Research into distant healing requires us to have new eyes. Furthermore, it may require a leap into the collective consciousness. And therein lies only one of many challenges facing researchers in their quest. Even the term “distant healing” reflects a response to the obstacles and objections within this field, for what we’re really referring to is spiritual healing, or prayer. The utterance of the words “spiritual” or “prayer” in conjunction with scientifically-based research is enough to raise the hackles of some scientists and doctors. In religious communities, as well, there are objections to crossing what is deemed a sacred line.
Throughout the literature, we find a variety of terms used by researchers to diffuse controversy over this subject: distant intentionality, mental healing, psi healing, applied “mental effort” to elicit the effect being studied, or simply healing.1,2 Dr. Daniel Benor, psychiatrist, noted lecturer and author of Healing Research states, “Spiritual healing is the intentional influence of one or more people upon one or more living systems without utilizing known physical means of intervention.”3
Larry Dossey, M.D., author, lecturer and editor of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, commented in an online interview with Health World, “We are beginning to focus on subject matter that science hasn’t previously seen fit to explore, namely what the mind can do. It’s created a tremendous battle line being drawn within orthodox science. Even though these new studies are scientific, they’re so outrageous with regard to their implications for reality that many orthodox scientists won’t have anything to do with them.”4 Dossey also notes that experimenters’ avoidance of the word “prayer” results in “the difficulty of identifying prayer-and-healing studies, and the underestimation of the number of prayer experiments that exist.”5
Some criticize the studies as blasphemous in trying to prove the existence of God, although this is not the intent of the research. One physician, in response to a published prayer study, asked “would God only heal those prayed for in the study?” and answered with his own rebuttal, “I was taught that God is not capricious and that faith is not a matter of scientific proof.”6 In response to religious objections, Dr. Elizabeth Targ, psychiatrist and director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, puts forth: “Research in distant healing is neither a test of faith nor a test of religious teachings — it is an exploration of the relationship of human consciousness to the universal.”7
Beans, Yeast and Mold
Despite the protests, researchers have made progress in documenting the effects of distant healing. Benor notes that of more than 150 randomized controlled studies of healing, “more than half demonstrate statistically significant effects. These include studies of humans, other animals, plants, bacteria, yeasts, cells in laboratory culture, enzymes and more.” The techniques used in these trials range from touch or hands positioned near the organism to healing from distances of several meters to several miles.8
One group that began conducting experiments in distant healing with non-human biological systems as early as 1969 is Spindrift Research. Developed by father-son team, Bruce and John Klingbeil, the Spindrift studies applied prayer to influence growth and development in simple organisms such as beans, seeds, mold and yeast cells. The majority of experiments took place between 1975 and 1993. In addition to indicating the effectiveness of prayer, the trials “established evidence that prayer and consciousness can be scientifically tested.”9 These as well as other studies of intercessory prayer with non-human biological systems, notes Dossey, “...have been done with great precision and have been replicated by different investigators in different laboratories. They make up the basic or bench science underlying the objective study of prayer.”10
The Greater Challenge
There are conflicting claims in human trials of distant healing, providing fuel for skeptics and critics to dismiss them, or even suggest they are the result of placebo effect or fraud. But there have also been several positive reviews of the literature. Recently, a systematic review of human randomized trials in distant healing was conducted by researchers at the School of Medicine, University of Maryland in Baltimore. The findings, published in 2000, point to both gains and stumbling blocks encountered by study teams pursuing the effectiveness of this approach. Using electronic literature searches keyed to spiritual healing, mental healing, faith healing, prayer, noncontact Therapeutic Touch, reiki, distant healing, psychic healing and external qigong, as well as contact with researchers in the field, more than 100 clinical trials were identified. However, after application of strict criteria related to randomization, control interventions, peer-review publication, investigative approach and inclusion of humans with any medical condition, only 23 studies qualified for review. The study team categorized these 23 trials into three types: prayer, Therapeutic Touch and other distant healing.11
Two of the five prayer studies, seven of 11 Therapeutic Touch studies and four of seven in the “other distant healing” group showed positive treatment effect. There were nine studies with no effect and in one study the controls “healed significantly faster” than the experimental group.12 Despite the careful selection criteria, reviewers cited difficulty in making qualitative interpretation of the findings due to several methodological limitations. In addition, lack of heterogeneity hindered quantitative evaluation.13 However, in light of the 57 percent showing of positive results in these trials, the team recommended continued studies and suggested addressing methodologic limitations “to help resolve some of the discrepant findings in the literature and shed further light on the potential efficacy of these approaches.”14
In distant healing, when dealing with human subjects with illness, one cannot control for prayer or positive intentions being offered outside the confines of the study. Certainly people in the control group are likely to receive this type of support from family and friends, as it has been documented that 80 percent to 90 percent of Americans engage in daily prayer.15,16 The Baltimore reviewers point out that distant healing research with nonhuman biological systems eliminates this factor and provides a more “pure” control. They also suggest careful measurement of psychological factors (depression, sense of control, etc.) which may impact recovery. Small samples in some studies may have contributed to negative findings, thus larger, well-designed randomized, controlled trials are in order.17 But as researchers continue in their quest for validation, it’s also important to note that many medical interventions are not supported by scientific evidence. Dossey suggests that perhaps a double standard is being applied to prayer research, “according to which levels of proof are demanded that may not be required of conventional therapies.”18 (For additional concerns and suggestions regarding prayer research, see Dossey’s article “The Return of Prayer” in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, Nov. 1997.)
Obviously, methodologic problems are not the only obstacle to acceptance of healing research in the scientific community. The idea of “mental action at a distance” flies in the face of conventional beliefs. Among some professionals there is a bias against accepting the transmission of thought from one body to the other outside of the senses identified by science. “Those who oppose the idea of intercessory prayer,” says Dossey “do so because of the prevalent belief that human consciousness can be generally equated with the workings of the brain, which means that the effects are confined to the physical brain and body.” He notes a comment made by a peer-reviewer of a prestigious scientific journal in reaction to this subject: “This is the kind of thing that I would not believe in even if it existed.” In contrast, some very prominent scientists are now investigating this “kind of thing.”19
Energy or Consciousness?
Whether distant healing is accomplished by a transfer of energy or tapping into a fundamental consciousness is yet to be proven, if indeed it can. Many healers in alternative therapies talk of blocked energy, transmission of positive energy and the like. According to Benor, the “how” theories of distant healing include: Biological energies of healers interact with those of healees to bring about changes; the intentions/wishes/ meditations/prayers of healers can influence healees’ bioenergy fields; the intentions/wishes/meditations/ prayers of healers can influence healees’ consciousness, bringing about changes that then influence healees’ problems; discarnate intelligences (spirits, angels, Christ, saints or others in spiritual dimensions) bring about healings; divine intervention produces healings.”20
The ancients would likely tell us that healing is in the realm of what Dossey terms the “nonlocal mind,” not confined to points in space or time. Dossey states, “Many terms have been proposed in the past for this idea: Universal Mind, Cosmic Consciousness, the One Mind, God or Christ Consciousness, Buddha Mind, and so on.”21 In his book, Reinventing Medicine, Dossey says the new era unfolding in medicine “...includes the ability of consciousness to reach out beyond ourselves to make a difference in other people.”22
In the old ways of Western science, consciousness is seen as something produced or transmitted by the brain, and yet, says Dossey, we have no evidence that anything is actually transmitted during nonlocal experience. “If consciousness is genuinely nonlocal,” he says, “as the evidence suggests, it is infinite or omnipresent in space and time.” It is always present everywhere, so we needn’t try to transmit anything, we only need have awareness of it.23
“Our nonlocal mental capacities appear to be fundamental,” says Dossey, “meaning that they are irreducible to anything more basic such as brains, bodies, genes and DNA.”24 Indigenous healers, past and present, should have no difficulty with this concept. Spiritual medicine has been and still is practiced around the world. As for modern science, it appears we are entering a new paradigm, based on an old one.
Ethical and religious objections to distant healing research are bound to continue, both within the scientific arena and religious disciplines. As one dissenter stated, “Religion does not need medical science to validate its rituals.”25 This is certainly a valid point. Those for whom prayer, meditation, supplication or whatever approach is chosen to connect to their deity, consciousness or as Dossey terms it, the Absolute, need no research to affirm their belief.
So why test prayer and other forms of distant healing? If we intend for distant healing to be accepted as an adjunct to conventional medical treatment, it seems appropriate for spiritual healing practitioners to strive for scientific credentials to back up their methods. But above and beyond the practical considerations is the possibility that we may open the door to greater experiences as human beings.
The words of Targ provide a fitting close: “No experiment can prove or disprove the existence of God, but if in fact intentions can be shown to facilitate healing at a distance, this would clearly imply that human beings are more connected to each other and more responsible to each other than previously believed. That connection could be actuated through the agency of God, consciousness, love, electrons or a combination. The answers to such questions await further research.”26