Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person? The idea that positive thoughts and prayer can affect your health has been taught at medical schools for years. But can your thoughts affect another person physically? A few renegade scientists are conducting studies between loved ones to find that out — and they say it's possible.
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Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

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Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

Can Positive Thoughts Help Heal Another Person?

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

More than 90 percent of Americans say they pray for their health, for their love life, their final exams. For decades, scientists have tried to test the power of prayer and positive thinking with mixed results.

All week, NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty is reporting on the growing science of spirituality. Today, she explores whether someone's thoughts can affect their own body, or more controversially, the body of someone else.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY: When I first meet Sheri Kaplan, she is perched on a plastic chair at a Miami clinic, holding out her arm as a researcher draws several vials of blood.

SHERI KAPLAN: So I'm quite excited about my blood work this time because I have absolutely no stress in my life.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Kaplan is tanned and freckled, with wavy red hair and a cocky laugh. She is defiantly healthy for a person who's lived with HIV for the past 15 years.

KAPLAN: God didn't want me to die or anything or even get sick. I've never had any opportunistic infections because I had no time to be down.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Kaplan was raised Jewish, and though she claims no formal religion now, she prays and meditates every day. She believes God is keeping the virus at bay and that her faith is the reason she's alive today.

KAPLAN: Everything starts from a thought, and then the thought creates a reaction. I have the power to control my mind.

GAIL IRONSON: Good to see you again.

KAPLAN: Thank you.

IRONSON: Yeah.

A lot of good things going on in your life, huh?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: For the past decade, Kaplan has been coming every few months to see Gail Ironson, a professor at the University of Miami. Ironson, an AIDS researcher, runs down a battery of questions.

IRONSON: What percent of your well-being do you think is due to your own attitudes and behaviors versus medical care?

KAPLAN: A hundred and ten percent.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Kaplan has never taken medicine, yet the disease has not progressed to AIDS. In the mid-1990s, when having HIV was akin to a death sentence, Ironson noticed a number of patients like Kaplan never got sick. Ironson wanted to know why. And she found something surprising.

IRONSON: You know, if you ask people what's kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality. It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that's why I decided to look at it.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Ironson began to zero in on a patient's relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress. She focused on two key indicators. She measured viral load, which tells how much of the virus is present in a person's body, and immune cells called CD4 cells, which help fight off the AIDS virus.

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

IRONSON: In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality. And that was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: More powerful than depression or even taking medicine. She calls the finding extraordinary.

Now, mind/body medicine, the idea that my thoughts and emotions can affect my health, has been standard teaching at many medical schools for years. But does that mean that my thoughts can affect another person's body?

RICHARD SLOAN: The answer is pretty unequivocally no.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's Richard Sloan, professor of Behavioral Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center. He notes that studies in the 1980s and '90s seemed to show that praying for a patient in a hospital sped up his recovery. But he says those studies were flawed. More recent, more rigorous studies, he argues, showed prayer had either no effect or the patients actually grew worse. He says science understands how a person's thoughts can influence his own body but he says...

SLOAN: There are no plausible mechanisms that account for how somebody's thoughts or prayers can influence the health of another person. None. We know of nothing.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Well, a few renegade scientists aren't satisfied with that. For years, they say, no one knew how morphine or aspirin worked. They just knew it worked. These researchers say typical prayer studies, in which a stranger prays for a stranger from a script, miss the critical element: a personal connection. So they're asking a different sort of question, such as can a husband's love for his wife affect her body?

MARILYN SCHLITZ: Does our consciousness have the capacity to sort of reach out and connect to someone else in a way that's health promoting?

BRADLEY HAGERTY: That's a question on Marilyn Schlitz's mind, as she leads Teena and J.D. Miller down a path to the laboratory at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, north of San Francisco.

SCHLITZ: Come on, let's go downstairs and we'll go to the lab.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Schlitz is the president of the institute which conducts research on consciousness and spirituality. The Millers have been married a decade and their affection is palpable. Schlitz takes Teena into an isolated soundproof room. Teena settles into a deep armchair as Schlitz attaches electrodes to her right hand.

SCHLITZ: So this is measuring blood flow in your thumb, and this is measuring your skin conductance activity. So basically, both of these are measures of your unconscious nervous system.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Schlitz locks Teena into the electromagnetically shielded chamber.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SLAMMING DOOR)

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Then she ushers J.D. into another isolated room with a closed-circuit television. She explains the screen will go on and off. And at random intervals, Teena's image will appear on the screen for about 10 seconds.

MILLER: Right.

SCHLITZ: And so, during the times when you see her image, it's your opportunity to think about sending loving, compassionate intention.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: As the session begins, Dean Radin, a senior scientist here, watches as a computer shows changes in J.D.'s blood pressure and perspiration. When J.D. sees the image of his wife, the steady lines suddenly jump and become ragged. The question is, will Teena's nervous system follow suit? Radin points to the screen charting Teena's measurements.

DEAN RADIN: Notice also there's this change in blood volume.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: An hour later, the preliminary results are in.

RADIN: There you are.

TEENA MILLER: Oh.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Radin displays Teena's graph, which shows a flat line during the times her husband was not staring at her image.

RADIN: In the beginning of the staring period, within about two seconds you stop relaxing, became more aroused. And then you relax again.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: After running 36 couples through this test, the researchers found that when one person focused his thoughts on his partner, the partner's blood flow and perspiration dramatically changed within two seconds. The odds of this happening by chance were one in 11,000. Three dozen double blind, randomized studies conducted by such institutions as the University of Washington and the University of Edinburgh have reported similar results.

So, how do you explain this? Well, no one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as Quantum Entanglement may offer some clues. Here's how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they're still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: could people in close relationships, couples, siblings, parent and child, also be entangled? Not just emotionally and psychologically, but also physically?

RADIN: If it is true that the entanglement actually persists, by means that we don't completely understand, but if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: This idea, that we may be connected at some molecular level, echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists. But it infuriates others like Columbia University's Richard Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just does not work this way.

SLOAN: Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal. There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It's good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.

BRADLEY HAGERTY: Radin and others agree that's what science says now. But they say these findings have to be explained somehow.

And if that's not enough controversy for you, other researchers are venturing further into the outer reaches of science. They're asking: do we have a soul that survives the death of the brain? That is tomorrow's question.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

BLOCK: You can learn more about that study of couples in love at npr.org.

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