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Healing Research: What We Know and
Don’t Know
“Something unknown is doing we don’t
know what.”
—Sir Arthur Eddington
“Not everything that counts can be
counted, and not everything that can be
counted counts.”
—Albert Einstein, attributed
“No directions came with this idea.”
—William Maxwell
Our ignorance about healing vastly
exceeds our understanding. Some
people see this mystery as a good
thing. For example, when I pub-
lished a book in 1993—Healing Words: The
Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine
that attempted to clarify these questions, a
reviewer wrote, “Life, ultimately, is a mys-
tery....In the past year, I have found
myself yearning for the mystery, faith, and
rapture to be restored to my spirit. I want
more prayer and less analysis.”
This point of view that some things
should not be subjected to dissection,
analysis, and the empirical methods of sci-
ence has a long history. Benjamin Jowett
(1817-1893), the great 19th-century Plato
scholar, theologian, and master of Balliol
College at Oxford, felt this way. He grum-
bled, “Research! Research! A mere excuse
for idleness; it has never achieved, and will
never achieve any results of the slightest
Even Einstein occasionally emphasized
the limitations of science. He is reported
to have said (although it may be apocry-
phal), “If we knew what we were doing, it
would not be called research, would it?”
We’ve been bumping into the mysteries
and paradoxes of healing intentions and
prayer since the first published prayer
study, an 1872 survey by Sir Francis Gal-
ton, the cousin of Charles Darwin. Galton
reasoned that, since monarchs and highly
placed clergy were regularly prayed for
(God save the queen!), their health and
longevity should exceed that of ordinary
people if prayer is effective. He discovered
the opposite—that sovereign heads of state
lived the shortest lives “of all who have the
advantage of affluence.”
Skeptics love to quote Galton’s study,
but it was a dreadful exercise, a retrospec-
tive stab in the dark that was, one might
say, too cute by half. Galton failed to take
into account a host of confounding fac-
tors, one of which has been pointed out by
theologian John Polkinghorne, a physicist
and fellow of the Royal Society. He sug-
gests that one of the main reasons sover-
eigns lived shorter lives was because they
were exposed to one of the greatest health
hazards of the day—the continual minis-
trations of the medical profession.
If you
were a European monarch in the 19th cen-
tury, there simply was no escaping the bru-
talities of physicians and the often lethal
effects of their leeching, bleeding, and
The classic American example of this
phenomenon involved the death of
George Washington, our first head of
state. Some historians believe he was es-
sentially bled to death by his team of well-
meaning physicians.
Paradoxes abound in prayer research. For
example, if prayer is effective, many peo-
ple say “the more the better.” Perhaps not.
Rupert Sheldrake, the British biologist
who spent years in India, was intrigued by
the fact that most married couples in India
prefer having sons, and that they routinely
ask holy men to bless their marriage. To-
ward this end, Indian holy men pray inces-
santly. With roughly one fourth the
earth’s population in India, that’s a lot of
prayer for male babies. But when Shel-
drake compared the incidence of male
births in India and England, where the
preference for sons is not as strong, he
found the same statistic: 106 male births
to 100 female births, which is the same in
nearly all countries.
Modern prayer-and-healing research
was launched around the midpoint of the
20th century. From 1951 through 1965,
three studies explored the correlation of
intercessory prayer with psychological
well-being, childhood leukemia, and rheu-
matoid arthritis, respectively.
Although one study claimed statistical sig-
nificance, the other two did not. These
studies were not well designed and were
poorly reported. They contribute little to
our understanding of healing intentions.
This essay is based on an address to the Inter-
national Society for the Study of Subtle Ener-
gies and Energy Medicine, June 22, 2008, Boul-
der, CO.
Explorations EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6
We can, however, give these researchers a
nod of appreciation for getting the ball
The most famous prayer study is that of
cardiologist Randolph Byrd, published in
This controlled clinical study took
place at University of California, San
Francisco, School of Medicine and San
Francisco General Hospital. It involved
393 patients admitted to the coronary care
unit for heart attack or chest pain. Al-
though there was no statistically signifi-
cant difference in mortality between the
groups, those receiving assigned prayer
did better clinically on several outcomes.
Areas of statistical significance included
less need for cardiopulmonary resuscita-
tion, less need for potent medications, and
a lower incidence of pulmonary edema
and pneumonia in the group receiving
intercessory prayer from prayer groups
around the United States. These differ-
ences, although statistically significant,
were not earthshaking: a 5% to 7% advan-
tage for the prayed-for group.
Although it was the first major prayer
experiment, the Byrd study is not the best;
it could have been improved in many ways,
as I’ve described elsewhere.
deserves great credit, however, for this cou-
rageous effort, which could hardly have em-
bellished his career as an academic cardiolo-
gist at one of the nation’s best medical
schools. His great contribution was estab-
lishing a principle that came as a shock to
most physicians, including me—one can
study prayer in a clinical setting much as one
studies a physical intervention such as a new
If we fast-forward to present time, we
can identify around two dozen major-con-
trolled studies in humans, approximately
half of which show statistically significant
results favoring the intervention group
toward whom healing intentions were
Approximately eight systematic or meta-
analyses of studies involving healing in-
tentions and prayer have been published
in peer-reviewed journals.
but one arrived at positive conclusions.
The most thorough analysis is that of
Wayne B. Jonas, MD, the former director
of the NIH National Center for Comple-
mentary and Alternative Medicine, and
Cindy C. Crawford. In their 2003 review,
they state:
We found over 2,200 published
reports, including books, articles, dis-
sertations, abstracts and other writ-
ings on spiritual healing, energy med-
icine, and mental intention effects.
This included 122 laboratory studies, 80
randomized controlled trials, 128 sum-
maries or reviews, 95 reports of obser-
vational studies and nonrandomized
trials, 271 descriptive studies, case
reports, and surveys, 1,286 other
writings including opinions, claims,
anecdotes, letters to editors, commen-
taries, critiques and meeting reports,
and 259 selected books [emphasis
The following categories are included in
the data analyzed by Jonas and Crawford:
religious practice
“energy” healing
Qigong (laboratory research)
Qigong (clinical research)
laboratory research on bioenergy
DMILS (direct mental interaction with
living systems; remote influence on
electrodermal activity)
DMILS (direct mental interaction with
living systems, such as remote staring)
MMI (mind-matter interaction, such as
the remote influence of individuals on
random event generators)
MMI (mind-matter interaction, such as
the remote influence of a group with
random event generators, so-called field-
REG experiments)
healing in a group setting
In assessing the quality of healing stud-
ies by using strict Consolidated Standards
of Reporting Trials (CONSORT) criteria,
Jonas and Crawford give the highest grade,
an A, to lab-based, mind-matter interaction
studies, and a Bto the prayer-and-healing
studies. Religion-and-health studies get a D
because they are epidemiological-observa-
tional studies and are not blinded and
This context does not permit us to re-
view even the main healing studies, which
I have done elsewhere.
So too
has Daniel Benor, MD, whose pioneering
contributions in this field deserve special
Neither can we examine the main skep-
tical responses to prayer-and-healing stud-
ies in general. David Hufford, of Penn
State College of Medicine, and I have dis-
cussed these elsewhere.
What do these studies tell us? In their
assessment of this field, Jonas and Craw-
ford conservatively conclude:
There is evidence to suggest that
mind and matter interact in a way
that is consistent with the assump-
tions of distant healing. Mental in-
tention has effects on nonliving
random systems (such as random
number generators) and may have ef-
fects on living systems. While con-
clusive evidence that these mental in-
teractions result in healing of specific
illness is lacking, further quality re-
search should be pursued.
This conclusion is so cautious many
healers insist that it does not go far
enough. I disagree. The key question is not
how large the effects are, but whether they
exist at all. In fact, the Jonas and Crawford
conclusion is radical because it suggests
what conventional science considers un-
thinkable: that human consciousness can
act nonlocally to affect the so-called mate-
rial world at a distance, beyond the reach
of the senses. This involves a fundamen-
tally new way of thinking about the nature
of human consciousness and its place in
the world.
These findings represent more than a
new tool in the physician’s black bag. Al-
though it’s true that intentionality, includ-
ing prayer, has been used throughout his-
tory to heal illness, this practical side is not
the primary contribution of the emerging
evidence. The key significance is the non-
local nature of consciousness that is sug-
gested by these studies. This implication
dwarfs whatever pragmatic benefits these
studies convey.
Many skeptics realize what’s at stake
here. If only a single one of these studies is
valid, then a nonlocal dimension of con-
sciousness exists. In this case, the universe
is different than we have supposed, and
the game changes. Therefore, all these
findings must be rejected, or the conven-
tional, cherished views of consciousness as
a completely local phenomenon will be
subverted. That is why many critics seem
to consider skepticism a blood sport and
why they pursue a scorched-earth policy
in which all studies in the field of healing
are categorically condemned, often for the
flimsiest reasons.
342 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
What about the hundreds of studies
dealing with nonhuman, inanimate sys-
tems? Overall, these studies demonstrate
the highest quality of the various catego-
ries of intentionality experiments. Many
of these studies, such as those done at the
Princeton Engineering Anomalies Re-
search lab, have demonstrated astronomi-
cally high levels of statistical significance
and have been consistently positive across
Healing studies involving inan-
imate systems, therefore, buttress the
human studies and are potent evidence
supporting the remote effects of healing
We need to take all the studies in inten-
tionality into consideration because, when
taken together, they affirm a principle that
is highly prized in science—the concatena-
tion or interconnectedness of things that
appear unrelated. If we examine the array
of categories analyzed by Jonas and Craw-
ford, we find intentionality effects at the
macroscopic level, as in healing studies in-
volving whole persons; at the tissue level,
as in studies involving populations of var-
ious types of cells; at the microbial level, as
in studies involving growth rates of bacte-
ria, yeasts, and fungi; at the molecular
level, as in studies involving enzyme kinet-
ics and biochemical reactions; and at the
subatomic level, as in random event gen-
erators where people attempt to influence
the distribution of ones and zeroes. The
fact that intentionality effects are demon-
strated across this enormous spectrum of
nature, from the macroworld to the me-
soworld to the microworld, suggests that
we have discovered a general, pervasive
principle in nature—the ability of inten-
tionality to change the world. This unity
of knowledge from disparate domains is
called consilience by sociobiologist E. O.
The second, best-known prayer-and-heal-
ing experiment is the Harvard Medical
School Study of the Therapeutic Effects of
Intercessory Prayer (STEP), published in
2006 by physician Herbert Benson et al.
The purpose of STEP was to assess the
impact of certainty and uncertainty on the
possible effectiveness of intercessory
prayer in patients undergoing coronary
bypass surgery.
Many proponents of prayer and healing
have called STEP a “STEP backward” or a
“misSTEP.” The impact of STEP, how-
ever, has been significant. Because of its
negative outcome, it has become the dar-
ling healing experiment of skeptics. Many
critics consider “the Harvard study” as the
final nail in the coffin of remote healing
research. To the great glee of critics of this
area, it has had a chilling effect on future
research in this field because of the gravi-
tas associated with Harvard-based science.
Unfortunately, few critics take the time to
ask whether the study was well conceived
and whether its conclusions are valid. But
there is another side to STEP. It has actu-
ally contributed to healing research, be-
cause some of the most instructive exper-
iments are those that fail.
The STEP experiment involved 1,802 pa-
tients undergoing coronary-artery bypass
surgery in six different US hospitals. They
were assigned to three groups: (1) 604 pa-
tients were told they might or might not
be prayed for, and were (which we’ll call
group A), (2) 597 patients were told they
might or might not be prayed for, and
were not (which we’ll designate as group
B, and (3) 601 patients were told they
would definitely be prayed for, and were
(which we’ll call group C).
Two Catholic groups and one Protestant
group were chosen to be intercessors. They
prayed for the subjects for two weeks, be-
ginning on the eve or day of surgery. The
intercessors were given a prescribed
prayer, following which they were permit-
ted to pray their customary way. They
were also given the first name and the ini-
tial of the last name of those for whom
they were praying.
In group A—the 604 patients who were
told they might or might not be prayed
for, and were—52% had postoperative
complications. In group B—the 597 pa-
tients who were told they might or might
not be prayed for, and were not—51% had
postoperative complications, not statisti-
cally different from group A. In group
C—the 601 who were told they would be
prayed for, and were—59% had postopera-
tive complications, a statistically signifi-
cant difference from groups A and B.
In other words, the group that received
prayer and was certain they would do so
had the worst clinical outcome of all, im-
plying that prayer might be harmful.
The response of the media to these find-
ings was enthusiastic and often playful. A
banner in Newsweek magazine, April 10,
2006, read, “Don’t Pray for Me! Please!”
Let’s imagine what the results of the exper-
iment might have been under three condi-
tions: (1) if prayer is effective, (2) if prayer
is ineffective, or (3) if prayer is harmful.
1. If prayer is effective, groups A and C
should have benefited equally from it,
with C having the added benefit of the
placebo response owing to the cer-
tainty of receiving prayer. Group C,
then, should have had the best clinical
outcome of the three groups. This was
not the case; C had the worst out-
come. So “effective prayer” is unable
to explain the outcome of STEP.
2. If prayer is ineffective, it should not
have exerted any effect on any of the
three groups, but group C should have
done better because of the certainty of
receiving prayer, thus benefiting from
the placebo effect. But group C did
the worst of all the groups, so “ineffec-
tive prayer” is unable to explain the
outcome of the experiment.
3. If prayer harms, both A and C should
have demonstrated worse outcomes
than B (spared prayer), in which case B
would have done better than the other
two groups. But B responded equally
with A. Therefore, harmful or negative
prayer cannot explain the results of
The STEP researchers essentially ig-
nored in their report the possibility that
prayer might be harmful, simply saying
that the worst outcome in group C “may
have been a chance finding.” They were
taken to task for this in a scathing rebuke
in the American Heart Journal.
The criti-
cism is appropriate in view of the anthro-
pological evidence that negative beliefs
and intentions can be lethal (curses, hexes,
spells), as well as the controlled laboratory
studies showing that negative intentions
can retard or harm living, nonhuman
What other possible explanations are
there for STEP’s outcome?
Explorations EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6
Extraneous Prayer
Randomized controlled studies in prayer
in humans acknowledge that patients in
both treatment and control groups may
pray for themselves and that their loved
ones may pray for them as well, but it is
assumed that the effects of this extraneous
prayer is equally distributed between the
intervention and control groups and does
not create statistical differences between
the two. This assumption may or may not
be true, and in any case does not eliminate
the problems posed by extraneous prayer
in controlled studies. The positive effects
of extraneous prayer, if they exist, may di-
minish the effect size between the two
groups, therefore limiting one’s ability to
detect the effects of assigned prayer in the
intervention group. As one of the coau-
thors of STEP said in a news release from
Harvard Medical School, “One caveat [of
STEP] is that with so many individuals
receiving prayer from friends and family,
as well as personal prayer, it may be impos-
sible to disentangle the effects of study
prayer from background prayer.”
An analogy would be a pharmaceutical
study in which the intervention group is
treated with 10 mg of the drug being
tested, and the control group with 9 mg.
Even if the medication were effective,
could the effect be detected?
No one knows how extraneous prayer
could be eliminated in human prayer-and-
healing studies. It may be impossible to do
so, especially in American culture where
the great majority of individuals pray rou-
tinely when they are well. Trying to elim-
inate prayer in a control group may be
unethical as well, for who has the right to
extinguish personal prayer and prayer by
loved ones during sickness? In contrast,
extraneous prayer can be handily elimi-
nated in nonhuman studies involving an-
imals, plants, or microbes. They presum-
ably do not pray for themselves, and
neither do their fellow beings pray for
them. In these studies, one often sees
profoundly positive effects of healing
Randomization Differences
In May 2008, Ariel et al
examined the
demographic differences between the
three groups in the Harvard study and
found that group C, which had the highest
rate of postoperative complications, may
have been predisposed to do worse. When
compared with the other two groups, this
group had a higher incidence of chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (emphy-
sema and chronic bronchitis), a higher in-
cidence of smoking history, a higher rate
of three-vessel coronary bypass surgery,
and a lower rate of beta-blocker use prior
to surgery, which many experts consider
to be cardio-protective during coronary
bypass surgery. For a fair trial of prayer, the
study should have established a level play-
ing field between all three groups through
proper randomization, such that no group
was worse off than any other going into
the study.
Psychological Factors
The overall design of the study may have
created psychological dynamics in groups
A and B that could have led to the results
that were observed. Patients in groups A
and B were told they might or might not
be prayed for by the intercessors. Think
for a moment what this means. Surveys
show that around 80% to 90% of Ameri-
cans pray regularly when they are well, and
it can be assumed that even more pray
when they are sick. Faced with the pros-
pect of being denied prayer in the study,
the subjects in A and B may therefore have
aggressively solicited prayer from their
loved ones to make up for the possible
withholding of prayer in the experiment,
and they may have redoubled their per-
sonal prayers for themselves. Thus a para-
dox may have resulted in which A and B
received more prayer—not less—than C,
even though this was not the intent of the
study. If prayer is effective, this additional,
unforeseen, extraneous prayer may have
lifted A and B above C in terms of clinical
outcomes, accounting for the study’s re-
Another possibility is that patients in
group C, who knew that many outsiders
were praying for them, felt stressed and
pressured to do well. Moreover, “It might
have made them uncertain, wondering,
‘Am I so sick they had to call in their
prayer team’?” said cardiologist Charles
Bethea, MD, a member of the STEP
research team.
“We found increased
amounts of adrenalin, a sign of stress, in
the blood of patients who knew strangers
were praying for them,” said STEP re-
searcher Jeffrey A. Dusek, PhD, associate
research director of Harvard’s Mind/Body
Medical Institute at Massachusetts Gen-
eral Hospital. “It’s possible that we inad-
vertently raised the stress levels of these
Experimenter Effects
One of the most consistent findings in
parapsychological research is that the
preexisting beliefs of the experimenter
often correlate with the outcome of his/
her experiment.
This so-called ex-
perimenter effect is assumed not to exist
in modern clinical research, because
it is believed that the subjective attitudes
of an experimenter cannot penetrate a
controlled study and “push the data
around.” Yet, any study that attempts to
evaluate the effects of prayer should en-
tertain the possibility of experimenter
effects. After all, the assumption of an
experimenter effect in a healing study is
no more radical than the hypothesis be-
ing tested—namely that the beliefs and
intentions of intercessors might influ-
ence clinical outcomes. If the beliefs and
intentions of intercessors can change the
physical outcomes of an experiment,
then why shouldn’t the beliefs and in-
tentions of experimenters also affect the
Ian Stevenson, the late physician-re-
searcher of the University of Virginia, ad-
dressed experimenter effects in his 1989
Presidential Address to the Society for Psy-
chical Research, entitled “Thoughts on
the Decline of Major Paranormal Phe-
By “major” he meant “phe-
nomena so gross that we require no statis-
tics for their demonstration.” One reason
he gave for this decline was the influence
of an increasingly pervasive mechanistic
and materialistic worldview. As he put it:
. . . the possibility [exists] that spread-
ing materialism has had an inhibiting
effect on paranormal phenomena
through paranormal causes. Critics
tell us that allegations of their having
an adverse effect on the phenomena
are mere evasions of the painful truth
that they have improved vigilance
and tightened controls, so that the
alleged phenomena do not occur in
the presence of the controls they rec-
ommend. This may be true in some
instances, and I am far from saying
that we can learn nothing from crit-
ics. However, we for our part have
obtained abundant evidence of the
effect of the participants’ beliefs on
344 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
the delicate balance for or against
paranormal effects in experimental
An atmosphere of com-
pletely unqualified belief appears to
facilitate and may indeed be essen-
tial for the occurrence of paranor-
mal physical phenomena,
and I
think this may be equally true of
paranormal mental phenomena. If
belief facilitates them, disbelief can block
them, as Schmeidler’s experiments
showed many years ago [emphasis
Psi researcher Gertrude Schmeidler
showed that the scores of subjects in card-
guessing experiments tended to be high or
low according to whether an experimenter
was wishing the percipient to succeed or
Other experiments suggest that
unfavorable influences may not reach the
level of an overt wish that a percipient fail,
says Stevenson, but may remain largely
unconscious. Moreover, Stevenson cites
experimental evidence that a person need
not be physically present to adversely af-
fect an experiment in extrasensory percep-
Are these findings from psi research rel-
evant to the biological domain? Almost
certainly the answer is yes. This author re-
viewed several studies in nonhumans in
which negative thoughts and intentions
of experimenters were correlated with
negative biological effects in a variety of
living systems.
During the late
19th century, several experiments, by
Janet, Richet, and others showed that
certain subjects could be put to sleep by
suggestions directed at them from a long
Experiments in the 20th
century by Vasiliev showed that this
effect could operate under conditions of
electromagnetic shielding.
The anthropological literature provides
abundant evidence suggesting that neg-
ative intentions can harm or even kill
individuals at a distance, beyond the
range of sensory influences, even when
the victim is unaware the attempt is be-
ing made.
A surprising number of Americans em-
brace the possibility that thoughts, inten-
tions, or prayers may harm others re-
motely. A 1994 Gallup poll found that 5%
of Americans have prayed for harm to
come to others.
It is likely that the per-
centage is much higher, since many indi-
viduals are reluctant to admit to pollsters
they are attempting to harm other people
through prayer.
Could an experimenter effect explain
the results of the Harvard prayer study?
We cannot say with certainty because we
do not know the preexisting attitudes and
beliefs of the experimenters. We can say,
however, that the Harvard group was not
generally known to be advocates of the
nonlocal, interpersonal effects of interces-
sory prayer prior to study; rather, the
group is widely known and admired as
proponents of the intrapersonal, mind-
body perspective, toward which they have
made admirable, even landmark, contri-
butions for decades.
Experimenter effects may not be lim-
ited to the immediate investigators but
may involve the larger experimental sur-
round. No one knows where experimenter
effects begin or end. Could the negative
attitudes of skeptical or hostile scientists in
the larger Harvard scholarly community
have been a factor in group C’s negative
results? Might the effects of negative
thoughts, intentions, wishes, or willing ex-
tended even further? More than any other
healing study on record, STEP was the
subject of media attention for years before
it was published. While still on the draw-
ing board, it commanded notice from in-
terested parties in both America and Eu-
rope. Several scholars predicted this
experiment would decisively settle the
controversy about the effectiveness of
prayer, and most of the predictions of
which I am aware were that prayer would
fail. Some critics gleefully anticipated a
failed experiment and the demise of such
studies. Did these negative beliefs and in-
tentions affect the results? In view of the
evidence for nonlocal experimenter ef-
fects, this possibility cannot be handily
It may be difficult to assess the preex-
isting beliefs of experimenters even if we
try. Some investigators may claim they
are neutral toward the remote effects of
intentionality and prayer even though
they may disbelieve them, because the
scientific ideal is openness, not close
mindedness. Sometimes prejudice slips
out, however, as with a peer reviewer
who rejected a paper on the nonlocal
manifestations of consciousness with
the comment that he would not believe
such a thing, even if it were true.
STEP: A Summary
We can make several general statements
about STEP.
1. Nowhere in the world is prayer used as
in STEP.
People universally say they pray for
their loved ones. This suggests that they
intimately know them, they pray uncondi-
tionally for them, and they love and care
for them with empathy and compassion.
In their critique of STEP, researchers
Marilyn M. Schlitz and Dean Radin say,
None of the clinical trials [of distant
healing intention] has made use of
what scientists call ‘ecological valid-
ity.’ This means the trials were not
designed to model what happens in
real life, where people often know the
person for whom they are praying
and with whom they have a meaning-
ful relationship. In the Harvard
Study, for example, prayer groups
were instructed for the sake of stan-
dardization to use a prescripted
prayer that was different from what
those who prayed used in their nor-
mal practice. So the Harvard study
did not really test what the healers
claimed works for them. In addition,
in most of the clinical studies, the
investigators were tightly focused on
medical outcomes, and hardly any at-
tention was paid to the inner experi-
ences of the healers and patients.
2. Patients in STEP were not known to
the intercessors. Neither were all the
subjects offered unconditional prayer.
Two of the three groups were essen-
tially told, “We may or may not pray
for you.” The perceptions of the sub-
jects could hardly have been those of
unconditional love and caring. To
grasp the significance of uncertainty
of prayer, imagine going to the bed-
side of a loved one the evening prior to
cardiac surgery and saying, “I have not
decided whether or not I am going to
pray for you.”
3. People do not ordinarily pray scripted
prayers in real life but pray from the
heart in ways that vary according to
their individual temperament, person-
ality, and spiritual beliefs. Some pray
for specific outcomes, others pray in
Explorations EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6
an open-ended, nonspecific way—“thy
will be done” or “may the best out-
come prevail.” Scripted prayers de-
grade the “ecological validity” of real-
life prayer.
4. Ritual and context help strengthen the
emotional bond in real life between
intercessors and subjects (community
prayer, prayer in religious settings, etc)
We are not told about the context in
which STEP prayers were offered.
5. Strangely, the study could not gener-
ate a placebo effect, suggesting that
factors were afoot in the study that
were not taken into account by the
research team.
6. Although it is the largest and most ex-
pensive prayer study to date, STEP is
not the most rigorous and scientific.
Several other studies appear much
more thoughtful, such as the strongly
positive study of Achterberg that uti-
lized Native Hawaiian healers, which
we shall examine shortly.
though published just prior to STEP,
this positive study generated almost
no media attention, illustrating the
media’s preference for controversy
and bad news.
The most important criticism of the
Harvard prayer study is that prayer was
employed in ways that simply do not oc-
cur in ordinary life. “Prayer in the wild” in
“free-range humans” does not resemble
STEP prayer. In fairness, this criticism ap-
plies not just to STEP, but to nearly all
randomized controlled clinical trials of
prayer in humans as well.
Large randomized controlled clinic tri-
als of prayer in humans contain so many
pitfalls that even the most assiduous re-
searchers may not be able to anticipate
them all. This does not mean that this type
of trial should be abandoned, because re-
search methodologies in any young grow-
ing field in medical research generally im-
prove with time. And some of the more
carefully done controlled trials have pro-
duced positive results. But perhaps it’s
time to focus on healing research in hu-
mans in ways that preserve the ecological
validity of prayer, even though these
methodologies depart from the cherished
randomized double-blind protocol. As
we’ll now see, some researchers have be-
gun to do exactly this.
Researcher Jeanne Achterberg, who is well
known for her decades-long research in
imagery, visualization, and healing inten-
tions, moved to the Big Island of Hawaii
to investigate healing.
She spent two
years integrating with the community of
healers, who accepted her and shared their
methods. After gaining their trust, she and
her colleagues recruited 11 healers. Each
was asked to select a person they had
worked with previously with distant inten-
tionality, and with whom they felt an em-
pathic, compassionate bond. The healers
were not casually interested in healing;
they had pursued their healing tradition
an average of 23 years. They described
their healing efforts variously—prayer,
sending energy or good intentions, or
wishing for the subject the highest good.
Each recipient was placed in a functional
magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scan-
ner and was isolated from all forms of sen-
sory contact with the healer. The healers
sent forms of distant intentionality related
to their own healing practices at two-
minute random intervals that could not be
anticipated by the recipient. Significant
differences between the experimental
(send) and control (no send) conditions
were found; there was less than approxi-
mately one chance in 10,000 that the re-
sults could be explained by chance hap-
penings (P.000127). The areas of the
brain that were activated during the send
periods included the anterior and middle
cingulate areas, the precuneus, and frontal
areas. This study suggests that remote,
compassionate, healing intentions can ex-
ert measurable effects on the recipient,
and that an empathic connection between
the healer and the recipient is a vital part
of the process.
Strictly speaking, this is not a healing
study because no one was sick. It can be
considered a healing analogue, however,
because the healers were performing what
they usually do during healing rituals.
What can we learn from these studies?
Where do we go from here? What should
we do differently in future experiments? I
have several suggestions.
1. Experiments involving prayer should rep-
licate, not subvert, how prayer is employed in
the daily lives of ordinary people. Therefore, it is
time to question whether the randomized dou-
ble-blind protocol favored in conventional clin-
ical research is adequate for healing experi-
Because all double-blind prayer experi-
ments employ the uncertainty of receiving
prayer, all double-blind protocols distort
real-life prayer. The double-blind proto-
col, therefore, while useful in other areas
of medical research, is not ideal for assess-
ing intercessory prayer.
Obsessive reliance on double-blind pro-
tocols to test healing intentions may re-
flect what researcher Edward F. Kelly of
the University of Virginia calls “meth-
odolatry”—blind worship of a particular
method of investigation. Kelly states,
Laboratory research using random
samples of subjects, control groups,
and statistical modes of data analy-
sis can be wonderfully useful, but
obsession with this as the only valid
means of acquiring new knowledge
readily degenerates into ‘meth-
odolatry,’ the methodological face
of scientism....The experimental
literature itself is replete with exam-
ples of supposedly ‘rigorous’ labora-
tory studies which were in fact per-
formed under conditions that
guaranteed their failure from the
Inserting uncertainty of receiving
healing intentions or prayer erodes trust
between healer and healee, and trust is
considered crucial in real-life prayer and
healing. As physicist Russell Targ and healer
Jane Katra state, “Rapport [is] . . . paramount
[in healing] . . . . Commonality of purpose
and mutual trust are essential prerequi-
sites . . . such agreement and coherence
among individuals . . . can be attained
whenever people surrender their individual
identities and join their minds together, fo-
cusing their attention on creating a com-
mon goal . . . the trust and rapport can then
be quickly achieved.”
A more appropriate experimental ap-
proach may be that of Achterberg et al,
which we’ve examined. This experiment
maximized the key features of intercessory
prayer: trust, rapport, empathy, compas-
sion, and unconditionality of healing in-
tent. This true-to-life approach is more
likely to capture whatever effects of prayer
and intentionality may exist.
346 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
There is no need to apologize for depart-
ing from a double-blind controlled ap-
proach to prayer. Where healing is con-
cerned, one should adapt the experimental
methodology to the technique and not vice
versa, as is often done. This is not only com-
mon sense, but good science as well.
2. Single case reports of single individuals’
responses to healing efforts should be encour-
It may not be accidental that the most
dramatic responses to prayer are reported
not in randomized controlled trials but in
instances in which single individuals re-
ceive prayer from family, loved ones, the
faith community to which they belong, or
from healers whom they know and trust.
These individualized settings maximize
trust, unconditionality, love, empathy,
and compassion on which healing de-
pends, whereas controlled trials do not.
When dramatic responses occur in con-
ventional randomized clinical trials in-
volving pharmaceutical treatments, they
are usually dismissed as “statistical outli-
ers” and are ignored. In healing experi-
ments, we need to treat them not as an
inconvenience or embarrassment but as a
possibly meaningful response to healing
efforts, as emphasized by authors Hirsh-
berg and Barasch in Remarkable Recovery,
an admirable review of the field of spont-
aneous healing.
3. In view of the evidence for experimenter
effects, the preexisting beliefs of prayer experi-
menters should be ascertained and recorded as
part of the study.
The longitudinal assessment of this fac-
tor, over many decades and scores of stud-
ies, would help clarify whether or not the
experimenter effect applies to healing-
and-prayer studies as it does in studies in
other areas, as we have seen.
4. Studies involving healing intentions
should not be conducted in the full glare of the
Healing studies are best done out of the
way, with a minimal amount of fanfare
and public attention. This will minimize
any influence of extraneous intentions—
experimenter effects—from both cordial
and hostile sources.
5. Careful consideration should be given to
the selection of intercessors or healers.
We have made only halting efforts at
gauging the skills of healers, although the
fields of therapeutic touch, healing touch,
and Reiki have taken steps in this direction
through certification programs.
Some of the most successful studies
have employed healers with years or de-
cades of experience and who considered
themselves professional healers.
competing approach seeks to democratize
healing by using relatively unskilled heal-
ers/intercessors. This reflects a desire to
show that healing abilities are widespread
or universal, present in some degree in per-
haps everyone. Democratizing healing
abilities is a noble effort, but the evidence
so far suggests that this often results in
marginal or nonsignificant outcomes.
Prodigies exist in every area of human
endeavor, such as athletics, music, mathe-
matics, and art. Throughout history they
have existed in healing as well. Selecting
seasoned, experienced, veteran healers
should not be seen as an exercise in elitism
but as an effort to provide an experiment
with the optimal chance of success. And if
the use of veteran healers is considered
elitist, it is a “democratic elitism” to which
all are invited through training and expe-
If we wish to know whether humans can
run a four-minute mile, we test excep-
tional athletes to find out. To determine
whether prayer is effective, why not test
the most experienced, seasoned interces-
sors or healers? The strongly positive
Achterberg study
and the positive study
in advanced AIDS by Sicher, Targ, and
illustrate this principle.
6. The actual techniques of healing and
prayer deserve attention.
According to a Buddhist saying, “When
the wrong person uses the right method,
the right method works in the wrong way.”
In healing, we want the right person to use
the right method. The right person may be
a veteran healer, as mentioned, but what is
the right method?
Many researchers consider healing to be
a black box and pay little or no attention
to the techniques that are used. This is
akin to regarding all pharmaceuticals as
“drugs,” without distinguishing between
antibiotics, antiarrhythmics, anti-inflam-
matories, chemotherapeutic agents, and
so on. Want to get better? Take a drug;
don’t ask what it is. Our failure to differ-
entiate healing methodologies may be
equally naive.
Our efforts to distinguish the efficacy of
different healing techniques are compro-
mised because many studies use a variety
of healers simultaneously. How would we
know which one worked and which ones
did not?
Yet we must be careful when using a
homogenous group of healers or interces-
sors. This has led to a charge of religious
favoritism toward some studies, includ-
ing the celebrated 1988 Byrd study, in
which only born-again Christians were re-
cruited as intercessors.
Religious agen-
das, whether real or implied, are a guaran-
tee for criticism of this field.
Thus far, evidence suggests that reli-
gious affiliation in prayer-and-healing
studies does not greatly matter. Successful
studies have used secular healers, or spiri-
tual, but not religious healers, or devotees
of a variety of faiths. Thus far, no particu-
lar faith tradition appears to have cornered
the market on effective healing.
In a world aflame with religious zeal and
narrow fundamentalism, healing research-
ers should not add to the epidemic of re-
ligious intolerance and bigotry. This cau-
tion may seem unnecessary, but I believe
otherwise. An example involved a physi-
cian friend of mine who is a sincere pro-
ponent of religious-based healing at a lead-
ing medical school. He suggested to me
that we need a prayer-and-healing contest.
Healers of various faith traditions would
be invited to participate in a uniform heal-
ing experiment, and their results would be
quantified and compared. This would be a
“prayoff,” rather like a playoff in profes-
sional sports. In the end, the healers of a
single religious tradition would be
crowned the winner. He called this the
“Elijah Test,” after the Old Testament
prophet who trounced a group of pagan
priests in a head-to-head contest of sorts (1
Kings 18). Although I initially thought my
friend’s proposal was a joke, he was quite
serious. “Why do you want to do this?” I
asked. “I just want to bring praise to the
Lord,” he replied with incandescent en-
thusiasm. He had no doubt that his own
religion would triumph. He seemed not to
care that his proposal would evoke divi-
siveness and enmity between faiths. I am
happy that a prayoff has not been con-
ducted, and I hope it never is. In healing,
we should not be promoting winners and
7. We should determine whether certain con-
ditions are more susceptible to healing than
Explorations EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6
In conventional medicine, appendicitis
is easier to cure than brain tumors, and
some brain tumors are easier to cure than
others. Is this true where healing inten-
tions are concerned? Are some illnesses
more responsive to healing than others?
We don’t yet know, but we should be pre-
pared for surprises. It may turn out that
some serious illnesses are more susceptible
to healing intentions than mild ailments
Many years ago I had a conversation
about this issue with physician-researcher
Elisabeth Targ when she and her research
team were designing their landmark heal-
ing study. I had just learned that she had
decided to use subjects with advanced
AIDS for the experiment. I called her and
said something like, “Elisabeth, why on
earth did you pick advanced AIDS?
There’s no good conventional treatment for
this problem (this was prior to the use of
multiple antiretrovirals). Why do you
think healing is going to work? Why not
pick a milder illness, like the flu? I’m afraid
you’re going to give healing a bad name!”
She laughed heartily. “Larry,” she chided,
“I thought you believed in healing!” She
patiently explained her reasons. “If we can
make a difference in advanced AIDS,
skeptics can’t say that healing did nothing
because the illness would have got better
anyway. Besides, healers like a challenge.
They’d much rather work on patients with
a problem like AIDS than someone with
the flu.”
She was right. Her study found that the
patients with advanced AIDS who were
extended healing intentions did better on
several counts. They had a lower incidence
of AIDS-associated illnesses that kill AIDS
patients, such as pneumocystis pneumo-
nia, encephalitis, and so on. They had a
lower rate of hospitalization. If they were
hospitalized, their stays were briefer. They
had a higher quality of life score than the
controls, and there was no correlation be-
tween their outcomes and whether or not
they believed they were receiving healing
8. We should determine whether specific
healing techniques are compatible or incompat-
ible with conventional drugs and surgical pro-
Some healers say there’s never a conflict
with conventional therapies, whereas oth-
ers say incompatibility is always a prob-
lem. Experiments using single healing
methods would help answer this question.
9. We should seek to understand the inter-
connections between healing, prayer, and med-
Several studies have compared experi-
enced meditators with nonmeditators in
performing certain psi tasks. As psi re-
searcher Dean Radin says, “The medita-
tors almost always perform better, usually
significantly better....These abilities
have something to do with the subtle as-
pects of mind....Thephenomena seem
to bubble up from our unconscious, so the
more that we are aware of what’s going on
in our unconscious, the better people are
likely to do.”
Do skilled meditators make better heal-
ers? As far as I know, there have been no
healing studies that have specifically used
only skilled meditators. There needs to be.
10. What is the difference between prayer
and focused intentionality?
When patients respond to intercession,
what is responsible for their response—in-
tercessory prayer itself, or focused atten-
tion such as one sees in skilled meditators?
And is the prayer mediated by a higher
power, or is there a direct, mind-to-matter
interaction, which psi researchers called
psychokinesis? No one knows for sure.
Most religious-based healers insist that
the effects of prayer are mediated by a
higher power. Yet not all religions are the-
istic. The classic example is some forms of
Buddhism, in which healers pray not to a
specific deity but to the universe at large.
What mediates Buddhist healing prayer?
I confess that I cannot conceive of an
experiment that would tease apart this
question. After all, there are no “God
meters” in science. Perhaps this is an indi-
cation that we ought to leave this question
open and encourage people simply to pray
in the way that feels most genuine and
authentic to them without trying to prove
“what did it.” After all, the person who is
healed is more concerned with the fact of
her healing than how it happened.
11. More attention should be paid to a tiered
and rotating experimental design in prayer-
and-healing studies.
By a tiered design is meant a “backup”
group of intercessors who simply pray for
a successful outcome of the overall study,
in addition to a group of intercessors who
pray specifically for the subjects.
The successful triple-blind study of
Cha et al,
involving pregnancy rates in
women undergoing in vitro fertilization
and embryo transfer, employed this
The MANTRA II study by Kru-
coff et al
at Duke University Medical
Center also added a tiered feature at a cer-
tain point in the experiment. Although
the overall study was not statistically sig-
nificant, analysis revealed that significant
results were achieved beginning with the
addition of the tiered feature.
By a rotating design is meant that prayer
assignments are rotated during the course
of the experiment, so that by its conclu-
sion all patients have been subjected to the
prayers and healing intentions of all the
intercessors or healers. This helps mini-
mize any difference in the skills of healers
by ensuring that efforts of healers who
may be uniquely gifted are conveyed to all
the patients in the treatment group, not
just to a few. Targ and her colleagues em-
ployed this method in a positive study ex-
amining healing intentions in patients
with advanced AIDS, as we’ve seen.
12. Close attention should be paid to the du-
ration and frequency of the healing therapy that
is used.
These factors vary so widely in experi-
ments to date that comparison between
studies is often difficult. For example,
prayer duration has varied from only a
few minutes
to hours.
One “minutes-
only” prayer study involving patients re-
ceiving renal dialysis actually prohibited
the intercessors from praying more than
just a few minutes a day, whereas the Targ
et al study in patients with advanced AIDS
required healers to extend healing inten-
tions for hours a day. The Targ study was
successful, while the “minutes-only” study
was not.
This does not necessarily mean, how-
ever, that more prayer and healing inten-
tions are always better. There does not ap-
pear to be a dose-response curve in
healing, like we see with medications. Al-
most certainly we will find that it is not
just quantitative factors such as the fre-
quency and duration of healing intentions
that matter, but also qualitative factors—
the degree of genuineness, sincerity, com-
passion, empathy, and love that are of-
fered. For my part, if I were sick I would
prefer the brief prayers of a single em-
pathic, loving individual to those of a
hundred people who were bored stiff.
348 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
13. We should acknowledge that healing re-
search may not be for everyone.
In conventional science, it is believed
that any researcher may investigate any
subject, provided he or she has the requi-
site expertise. But we’ve noted that the
conscious and unconscious beliefs and in-
tentions of a researcher may influence the
outcome of a carefully designed experi-
ment. If intentions and beliefs matter, it is
best that those who are hostile to the pos-
sibility of remote healing bypass this field
of investigation, because their negative be-
liefs may poison their efforts.
Barbara McClintock, the Nobel geneti-
cist, expressed a similar idea. She believed
that her success depended in large mea-
sure on what she called a “feeling for the
Those who have no “feeling
for the organism” in healing should cede
this research area to those who do.
14. Healing researchers should familiarize
themselves with the accomplishments of para-
Research involving human intentional-
ity has been done in the field of parapsy-
chology for decades, including hundreds
of careful studies in a variety of living
However, prayer-
and-healing researchers generally appear
oblivious to this work. For example, one
can read the literature review sections of
healing papers and see no mention of
prior intentionality studies in parapsy-
chology. To compound this situation,
most healing researchers seem not to have
learned very much from prior studies in
their own field. Protocols meander in every
direction without incorporating features
of earlier studies that have been successful.
Some studies have even duplicated fea-
tures of prior failed studies.
This willful ignorance is dreadful, be-
cause psi researchers have dealt for de-
cades with issues that are critical in healing
research. Decline phenomena and experi-
menter effects are examples. Moreover,
theory development and hypothesis for-
mation in the psi literature is leagues
ahead of the situation in healing research
in medicine.
No healing researcher should venture
into this area without familiarizing him/
herself with the basic literature in parapsy-
chology. This is no longer a daunting task.
Several excellent books are now available,
among which are
Dean Radin, The Conscious Universe
and Entangled Minds,
as mentioned
Damien Broderick, Outside the Gates of
Science: Why It’s Time for the Paranormal
to Come In from the Cold
Elizabeth Lloyd Mayer, Extraordinary
Knowing: Science, Skepticism, and the Inex-
plicable Powers of the Human Mind
Robert G. Jahn and Brenda J. Dunne,
Margins of Reality: The Role of Conscious-
ness in the Physical World
Stephan A. Schwartz, Opening to the Infi-
nite: The Art and Science of Nonlocal
Daniel J. Benor, Healing Research
Wayne B. Jonas and Cindy C. Craw-
ford, Healing, Intention and Energy Medi-
Edward F. Kelly et al, Irreducible Mind:
Toward a Psychology for the 21st Century
Cardeña Etzel, Lynn Steven Jay, Kripp-
ner Stanley, eds. Varieties of Anomalous
Experience: Examining the Scientific Evi-
Richard Broughton, Parapsychology: The
Controversial Science
Russell Targ, Do You See What I See?
Russsell Targ and Jane Katra, Miracles of
Mind: Exploring Non-local Consciousness
and Spiritual Healing
Robert M. Schoch and Logan Yonav-
jak, The Parapsychology Revolution: A
Concise Anthology of Paranormal and Psy-
chical Research
Every healing research team should in-
clude one or more coinvestigator, advisor,
or consultant with experience in parapsy-
chology research. Not doing so is like con-
ducting brain surgery without a neurosur-
15. We should emphasize more bench science
and proof-of-principle studies.
There are a great many advantages to
simple healing studies involving not hu-
mans but animals, tissues, cells, biochem-
ical reactions, plants, or microbes. Some
of the issues we’ve examined—whether
skilled healers are preferable to laypersons,
whether some healing methods are more
effective than others, or questions about
the duration and frequency of healing in-
tentions—are more easily approached in
The mother of all questions is whether
the healing effect is real or whether we’re
fooling ourselves. I believe this question
has been answered in the affirmative, and
that the most decisive proof is not in hu-
man studies but in nonhuman ones.
In order to further answer these press-
ing, fundamental questions, Jonas and
Crawford have wisely suggested that we
need to develop a biological model for
healing. They say, “Laboratory models al-
low for rigorous and controlled studies to
test mechanisms and theories of heal-
ing....A bioREG (biological random
event generator) is one focus for develop-
ment. Other models might include a cell
biology model of cancer and a neuro-
science model examining the neurological
correlates of healing and consciousness
technologies such as functional MRI and
PET, MEG or qEEG.”
A promising example along these lines
is a recent study examining the effects of
therapeutic touch on the proliferation of
normal human cells in culture, compared
with sham and no treatment. These re-
searchers found that therapeutic touch
administered twice a week in 10-minute
intervals for two weeks significantly stim-
ulated proliferation of fibroblasts, teno-
cytes, and osteoblasts in culture (P.04,
.01, and .01, respectively) compared with
untreated controls.
16. The goal of a single “killer study” in heal-
ing, which would sweep all opposition before it,
should be abandoned, because such a study is
As historian Thomas S. Kuhn main-
tained in his landmark book The Structure
of Scientific Revolutions, paradigm shifts in
science usually occur as a result of an in-
creasing number of exceptions to prevail-
ing views, not because of a single experiment
that suddenly demolishes conventional
This is already happening in
healing research, as more data points are be-
ing added to the healing canon.
17. Experimenters should strive to conduct
their experiments in surroundings that are cor-
dial to the idea and possibility of healing.
It may matter greatly where one does
healing research. For example, the Big Is-
land of Hawaii, where Achterberg, as
we’ve seen, did her positive fMRI study
involving healers, is often called the
Healing Island. There, healing seems to
be in the air, assumed to be a part of ev-
eryday life. In contrast, in many academic
settings remote healing is considered an
embarrassment to the institution—hereti-
cal, blasphemous, antiscientific, implausi-
ble, impossible, or threatening. Inimical
Explorations EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6
situations such as these can suffocate the
best efforts of healers and perhaps prevent
the effects that experimenters are investi-
Psychiatrist Ian Stevenson, of the Uni-
versity of Virginia, mentioned above, was
an authority on children who claim to re-
member past lives. He and his colleagues
investigated thousands of these cases.
They found that few of them originate in
the United States. Stevenson attributed
this largely to the inhibiting effects of our
materialistic mindset. He said, “If I were
advising a young scientist entering psychi-
cal research today, I would reverse Horace
Greeley’s advice to young Americans of
the mid-nineteenth century and say ‘Go
East, young man”
—for that is where the
cultural atmosphere is friendliest to such
phenomenon. I’m not suggesting that
healing studies literally be conducted in
the East, but in surroundings that are at
least cordial to the possibility of healing.
18. We should consider a temporary mora-
torium on healing studies.
At the risk of sounding censorious, I
suggest a temporary halt to prayer-and
healing studies. Currently, researchers
seem to wander almost without direction
in this field, with little awareness of what
has worked and what hasn’t. A make-it-up-
as-you-go-along philosophy often seems
to prevail. A time-out is needed to assess
where the field has come from and where
it is headed. All healing studies need to be
critically assessed, analyzed, and dissected.
Which factors correlate with success and
which with failure? Of the many hypoth-
eses that have been advanced to account
for remote healing, which hold promise?
We need a Healing Summit that would
bring together key healing researchers to
confront these questions. Healers should
also be a part of this discussion. Too often
they are marginalized and their opinions
ignored in favor of the intellectual gyra-
tions of investigators who may be clueless
about the inner dimensions of healing
that are important to the healers them-
19. Healing research should be conducted
with respect.
Before she died in 2002, Elisabeth Targ
told me, “When I go into my lab to do a
healing experiment, I feel as if I am walk-
ing on sacred ground.” She compared her
experiments to invitations. “I set up the
experiment as if I’m opening a window to
the Absolute. If She enters, the experiment
works. If not, it’s back to the drawing
board to figure out how to make the ex-
periment more inviting the next time.”
Elisabeth’s healing experiments were all
about invitation, not manipulation or
control. She knew that the words healing,
wholeness, and holy are related. Elisabeth
believed it is not enough for healing re-
searchers to be clever; one’s inner life is
also important. I agree completely. In fact,
I have never known a healing researcher
who made a significant contribution to
the field who did not have a rich inner life
and who was not following a spiritual
We will never compel or bludgeon heal-
ing to yield its secrets. A light touch is
required—Elisabeth’s gentle, respectful in-
vitation, by which one approaches the
world like a lover.
20. We should shed our timidity about what
has been accomplished in healing research.
Healing research hardly existed 40 years
ago. If someone had told me when I grad-
uated from medical school that I would
see studies in remote healing conducted at
some of the finest medical schools in the
world—Harvard; Columbia; Duke; UC;
San Francisco; and others—I’d have con-
sidered them lunatic. We should be proud
of these achievements. But that is possible
only if we know our history—what studies
have been done, what they showed, why
they worked, or why they didn’t.
People working in this field are what
medical futurist Leland Kaiser calls “edge
runners”—risk takers who are out front in
controversial territory.
But edge runners
can get discouraged, because they are al-
ways swimming upstream.
I recently I had a conversation with a
healing researcher who was having a really
bad day. She lamented, “We have learned
almost nothing from all these experi-
ments. It’s as if we are back where we
started.” So I had the opportunity to talk
her down from that ledge. I told her that,
in my opinion, we have decisively demon-
strated that consciousness operates nonlo-
cally to change the state of the physical
world. We’ve learned that these effects oc-
cur throughout nature, including in the
context of health and illness. History, I
said, will record this as one of the most
remarkable contributions in human
knowledge, perhaps the most remarkable.
And I reminded her that she was partly
responsible for this breakthrough. She
said, “Really?” and we shared a laugh.
But we have to be realistic. Those of us
who work in this field will continue to face
skepticism, which is as it should be, be-
cause science cannot progress without it.
But we will also continue to meet willful
ignorance, prejudice, and bigotry. The
best response is simply to do our work
patiently and take the long view. Dean Ra-
din has described this situation accurately.
In a fascinating review of the scientific ev-
idence for time-reversed effects, he offers
predictions that apply also to healing re-
search, saying, “These implications, of
course, are heresies of the first order. But I
believe that if the scientific evidence con-
tinues to compound, then the accusation
of heresy is an inescapable conclusion that
we will eventually have to face. I also be-
lieve that the implications of all this are
sufficiently remote from engrained ways
of thinking that the first reaction to this
work will be confidence that it is wrong.
The second reaction will be horror that it
may be right. The third will be reassurance
that it is obvious.”
In the end, it is unclear how much we
can know about the abundant mysteries of
healing and the nature of human con-
sciousness. William James, the father of
American psychology, said late in life, “I
firmly disbelieve, myself, that our human
experience is the highest form of experi-
ence extant in the universe. I believe rather
that we stand in much the same relation to
the whole of the universe as our canine
and feline pets do to the whole of human
life. They inhabit our drawing rooms and
libraries. They take part in scenes of whose
significance they have no inkling. They
are merely tangent to curves of history the
beginnings and ends and forms of which
pass wholly beyond their ken. So we are
tangents to the wider life of things.”
These mysteries are certain to exhaust
us before we exhaust them. But this is no
concession or admission of defeat. In the
human drama, it is the journey, not the
destination, that is most important.
In our enthusiasm for healing, we ought
always to bear in mind that, in the end, all
the attempts of healers to eradicate illness
fail. Everyone dies; so far the statistics are
quite impressive. This is a blessing for hu-
man life in general, because if all the
350 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
prayers for the eradication of illness were
answered, few would die and the earth
would have become overpopulated and
rendered unfit for habitation long ago.
But in another sense, healing never fails
because the very fact that remote inten-
tionality exists reminds us that our con-
sciousness is nonlocal or infinite in space
and time. This means that immortality is
our birthright. It is part of our original
equipment. We do not have to acquire it.
It comes factory installed.
Two remarkable women reminded me
of this fact, both of whom were extremely
influential in advancing the art and sci-
ence of healing.
One was Charlotte McGuire. Many of
her colleagues remember Charlotte’s guid-
ing principle, “Love is the essence of heal-
At the height of her nursing career,
“Charlie” was vice president and director
of patient care for 19 hospitals in Texas.
She was corporate America. However,
in 1981 she had the guts to say, “I quit,”
and she founded the American Holistic
Nurses Association. This happened at the
gentle nudging of Dr C. Norman Shealy,
who was one of the founders of the Amer-
ican Holistic Medical Association. Today
the AHNA has over 4,000 members and is
a champion for healing in nursing world-
wide. Holistic nursing has matured so
greatly that it has recently been officially
recognized as a subspecialty within nurs-
ing by the American Nurses Association.
On April 22, 2008, my wife Barbara and
I journeyed to Charlie’s Buffalo Woman
Ranch near Dove Creek, Colorado, to see
her for the last time. Barbie was a founding
member of the AHNA and one of Char-
lie’s earliest collaborators. Charlie was dy-
ing of metastatic breast cancer and was in
her final days. She was bald, battered, and
beautiful. We knew this was our last time
to see her, so we didn’t waste time with
idle chatter and neither did she. Barbie
asked her, “Charlie, have you seen the
other side?” She nodded yes. “What’s it
like?” She said softly with a smile, “It’s
beautiful. So beautiful!” She died a few
days later in perfect peace.
I wish also to honor the late physician
Elisabeth Targ, whom I have mentioned
many times. Elisabeth was one of the great
geniuses of healing research. She had the
distinction of being able to do something
many scientists simply are incapable of—she
could produce a positive study in remote
healing, not least because she was herself a
healer and knew healing from the inside out.
Shortly before her death, she said her fond-
est wish was to return as “the Virgin Mary’s
assistant to help people love and heal.”
It is to the memory of these two extraor-
dinary women—Charlotte McGuire, RN,
MS (1942-2008) and Elisabeth Targ, MD
(1961-2002)—that I dedicate this essay.
May our efforts be worthy of their mem-
—Larry Dossey, MD
Executive Editor
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352 EXPLORE November/December 2008, Vol. 4, No. 6 Explorations
... mass participants may not necessarily put a lot of dedication or emotions into the particular request for a given bishop's well-being, and the bishop is also a barely known stranger to the most of the praying. Additionally, the rote prayer, mechanically repeated as a part of mass procedure is definitely significantly different from a personal, intimate, and ardent prayer one would employ if they actually wanted to ask for someone's health (Dossey, 2008). ...
Full-text available
Based on a computational analysis of a large dataset, this study explores if there is a significant longevity effect of intercessory prayer for a named individual’s well-being, if he receives a very high number of prayers per annum for an extended period. We relied on an observational cohort study, based on data from 1988 to 2018, including 857 Roman Catholic bishops, 500 Catholic priests, and 3038 male academics from six countries. We measured the covariance of the mean length of life, controlled for nationality. It was found that there is a main effect for occupation F (2, 4391) = 4.07, p = 0.017, η p ² = 0.002, with pairwise comparisons indicating significant differences between the mean life duration of bishops ( M = 30,489) and of priests ( M = 29,894), but none between the academic teachers ( M = 30,147) and either of the other groups. A comparison analysis between bishops from the largest and the smallest dioceses showed no significant difference t (67.31) = 1.61, p = 0.11. The first analysis proved that bishops live longer than priests, but due to a marginal effect size this result should be treated with caution. No difference was found between the mean length of life of bishops from the largest and the smallest dioceses.
... patterns in water (Schwartz, 2017), tea (Shiah & Radin, 2013), and chocolate (Radin, Hayssen, &Walsh, 2007) • Research review of healing, intention, and energy medicine (Jonas & Crawford, 2003) • Research on distant intentionality and the nonlocal effects of prayer and meditation in the healing process (Dossey, 2008;Schlitz & Braud, 1997;Schwartz & Dossey, 2010;Targ, 1996) Existential psychoanalyst Rollo May (1969) explained that intentionality in the context of psychotherapy is the capacity for intention and for being with another in a deeply caring moment that is "born out of one's level of conscious awareness and one's needs . . ." (pp. ...
Full-text available
Purpose: To explore and conceptualize the nature of intentionality in the context of healing through the descriptive experiences of nonnurse professional care providers and natural healers and to determine if the previously developed theory (intentionality: the matrix of healing [IMH]) was supported or needed revision. Method: Ten care providers and two natural healers were interviewed. Data were analyzed using a modified grounded theory—constant comparative method. Coding, memos, diagraming, and concept development were used to compare these results with the previous two cohorts. The study had institutional review board approval. Results: The theory of IMH was supported. All cohorts agreed that intentionality is essential for healing and similar to, but different from and greater than, intention. The core process of nonlinear expanding personal development, viewed as both an attribute and the core process, is now called dynamic differentiation. The theory IMH describes intentionality as a dynamically evolving process that creates the energy, shape, and structure, or matrix, for intention, actions, and healing.
... Additionally, positive or negative findings for a given study-such as on the once-popular research theme of healing prayer-may be promoted, regardless of quality, as having confirmed or invalidated one or another global assertions about the salutogenic effect of praying. A notable example is the intercessory prayer study by Herbert Benson and colleagues [31], a randomized controlled trial among heart bypass patients published in 2006, whose negative finding effectively killed off interest in conducting such trials, despite the presence of serious critiques of the study's methodology [32] and the presence of dozens of other methodologically vetted studies with positive findings [33]. Today, despite thousands upon thousands of published papers on the broad topic of faith and medicine, including hundreds of very well-regarded empirical studies with statistically significant findings, the subject as a whole has been astutely described by Neal Krause, a preeminent researcher, as "a disheveled literature" [34]-a conceptual, theoretical, and methodological mess. ...
Full-text available
Research and writing at the intersection of faith and medicine by now include thousands of published studies, review articles, books, chapters, and essays. Yet this emerging field has been described, from within, as disheveled on account of imprecision and lack of careful attention to conceptual and theoretical concerns. An important source of confusion is the fact that scholarship in this field constitutes two distinct literatures, or rather meta-literatures, which can be termed (a) faith as a problematic for medicine and (b) medicine as a problematic for faith. These categories represent distinct theoretical lenses for viewing the intersection of faith and medicine. Observations about these two approaches are offered, along with insights about why the discourse on faith and medicine should become better integrated into discussions of religion and science.
... Hufford and Dossey have offered a critique of the most common objections directed toward the field of healing intentions. 98,99 C.D. Broad, the eminent Cambridge University philosopher of science, unleashed a weaponized salvo against the critics of so-called paranormal phenomena at mid-20th century. Though harsh, his words still apply 100 : ...
... Often in this column and elsewhere I've explored the evidence for remote healing influences. [30][31][32][33] There is an increasing database suggesting that the intentions of individuals can remotely influence the physiology of humans, animals, plants, microbes, and the behavior of inanimate devices such as random event generators. 34,35 Emerging concepts in physics such as nonlocality and entanglement, now known to apply in the biological domain, lend theoretical plausibility to these observations. ...
Full-text available
Sarcoidosis is a benign systemic granulomatosis with an unknown cause. Parenchymal involvement in the interstices is typical. The pseudoalveolar type is uncommon, frequently acute in onset, and challenging to identify, but it quickly gets better with corticosteroid treatment. Here, we present a case of pseudoalveolar sarcoidosis in a young female patient with a distinctive and perplexing radiological and clinical presentation. In this work, we highlight the rarity of this pseudoalveolar type, the challenge of an early identification, and the significance of taking it into consideration. However, in 25% to 30% of cases, the radiological findings are atypical and unfamiliar to most radiologists, making a correct diagnosis difficult. There have been numerous reports of atypical forms of intrathoracic sarcoidosis. We gathered a case of unusual radiological finding and described a disorder typical form. Finally, we discuss the excellent response of this unusual form of sarcoidosis to corticosteroid therapy and the importance of starting therapy early.
Full-text available
This paper advocates for a renewed focus into the experiential domain of religious and spiritual expression in research on physical and mental health. Most studies, up to now, have investigated risk or protection associated with behavioral measures of religiousness, whether public behaviors such as religious attendance or private behaviors such as personal prayer. Religious attitudes, beliefs, and identity have been studied, as well, as have religious self-rating scales of various types, but, relatively less emphasized have been subjective experiences, such as feelings of transcendence or unitive connection with the divine. There is good reason to believe that such experiences may impact on well-being, based both on previous studies and on theory and clinical observation. This paper suggests that although researching the domain of such seemingly ineffable experiences may present certain conceptual and methodological challenges, these would be worth facing in order to gain deeper insight into the human spiritual dimension and into connections among body, mind, and spirit.
The biomedical model of health exclusively focuses on the body’s dysfunctions, or even on the dysfunctioning of a single organ or a single genetic anomaly supposed to be causally responsible for the patient’s illness. In contrast to this approach, and in accordance with Hippocrates’ holistic line of thought, the systemic, quantum-like approach presented here conceives of illness as an imbalance in the patient’s psychosomatic state. Healing a person’s illness will thus consist in rebalancing this state. This rebalancing can be done by changing the relative weights of the specific psychophysical correlations encoded in this state, which needs to take into account their subjective life in an essential way. Mind-body entanglement can explain the existence of a body memory which, in turn, explains the genesis and evolution of internal diseases and suggests the development of holistic therapies. In particular, the concept of mind-body entanglement provides new insights on mental disorders, their classification and their relationship with brain functioning. Furthermore, it provides a theoretical framework for explaining consistently paradigmatic self-healing techniques, which remain totally enigmatic within the classical, causal-local framework. This is the case of the placebo “effect”, biofeedback and the healing power of meditation. Mind-body entanglement also explains the possibility of distant healing, for which significant data have been reported.
Lindsay Audin, president of Energywiz, Inc., has suggested the significance of planning to reduce energy costs in buildings. The reduction in lighting wattage in one installation yielded impressive electrical savings but resulted in an increase in reheat energy consumption. As a result, the hot water reheat coil pumped out more heat, countering the cooling savings, and consuming more steam at the hot water heat exchanger. Had the reheat coil been electric, it could have countered much of the lighting wattage savings, while if perimeter radiation had been electric, most lighting wattage savings during the heating would disappear as the baseboards, trying to maintain constant room temperatures, consuming power roughly equal to that saved by the lighting upgrade. The energy industry is looking forward to better measures for energy savings, which is leading to a preference for DOAS, combined with radiant slab heating/cooling, as such designs show significant savings over conventional VAV systems.
Clear and authoritative, this unique book explores the results and clinical implications of research in spiritual healing, energy medicine, and the effects of intentionality. Rigorously evaluating the science of healing intention, it also makes recommendations for future research and investigations on the impact of spiritual healing practices in the clinical setting.
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