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February 2019 (Vol. 3 Issue 12)

Spooky healing at a distance

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Spooky healing at a distance image

The results were emphatic, and yet inexplicable

The results were emphatic, and yet inexplicable. A group of women, who had recently undergone C-section, had significantly lower heart rates and blood pressure readings-because they had been the target of a reiki healer who was 62 miles (100 km) away.

The researchers from the University of Toronto hadn't even been testing for cardiovascular effects; they wanted to see if a distant reiki healer could lower the women's pain levels after a caesarean delivery. In fact, the healer was unable to relieve the pain of the 40 women assigned for reiki in a trial that involved another group of 40 women who were given pain-relieving drugs only.

As it was a double-blind trial, none of the women knew they had been selected for healing and, yet, all of those in the reiki group had a significantly lower heart rate-around 74 beats per minute (bpm) compared with nearly 80 bpm in the drugs-only group-and reduced systolic blood pressure (106 mmHg vs 111 mmHg) over the three days following the surgery.

These findings replicate those of three earlier studies involving distant reiki and, yet, the researchers say the improvements could be down to chance because "distant reiki's method of action is unknown" (BMJ Open, 2011; 1: e000021; doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2010-000021).

Change of heart

The Toronto researchers' response is not unusual.

The evolution from open-mindedness to blanket denial is exemplified by a series of studies into prayer and healing by one research team over a nine-year period. In their first analysis of studies of intercessory prayer (praying for someone else), researchers from a theological college in Cambridge concluded, "the evidence presented so far is interesting enough to justify further study". They even mentioned God in their summary: "If any benefit derives from God's response to prayer, it may be beyond any such trials to prove or disprove" (Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2000; 2: CD000368).

By 2007, the researchers-who by this time were at Hertford College at Oxford University-had narrowed their selection down to 10 studies, involving 7646 participants, which met the exacting standards of the Cochrane protocols for 'good science'; again, they concluded that prayer warranted further study (Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2007; 1: CD000368).

Yet, two years later, the researchers had a complete change of heart. "We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention [prayer] should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial to investigate other questions in health care," they concluded-yet the data they had analyzed was the exact same as that which they had researched in 2007 (Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 2009; 2: CD000368).

The Benson burner
This retreat into scepticism is understandable. To suggest the effectiveness of any form of distant healing-which encom-passes reiki, faith healing, prayer, intention, Therapeutic Touch, and spiritual and remote healing-throws into question much of modern science, biology and medicine, let alone the non-existence of God. Doctors and researchers have a similar view towards distant healing as physicist Albert Einstein had towards non-locality, or quantum entanglement, which he famously described as "spooky action at a distance".

Any positive outcome is invariably dismissed as the result of wishful thinking or the placebo effect, a poorly constructed study or even a miscalculation of the data.
The final word on the uncomfortable topic of distant healing was, according to the sceptics, that of Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School. He recruited 1800 patients who were undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery for his trial, the so-called STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), and divided them into three groups: the first was prayed for but didn't know it; the second was not prayed for and didn't know it; and the third was prayed for and knew it. The prayer groups were selected from four Christian denomina-tions, and were given the first name and initial of the surname of their 'target' patient, and told to include in their prayers the phrase "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications".

Benson's surprising conclu-sion was not just that prayer didn't work-none of the groups experienced any benefits from being prayed for-but that it actually had a negative effect. Those who were prayed for and knew it fared the worst, with 59 per cent suffering from postoperative complications compared with 52 and 51 per cent in the other two groups (Am Heart J, 2006; 151: 934-42).

Critics of STEP argued that Benson failed to replicate a real-life situation or, indeed, the 'best practice' used in previous prayer studies. Most people who pray know the person they are praying for, and other studies have usually tried to emulate this by having the two parties meet before-hand. Merely knowing the person's first name and initial letter of the last name was not a fair test, they argued. Also, the prayer studies prior to STEP had also been exploring a precise-and measurable-outcome.

There is also the issue of the people being prayed for. Far from being passive recipients, many of those recruited into STEP were very disappointed to discover that the prayer groups were not made up of family members, close friends and those from their own religious communities.

Unanswered prayers

Of all the different distant-healing modalities, prayer is especially problematic because it involves three entities: the person doing the praying; the person being prayed for; and the assumed existence of God, who is being called upon to intervene and heal. Bernadette Soubirous, who founded the Lourdes miracle-healing centre in 1858 after seeing visions there, suggested that God was loathe to get involved in the affairs of men.

"Our God rightly sends miracles only extremely rarely," she said. This perhaps explains why other prayer research has been ambiguous, sometimes producing positive outcomes, some-times not. Cardiologist Mitch Krucoff achieved both in his two MANTRA (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training) prayer studies.

In the first of the studies, he recruited 150 cardiac patients who were due to have angioplasty and stents to clear their blocked arteries. The group was split into five subgroups: one would receive conventional treatment only, whereas the remaining four had the standard treatment plus one 'noetic' (mind/body) therapy, such as relaxation, healing touch, guided imagery or prayer. All of the noetic groups enjoyed as much as a 50-per-cent improvement in health during their hospital stay compared with the standard-treatment-only group; these patients also saw a 30-per-cent reduction in adverse outcomes, such as death or heart attack. Within the noetic therapies, prayer was by far the most effective, possibly as a reflection of the prayer groups selected, which included monks in Buddhist monasteries, messages placed in the Wailing Wall in Jerusa-lem and Carmelite nuns (Am Heart J, 2001; 142: 760-7).

Buoyed by this success, Krucoff planned a second MANTRA study, this time recruiting 748 patients awaiting angioplasty and enlisting 12 prayer groups. This time, he also set prayer against three other healing modalities plus conventional care-but the results showed no differences among the various approaches. Admittedly, the trial was interrupted by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City, which affected patient enrolment so badly that Krucoff had to adopt two tiers of prayer groups (Lancet, 2005; 366: 211-7).

Four years earlier, a research group from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, had come to a similar conclusion: prayer just doesn't make a difference. In a large study of 799 patients run over a 26-week period, they found that prayer did not improve mortality, heart-attack rates or the need for further interventions or hospitalizations (Mayo Clin Proc, 2001; 76: 1192-8).

Answered prayers
Yet, despite the inherent problems of trying to prove that which many believe is ultimately unprovable, many studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of prayer.
Randolph Byrd, a cardiol-ogist based in San Francisco, CA, conducted one of the best known in 1988, when he discovered that patients in a coronary care unit had far fewer symptoms, and needed fewer drugs and interventions, if they were prayed for (South Med J, 1988; 81: 826-9). A large double-blind study, involving 990 participants, discovered that prayer helped cardiac patients achieve a 10-per-cent reduction in symptoms (Arch Intern Med, 1999; 159: 2273-8).

These results are not unusual. Unity, which represents 900 multifaith churches and spiritual organizations around the world, set up an Office of Prayer Research in 2004, which began collating prayer research that met 'good science' criteria, such as being double-blinded and peer-reviewed with randomization of participants. The researchers sifted through the 350 prayer studies that have been conducted in the US alone and discovered that 75 per cent demonstrated that prayer had a positive impact, while 17 per cent found that it had no impact and 7 per cent showed a negative impact, as Benson's own study demonstrated (

Even the sceptical Edzard Ernst who, until recently, was professor of alternative medicine at Exeter University, has reviewed 23 trials into distant healing, which included prayer, mental healing, Therapeutic Touch and spiritual healing. Of these, 13-or 57 per cent-had "statistically significant treat-ment effects" (Ann Intern Med, 2000; 132: 903-10).

Professor David Hodge of Arizona State University came to a similar positive conclusion when he reviewed 17 prayer studies. Overall, he found that prayer had a positive impact. His research, he says, confounds the negative results of the Benson study. "When the effects of prayer are averaged across all 17 studies, control-ling for differences in sample sizes, a net positive effect for the prayer group is produced," he concluded (Res Soc Work Pract, 2007; 17: 174-87).

However, he doubts whether all of the studies would pass the stiff criteria of 'proper' scientific trials-a view with which sociologist Wendy Cadge would concur. Cadge examined prayer studies conducted between 1965 and 2006, and discovered a variety of results. But she questions the scien-tific method employed; people not being prayed for in the study may well have been receiving prayers from relatives anyway. And how did the researchers gauge the right 'dosage' of prayer, and control for recipients who were non-believers, she asks (J Religion, 2009; 89: 299-327).

Researchers at the Univer-sity of Texas in San Antonio highlighted the attitude of the prayer recipients in a study of 86 volunteers from local churches who were not told
if they were being prayed for or not. Interestingly, the researchers discovered that prayer helped only those who believed that the problem could be resolved. The most positive results were among those with the highest belief in prayer (J Altern Complement Med, 2004; 10: 438-48).

Mind over matter
The point is well made by Australian Aborigines. Researchers from Curtin University in Perth, Australia, came across a common saying among the Aborigines, who use bush medicine and traditional healing, which appears to express an important com-ponent of distant healing: "If you don't believe it, it won't help you" (J Ethnobiol Ethnomed, 2010; 6: 18).

However, although it is important, it may not be essential. The many double-blind studies into distant healing suggest this, although a sceptic could argue that the studies nonetheless create a general environment in which there is a possibility that you will be a target for healing.

A study of 22 bush babies (Otolemur garnettii) takes the human aspect out of the equation. These primates were all chronically self-harming, causing severe wounds to their bodies. They were randomized into two groups: one was to be prayed for, while the other would receive drug treatment for their wounds. The animals prayed for showed greater reductions in wound size, greater increases in red blood cell counts and decreased their self-harming compared with the drug-treated group (Altern Ther Health Med, 2006; 12: 42-8).

Dr Jeanne Achterberg of Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, TX, adds a further piece to the puzzle. She recruited 11 healers in Hawaii, all of whom described their technique variously as sending prayers, intention or just their best wishes. Each sent his/her own form of healing to 11 recipients, whose brains were being monitored throughout the experiment by an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanner. The recipients had no contact with their healer, and the healer was instructed to send healing thoughts ran-domly at two-minute intervals and without the recipient's knowledge. Yet, at the exact moment when the healer was sending, the recipient's brain became activated. Achterberg estimated that the chances of such an exact correlation between 11 healers and their recipients was around 10,000 to 1 (J Altern Complement Med, 2005; 11: 965-71).

These findings have been echoed in a study of spiritual experiences. Brick Johnstone, a neuropsychologist at the University of Missouri, has discovered that feelings of transcendence, universal unity and a decreased sense of self occur when the brain's right parietal lobe is less active. Although this can be achieved through meditation and prayer, it may also be the same activity observed by Achterberg when somebody prays for us (Zygon, 2008; 43: 861-74).

What's going on?

Meta-analyses suggest that distant healing works more often than not, and Achterberg and others have also discovered that something other than the placebo effect is going on. But what?

Jeff Levin at the Eastern Virginia Medical School be-lieves that distant healing and prayer are real phenomena that can be explained by natural laws rather than supernatural ones, although they are to be found in the realm of quantum, rather than classical, physics.

Essentially, distant healing is a non-local effect, according to quantum mechanics, he argues, but even the super-natural explanation, which relies on a Creator-God, should not be dismissed (Altern Ther Health Med, 1996; 2: 66-73).

If distant healing is a non-local effect, then the current model for measuring the effect is inappropriate, which may be one reason for the ambiguous results whenever distant healing is tested, argues holistic healer Dr Larry Dossey. Instead, a new method for measuring the effect-one that does not depend on the stand-ard double-blind, placebo-controlled model-has to be found (Explore [NY], 2010; 6: 295-307).

Ultimately, distant healing is rather like religion: the believer and the unbeliever will not be swayed. While sceptics and militant atheists will continue to disbelieve, they are out of step with the majority.

A Time/CNN poll discovered that 82 per cent of Americans believe that prayer can cure serious illness, 73 per cent believe that praying for others works-and 64 per cent want their physicians to pray with them (Holist Nurs Pract, 2000; 14: 40-8).

And those out of step would be foolhardy to accept the "cavalier rejection" of studies suggesting that distant healing does work, says Rajasekhar Ramakrishnan of Columbia University Medical Centre (Perspect Biol Med, 2006; 49: 504-14). Until we fully under-stand the enigma of human consciousness, and its reach and power, those may be wise words indeed.

Bryan Hubbard

Factfile: A touch of evidence

Therapeutic touch (TT) is an energy-healing therapy that, despite its name, does not usually require the healer to physically touch the healee. Its practitioners say they can detect and manipulate the patient's energy field, unblocking 'blockages' and allowing the body's own immune system to start the healing process.

This was the subject of a famous, or infamous, piece of research set up by nine-year-old Emily Rosa, who became the youngest ever person to have a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Aided by sceptic Stephen Barrett, founder of the Quackwatch website, Emily tested the abilities of 21 TT practitioners.

While standing behind a screen, she invited them to locate the position of her hands by sensing any aura they emitted. The success level was around 44 per cent, roughly in line with chance (JAMA, 1998; 279: 1005-10). However, several meta-analyses of TT have come up with results that are more positive:

  • One, which reviewed 19 controlled trials, found that 58 per cent of them returned statistically significant effects, although the quality of the research was generally only "poor to fair" (Altern Ther Suppl [Definitions and Standards in Healing Research], 2003; 9: A56-71).
  • In a review of nine 'good' studies, TT had physiological and psychological positive effects in every one of them (Nurs Sci Quart, 1999; 12: 52-61).
  • In an analysis of nine other studies, TT "significantly reduced" transient anxiety levels (Focus Altern Complement Ther, 2000; 5:106).

Factfile: Praying for yourself
Although most studies have examined the effectiveness of intercessory prayer (praying for someone else), praying for your own health benefit seems to have merit, too.
A survey of 151 adolescents discovered that up to 80 per cent of them are turning their back on conventional treatments in favour of complementary and spiritual practices, such as prayer, to control their asthma symptoms (Proceedings of the National Conference in Pediatric Psychology, San Antonio, TX, April 14-16, 2011).

Praying also appears to help people to cope with illness, sadness, trauma and anger. Around three-quarters of people who pray do so as a coping mechanism to deal with bad relationships or negative emotions (Soc Psychol Quart, 2010; 73: 417-37).

The psychological benefits of prayer were emphasized in a study of 53 college students, who were asked to pray for a cancer victim or merely wish her well. Those who prayed found that they became less angry and aggressive, especially after someone had upset them (Pers Soc Psychol Bull, 2011;37: 830-7).

Factfile: Praying on the web
People aren't just praying for each other in church these days-they do it on the Web, too. Online support groups for women with breast cancer are beginning to crop up, and are even using text messages to mobile (cell) phones to reinforce the message.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin looked at the activity of one online community, which included 97 patients. Online praying reduced anxiety and stress levels, the researchers found, as it reinforced belief in an afterlife, putting trust in God and appreciating the life they had (Psycho-oncology, 2007; 16: 676-87).

Factfile: The placebo effect
Sceptics dismiss any beneficial effects of distant healing as a placebo effect, but this remarkable phenomenon-which affects an average of a third of participants in all medical and drug trials-demonstrates the healing power of the mind.

In one survey, 60 per cent of doctors admitted that they prescribed a useless placebo pill-and half found that it had beneficial effects (BMJ, 2004; 329: 944-6). Another survey suggests that the practice has increased in recent years. Researchers from the University of Zurich estimate that up to 80 per cent of physicians have used a placebo; they also think that, at some time or another, every nurse has resorted to giving a placebo (BMC Med, 2010; 8: 15).

Factfile: More things in heaven and earth . . .
Those who doubt the healing power of the mind, read on. A Sufi (a practitioner of Sufism, the esoteric discipline of Islam) demonstrated miraculous healing in front of a group of Western scientists, under laboratory conditions.

The Sufi inserted an unsterilized metal skewer through one side of his cheek and out through the other side. The left puncture healed within two minutes and the right puncture was three-quarters healed eight hours later.

To ensure there was no trickery, the Sufi was linked up at all times to an EEG (electroencephalography) machine, while radiological and axial computed tomography (CT) images confirmed that the skewer had genuinely passed through each cheek (Adv Mind Body Med, 2001; 17: 203-9).

WDDTY VOL 22 NO 10 January 2012

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