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IONS’ Pioneering Work on “Distant Healing” Suggests Further Study Warranted
Spiritual healing—the use of spiritual practices such as prayer to help cure or improve an illness— has been part of traditional medicine for thousands of years. According to the World Heath Organization, 80 percent of the world practices some form of traditional medicine incorporating what could be described as having a spiritual basis. And while Western cultures acknowledge the historical significance of these practices, their medical models dismiss spirituality, belief, and consciousness as legitimate healthcare methods. Ironically, much of the Western world does engage in a spiritual healing practice as they pray for the health and well-being of self and others.
Indeed, Americans pray a lot for health. According to an article in the April 26, 2004, issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine, an estimated one-third of adults use prayer, in addition to conventional medical care and complementary and alternative therapies, for health concerns. A 2008 study by Brandeis University found that of the 90 percent of Americans who claim to make a spiritual connection with God every day, three-quarters pray for themselves, families, and friends. Research conducted by Barna Research Group in 2009 reports that 79 percent of Americans believe that prayer speeds recovery.
With so much evidence suggesting widespread acceptance of prayer as a healing practice, why has it not been adopted by conventional medicine? A deep history of church-state dichotomy and a medical establishment that privileges rational, conventional approaches limit the acceptance of what are considered “non-scientific” ideas of healing. And while considerable research on meditation practice and the placebo effect have shown the efficacy of “praying for oneself,” the healing impact of praying for someone else is a considerable leap, nor is there a widely accepted theory on how such an effect would work. That hasn’t affected belief: According to a 2004 survey of adult Americans, the most popular “alternative healing practice” was “prayer for self”; the second most popular was “prayer for others.”
The Institute of Noetic Sciences has been a pioneer in the study of intention and prayer on healing. As part of this work, the Institute initiated what came to be called “The Love Study” to test the effects of compassionate intention on people afflicted with a serious illness. The scientific objective was to contribute to and push the boundaries of a nascent discourse in modern medicine on what facilitates the healing process beyond what is known conventionally.
The goal of “The Love Study,” so-called because it was partially funded by the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, was to measure what would happen in the nervous system of one person when exposed to strong intentions from another person at a distance. This laboratory study recruited long-term, loving couples as participants, and rather than specifically testing prayer per se, trained the healthy partner (the other partner had cancer) in the cultivation of compassionate intention—directing selfless love to another—and explored whether training and practice in sending intentions would have any measurable effects. Rather than attempting to assess healing outcomes, the study focused on measuring short-term changes in the receiver’s physiological state under double-blind, controlled conditions. A total of 36 couples participated in the study: 12 in the trained group, 10 in a “wait” group, and 14 in the control group.
Analysis of data combined across all couples showed that the receiver’s skin conductance increased to a statistically significant degree over the course of the average 10-second intentional sending period. A half-second after the sender began to direct their intention, the receiver’s average skin conductance began to rise. It continued to rise and peaked at the end of the 10-second period, then it began to decline. The skin conductance of receivers in all three groups responded when their partner began sending a compassionate intention, but the control group’s response subsided after 4 seconds, the wait group’s response subsided after 5 seconds, and the trained group’s response subsided after 8 seconds. These results were quite unexpected, because when a person is asked to relax quietly in a shielded room with no external stimuli, their skin conductance normally declines, indicating relaxation.
One theory that suggests why such effects occur is related to “quantum entanglement,” which is based on the mathematics of quantum theory and since verified many times in physics laboratories. This phenomenon indicates that at deep levels of reality, physical systems are interconnected beyond the ordinary constraints of distance in space or time. If this property is truly as fundamental as it appears to be, then in principle everything in the universe may be connected at a basic energetic level, allowing for distant influences reminiscent of those observed in this experiment.
Those who have grown up with Western medicine tend to make assumptions about Western versus non-Western approaches to disease and treatment. They judge one to be modern and the other primitive; one scientific and the other based on superstition. But evidence such as that shown in The Love Study demonstrates that the focusing of one’s thoughts and intentions on another does have a measurable effect, and that presumably when the thoughts are of a healing nature, the impact is potentially healing as well. While this one experiment is not definitive, it is consistent with three dozen earlier studies, and it raises enough questions to warrant further research and refinements in methodology. The experiment was published in 2008 as “Compassionate Intention as a Therapeutic Intervention by Partners of Cancer Patients” in Explore: the Journal of Science and Healing.