A Tough Subject for Research: Psychic Healing

Decades ago, when I was first seriously exploring the paranormal, psychic healing was the one thing that I was most comfortable with. I could feel it. Touch and energy came naturally to me. But I always had a nagging feeling that I had no idea what I was doing.

Whatever problems that mainstream medicine has, and there are many, there is no arguing that they have data. Lots and lots of data. Medical practices and medicines are extremely well documented, evaluated and improved. As a result, doctors learn what works and what doesn’t and unless they’re dealing with a rare case with very little literature or symptoms that don’t point to anything specific enough to nail down a diagnosis, they have data to back them up.

They also have a huge and useful array of diagnostic tools to do this. For most problems that people bring to them, they know what to do.

Psychic Healing’s Data Problem

In contrast, we know almost nothing about psychic healing. Almost all of the existing studies center around proving its existence. Very few studies examine the phenomena in depth to understand what works and what doesn’t and more importantly, why.

There are also a great number of different psychic healing method and traditions to choose from:

DHI [distant healing intention] techniques are known by many names, including intercessory prayer, spiritual healing, aura healing, energy healing, energy psychology, shamanic healing, nonlocal healing, therapeutic touch (TT), quantum-touch, qigong, reconnective healing, Johrei, and Reiki.4 Each of these methods carries its own idiosyncratic theoretical and cultural forms, and some DHI methods include both distant and proximal (but without direct contact) variations. A common feature shared among DHI techniques is the assumption that distance between the healer and healee is not a limiting factor.5 This “nonlocal” aspect of DHI defies classical physical assumptions and accounts for its controversial status even among alternative biofield therapies.

Distant Healing Intention Therapies: An Overview of the Scientific Evidence Glob Adv Health Med. 2015 Nov; 4(Suppl): 67–71

The Problem of Small Studies

The ideal situation for a study of this kind is to be able to isolate the effect. This is much harder than it might initially seem. Most healing studies tend to be small, which is problematic because people with real health problems, particularly those interested in alternative medicine, will pursue a number of avenues to become healthy again, and psychic healing is just one of them. So did they get better because of the psychic healing, or was it something else that they did?

Normally, in a situation like this, you find the money for large studies so that the larger numbers will dilute the effects of all those individuals doing their own thing. But research into alternative medicine is not well funded and money is hard to come by. So for the most part, studies into psychic healing are sporadic.

A Review of Psychic Healing Meta Analyses

In order to get around this, senior psi researchers Dean Radin, Marilyn Schlitz and one other person gathered together a whole boatload of studies and meta analyses and presented them in a paper. This included studies of prayer and Reiki and other types that didn’t involve proximity and touch.

Here is what they looked at:

  • A survey by S. Schmidt et. al, (2004) found 40 studies on remote intention, 4 of which were substandard and dropped. The 36 studies that were included had 1015 test sessions and statistically significant results. In addition, there were 15 studies on remote staring with 379 sessions with similar effect sizes. Interestingly, study quality did not seem to affect the results. There were 12 remote helping studies, 11 of which totaled 576 sessions. Distribution of effect sizes and the effect size itself was similar to other studies.

The conclusion by Schmidt, et. al, was that the differences of these collected experiments combined with their similar outcomes meant that an artifact (problem) in the study design(s) was highly unlikely and if it were there, it would have to be a very simple mistake that all the researchers had made.

  • Astin et al. (2000) found 23 experiments with 2774 patients. 13 of those studies (57%) yielded statistically significant healing effects, 9 of them showed no effect and one showed a negative effect. The authors concluded the the effect was strong enough to keep studying.
  • Crawford et al, (2003) did a systematic review of 45 lab and 45 clinical studies. They were making a quality assessment, and they concluded that in general, distant healing studies did better in quality reviews.
  • There were two systematic reviews by the Cochrane Collaboration (2008,2009): A Reiki review of 24 randomly controlled trials with 1153 participants yielded measurable pain relief, with experienced practitioners getting better results than newbies. A review of 10 randomly controlled prayer studies with 7646 patients found no statistically significant measurable effect.
  • Roe, et. al, (2015) looked at 57 studies and found statistically significant effects compared to controls.
Image: Light Field Studios, Canva

Psychic Healing Studies Could Benefit From Standardization

What can be learned from this is that quite a few people have looked into healing studies over the years. One recurring theme that many of the analyses mentioned was that study quality was inconsistent and that a set of standards needed to be developed. The problems included:

Inadequacy of blinding, dropped data, poor outcome measures, lack of statistical power estimations, lack of confidence intervals, and lack of independent replication.

Nevertheless, high quality studies, when combined, showed a statistically significant effect. While less robust studies, particularly those with a lack of blinding, have outcomes that can be explained by poor study design, it’s worth noting that in many cases the results of these studies tended to mirror those of the better studies. That generally means that poor design probably did not affect the outcome.

Now before you all go scoffing at the prayer studies, which tended to show no effect, it’s important to keep in mind that the researchers could not evaluate who was praying, how they prayed and whether some forms of prayer were more effective than others. The lack of success in other words, could potentially be explained as “the wrong people doing it wrong.” Given that other forms of distant healing were successful, this is a distinct possibility.

With such a smorgasbord of studies of varying types and quality, you really can’t learn much about the psychic healing process this way. For that you need a much more consistent and reliable experiment that can be altered to learn more about the process.

The Psychic Healing Study That Changed Everything

There is one healing study with replications that appears to meet this criteria. And unsurprisingly we’ve learned a few things already from this study. Back in 2000, Bill Bengston published results of this study in the Journal for Scientific Exploration. The Effect of the “Laying On of Hands” on Transplanted Breast Cancer in Mice.

This was an A+ study design. The study was done with mice, which eliminated the problem of the placebo effect. The mice were bought from a medical supplier that bred them to have no immunity at all to a type of breast cancer (mammary adenocarcinoma). This disease was 100% fatal to the mice wit,in 2 to 4 weeks. This eliminated questions about how sick the mice were and because the environment of the mice could be controlled, it eliminated questions about whether it was the healing work doing the healing or something else. It was also easy to create a control group and establish that the healing work was the variable.

Using mice removed the problem of blinding because mice are not susceptible to the experimenter effect or the placebo effect (presumably; if the mice have any beliefs, they aren’t sharing them.) It was all amazingly straightforward for a medical study.

Some Surprising Results

Good studies can produce surprising results because when the effect is strong enough, as it was in this case, you can learn something new. The control mice had to be sent to another city to prevent remission of the disease. Having them nearby meant that some of them would go into remission. Awareness of the control mice was apparently enough to heal some of them, but if they were in another city then it was out of sight, out of mind.

One of the things tested by this experiment was whether belief played any role. Skeptics were brought in to participate in doing the healings and if they were trained properly, the healing worked just as well with them as with believers.

The healing work itself was quite reliable. 87.9% of the mice who received healing work went into remission. If the control mice were not sent to another city, their healing rate was 69.2%. For a parapsychology experiment, in fact, for any medical experiment, that’s an incredible success rate.

Not Just a Remission, But a Real Cure

Some mice were injected with the cancer after they recovered to see if they would get it again. This led to yet another discovery: The mice had developed immunity to that cancer. They weren’t just in remission, they were outright cured. If there was a new drug or medical procedure that could cure cancer like this, it would lead the news.

This discovery also tells us that the psychic healing process uses the patient’s body to heal itself. In practical terms, it means that psychic healing is unlikely to work on people with compromised immune systems, such as with chemotherapy or radiation. Anecdotally, Bengston has confirmed this. You have to choose chemo and radiation or alternative methods. They won’t work together.

It’s referred to as energy healing, but no one has ever demonstrated what energy is being transferred or if it’s an energy transfer at all. How this works is still a matter of speculation, but there are some leads.

In a later paper more findings were disclosed:

Because of the unconventional nature of the research, Bengston insisted on independent replication by disinterested researchers in independent labs. As of this writing, more than a dozen healing experiments using the Bengston Energy Healing method on this cancerous mouse model have been conducted in 6 independent labs.6,7

Subsequent to the determination that the healing effect was reliable, secondary correlates involving the effect of distance, dose, and whether healing can be stored were introduced. In brief, healing does not seem to diminish with distance; there is a minimum dose necessary to produce the healing effect; and treated water and cotton seem to be able to reproduce cancer cures without further human intervention (personal communication: William Bengston, PhD, 2015).

Studies of the biological effects of the technique on human healers and healees have been conducted to investigate its effects on brain activity by electroencephalogram (EEG)12 and functional magnetic resonance imaging.13 Those studies indicate reliable physiological changes in both healer and healee. Paired recordings of the healer and subject done both with the subject at a distance and in proximity to the healer showed harmonic frequency coupling across the spectra, followed by between-individual EEG frequency entrainment effects, and then by instantaneous EEG phase locking. These results suggest the presence of a connection between the healer and healee and may thus provide a mechanism for phase coupling.12 This connection seems to be stimulated by the needs of the healee more than the conscious intention of the healer.13

Additional physical correlates to healing using the Bengston method have included anomalous magnetic micropulsations14 in the surrounding space of healing events which may indicate a reduction in entropy when healing occurs. If this is the case, then perhaps it is “information” rather than “energy” that is being transmitted in the healing process. And, if it is indeed information, that would be consistent with the apparent ability to store healing in materials.

Still More Stuff To Be Learned

Again, once you have a reliable, successful study, you can use that study to examine other aspects of the effect. In this case, a preliminary attempt was made to isolate the effect in cotton and demonstrate the effect on lab samples of genes to demonstrate proof of concept. (This did not work well enough to be usable.)

Here’s where things get fascinating. The researchers were able to isolate a small electromagnetic effect from the healers and duplicate it using speakers. The sound was then used on different cells to see if they could get a healing reaction. It did, but it was less than what the healers could accomplish.

The researchers speculated that they hadn’t fully captured the healing effect in the recording. With more experiments and further testing, this may be possible, leading to inexpensive cancer treatments using inaudible magnetic and electromagnetic signals.

That was about three years ago. Like so much research in parapsychology, limited funds and immense resistance from skeptics means that everything happens very slowly. There is a possible breakthrough here, leading to novel methods of curing cancer, but it will take a long time to get anywhere.