Review | Timeless Healing

by Ian Mowat

At our April 2 ideaExchange session at Aqua Books, we hosted a panel discussion entitled “Placebo or Prayer? Is there a difference? – an exploration of the intersection of faith and medicine in health and healing.” Contributing panelists were Dr. Pierre Plourde, Dr. Donald Dyck, and Helen Mikolajewski, all three of whom are active members of saint benedict’s table, and bring a wealth of experience in the field of health care. In different ways, the three picked up on the challenging insights of Herbert Benson’s book, “Timeless Healing, the Power and Biology of Belief”, which inspired Ian Mowat to take up the book and offer the following reflections. Also an active member of saint benedict’s table, Ian currently works in the health care field as spiritual care provider.

Jamie Howison

Benson M.D., Herbert  Timeless Healing, the Power and Biology of Belief,Fireside Books, Simon and Schuster, New York (1996).

Dr. Herbert Benson is a medical researcher and cardiologist who has witnessed belief-inspired healing in many of his patients. This book,Timeless Healing, has come about by the author’s 35 years of research into the connection between the human mind and body and how the mind influences physical healing. The result is a fascinating book.

As a young medical student, Benson became interested in the reasons why people turn to spiritual beliefs and religious faith in time of illness and need. He suspected, even as a student, that Western 20th century medicine was overlooking an important element of healing by ignoring patients’ personalities and beliefs. Since then, Benson has earned much credibility in the medical community. He was one of the first investigators who established the new scientific field now known as “mind/body medicine”. As a result of his pioneering work in this field, he founded The Mind/Body Medical Institute of Harvard University in 1988.

Benson states that invoking our beliefs is not only emotionally and spiritually soothing, but vitally important to physical health. He asserts our values and life experiences “cannot but manifest themselves.” His hope is that doctors will not ignore those intangible qualities of their patients. Benson states he wants readers of the book to appreciate the power of their own beliefs so that they can embrace life, and the meaning of their lives, for the fullest measure of health (:12).

Benson tells the story of when, as a student, he was taught that modern medical research is forging ahead so fast that everything he was learning about the human body would be obsolete within five years.  It is amazing, that as a very young doctor he responded to this by beginning to search for something in medicine that would last – a timeless source of healing. He hoped his findings would have proven value for generations past, present and future (:15). In short he was determined to turn basic concepts of Western medicine on their heads!

Benson notes his most important contribution to medicine “was in defining a bodily calm that all of us can evoke and that has the opposite effect of the well known fight or flight response. He calls this bodily calm “the relaxation response” and notes it is a state in which blood pressure is lowered, and heart rate, breathing rate, and metabolic rate are decreased. (:16-17). He he became convinced that our bodies “are wired” to benefit from exercising not only our muscles, but “our rich inner, human core – our beliefs values, thoughts, and feelings” (:17). He a concluded the human mind – and the beliefs we so often associate with the human soul – has measurable physical manifestations.

Of special interest is Benson’s description of the well known  “placebo effect” and what he calls “remembered wellness”(: 20ff). Placebos have been used by doctors for many centuries. A placebo may be nothing more than droplets of sterile water injected under the patient’s skin or they could be pills made out of sugar. They are harmless,  not having any medicinal effect and often called “a dummy pill”. But placebos have produced astonishing results over and over again. Benson states that when the patient or the caregiver or both believe in this “treatment”,  the placebo contributes to big improvements. In fact the individual’s belief in the treatment and his caregiver empowers the placebo!

Benson has coined another term to help understand this. He calls it “remembered wellness” because this term better describes the brain mechanics involved and because ‘placebo’ has taken on a pejorative meaning in the medical community. Essentially “remembered wellness” refers to the calm and confidence associated with health and happiness, but not just in an emotional or psychological way. But the memory has physical manifestations as Benson stresses in his work.

Physicians have always accepted this phenomenon, but in Western medicine they were reluctant to acknowledge this because up until now, doctors could not measure or quantify patients’ feelings and beliefs. The results however of using this approach of remembered wellness are amazing. Benson notes that in the patient cases he and colleagues reviewed, remembered wellness was 70 to 90% effective (!) doubling and even tripling the success rate of the placebo effect (:21). Interestingly when physicians doubted the effectiveness of these treatments, effectiveness dropped to 30 to 40%. (:30).

As Benson notes, remembered wellness will not be accepted into Western society without measurable results. Three things have to be in place before a scientist can establish an objective: measurability, predictability, and reproducibility. The writer notes the process is now under way in the United States to “separate proverbial snake oil from proven, helpful therapies” (:28). Throughout the book, he drives home the point that patients’ “perceptions and physicality are very tightly woven together in the body, so it is impossible to separate objective and subjective change” (:29)

It is exciting that now researchers can actually see changes take place within a human brain through the practice of remembered wellness (:95).

I love this book. It is difficult to put down! I believe Benson’s work, while not necessarily original, is unique in that it is written from a clearly medical perspective applying objective measurements to prove very subjective points (:23). Benson is no anti-medical polemicist. On the contrary he celebrates the astonishing advances made in medicine in the last 100 years. He uses sound science to make his points and the book is devoid of new age hocus pocus. In fact, Benson would urge us to use modern conventional medical services, but not ignore the connection between the mind and body, the soul and spirit. As M. Scott Peck states, Timeless Healing is  “… a gold mine of information about the integration of body, mind, and soul.” As such, Benson’s work parallels the work of CPE.

The only weaknesses I would point out are that Timeless Healing was published in 1996 and should be updated with web addresses in the reference section in particular. I wish there was a revised edition of this book. I also found the lack of footnotes distracting, although Benson has a long list of reference materials listed by chapter and the end of the book.

The affect of Timeless Healing on my practice of hospital chaplaincy is to renew my confidence in what I are doing. I feel that even if some people do not understand or approve of what Spiritual Care is all about, we are doing the right thing. Hopefully the medical establishment in this country will catch up!  There is now scientific data to support what we have known for many years: When patients get in touch with their inner feelings, their deepest held beliefs and their reasons for hope; they heal faster, experience fewer complications, are discharged sooner, and their rates of disease and death dramatically improve (:105). Chaplaincy is cost-effective! I also found  chapters entitled “The Brain’s Prerogative”,  “Wired For God” and “Medicine’s Spiritual Crisis” very interesting and worthy of future study. Highly recommended book.  Four and half stars!

Ian Mowat

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