LOS ALTOS, CA, March 7, 2013 – It shouldn’t be surprising that I ended my interview with Marilyn Schlitz with more questions than answers. After all, as a seasoned and well-respected medical anthropologist, this is a woman who makes her living asking questions – and encouraging others to do the same.
For nineteen years Dr. Schlitz has held many positions, and most recently served as the President and CEO of the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), a Northern California-based research and education organization charged with exploring what they describe as “the potentials and powers of consciousness.”
She’s now their Ambassador for Creative Projects and Global Affairs as well as a senior scientist – an enviable set of titles, to be sure.
What I found most interesting about the questions she asks – and inspired me to ask – is that they all point toward a better understanding of our emotional, spiritual, and physical health; obviously a subject that matters a great deal to just about everyone.
Here are the five most intriguing questions we considered during our conversation:
Can the effectiveness of prayer be effectively studied?
Not too long ago IONS teamed up with researchers at the California Pacific Medical Center to determine if distant healing intention (DHI) is effective in treating surgical wounds. They define DHI as “a compassionate mental act intended to improve the health and well-being of another person at a distance.” Some of the terms used to describe DHI are intercessory prayer, spiritual healing, intentionality, nonlocal healing, and noncontact therapeutic touch.
Although the results of their study indicated that prayer may actually do more harm than good, the more definitive and significant conclusion they came to was that “the relevant variables that modulate [the effects of prayer] are not well understood and interact in complex ways.”
In other words, prayer is tough to study.
To do so effectively would likely require the development of new theories or even an entirely different methodology. In the meantime, those who have found prayer to be a reliable means of treating physical ailments will likely continue to pray, even if the positive results they’re seeing have yet to be adequately explained by the scientific community.
Is the placebo effect confined to the thoughts of the patient?
I asked Dr. Schlitz about the possibility of there being more than one “layer” of placebo – that is, more than just the thoughts of the patient that may impact the effectiveness of a particular drug-therapy or treatment. Given our growing understanding of the “potentials and powers of consciousness,” who’s to say that the thoughts of those who develop, approve, manufacture, promote, prescribe, and administer the drug might not also play a role?
Dr. Schlitz was quick to point out various Native American practices that might involve even more “layers” than the ones I mentioned, such as the expectations of those who harvest plants used for medicinal purposes.
She also brought up the thought or, to use her word, “intention” of those engaged in medical experiments.
Referring to a soon-to-be conducted study involving university professors who teach research methodology and recruit students to help with their work, she asked, “Where does the intention come in? Is it in the subject who’s doing the experiment? Is it in [the one] who designed [the experiment]? Is it in the professors who are choosing these students? Is it in the students? Is it in the students who are testing the participants? Is it in the person analyzing the data? Is it in the person doing the meta-analysis?”
Like I said, Dr. Schlitz is good at asking questions.
Can the compassion we feel from others provide any physical benefit?
While there are plenty of scientific studies these days pointing to the health benefits of being compassionate toward others, there seems to be far less data available on the benefits to those on the receiving end – beyond, of course, purely anecdotal evidence.
However, there was an interesting study done by IONS in 2008 in which it was determined that the compassionate thoughts of one individual could have a physiological impact on another.
“Evidence such as that shown in [this study] demonstrates that the focusing of one’s thoughts and intentions on another does have a measurable effect,” the researchers said, “and that presumably when the thoughts are of a healing nature, the impact is potentially healing as well.”
I suppose it would be reasonable to ask why there aren’t more studies like this going on.
How does death make life possible?
As if she wasn’t busy enough, Dr. Schlitz has committed to doing a research project, book, online course, and documentary movie all centered on the premise that “death makes life possible.”
“Our understanding and appreciation of death leads us to a different understanding of who we are and our place in the universe,” said Dr. Schlitz. Her online course also considers the possibility that by removing the fear of death we could live life more freely and fully.
Apparently this is what The HealthCare Chaplaincy has already ascertained. During a 2006 study they discovered a “statistically significant inverse relationship” between beliefs about death and the severity of symptoms associated with several types of mental illness, including anxiety, depression, and obsession-compulsion.
It will be interesting to see if Dr. Schlitz and her team of researchers come to the same conclusion.
What does the future of medicine look like?
Dr. Larry Dossey, executive editor of EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing and author of many books on the mental nature of health, is well known for his description of what he refers to as the “three eras of medicine.”
Era 1, he says, began just after the Civil War, a time when the body was seen as an essentially mechanical construct requiring physical remedies. Era 2 began in the late 1940’s when physicians started to recognize the impact that emotions and feelings can have on the body. Era 3, which Dossey considers both the present and future of medicine, delves even deeper into the mental nature of health by proposing that consciousness is not confined to an individual’s body but, instead, is nonlocal; a “mind that is boundless and unlimited.”
I asked Dr. Schlitz about this, wondering how close she felt we were to a fuller realization of this third era of medicine.
“I remain optimistic,” she said. “But its also true that there are huge barriers to getting the research done, getting it funded. I think the methodological issues behind the research are challenging. It’s just so complicated. But that is also part of the opportunity to learn more about how we study these types of phenomena.”
By “complicated” I assume Dr. Schlitz means that it’s difficult if not impossible to use what are essentially matter-based measuring sticks to detect what many consider to be divinely or spirit-based phenomena. This isn’t to say that we’re not already in the midst of the so-called Era 3 of medicine; just that we have yet to find a way to detect and describe it.
Of course, some would argue this has already happened. As for measuring it, that depends on our willingness to keep asking questions and our receptivity to paradigm-changing answers.
Eric Nelson is a Christian Science practitioner, whose articles on the link between consciousness and health appear regularly in a number of local, regional, and national online publications. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California.
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