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Dr. Larry Dossey Headshot

Spirituality, Healing and Science

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What is spirituality? I consider it a felt sense of connectedness with something higher, a presence that transcends the individual sense of self. I distinguish spirituality from religion, which is a codified system of beliefs, practices, and behaviors that usually take place in a community of like-minded believers. Religion may or may not include a sense of the spiritual, and spiritual individuals may or may not be religious. I regard prayer as communication with the Absolute, however named, no matter what form this communication may take. Prayer may or may not be addressed to a Supreme Being. Many forms of Buddhism, for instance, are not theistic, yet prayer, addressed to the universe, is a vital part of the Buddhist tradition.

Even if prayer connects us with the Absolute, does it work in an empirical sense? In regard to healing, many systematic and meta-analyses have been published in the peer-reviewed medical literature assessing the quality of remote healing and distant intentionality studies. Nearly all these peer-reviewed analyses have yielded positive findings, suggesting that the healing effects of prayer and other forms of intentionality are real and replicable.

Yet these studies evoke sharp criticism. It is an article of faith in most scientific circles that human consciousness is derived from the brain, and that its effects are confined to the brain and body of an individual. Accordingly, it is widely assumed that conscious intentions cannot act remotely. The controlled healing studies call this assumption into question -- and this challenge, I suspect, underlies much of the visceral response this field evokes.

Perhaps the most frequent criticism of distant intentionality-and-healing studies is that they are so theoretically implausible that they should not even be done. In other words, they radically violate the accepted canons of science, and this places them so completely outside the scientific landscape that they do not deserve consideration.

There are striking parallels between the current rejection of distant healing phenomena and the earlier refusal of scientists to accept the phenomenon of meteorites. The logic in both instances is that, because scientists know in advance that certain events can't happen, they don't happen.

Plausibility arguments can especially become a straightjacket in areas in which current understanding is primitive. Nowhere is this truer than in areas in which the operations of consciousness are concerned. For example, physicist Sir Roger Penrose states, "My position [on consciousness] demands a major revolution in physics ... I've come to believe that there is something very fundamental missing from current science ... Our understanding at this time is not adequate and we're going to have to move to new regions of science ... "

Many outstanding scientists do not believe that remote effects of consciousness, if they occur, are implausible with respect to current scientific theory. For example, physicist Gerald Feinberg stated, "If such phenomena indeed occur, no change in the fundamental equations of physics would be needed to describe them."

And physicist O. Costa de Beauregard observes, "Today's physics allows for the existence of the so-called 'paranormal' phenomena of telepathy, precognition, and psychokinesis ... The whole concept of 'non-locality' in contemporary physics requires this possibility."

Henry P. Stapp of the University of California-Berkeley states, "[O]ur human thoughts are linked to nature by nonlocal connections: what a person chooses to do in one region seems immediately to effect what is true elsewhere in the universe. ... [Our] thoughts ... DO something [emphasis in original]."

These positions do not endorse remote healing through distant intentionality, of course, but they appear to leave open the possibility.

Another common criticism is that these studies are metaphysical; they invoke a transcendent agency or higher power, which places them outside the domain of empirical science. This is a straw-man argument, because researchers in this field make no assertions about entelechies, gods, or metaphysical agents in interpreting their findings. They are searching for correlations between healing intentions and observable effects in the world. They typically defer on the question of mechanism, which is an accepted strategy within science.

Researchers are currently exploring hypotheses from several areas of science that are cordial to the remote effects of prayer and intentionality. Indeed, the acceptance of a role for spirituality in modern medicine is well underway, and for good reason. Compelling evidence suggests that those who follow a spiritual path in their life live several years longer than those who do not follow such a path, and that they experience a lower incidence of almost all major diseases.

During my medical training I was assured that real doctors don't believe in a role for spirituality in healing. Prayer was especially derided as unscientific nonsense. I doubt that these prejudices ever truly reflected the inner beliefs of most physicians. In any case, they certainly do not do so today. A recent nationwide survey of American physicians in various subspecialties found that 59 percent pray for their patients individually, 51 percent pray for their patients as a group, 42 percent encourage their patients to pray for themselves, and 55 percent say they have seen clinical events among their patients that they consider miraculous.

A survey of American family physicians found that 99 percent are convinced that spiritual beliefs can heal, and 75 percent believe that prayers of others can help a patient recover. The Joint Commission, which accredits clinics and hospitals in the United States, requires every institution to have a method in place to assess the spiritual concerns of every incoming patient. The Association of American Medical Colleges requires that every graduating physician be able to take a spiritual history from a patient, demonstrate that he or she understands how spirituality can be used to deliver compassionate care to those in need, and demonstrate a knowledge of the research on the role of spirituality in health. A recent survey of over 4,000 nurses found that 80 percent felt that spirituality should be covered in nurse education as a core aspect of nursing.

I am not recommending a mindless homogenization of religion and scientific medicine, which would be disastrous, but that we simply acknowledge the fact, now demonstrated in hundreds of studies, that spiritual concerns and healing intentions influence clinical outcomes and longevity. This research is abundant and is increasing. To ignore it is, I believe, scientifically untenable.

Yet this field will continue to evoke intellectual indigestion. Those who consider spirituality and healing intentions outside the purview of scientific medicine may ignore them. In doing so, however, critics should be careful not to obstruct free inquiry and subvert the very science they champion. Those who consider distant intentionality and remote healing so implausible they simply cannot countenance the generous evidence favoring them might consider the observation of William James: "I believe there is no source of deception in the investigation of nature which can compare with a fixed belief that certain kinds of phenomena are impossible."

An invited contribution to the Ervin Laszlo Forum on Science and Spirituality.