Dr. Larry Dossey is former co-chair of the National Institutes of Health, Alternative Medicine Division. He is author of "Space, Time and Medicine" and "Healing Words" where he discusses the scientific evidence supporting the power of healing intention.
DiCarlo: In your work you describe three eras of medicine: Era 1, Era 2, and Era 3. Using that as a framework, could you explain the emerging paradigm of medicine as you see it?
Dossey: I formulated this three era approach to medicine basically to make sense of all the therapies that are out there and to characterize the way that we define ourselves as human beings. If you start at the time when medicine first became scientific, which began in the decade of the 1860s and move forward from there, at least 3 different eras "shake-out" in terms of the nature of health-care and how we think about the nature of who we are.
Era 1, which began in the 1860s, is plain old mechanical medicine. It looks at the body and the mind as purely physical, as purely pursuing the blind laws of nature. The therapies that shake out of that approach are medications, surgery, radiation and so on. The body is not functioning properly, so the "doctor-mechanic" uses whatever tools of treatment are available to fix the problem.
In the 1940s, a different way of thinking about who we are emerged as people started talking about psycho-somatic diseases. This was the second era, Era-2, or what is today called "Mind-Body Medicine". Originally, it suggested that negative thoughts can do bad things to the body, thus the term psycho-somatic disease. Now, this has been sort of turned on its head and we recognize that thoughts, emotions, attitudes and feelings can really be used to make people healthy. You can even make dreadful diseases go away by activating these positive emotions. An example of this is the scientific work of Dr. Dean Ornish in reversing coronary artery disease. So basically Era 2 is the impact of thought, feeling and belief within an individual.
DiCarlo: Would you say then, that television programs, with titles like "Healing and the Mind" and "The Heart of Healing" are basically rooted in Era 2 medicine?
Dossey: Almost totally Era 2. One of my frustrations with these types of TV programs is that they neglected a tremendous body of evidence which supports putting a third era on the table, Era 3, which I want to call "Transpersonal Medicine" or "Non-Local" medicine. This emerging era of medicine--although it has probably been around as long as human beings have been here--is contingent upon the ability of the mind to function non-locally. That is to say, the ability of the mind to function beyond the person, beyond the individual.
In Era 2, you are concerned about what your thoughts, feelings and attitudes can do to your body. Period. That's what most of these television programs have centered upon, and that's great. But there is compelling evidence, such as the evidence for the effectiveness of distant intercessory prayer--that the mind has some quality which allows it to reach out across space and time to affect the physical course of a distant living organism--whether that's a human being or something else. So many people in the alternative health care movement think that Mind-Body medicine is just about as far out and exotic as the new model is going to get. But I think that's just the tip of the iceberg. We need to begin to focus upon and acknowledge this emerging Era 3-type data which shows the ability of the mind to function at a distance--irrespective of the spatial separation from the object of its concern. We need to begin to ask questions about what this may mean.
Prayer is not the only body of available evidence which supports the ability of the mind to function at a distance. In the book, "Healing Words" I look at several categories, among which is transpersonal imagery. Most people think this is just the use of positive images to you do something nice for your body. That's one definition and one use. But Dr. William Braud has shown that people who hold positive images of a distant person in a way that is caring, compassionate and prayer-like can actually bring about physical changes in that distant person.
So you see, we can differentiate three different categories or eras to define consciousness, and its relationship to the body which exists in space and time. Although my personal interest in the 1970s and 80s centered on Era 2, "Mind-Body" medicine, today, my interest has been captured by the emerging Era 3 medicine. There is a lot of neglected data that I want to make public. And secondly, I think there is more philosophical, spiritual, and practical "bang-for-your-buck" in this Era 3 medicine. Era 2 can still be explained based upon the chemistry and the anatomy of the brain and body. And you can still say, "So what? That's great while you are alive, but take away the brain, and you've got nothing." So there's nothing more following death when the mind is confined to the brain. But in Era 3, the stakes are completely different. You can't hold on to the idea that it's all brain and body. If you honor this Era 3-type data, it is patently obvious that consciousness is capable of things that brains are incapable of. In other words, you cannot completely account for the workings of consciousness by studying the brain. This means there must be something about the psyche over and above the brain and the body. Working out the implications of all this has been my task.
DiCarlo: I'm wondering what might have sparked your interest in research the effects of prayer?
Dossey: As a child I was naturally curious. I grew up in a Protestant religious community in Central Texas where a lot of praying went on all the time. I was involved in that. At sometime or another I think that most people who pray wonder if their efforts are working, and ask themselves "Is it doing anything?" I was curious about that.
After I became a physician, I began to notice that some people got well even though no medical treatment had been rendered, except prayer. Sometimes these people had fairly dreadful diseases. So one wonders again, "Is the prayer operative? Did it do anything or is this one of those funny coincidences?"
I think many physicians have this sense of curiosity. I was propelled forward again when I discovered a 1988 controlled study out of San Francisco General Hospital which involved nearly 400 patients in the coronary care unit. The group that was prayed for appeared to do much, much better than the group which received no prayer. I went to the medical literature to see if there had been any previous studies involving prayer to support this. I was astonished to discover over 130 studies in this general area showing that prayer really does something remarkable--not just in human beings but in a great many other living things, from bacteria and germinating seeds, to rats and mice and so on.
So it was a curiosity which propelled me to the discovery of scientific data in the area of the prayer and its observable effects.
DiCarlo: What would you say has been the essential finding of your research?
Dossey: The essential message is that belief in prayer is no longer just a matter of faith. We've always said, "You can believe in this stuff if you want to, but you are on thin ice and shaky ground. It's no longer just a matter of faith. There is overwhelming evidence that if you take prayer into the laboratory and subject it to testing, you can show that it works. So, that's the big news. This information has been marginalized and it is practically unknown, even to physicians. It is not taught in medical schools. But it's out there. Through my work I hope to bring this information forward, so that it can be placed out on the table for discussion and dialogue.
My primary interest is not the practical applications of prayer to make diseases go away. It's really the larger message about who we are, and what our origins and destiny may be. How consciousness manifests in the world. Those are the real issues that go far beyond whether you can use prayer to bail yourself out of a difficult situation or illness.
DiCarlo: How do you define prayer?
Dossey: The prevailing notion that prayer is asking for something--basically talking out loud to a cosmic male parent figure who basically prefers English--either for yourself or somebody else is woefully incomplete. I want to get away from that common way of looking at prayer. Prayer for me is any psychological act which brings us closer to the transcendent. It's not the territory of any specific religion. Belief in a personal God is not even necessary. For example, Buddhists pray all the time, but Buddhism is not a theistic religion.They don't even believe in a personal God.
Prayer may involve words. We don't want to disenfranchise people who like to talk when they pray. That's fine. It's just that it goes deeper than that. It can involve silence, non-activity. It can even be done in the subconscious or when we sleep at night. So I prefer to use the term "prayerfulness" to capture those activities we have traditionally called prayer. One of the common features of prayerfulness that really makes a difference in the world is empathy, caring, compassion, love and so on. This has been demonstrated in the laboratory. It is clear that the experiments don't work very well if a person does not have empathy, love, compassion and caring for the object or subject they are trying to influence. The experiments work so much better if there is an empathic connection, a unity, a caring bond.
DiCarlo: So in the case of these experiments that you have uncovered, love was found to be more than a nice sentiment or feeling--a real force critical to the healing process itself?
Dossey: Let's say this. Love is a felt quality that can change the state of the physical world. We are beyond metaphor and poetry here. We are talking about something that literally can make a difference in outcomes in the world.
DiCarlo: I have to say that I was struck by the comprehensive number of studies you have reported on.
Dossey: That's one of the things I have taken pains to do. Every book I have ever written has at least 20 pages at the end which list references--mostly from scientific journals--to exemplify the fact that we're not just talking anecdotes here. This stuff flows out of science. If you want ammunition, there it is.
DiCarlo: How would you respond to the materialists who explain away the concept of realms of existence that go beyond the physical? That the mind is the brain and nothing more?
Dossey: I think the best response is to play science. You see, the theories and hypotheses of the materialists work fine as long as you restrict yourself to a certain class of data and ignore other data. The materialists cannot account for non-local events. There is currently nothing within the field of biological science that can explain distant, non-local, consciousness-related events. Period. To discover an explanation, you have to revise the materialist manifesto, which states that there is nothing beyond matter, there is nothing beyond what is perceivable through the five senses.
The problem is, the skeptics and the materialists won't look at non-local data at the level of biology and psychology. They will grant you that non-local phenomena occur at the quantum level--the level of the very small, such as atoms and subatomic particles. That has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt. But the notion that these things can happen at the level of the psyche and at the level of biology is just not being entertained. They have some classical ways of dismissing the kind of data that I have been focusing on. They paint it with the term, "parapsychology." They will say, "Oh, that's just parapsychology." But it doesn't matter what it's called. The real question is, "Is the data good?" And if the data is good, then the materialists are in a world of trouble, and the materialist way of looking at things by saying that "It's just all matter and energy" falls flat on its face.