence on patients was conducted by Dolores Krieger, a nurse and teacher at New York University. Krieger thought that healers may help patients by somehow increasing their overall vitality, i.e., increasing their body's ability to fight off the illness. Vitality is associated with metabolism and oxygen consumption, which can be objectively measured by hemoglobin levels in patients blood cells; so Krieger decided to take blood samples from each patient, before and after the healing session, to determine whether there were significant changes as a result of the healing.

The healer for this study was Oskar Estebany, a Hungarian who seemed to have an uncanny ability to treat all kinds of problems by the 'laying-on-of-hands': he would simply place one or both hands on the person (or near their body) and visualize a positive energies surging into the patient's body.

Estebany thus treated 49 patients, who were suffering from a broad range of illnesses; Krieger selected another 29 patients with similar problems and medical profiles who would receive no psychic healing from Estebany, and thus serve as a comparison (or 'control') group. When all sessions were completed, Krieger compared the blood samples of the two groups. She found that hemoglobin levels of 'treated' groups had increased much more than the hemoglobin level of the 'untreated' patients: as attested by an objective measure, the patients which Estebany had visited were in better shape. What was especially striking was that this increase in vitality was not just a short-term, transient effect; in a follow-up study, Krieger found that the difference in hemoglobin levels were still statistically significant a full year after Estebany's treatment!

The social and clinical importance of such studies is undeniable; since that time, nurses all over the US have adopted the practice of 'therapeutic touch' as an adjunct to orthodox medicine. But from a purely scientific perspective it's not entirely sure how much of the healing effect was really due to self-healing, and how much was due to Estebany per se. There's little doubt that patients in Krieger's study would respond psychologically to the healer, with hope and expectation for improvement; this alone could increase the 'vitality' of treated patients over untreated individuals. So we still don't know whether we are dealing with a genuinely paranormal healing effect, a pure placebo, or some combination of the two.

If we want to establish a 'paranormal' element, then we need more solid proof: we need to eliminate all sensory communication between healer and patients -- hence all 'normal' triggers of self-healing. Granted, it may seem artificial and arbitrary to investigate healing while separating the healer from the patient, thus depriving them from the human contact which is so important. Yet, the fact is that many healers claim to be able to function just as well -- or even better -- at a distance (e.g., by focusing on a photo of the patient). So, it is not that unreasonable to expect at least some distant healing effects if a paranormal component really exists.

MAKE MY HEART FLUTTER
Most of these 'distant healing' studies have taken place in experimental, rather than clinical (or medical) contexts; they're more like simulations of healing situations. Experimenters focus not on illnesses, but rather on specific physiological measures which can be precisely monitored in 'real-time' -- like brainwaves, body temperature, heart-rate, blood pressure, etc. Essentially, we look to determine whether the 'patient's' body -- monitored through one of these physiological measures -- reacts specifically at the moment the healer is focusing on it and returns to normal when the healer focuses on something else. The idea is that if we can find solid evidence that healers change some component of the person's physiology at a distance, then it becomes much more plausible that they can have beneficial effects on overall health.

In the last section, I spoke about biofeedback and 'psifeedback.' Recall how a common biofeedback session works: first, using sensitive electrodes attached to the person's body, we monitor the minute fluctuations in, say, body temperature. The signal from these electrodes is electronically amplified and 'fed back' to the person who then uses this real-time feedback to learn, by trial and error, how to voluntarily control these so-called 'autonomic responses' (e.g., to increase body temperature). At the Mind Science Foundation [San Antonio, Texas], in the late 1970s, psi researchers William Braud and Marilyn Schlitz introduced a novel twist to this standard biofeedback procedure: instead of displaying the ongoing physiological information to the person it came from, they electronically channeled this information to someone else, located in a distant room. The idea was to see whether this second person -- the 'healer' -- could use the real-time physiological information to affect the 'patient's' body.

Braud and Schlitz chose the Galvanic Skin Response (GSR--essentially a measure of sweating) as the physiological measure, because the GSR is a good general index of sympathetic nervous system activation: high GSR levels indicate that a person may be anxious or nervous (which is why the GSR is one of the main measures in lie-detectors). The 'patient', situated in one of the laboratory rooms, was hooked up to the GSR electrodes; the signal coming from these electrodes was channeled into another room, and displayed through a polygraph to the 'healer.' The healer was given a precise schedule which instructed him when to attempt to 'influence' the other person (i.e., to increase or decrease GSR activity), and when to simply 'rest' (ignore the graph and concentrate on something else). So the healer was instructed to alternate between, say, one-minute 'influence' periods and one-minute 'rest' periods.

After running a large number of 'patients' through this protocol, Braud and Schlitz analyzed results, comparing each person's average GSR activity during 'influence' vs. 'rest' periods. It turned out that the GSR activity during 'influence' periods was significantly 'shifted' from GSR activity during 'rest' periods: the distant 'healer' had somehow succeeded in affecting the other person's physiology, in a very precise manner. Subsequent studies, at the Mind Science Foundation and elsewhere, have similarly yielded significant results -- both for talented 'healers' (including 'psychics') and for 'normal' folks, who claim no particular psychic talent.

The effects obtained were sometimes quite strong. In one of the studies, in addition to the procedure described above (biofeedback information given to a distant 'healer') participants were also given the opportunity to learn to control their own GSR, through normal biofeedback. The researchers could thus compare GSR shifts when the person is controlling his or her own body, vs. GSR shifts when someone else is attempting to influence them. It turned out that during the self-control sessions, the average GSR shift was about 19%; in sessions with a distant healer, the average GSR shift was 10%. Obviously, self-control did produce a stronger effect; but, still, the difference was not that great. What's really surprising here is that the influence of another person, from a distance, would be in the same ballpark as the influence we have on our own physiological system.

DID SOMEONE SAY 'VOODOO?'
It's interesting to note that these 'distant healing' studies do not necessarily suggest that just anybody can come along and 'force' another person's body to conform to their wishes. It's much subtler than that. In one particular study by Braud & Schlitz, subjects were sometimes asked to visualize a mental wall, a protection surrounding their body and preventing any external influences from reaching them. In other sessions they were asked to allow the effect of the distant person to come through. Sure enough, it was found that during the usual 'influence' periods, patients' GSR activity shifted from baseline; but in 'influence' periods which coincided with their own 'protection' visualization, the GSR did not change significantly. So it seems that, rather than thinking of healing as a 'force,' flowing from the healer to the patient, it may be more appropriate to think of it as a kind of cooperative relationship -- an 'opening' of one person to the beneficial thoughts of another.

One thing is certain: if we can obtain such distant-influence effects in laboratory simulations, then it seems more than likely that similar kinds of effects occur in real-life settings, where there are real, pressing needs, and where healers are highly committed to helping others. So, while placebo effects and self-healing certainly play a major role, I think that we can now safely state that sometimes, something even more profound and miraculous is indeed taking place.

In the last section, I began to present research addressing the complicated issue of ‘psychic healing’ - the apparent ability of certain people to cure others by mental or ‘psychic’ means, as through prayer, healing affirmations, visualization, the ‘laying on of hands’, and so forth. What distinguishes these approaches from all other forms of cure - including those based on homeopathy, herbs, acupuncture, and so forth - is that psychic healing does not seem to involve any known physical substance or energy. True, some healers do claim that the cures they effect are based on a kind of ‘magnetism’ -- channeled, for example, through their hands. But, from the perspective of classical science, at least, there’s little evidence that they are indeed emitting an energy with strange curative properties. The preferred explanation, in orthodox medicine, is that most of these cures must be based on suggestion and self-healing: they must be placebo effects, triggered by the healers’ strange words, gestures and rituals, and by the patient’s ‘openness’ and suggestibility.
Now, while I think there’s good reason to believe that placebo effects DO play a role in many such healings - just as they play a role in orthodox, allopathic medicine - I also believe that placebos cannot be the whole story. As I showed in the last column, we have a large number of laboratory experiments which were designed to exclude explanations based on placebo effects, and which show that people can affect others at a distance. In these studies, subjects acting as ‘patients’ are hooked up to electrodes which monitor small fluctuations in some aspect of their physiology - e.g., body temperature, blood pressure or skin conductivity - while ‘healers’ attempt to influence the person’s physiology from a distant room. The short ‘influence’ periods are randomly interspersed with short ‘non-influence’ periods (at which time the healers no longer focus on the distant person). Thus, by comparing say, the patients’ skin conductivity during ‘influence’ periods with that same measure during ‘noninfluence’ periods, researchers have found that patients’ physiology shows a ‘reaction’ or ‘response’ specifically at the moment healers are focusing on it.

A psychically mediated placebo?
These results do exclude an explanation based on the common placebo. Since healers and patients are separated from each other, and the ‘influence’ vs. ‘non-influence’ periods are based on random schedules, the patients have no way of knowing when it is an influence vs a noninfluence period; differences in physiological activity between these two periods cannot be provoked by the isolated patients themselves.

But there’s a catch: what if patients are not truly isolated from the healer’s mind? True, the subjects in these experiments have no ‘normal’ way of distinguishing influence from non-influence periods -- but what if they have a ‘paranormal’ means for knowing this? While they cannot hear, see or sense the healer, nor logically infer which periods are ‘influence’ vs. ‘noninfluence’, perhaps they really do have this knowledge -- on the basis of a telepathic contact with the healer. At the moment the influence period begins, healers undoubtedly have thoughts like ‘okay, now I must focus on the person’; when the rest period begins, she or he may think ‘now I can relax’. If there is some telepathic rapport between the two persons, then one (the patient) may simply be acting as a ‘receiver’ in a telepathy experiment, unconsciously picking up information from the ‘sender’ and then inducing slight shifts in his or her own physiology. In this case, we are back to a form of self-induced healing - a telepathically induced placebo effect!

Am I’m splitting hairs here? What’s the difference between telepathically triggered self-healing, vs. a healing truly based on another person’s influence, i.e., based on psychokinesis (mind-over-matter)? Well, there are several theoretical issues here; but there’s also at least one important practical concern. In real instances of illness or disease, a patient may not have the resources, mentally, psychologically or physically, to induce self-healings, even given the kinds of suggestions which usually trigger placebo effects. By contrast, if healing - and not just healing suggestions - really comes from an external source, then a vital, confident healer could still input positive ‘energy’ into the patient’s organism and restore health.

So, it would be nice to know if lab results are pointing to telepathy or to psychokinesis. Given the complexity of human minds, and the different possible interactions between them, it would be very difficult to answer this question as long as the ‘patient’ - the recipient of the healing effect - is a person. But researchers have also been exploring psychokinesis (PK) on other kinds of biological systems, which are not likely to ‘self-heal’ through suggestion, placebos etc. If we find that healers can induce such ‘bio-PK’ effects on these simpler organisms, then there’s a good chance that the healing effects observed with humans indeed are based on a true ‘healing force’.

 
     
     
 

[This article used with permission of the Psi Explorer CD-ROM]

 
     
 

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