THE BLOG
07/24/2013 01:18 pm ET Updated Sep 03, 2013

Waiting for Western Science to Catch up With Mind-body Medicine? Don't Hold Your Breath

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

The reason the autonomic nervous system is called the autonomic nervous system is that up until the 1960s, Western scientists believed that most components of this system like heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism and breathing rate were all controlled automatically. In other words, these functions were controlled by the unconscious mind with little or no input from the conscious mind. David Blaine's feat of holding his breath for 17 minutes is just one more example of how the automaticity of this system can be over-ridden in extraordinary ways by people like Blaine.

Gurus and swamis in India have been doing this kind of thing for thousands of years. However, they were summarily ignored by western science until people like Dr. Herbert Benson (of Harvard) and Dr. Elmer Green (of the Menninger Foundation) took it upon themselves to study some of these mind-body "magicians." In the early 1970s, Benson worried that he would ruin his reputation by simply asking practitioners of transcendental meditation to come into his lab at Harvard so he could measure their heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. Benson, who was skeptical at the time that anyone could override their own nervous system, was surprised to see that yes, these meditators could control certain autonomic functions of the body. He wrote about his findings in his best-selling book entitled The Relaxation Response.

Benson had spent years studying the stress response, which was coincidentally discovered in the same laboratory at Harvard 50 years earlier by a man named Walter Cannon who named it the "fight or flight response." Benson's work confirmed that these meditators, armed with nothing more than a mantra, could make significant physical changes inside their bodies. And even more significantly, these changes, it would turn out, could have a positive effect on a person's health.

Elmer Green, who is considered the "grandfather" of biofeedback, went to India with my first boss, Elda Hartley, to photograph and study some of these gurus and swamis and catch what they could do on film. Dr. Green designed a portable lab that was quite sophisticated for the time to bring to India. If they did encounter any mind body magic, Dr. Green would have the proof of what was happening in his equipment and Elda would be able to capture it on film.

A guru named Swami Rama had stopped his heart in front of a live audience and Elmer Green had been there to witness it. But interestingly, when Elmer and Elda went off to India, they didn't have much luck finding gurus who were willing to perform "their magic" in front of a camera. -- James E. Porter

For years there had been rumors traveling across the ocean of people in India who could stop their hearts or slow down their metabolism to such an extent that they could be buried underground in an airtight box. A guru named Swami Rama had stopped his heart in front of a live audience and Elmer Green had been there to witness it. But interestingly, when Elmer and Elda went off to India, they didn't have much luck finding gurus who were willing to perform "their magic" in front of a camera.

In order to save the film, Elmer, who had learned how to do some of these techniques from the gurus he had studied, sat down with the camera rolling, connected himself to his own equipment, and demonstrated how he could slow down his own heart with nothing but his thoughts. It was a dramatic scene that I've never forgotten because you could see the needle indicating that his heart was slowing down, and he wasn't doing anything but just sitting there.

In the opening moments of that film, entitled; Biofeedback; The Yoga of the West, Green poses a simple question to the audience which I found equally unforgettable. He is referring to the concept of psycho-somatic illness when he asks, "If we can make ourselves sick with our thoughts, why can't we learn to make ourselves well?" And with that question a whole new era of mind-body medicine was born.

For a magician, David Blaine has done a credible job of allowing scientists to study what he does in this particular "underwater act" to confirm that in fact, it isn't magic at all. Watch his TED Talk online if you have any doubts. He is also apparently fascinated with the history of this mind/body control, carefully documenting some of the efforts of other people who have exercised this kind of control before him. It's interesting that there's still so much mystery surrounding some of these abilities, even though others before him have been doing this kind of thing for thousands of years.

To learn more about stress and the autonomic nervous system, see www.stressStop.com

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