Documented Evidence for Psychosomatic Causation
At the risk of sounding trite, let me reiterate that life holds many mysteries, of which the phenomenon of mental healing is but one. However, mystery does not always evoke skepticism. Today, nobody fully understands photosynthesis, but no one doubts that it occurs. Closer to our topic, nobody fully understands intentional bodily motion, yet all of my grade school teachers asked me to raise my hand when I wanted to speak. Psychosomatic healing is arguably no more mysterious than either of the preceding examples. The question is, Why the skepticism?
In researching the topic of mental healing, I have encountered two kinds of skeptics. One is the materialist philosopher. As people in the advertising business would say, most materialist philosophers are probably "unreachable." True ontological materialists have to deny the reality of mental healing, because under their worldview, mental events in themselves can never be causes. Not even in the simple action of raising one's arm can the causal sequence actually begin with a purely mental event. Presenting evidence in the hope of convincing skeptics of this kind that mental healing occurs would be like presenting evidence that the earth is flat. The materialists would reply that I am simply introducing evidence for a conclusion already known to be false. The only way one could ever hope to convince skeptics of this kind that mental healing occurs is to introduce a philosophical argument sufficiently cogent to get them to rethink their materialist position. Empirical evidence presented in this and the previous chapters, therefore, is not directed towards skeptics of this kind. If they are to be convinced at all, it will be in Chapter 9, when I discuss the mind-body problem.
However, there are skeptics of another kind, who simply find the whole notion of mental healing too bizarre or spooky to believe. While they may believe the mind can cause me to raise my arm, believing that it can cure or even significantly alleviate cancer is another matter. For them, the problem is not based on any philosophical paradigm. Instead, it is the mystery, along with its strangeness or unfamiliarity, that makes it hard to believe. Moreover, these skeptics may also have, for whatever reason, a general bias against anything that has been labeled "psychic" or "spiritual." They might be convinced by evidence of the type presented thus far. They might also find mental healing more believable when presented with evidence of other, even more extraordinary ways in which thinking can affect the body. Compared to some of the phenomena described in this chapter, mental healing might begin to seem much less bizarre, thereby, easier to believe.
Much of the evidence presented in this chapter falls into the strange-but-true category. The point of my discussion here is to show some of the extraordinary ways in which the mind can influence the body, many of which are far more commonplace than most of us would imagine. My ultimate aim is to show that mental healing itself does not seem so bizarre in comparison to some of the other ways that thinking can affect physiology. In fact, it may even seem relatively mundane.
Especially in the nineteenth century, hypnotists repeatedly accomplished some amazing feats using hypnotism as anesthesia for surgery. It blocked pain unaided by chemical anesthesia in a wide variety of procedures, some of which would ordinarily be excruciating. Murphy cites the following account:
In a preface to his book Mesmerism in India, he [British physician James Esdaile] presented this list "showing the Number of painless Surgical Operations performed at Hooghly during the last eight months":
Arms amputated 1
Breast amputated 1
Tumor extracted from the upper jaw 1
Scirrhus testium extirpated 2
Penis amputated 2
Contracted knees straightened 3
Contracted arms straightened 3
Operations for cataract 3
Large tumor in the groin cut off 1
Operations for hydrocele 7
Operations for dropsy 2
Actual cautery applied to a sore 1
Muriatic acid applied to a sore 2
Unhealthy sores pared down 7
Abscesses opened 5
Sinus, six inches long, laid open 1
Heel flayed 1
End of thumb cut off 1
Teeth extracted 3
Gum cut away 1
Prepuce cut off 3
Piles cut off 1
Great toe nails cut out by the roots 5
Large tumor on leg removed 1
Scrotal tumors, weighing from 8 lb. to 80 lb. 14.(113)
Esdaile wrote in the mid-nineteenth century. Murphy cites other similar accounts a recorded century later:
Ernest and Josephine Hilgard compiled the following list of operations between 1955 and 1974 during which hypnotic pain reduction was used without chemical analgesics or anesthetics:
Breast tumor excision
Breast tissue excision
Skin grafting, debridement, etc.
Fractures and dislocations
Cervical radium implantation
Curettage for endometritis
Circumcision where phimosis present
Facial nerve repair
Ligation and stripping
Removal of tack from child's nose
Repair of lacerated chin in child
Removal of fat mass from arm(114)
He also mentions some of the cases cited earlier in this essay, in which hypnosis has alleviated pain and suffering among cancer patients.
It has been suggested that hypnotic pain-reduction stems from stimulating the production of endorphins, natural opiates produced by the body itself to reduce pain. However, Murphy suggests that this is not so:
Ernest Hilgard and associates tested the possibility that hypnotic analgesia might act in the medial centers of the brain by releasing endorphins or similar substances. They did this by administering natoxone, an endorphin-blocker, to subjects given suggestions for pain reduction. Because their subjects' analgesia was not significantly affected by the drug, it seemed that hypnotic suggestion was mediated by mechanisms other than endorphins. Hilgard's results were supported by further experiments by David Spiegel and Albert Leonard in which naloxone failed to reverse the alleviation of chronic pain by hypnosis. Results such as Hilgard's and Spiegel's indicate that physiological mechanisms mediating hypnotically induced pain reduction are quite complex. Indeed, some researchers doubt that all of them can ever be mapped, given the immense flexibility and redundancy of the human organism.(115)
Murphy also argues that hypnotic analgesia cannot be reduced to anxiety reduction:
In a study by Ronald Shor, subjects who simulated hypnosis by appearing to be relaxed were compared to a group of hypnotized subjects to see how they responded to electric shock. The simulation worked so well that judges could not tell the two groups apart, yet during the postexperimental inquiry, which emphasized honest reporting, the hypnotized subjects reported that they had felt no pain while the simulators said that they had. Relaxation by itself, while helpful in reducing discomfort, did not completely remove the pain the simulators felt. Commenting on Shor's study, Ernest Hilgard wrote: "The conclusion [of this experiment] is clear: the analgesic effect of hypnotic suggestion is not to be confused with the relaxation or anxiety-reduction effect.(116)
The studies cited above show how effective hypnosis can be as an anesthetic. However, it has also proven effective in occasionally curing disease. One such example is fish-skin disease, an ailment that most medical texts had deemed incurable. Murphy describes its successful treatment by hypnosis, documented in the British Medical Journal in 1952:
Fish-skin disease is characterized by thick, black, horny skin (often as hard as fingernails and numb for a depth of several millimeters) that cracks when bent so that it sometimes oozes a blood-stained serum. English physician A. A. Mason described his successful treatment of the condition through suggestions that his patient's horny skin would fall off. Another English doctor, C. A. S. Wink, reported similar results with two sisters, aged six and eight. In 1966 C. Kidd reported a 90 percent improvement in one patient, and J. M. Schneck a 50 percent cure in another.(117)
Other skin diseases have been likewise treated:
Inspired by Mason's first report about his hypnotic treatment of fish-skin disease, Mullins, Murray, and Shapiro used the same approach with a similar congenital affliction, pachyonychia congenital characterized by thickened skin and enlarged nails on the hands and feet. Their patient, an 11-year-old boy who needed crutches or crawled before they treated him, learned to walk with only slight impairment and stood without pain for the first time he could remember.(118)
Herpes, psoriasis, and contact dermatitis have been treated with hypnosis:
Herpes simplex and psoriasis have been relieved or eliminated through hypnotic suggestions of strong cell structure, healthy skin, hormonal balance, cleanliness, or cool sensations. And rashes produced by various plants have been either reduced or induced by hypnosis. For example, 13 Japanese boys who were told that harmless leaves rubbed against their arms were from a tree to which they were sensitive showed some dermatitis; while 11 of the same group who were told that leaves of the offensive tree that were rubbed on their arms were harmless did not react with their accustomed itching or blisters.(119)
Hypnosis has, like the placebo, worked well with warts:
In his book Illustrations of the Influence of the Mind upon the Body in Health and Disease Designed to Elucidate the Action of the Imagination, published in 1872, D. H. Tuke described a cure for warts that included rubbing the skin with beef stolen from a butcher's shop. The vivid imagery triggered by this dramatic treatment, Tuke suggested, contributed to the patient's cure. A Zurich physician, B. Bloch, treated the affliction with another highly suggestive procedure, a "wart-killer" with noisy motor, flashing lights, and fake X ray. Of 179 patients, Bloch reported in 1957, 31 percent lost their warts after a single treatment with the fearsome machine. Interpreting remissions produced by such procedures to be the result of strongly held images, many physicians have treated warts by hypnotic suggestion. In I942 R. H. Rulison reviewed 921 cases, and in I960 M. Ullman and S. Dudek noted many more in which warts were relieved or eliminated through hypnosis.(120)
An area where hypnosis has been surprisingly effective is in preventing blood loss during surgery.
In 1975 Thomas Clawson and Richard Swade described several injuries and diseases in which blood flow was either increased, reduced, or stopped by hypnotic suggestion. One dental surgeon, for example, inhibited bleeding in 75 hemophiliac patients during tooth extraction through suggestions that emphasized tranquillity; and another reduced blood loss in nine normal patients during dental surgery with a similar procedure. Suggestion has also been used to control gastrointestinal bleeding and to alleviate hemophiliac bleeding after injury.(121)
Researcher Theodore Barber drew the following inferences from the above study:
These results... [have] vast implications for immunology, since it indicates that at least some immune responses, such as the T-cell mediated skin response to an allergen, may be much more influenced by emotionally tinged feelings-thoughts-imaginings-beliefs than has heretofore been supposed?(122)
Hypnosis has also alleviated asthma:
In the British Medical Journal of October 12, I968, a subcommittee of the British Tuberculosis Association reported their favorable assessment of hypnotic treatment for asthma. The subcommittee accepted 252 patients for study, dividing them into one group given monthly hypnosis treatments and taught autohypnosis and another given exercises in progressive relaxation. Independent judges considered the patients' asthma to be improved in 59 percent of the hypnosis group and 43 percent of the control group.(123)
Finally, hypnosis has been helpful in enlarging women's breasts:
A number of researchers and clinicians have produced breast enlargement in women through hypnosis, usually by promoting blood flow in their subjects' breasts through images of sunshine upon them, or the reinstatement of tender, swelling feelings typical of puberty, or the induction of pulsing, tingling sensations associated with sexual arousal. Some 70 participants in five hypnosis experiments experienced an average bust increase of 1.5 inches, while some women's measurements increased by 3 inches or more. In most of these studies, measurements were carefully made, with consideration of weight changes and the menstrual cycle.(124)
Were there any chemical component of hypnosis, these studies would hold little significance for this discussion. Although hypnosis does have a physiological component, in that the body is in a very relaxed state, the hypnotic suggestions that produced the effects are in themselves thoughts.
II. Spiritual Practice
The Roman Catholic Church has hardly escaped criticism for being unscientific, e.g., for its reaction to Galileo's advocacy of the heliocentric view of the solar system. Yet, in deciding who will and will not be canonized as a saint, it employs rigorous standards of investigation. The Church does not take sainthood lightly, conferring the its status on only the most extraordinary individuals. One of the criteria under consideration is the authenticity of the "miracles," allegedly brought about by candidates being considered for sainthood. Only after the systematic, and in fact scientific, examination and elimination of all known natural explanations of the event do the Church authorities certify that event as a miracle. Murphy describes the scientific rigor employed:
The rules of evidence distinguish physical and mental agencies that mediate unusual cures. They discriminate between different classes of charism and describe the role of imagination in sickness and health. They distinguish authentic mystical experience from false enthusiasms. [T]hey have been adapted to modern explanations of cures that once seemed miraculous, to psychiatric insights about the hysterical symptoms exhibited by some ecstatics, and to discoveries of psychical research that bear upon extranormal phenomena. With them, the Congregation of Rites can study potential saints using insights and methods of contemporary science while drawing on the church's long experience with many kinds of religious experience. The evidence has been tested for exaggeration, fraud, and delusion, even if it has been interpreted by church authorities in ways we do not agree with. Considered in its entirety, this body of evidence has been winnowed more thoroughly than has the anecdotal material provided by other religious traditions.(125)
Murphy lists some of the "charisms," extraordinary events surrounding the saints and mystics, as enumerated in The New Catholic Encyclopedia:
Visions, the perception of normally invisible objects
Locutions, interior illuminations by means of words or statements, sometimes accompanied by a vision and seeming to proceed from the object represented.
Reading of hearts, telepathic knowledge of secret thoughts or mood without sensory cues.
Incendium amoris, burning sensations in the body without apparent cause. These include interior heat, usually a sensation around the heart, which gradually extends to other parts of the body; intense ardors (when the heat becomes unbearable and cold applications must be used); and material burning that scorches clothing or blisters the skin.
Stigmata, the spontaneous appearance of wounds and bleeding that resemble the wounds of Christ.
Tears of blood and bloody sweat (hematidrosis), the effusion of blood from the eyes, as in weeping, or from pores of the skin.
Exchange of hearts, the appearance of a pronounced ridge of flesh on a finger, representing a ring designating mystical marriage with Christ.
Bilocation, the simultaneous presence of a material body in two distinct places at once.
Agility, the instantaneous movement of a material body from one place to another without passing through the intervening space.
Levitation, elevation of the human body above the ground without visible cause and its suspension in the air without natural support. It may also appear in the form of ecstatic flight or ecstatic walk.
Compenetration of bodies, when one material body appears to pass through another.
Bodily incombustibility, the ability of bodies to withstand the natural laws of combustibility.
Bodily elongation or shrinking.
Inedia, abstinence from all nourishment for great lengths of time.
Mystical aureoles and illuminations, radiance from the body, especially during ecstasy or contemplation, which is considered to be an anticipation of the Glorified Body.
Blood prodigies, bodily incorruptibility, and absence of rigor mortis in human cadavers.(126)
For our present purposes, one of the important phenomena is the stigmata, or extraordinary changes in the body experienced by these saints and mystics. The most common of these stigmata is the unexplained appearance of Christ's wounds. Murphy cites the following account by Thomas of Celano, whom Pope Gregory IX commissioned to document the life of St. Francis of Assisi:
And while [Francis] continued without any clear perception of its meaning (i.e. the vision of the seraph), and the strangeness of the vision was perplexing his breast, marks of nails began to appear in his hands and feet, such as he had seen a little while before in the Man crucified who had stood over him. His hands and feet seemed pierced in the midst by nails, the heads of the nails appearing in the inner part of the hands and in the upper part of the feet and their points over against them. Now these marks were round on the inner side of the hands and elongated on the outer side, and certain small pieces of flesh were seen like the ends of nails bent and driven back, projecting from the rest of the flesh. So also the marks of nails were imprinted in his feet, and raised above the rest of the flesh. Moreover his right side, as it had been pierced by a lance, was overlaid with a scar, and often shed forth blood so that his tunic and drawers were many times sprinkled with the sacred blood.(127)
Another well-known stigmatic was Sister Anne Catherine Emmerich. Vicar General von Droste, accompanied by two physicians, described the sister's wounds in 1813:
I examined the blood-crust of the left hand with a magnifying glass and found it very thin and a little rugose, or plaited like the epidermis when seen under a lens.
The cross on the breast did not bleed, but appeared of a pale red color caused by the hood under the epidermis. I examined also the lines forming a cross, as well as the skin around them, and I could distinctly see that they did not break the skin. The epidermis over the lines and the skin surrounding them to some distance was unbroken and, through the glass, appeared as if peeling off a little.
The wound on the right side was not bleeding, but the upper part of it was encrusted with dried blood, as might be produced by extravasated blood just below the epidermis.
The cross on the breast was red with blood. I washed the upper part and examined it again. Had the skin been broken I should certainly have remarked it. I think there was near the cross a short streak which seemed to be a depression filled with blood.
Her hair being very thick, it was impossible to examine the punctures around her head. She consented to have it cut close, though not so close, however, as to allow the blood instantaneously to soak her head dress and pillow. She requested this for the sake of neatness. The blood being washed away, a number of fine bloody marks could be seen with the naked eye scattered irregularly over the forehead and extending from the middle of it almost to the top of the head.(128)
The scalp wounds, of course, were similar to those made by a crown of thorns.
In his biography of another stigmatic, Gemma Galgani, Father Germano di S. Stanislao gives the following account:
From this day forward the phenomenon continued to repeat itself on the same day every week, namely on Thursday evening about eight o'clock and continued until three o'clock on Friday afternoon. No preparation preceded it; no sense of pain or impression in those parts of the body were affected by it; nothing announced its approach except the recollection of spirit that preceded the ecstasy. Scarcely had this come as a forerunner than red marks showed themselves on the backs and palms of both hands; and under the epidermis a rent in the flesh was seen to open by degrees; this was oblong on the backs of the hands and irregularly round in the palms.
Sometimes the laceration appeared to be only on the surface; at other times it was scarcely perceptible with the naked eye; but as a rule it was very deep, and seemed to pass through the hand -- the openings on both sides reaching the other. I say seemed to pass, because those cavities were full of blood, partly flowing and partly congealed, and when the blood ceased to flow they closed immediately, so that it was not easy to sound them without a probe.... In her feet, besides the wounds being large and livid around the edges, their size in an inverse sense differed from those of her hands; that is, there was a larger diameter on the instep and a smaller one on the sole; furthermore, the wound in the instep of the right foot was as large as that in the sole of the left. Thus it must certainly have been with our Savior, supposing that both His Sacred Feet were fixed to the Cross with only one nail.(129)
Gerald Molloy, a theologian and rector of University College, Dublin, who observed Louise Lateau at firsthand, wrote the following account of her. According to Molloy, when a quantity of blood had exuded from her wounds, spectators wiped it away so that:
[Her] stigmata were then more distinctly seen. They are oval marks of a bright red hue, appearing on the back and palm of each hand about the centre. Speaking roughly, each stigma is about an inch in length and somewhat more than half an inch in breadth. There is no wound properly so-called, but the blood seemed to force its way through the unbroken skin. In a very short time, sufficient blood had flowed again to gratify the devotion of other pilgrims, who applied their handkerchiefs as had been done before, until all the blood had been wiped away a second time. This process was repeated several times during the course of our visit.
According to her family and friends, Louise Lateau bled through her wounds on every Friday but two after she was stigmatized on April 24, 1868, until her death on August 25, 1883.(130)
The stigmatic Marie-Julie Jahenny was observed by the bishop of Nantes, who gave the following description of her stigmata in 1894:
On the 21st March, 1873, she received the marks of the five wounds; the crown of thorns followed on Oct. 5th; on the 25th of November appeared an imprint on the left shoulder, and on the 6th of December the dorsal stigmata in hands and feet. On Jan. 12th, 1874, her wrists showed marks corresponding to those which the cords must have produced when our Savior's arms were bound, and on the same day a sort of emblematic pattern developed in front of her heart. By Jan. 14th stripes had appeared on her ankles, legs and forearms in memory of the scourging, and a few days afterwards there were two weals on her side. On the 20th of February a stigmatic ring was seen on the fourth finger of the right hand in token of her mystic espousals; later on there appeared various inscriptions on the breast, and finally on Dec. 7th, 1875 the words 0 Crux Ave with a cross and a flower.(131)
The spontaneous appearance of Latin inscriptions on the body would be most difficult to explain in terms of mere random physiological processes.
Murphy gives the following account of Padre Pio, a turn-of-the-century Italian priest born Francesco Forgione:
In 1907 he [Padre Pio] showed puncture wounds in his hands to a parish priest, but they disappeared after his prayers for their removal. On August 5, 1918, he saw an apparition of a celestial person who hurled a spear at him. On September 20 he had the same vision, and found visible stigmata on his hands, feet, and side. Nine days later his fellow friars learned of his wounds when they discovered his blood-stained bedding.
In May [of 1919] he was examined by a Dr. Luigi Romanelli at the request of the Capuchin order, and in July the Holy Office sent Professor Amico Bignami, an agnostic pathologist of the Roman University, to study his wounds. In a formal report, Professor Bignami described superficial scars on the monk's hands and feet, plus a cross upon his left breast. These marks were extremely sensitive, but the professor did not consider them to have been artificially produced. He characterized them instead as "a necrosis of the epidermis of neurotic origin." He considered their symmetrical arrangement to be caused by "unconscious suggestion."(132)
It is interesting to note here that the pathologist, while skeptical about any divine origin of the stigmata, nonetheless attributed them to mental activities.
Murphy gives the following account of the stigmatic Theresa Neumann:
During the Lenten season of 1926, she received five of the stigmata, first on her side, then on her hands and feet, sometimes in the midst of religious visions. In November 1926 she began to feel Christ's crown of thorns, and two weeks later eight pronounced wounds on her head started bleeding. On Good Friday, 1927, the wounds on her hands and feet appeared to work their way through to the palms and soles, while her eyes bled until they were swollen shut and encrusted. In 1929 a lesion appeared on her shoulder in the place she imagined Christ's wound to be from carrying the cross to Golgotha. For the rest of her life she suffered intermittently from one or more of these stigmata. The consistency and volume of testimony regarding Theresa Neumann's wounds establishes their authenticity beyond reasonable doubt. If she sometimes manipulated her stigmata, as some skeptics maintained, she also frequently experienced spontaneous bleeding, according to numerous witnesses.(133)
For now, we will leave the less-known stigmatics aside, along with the debate about the Divine origins of the saints' stigmata. What the stigmata do show, however, is the extent to which thoughts can effect changes in body chemistry. If thoughts can cause Latin inscriptions to appear on the skin, it should be equally possible for them to increase the production of antibodies and T-cells.
As mentioned earlier, the stigmata are only some of charisms found among Catholic saints and mystics. Murphy gives examples of others, such as inedia:
Saint Lidwina of Schiedam (d.1433), it is alleged, ate nothing for 28 years; Venerable Domenica dal Paradiso (d.1553) for 20 years; Blessed Nicholas Von Flue (d. 1487) for 19 years; Blessed Elizabeth von Reute (d. 1420) for 15 years; and Louise Lateau (d. 1883) for 12 years. The historians Caroline Bynum and Rudolph Bell have documented such claims, as well as the intermittent bingeing, or bulemia, that typically accompanies heroic fasting. Bell, for example, traced the stages by which Saint Catherine of Siena gave up normal sustenance. In her late teens she lived -- intermittently -- on bread, water, and raw vegetables. At about age 3 she gave up bread, surviving on Communion wafers, cold water, and bitter herbs that she either sucked and spit out or swallowed and vomited. In January 1380, when she was about 33 years old, she abstained from water for a month in expiation for a crisis of the church in Italy.(134)
Another charism is the stereotypical luminous aura or "halo." Murphy gives the following account from Herbert Thurston, who is generally acknowledged to be a leading academic authority on the subject of the charisms:
There are so many stories of holy priests who lit up a dark cell or a whole chapel by the light which streamed from them or upon them, that I am strongly inclined to adhere to the more literal interpretation [of them]. For example, we read of the fourteenth-century Carthusian, John Tornerius, that when he did not arrive in time to celebrate his first Mass, the sacristan went to his cell to fetch him, and found that the little room was radiant with light which seemed to be diffused all round the good Father. Similarly, in the process of beatification of Thomas da Cori, witnesses stated that the whole church on a dark morning was lit up by the radiance which glowed in the Father's countenance. Further, we learn of Blessed Giles of Assisi, that in the nighttime on one occasion "so great a light shone round him that the light of the moon was wholly eclipsed thereby." So again, that the house of Blessed Aleidis of Scarbeke seemed to be on fire when she, with a radiant countenance, was praying within; or ... that the cell of St. Lewis Bertrand "appeared as if the whole room was illuminated with the most powerful lamps."(135)
Another charism is incendium amoris, or intense bodily heat, about which Murphy gives the following account:
This charism involves great bodily heat associated with ecstatic devotion. Saint Catherine of Genoa, for example, was said to have warmed the things she touched in extraordinary fashion. The Venerable Serafina di Dio, a Carmelite nun of Capri who died in 699, warmed those near her, "even in winter time." The Dominican nun Sister Maria Villani of Naples, who died in 1670 at the age of 86, had to drink three gallons of water a day, it was said, to cool her internal fires. And Orsola Benincasa, a sixteenth-century Italian ecstatic, sometimes needed basins of cold water to relieve her ecstasy. Each of these women had a contagious vital force that impressed friends and confessors. Like Saint Philip Neri, who did not need a shirt in the wintertime and vitalized others by his presence..., they had a prodigious warm-bloodedness that was triggered by their passion and discipline.(136)
Another charism is the odor of sanctity, or a sweet aroma emitted from the bodies of the saints:
Since the first centuries of Christian history, people have claimed that the bodies of certain martyrs and saints have an extraordinary fragrance. It was said that Saint Polycarp, who was martyred in 155; Saint Simeon Stylites, the fifth-century anchorite; Saint Guthlac, an Anglo-Saxon hermit; and other notable figures of the early church filled the air with sweetness, sometimes imbuing entire buildings with the smell of the "herb ambrosia." Saint Teresa of Avila, a skeptic about many religious claims, believed that holy living could produce an odor of sanctity.(137)
Another related stigma is the incorruption of the saint's body after death:
The cadavers of many Catholic religious have partially or entirely resisted decay, sometimes for centuries. Thurston listed the following phenomena associated with such incorruption: a fragrance perceived near the body of the deceased, which sometimes persists for months or years; bleeding of the cadaver weeks, months, or even years after death; the exuding of an oily, often fragrant fluid from some cadavers; and, less frequently, the persistence of warmth in the cadaver after life has ceased.(138)
One of the most bizarre of the stigmata is bodily elongation. Murphy gives the following account from Thurston, taken from proceedings for the beatification of Sister Veronica Laparelli, a nun who died in 1620 at the age of 83. Thurston quotes a sister Margherita Cortonesi:
"[W]hen [Sister Veronica] being in a trance state was reciting her Office alternately with some invisible being, she was observed gradually to stretch out until the length of her throat seemed to be out of all proportion in such a way that she was altogether much taller than usual. We, noticing this strange occurrence, looked to see if she was raised from the ground, but this, so far as our eyes could tell, was not the case. So, to make sure, we took a yard-measure and measured her height, and afterwards when she had come to herself we measured her again, and she was at least a span (ten inches or more) shorter. This we have seen with our own eyes, all of us nuns who were in the chapel."
In 1629, a Donna Hortenzia Ghini stated under oath that
"Sister Lisabetta Pancrazi, formerly a nun in the same convent, told me that Sister Veronica when in ecstasy seemed taller than in her normal state, [and] took a yard-measure and measured her height, and that after the said Sister Veronica came to herself she measured her again with the said yard-measure, and she found that she was half an arm's length shorter."(139)
The saints of the Roman Catholic Church are not the only people in the Christian tradition that have demonstrated extraordinary physical capabilities and other phenomena. Early Christian contemplatives (sometimes called the "Christian desert fathers") during the Third and Fourth centuries became famous for both their holiness and ascetic heroism. Murphy describes their experiences and capabilities:
According to the Abbe Duchesne's history of the early church, Macarius of Alexandria "could never hear of any feat of asceticism without at once trying to surpass it." When some monks went without sleep, Macarius kept himself awake for 20 nights. For an entire Lent he stood upright, eating nothing but cabbage once a week. And according to the historian W. E. Lecky, Macarius slept in a marsh for six months, constantly exposing his body to poisonous insects. For some 40 years, the monk Bessarion never lay down while he slept; and Pachomius, the famous founder of monasteries, did not lay down for 50 years. Simeon of Stylites, it was said, often went without food for the full Lenten season. In 422, at Kalat Seman in northern Syria, he lived on a six-foot column, then built taller ones, until he made his permanent home on a pillar some 60 feet high. Though the circumference of its platform was little more than three feet (with a railing to keep him from failing), Simeon lived on the column without interruption for 30 years. From this prominent vantage point he preached sermons, condemned the unfaithful, performed cures, played ecclesiastical politics, shamed moneylenders into reducing their interest charges, and intimidated countless pilgrims. His example helped create a fashion of ascetic pillar hermits that lasted for 12 centuries and persisted in secularized form into the twentieth century.(140)
Holy men of other religions have demonstrated abilities to manage their bodies in ways normally deemed impossible. One of these is the ability to endure extremes in temperature, attributed to Eskimo shamans. Although one might expect these people to endure extreme cold, they have also endured extreme heat. Murphy writes of a Yakut shaman named Mytchyll, who was known to have outdone much younger men in athletic contests, as well as performed such feats as gashing himself with a knife, eating sticks, and eating burning coals.(141) Murphy describes other feats by Eskimo and other shamans:
Shamanic virtuosity was evident, too, in a young Labrador Eskimo who remained for five days and nights in the sea so that he was given the title angalok, his people's equivalent of shaman. Eliade equated the power to survive so long in icy water with the Tibetan tumo (see 5-4), the ability of Manchu initiates to swim under ice in freezing seas, and the Rig Veda's tapas. The mastery of internal heat noted by Eliade, which has been attributed to yogis, Eskimo angaloks, and Tibetan lamas, has also been observed among shamans of the Solomon Islands, Sumatra, the Malay archipelago, and various North American Indian tribes. Pavioso shamans of North America, for example, put burning embers in their mouths and touch red-hot irons. Kung bushmen dance ecstatically in the flames of their campfires. Araucanian shamans of Chile have walked barefoot on fire without burning their limbs or garments.(142)
As often pointed out by its proponents, the newly-rediscovered "firewalk" experience is nothing new.
Murphy goes on to describe other shamanic powers, including but not limited to psychokinesis:
Several anthropologists have watched shamans perform ritual surgeries. Waldemar Bogoras, for example, observed a Chuckchee [Native American] shamaness open her son's abdomen with a knife, thrust her hand into the wound, then close it without sutures so that Bogoras could not detect any scar afterward. Another Chuckchee shaman, after drumming to inspire freedom from pain, cut his own abdomen open for others to see. Bogoras also reported the following incident. As a Chuckchee shaman drummed and sang to induce a trance in which he would descend to the underworld, voices were heard from several directions, some of them seeming to come from a distance. Apparently possessed by a spirit, the shaman spoke in falsetto while the tent shook and pieces of wood flew through the air. Another student of Siberian shamanism, Sergei Shirokogoroff, reported similar phenomena he had witnessed among the Tungus, including apparent spirit-voices and telekinesis.(143)
Hindu Yogis have also demonstrated extraordinary physical capabilities. One of the best-documented incidents was the burial of Yogi Haridas. The emergence of the yogi from what appeared to be a state of suspended animation, after being buried alive for six weeks in a 4 foot by 3 foot box, was described as follows:
The legs and arms of the body were shriveled and stiff, the face full, the head reclining on the shoulder like that of a corpse. I then called to the medical gentleman who was attending me to come down and inspect the body, which he did, but could discover no pulsation in the heart, the temples, or the arm. There was, however, a heat about the region of the brain, which no other part of the body exhibited.
A few minutes afterwards the eyeballs became dilated, and recovered their natural color, when the fakir [Haridas], recognizing Runjeet Singh sitting close to him, articulated in a low sepulchral tone, scarcely audible, "Do you believe me now?"
From the time of the box being opened, to the recovery of the voice, not more than half an hour could have elapsed; and in another half-hour the fakir talked with myself and those about him freely, though feebly, like a sick person; and we then left him, convinced that there had been no fraud or collusion in the exhibition we had witnessed.(144)
During the time he had been buried, there was cotton and wax stuffed in the Yogi's nose and ears, and his tongue was set back into his throat, blocking all air passages. The nineteenth-century Vedantic yogi Ramakrishna is also said to have undergone extraordinary physical transformations:
While worshipping Rama as his devotee Hanuman, the monkey chieftain of the Ramayana, his movements resembled those of a monkey. "His eyes became restless," wrote the Vedantic scholar Swami Nikhilananda. "He lived on fruits and roots. With a cloth tied around his waist, a portion of it hanging in the form of a tall, he jumped from place to place instead of walking." In his biography of Ramakrishna, novelist Christopher Isherwood paraphrased the saint's own description of his strange behavior: "I didn't do this of my own accord; it happened of itself. And the most marvelous thing was -- the lower end of my spine lengthened, nearly an inch! Later, when I stopped practicing this kind of devotion, it gradually went back to its normal size."
In his ecstasies he shed tears, trembled convulsively, bled through his pores, felt his joints loosening or locking, perspired heavily, and felt burning sensations. Like Theodore Barber's exceptional hypnotic subjects..., he was prey to suggestions from his environment. Upon one occasion, for example, clots of blood appeared on his lips after a cousin said he would bleed from his mouth. The suggestion took root strongly, but Ramakrishna was restored when a sadhu prompted him to stop his bleeding by exercising self-control. But the famous saint would not use his self-transformative powers to try to save himself from cancer. When a friend suggested he remove his illness through yogic concentration, he rebuked him, asking how he could withdraw his mind from God and turn it to "this worthless cage of flesh." Like many ascetics, he did not deem his body's restoration to be a worthy cause.(145)
The extraordinary capabilities of Indian yogis have been subjected to extensive scientific study. Murphy describes some of the findings of these studies:
The instrumented study of yogic functioning was expanded by Bagchi, Wenger, and Anand, who was then chairman of the Department of Physiology at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi.... For five months in 1957, Bagchi and Wenger traveled through India with an eight-channel electroencephalograph and accessory instruments to record respiration, skin temperature, skin conductance, and finger blood-volume changes.... Among the subjects they examined, one could perspire from his forehead upon command in his freezing Himalayan retreat; a second could regurgitate at will to cleanse himself. Three others altered their heartbeats so that they could not be heard with a stethoscope, though EKG and plethysmographic records showed that their hearts were active and their pulses had not disappeared. In tests to compare relaxation in a supine position with seated meditation, Bagchi and Wenger found that four yoga students had faster heart rates, lower finger temperatures, greater palmar sweating, and higher blood pressure during meditation, though their respiration rates were reduced. Five yogis given similar tests exhibited even faster heart rates, lower finger temperatures, greater palmar conductance, and higher blood pressures during meditation than the students, though their breathing was slower. Such differences suggested that for these yogis meditation was an active rather than a passive process.(146)
Similar phenomena were witnessed by Western observers.
Elmer and Alyce Green, with their colleagues at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, also observed exhibitions of yogic heart control. Their subject Swami Rama, while sitting perfectly still, produced an atrial flutter of 306 beats per minute that lasted for 16 seconds. During a fibrillation of this kind, a section of the heart oscillates rapidly while its chambers do not fill and its valves do not work properly, but Swami Rama gave no sign that the maneuver caused him any pain or heart damage. The swami also produced an 11 difference between the left and right sides of his right palm. While he did this, the left side of his palm turned pink and the right side gray.(147)
The following phenomena were observed when another yogi consented to be buried alive in an experiment:
During a remarkable experiment, a yogi was buried for eight days in an earthen pit and connected by leads to an EKG in a nearby laboratory. After the pit was boarded up, the subject's heart rate sometimes went as high as 25O beats per minute, until a straight line appeared on the EKG tracing when the yogi had been in the pit for 29 hours. Suspecting that their EKG leads had been deliberately or accidentally disconnected, they checked their machine and continued to monitor its tracings. To their astonishment, it started to register electrical activity some seven days later, about a half hour before the yogi's scheduled disinterment. When the pit was opened, the yogi was found sitting in the same posture he had started in, but in a stuporous condition. If the machine had malfunctioned in some way they could not ascertain; it seemed an extraordinary coincidence that it started again just a half hour before their subject's scheduled release. Apparently, the yogi was operating with some kind of internal clock that did not depend upon the daily cycles of light and darkness, for the most likely cause of the straight line on his EKG tracing was a dramatic decrease in his heart's activity. Kothari and his colleagues finally could not account for this remarkable cardiac record.(148)
Finally Indian researchers have also conducted studies according to the rules of scientific rigor demanded by major Western universities:
In 1931 Kovoor Behanan, an Indian graduate student in psychology at Yale, was awarded a Sterling Fellowship to study yoga.... During 72 days of experiments at Yale, he found that one breathing exercise, or pranayama, increased his oxygen consumption by 24.5 percent, a second by 18.5 percent, and a third by 12 percent.... Unlike many tales by travelers to the East, Behanan's straightforward, well-observed account of his laboratory research was free of exaggeration and mystification.(149)
III. Hysterical Psychosomatic Phenomena
Extraordinary psychosomatic phenomena are not restricted to saints and spiritual adepts. Neurotics and psychotics have had similar bizarre experiences. We will examine two: hysterical stigmata and false pregnancy. I include these phenomena in the discussion because they show that it is not necessary to be a spiritual adept in order to have thoughts that profoundly affect metabolism.
Murphy cites several accounts of hysterical stigmata. In one he quotes psychiatrist Joseph Lifshutz:
When she was 13, [her] father scratched her down her back with his fingernails, leaving three long scars. These healed over in time. Four years later, at the age of 17, she had left home because of her father's brutality, and was living in the country with her brother.... Somehow [he] found out where she was, and announced he would pay a visit. The patient reports now that as the time of the visit approached, her old back scars, which had been healed for four years, would redden and bleed.... This reddening and bleeding of the three old healed scars would recede spontaneously, but these episodes recurred several times, each with the anticipation of a visit from her father.(150)
[Psychotherapist] Helene Deutsch described similar skin changes that appeared to express sexual impulses. "I have often seen cases," she wrote, "in which the patient's hand would swell up and become red whenever his associations led him to memories of repressed masturbation.
A more elaborate set of stigmata was described by psychiatrist Ernest Hadley, whose patient, a 24-year-old man, bled from his left armpit during four- to five-day periods through at least seven regular monthly cycles. The fact that such bleeding occurred on something like a menstrual cycle led Hadley to believe it represented his patient's identification with the female character. Menstruation symbolized both defense against sexual assault and female innocence, he suggested, for his patient had identified the armpit with the vagina since his childhood.
But psychogenic stigmata can also symbolize difficulties that are not primarily sexual. Psychiatrist Robert Moody, for example, described a man treated for attacks of somnambulism who exhibited indentations on his arms that resembled rope marks. These appeared when he was reliving an episode during which he had been tied in bed to inhibit his sleepwalking.... Though it was conceivable, Moody wrote, that his patient might have tied a rope around himself to cause the first set of indentations, "on the second occasion strict observation made trickery impossible; so it is difficult to see how the occurrence can be explained in any way other than as a genuine psychosomatic phenomenon."(151)
Murphy cites other phenomena observed by Moody and other psychotherapists in their practices.
During catharsis, a patient once buried by a bomb explosion exhibited a swelling on his left ankle where he had been struck, and a second on his head where he had been hit during the same incident. The abreaction of a merchant seaman who had fallen into an icy sea precipitated a localized inhibition of blood flow to his extremities. And a woman who relived a riding accident exhibited psychogenic bruising on her right side where she had fractured some ribs in her fall....
Moody described a female patient who had exhibited several psychogenic marks. These included a red mark on her shoulder that appeared as she relived a beating in which a whip had caught her on the very spot; a swelling of her right wrist after she recalled an accident in which the wrist had been fractured; red streaks on her legs that corresponded to wounds caused by yet another accident; and the appearance of a bruise that resembled the imprint of an elaborately carved stick her father had used to beat her. Moody also described an experiment he had conducted with the same patient. After recalling an incident in which she had been struck across the hands, she exhibited red streaks where her father's whip had left bloody marks. Moody then encased her right hand in a firm plaster bandage, which he removed the following morning in the presence of his colleague to find "obvious bloodstains on the dressing immediately covering the weals."...
Some stigmata reflect several traumas and conflicts at once. For example, a 27-year-old man exhibited weals along an elaborate tattoo of a dagger that resembled a female with tapering legs and a penis-like protuberance. As a number of aggressions, fears, guilts, and neurotic compliances, some of them related to the patient's transvestism, were brought to consciousness by psychotherapy, only the dagger tattoo among several on his body swelled. "The symptom," suggested therapists Norman Graff and Robert Wallerstein, "served to... resolve and thus lessen the danger of eruption of a whole complex of hostile, erotic, exhibitionistic impulses combined with self-punishing needs."
In I955, Frank Gardner and Louis Diamond of Harvard University proposed that some people develop a sensitivity to their own red blood cells that causes bruising in response to trivial injury. They tested their hypothesis by injecting patients who suffered from recurrent spontaneous bruising with small amounts of their own blood, and found that pain and discoloration often appeared around the injected areas. But in reviewing 27 such cases that had been studied at Case Western Reserve University, Oscar Ratnoff and David Agte found that psychological trauma also contributed to the affliction. Injections of saline solution and other substances produced the same kind of bruising in some of these patients that injections of their own blood had caused, and their complaints read "like a table of contents of a monograph on hysteria." Their striking symptoms led Ratnoff and Agle to believe that emotional issues either caused or influenced their spontaneous bruising, even when they were reactive to their own blood.(152)
Another hysterical somatization is false pregnancy or pseudocyesis. Murphy describes some of the symptoms:
The pseudocyesis cases reviewed by Biven and Klinger and by Fried involved the following symptoms, in the order of their frequency: (1) partial or complete disappearance of menses, usually lasting for nine months; (2) abdominal enlargement; (3) breast changes, including swelling and tenderness; secretion of milk and colostrum, pigmentation; and enlarged papillae; (4) sensations of "fetal movements"; (5) softening of the cervix and enlargement of the uterus; (6) nausea and vomiting, sometimes with aberrations of appetite; and (7) weight gain, usually greater than in pregnancy....(153)
Murphy goes on to list some of the psychogenic causes:
narcissistic self-involvement, by which a woman liberates herself from undesirable burdens by unconsciously simulating pregnancy; the desire to stabilize marriage with a husband who wants a child; the desire for affection, attention, and care that pregnancy might bring from husband, parents, friends, or doctors; a compensatory reaction against deep fears of pregnancy; symbolic compensation for imagined or real loss; a desire for the physical fullness and sense of completeness that pregnancy often confers; the alleviation of emotional emptiness and numbness; the overcoming of physical inadequacy through a swollen abdomen and larger breasts; the desire for perfection or rebirth that a new child suggests; the wish to stop menstruation because it symbolizes disintegration and loss of boundaries; the need to prove one's identity as a woman with reproductive abilities intact; a desire for power over husband, children, parents, friends, or circumstances, by forcing or stabilizing a marriage, perhaps, or by showing superiority over other females; a need for self-punishment caused by forbidden thoughts or guilt-provoking deeds, particularly those associated with sexual experience; a need to experience pain and suffering; and the recurrent, compulsive need to prove oneself creative and fertile.(154)
Strange as it may sound false, pregnancy occasionally occurs in males. In defending the psychogenic origins of the condition, Murphy cites two accounts:
A 33-year-old merchant seaman described by psychiatrist James Knight, for example, had expanded five inches at the waist even though he had gained little weight, suffered from no organic disorder, and exhibited no hormonal abnormalities. This patient, who according to Knight appeared to be "strong, healthy, and masculine," had suffered from morning nausea, apparent abdominal movements, and increased appetite following the onset of his stomach's swelling, all of which had convinced him that he was pregnant. His physical symptoms subsided as he gained insight into the needs and conflicts that had precipitated his strange conditions.
Psychiatrists Dwight Evans and Thomas Seely also described a case of male pseudocyesis, in a [patient who] was hospitalized for depression and persecutory delusions. After eight days of treatment, the man said he wanted to have a child by impregnating his wife, in part because his five-year-old daughter "was no longer a baby." During his second week of hospitalization his abdomen began to swell, even though he gained no weight, and he experienced nausea and vomiting. On his fourteenth day of treatment, he felt something moving in his stomach, "like a baby." In the weeks that followed, he gained 6 pounds while his abdomen continued to grow.... After eight weeks of hospitalization, the man was discharged, though his abdomen was still swollen. Subsequently his mental state improved, and with lithium carbonate treatment his signs of pregnancy vanished.(155)
The above examples were not included in this overview for entertainment, though they could easily serve as such. What they show us is that, like spiritual inspiration, neuroses too can effect extraordinary physiological changes. The next question is whether ordinary, mentally-healthy people can also take advantage of the power of psychosomatic medicine. The evidence from biofeedback studies would indicate an affirmative answer. Research in biofeedback, to which we turn next, shows the extent to which ordinary people, with ordinary thought processes, have learned conscious control of metabolic processes hitherto believed to be out of reach for the conscious mind.
IV. Biofeedback Studies
The significance of biofeedback research lies not only in its demonstration of the mind-body connection but also in its demonstration that mind-body interactions can be learned and, to some extent, consciously controlled. Ordinarily, the body regulates physiological processes such as blood pressure and skin temperature without conscious intervention or even awareness. Biofeedback brings normally unconscious processes before consciousness. By itself, it provides nothing more than what is stated in its name: feedback regarding biological processes.
In a biofeedback exercise, machines are used to "feed back" data about metabolic processes that are normally unknown to the conscious mind. The subject then attempts to control the readings on the machine. With practice, biofeedback subjects have learned to control many bodily functions previously believed to be totally autonomous.
The way it works can be aptly demonstrated from my own experience. As an adolescent and young adult, I had frequent bouts with painful, debilitating upper back and neck pain, which I had attributed to "pulled" muscles. During one of these episodes, I went to a physician at a university health clinic, who had worked with biofeedback. After finding no visible injury in either my back or my neck, he explained that my condition was due not to muscle strain but to muscle tension. He said I needed to learn to relax the muscles in my neck and upper back consciously, muscles that were in fact all "voluntary" and that I could consciously control. Instead of prescribing muscle relaxants, he suggested that I use the pain as biofeedback regarding the amount of tension I was putting on the affected muscles and to make a conscious attempt to relax them. I would know I was doing it right whenever I felt the pain diminish. I began practicing immediately, and the pain was gone completely within two days. That was in 1976, and I have not had another severe episode of neck and upper back pain since. As soon as I feel its onset, I immediately focus on relaxing the muscles that hurt, and the pain goes away. In more recent years, I have used it to head off episodes of lower back pain, which is potentially far more debilitating.
My use of biofeedback here is hardly extraordinary. The primary survival function of the experience of pain lies in the fact that it is a form of biofeedback. Moreover, I was using it to control muscles that even conventional physicians knew were voluntary. However, biofeedback research has shown that subjects can control bodily functions previously regarded as involuntary.
Barbara Brown, one of the early pioneers in biofeedback research in the 1970s, aptly summarizes the significance of biofeedback for our purposes:
The remarkable impact of bio-feedback on both scientists and the public is a phenomenon in itself. It has a startling revolutionary flavor, for even ten years ago we were chastised and taken to scientific task for exposing the thought that the mind did indeed control the body. The condemnation of such thinking dominated our intellectual and scientific speculations, despite a growing acceptance of the concept and success of psychosomatic medicine, and despite the experiential evidence of improved physical health with improved mental health.(156)
Brown's work will be the focus of our overview of biofeedback.
One of the discoveries from biofeedback research is that we can learn to control our heart rates. Brown describes an early experiment:
One of the first studies (1966) which contains many more implications for human behavior than has yet been recognized was that of Brener and Hothersall. Their subjects were wired for heart rate recording; the room was comfortable and the investigators pleasant. In front of the subjects was a panel of two lights, a green one which the investigator said was a signal for a time period when high-frequency tones could be beard, and a red light when low tones could be beard. The subjects were asked to try to cause more high tones when the green light was on and to try to make more low tones when the red light was on. They were asked to do this "by mental processes only," but they weren't told that the high tones actually were their own fast heartbeats while the low tones represented their own slower heartbeats. In theory, then, all the subjects knew was that in some unknown way they had the power to produce more high or low tones and that they were to accomplish this mysterious effect exactly when signaled to do so.
Human beings are almost always quick to obey verbal commands, but to everyone's surprise even their hearts complied with the requests of the experimenters. When signaled to make more high tones, they did so by increasing their heart rates; to make low tones more often, they slowed their hearts.(157)
Brown makes the following note regarding the rapidity of the heart's response:
Another facet of Brener and Hothersall's study that has not received adequate attention is the amazing rapidity with which the heart responded to the two different signals, green and red. Each colored light signal lasted less than a minute, yet for the most part the heart promptly responded to each new requests to slow or to speed up.
While it is true that the difference between slowing and speeding in Brener and Hothersall's experiments scarcely exceeded twenty beats per minute, accumulated over time this could mean some fourteen thousand beats in just half a day, and this difference could be important to the organism.(158)
People can also learn to maintain their heart rates:
The objective [of the experiment] was to learn whether people could keep their hearts beating regularly without ever becoming aware that they were doing it. When a light signal was turned on, it meant that a shock to the leg might be upcoming. At the same time, however, the subjects were presented with a task to do that kept their attention so that they were too busy to notice the signal warning about the shock. To heighten the attention the subjects were told that if they failed to detect changes promptly, they would get the leg shock. At the beginning of the experiment the subject was exposed to what would happen if "something" about him failed to perform: he was given the shock. Naturally the heart rate increased, and it also increased when the warning light came on. The heart rate was now elevated, and the experiment was so designed that the subject was punished by the shock if he now failed to maintain the accelerated heart rate. And that is exactly what the hearts did: they maintained the accelerated heart rate as long as the warning light signal was on and they avoided the electric shock. As soon as the warning light was turned off, indicating no more shock, heart rates dropped back to normal.(159)
In this experiment, the conscious mind was bypassed, on account of the preoccupation with controls. The unconscious mind, taking in feedback from the senses, was acting to control the heart. This experiment follows a straightforward, stimulus-response mechanism; there is really no thought, conscious or unconscious, involved.
The more profound implications of biofeedback were discovered when people learned to speed up the heart without the rewards or punishments of operant conditioning, i.e., when it was discovered that people could learn to control their heart rates when given nothing more than information about what their hearts were doing:
The real jolt to the experimental conditioning learning theorists came with the 1971 study of Bergman and Johnson, who made the startling discovery that people could change their heart rates when given cognitive information only and without any shocks or feedback information, bells or lights of the hallowed conditioning techniques. They simply instructed their, subjects: "When you hear the tone, try to increase your heart rate," or, "When you hear the tone, try to slow your heart rate."... Subjects who were asked to increase heart rate did very well, speeding the heart by some 3 beats per minute within the 6 seconds of the tone. Those asked to slow their hearts didn't, but neither did they increase the rate. As in other experiments the results point to a greater ease in speeding up the heart than in slowing it down. Although the investigators interviewed their subjects intensively, they could find no consistent technique used either to accelerate the heart nor to keep it from accelerating when asked to slow it down.
...A quick calculation shows, however, that the change in heart rate never exceeded 4 percent.... [Nevertheless] Closer inspection of the study shows that nearly every time the subjects heard the tone, they increased heart rate. It's the consistency that counts. During other 6-second intervals without the tone, their heart rates varied scarcely at all, so by the rules of statistics it can be inferred that the change during the tone appeared specific to the time when a change in heart rate had been requested.(160)
As Brown herself admits, the results of this study were at least in part inconclusive. The subjects of the experiment could not learn to slow their heart beat, and they were able to speed it up only to some degree. Taken by itself, it offers little comfort to coronary-prone, Type-A personalities, who would like to continue Type-A behavior safely by learning to control their heart rates.
Blood pressure is another metabolic process that has been brought under control with biofeedback. Blood pressure is taken with two measurements. Systolic blood pressure is the blood pressure when the heart beats and pushes the blood through the circulatory system. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart is at rest, i.e., between the beats. The blood pressure of a healthy individual might be 110/70, with 110 being the systolic reading. Similarly, the blood pressure of a hypertensive might be 140/120. Of these two readings, the one that is likely to be a health risk is the diastolic. (Exercise and a strong heart can induce high systolic blood pressure.) High diastolic blood pressure indicates that some underlying malady is keeping the pressure from dropping, as it should, between heartbeats. Brown cites two experiments, one dealing with systolic blood pressure and the other diastolic. In the first experiment, the subjects (all males) were rewarded by being shown pictures of female nudes. In a subsequent experiment with diastolic blood pressure, the rewards were more varied. Brown describes the study:
In the diastolic bio-feedback experiment, the experiment proper was very similar to the one described above [an experiment with systolic blood pressure], with one major exception. Instead of using pictures of female nudes as the reward all of the time, these fantasy rewards were used only one-third of the time, the other rewards being sometimes pictures of landscapes or sometimes pictures of how much money the subject would receive for correct performance of changing his blood pressure. Some subjects received the flashing-light/beeping-tone feedback of successful performance when the blood pressure was a point or so higher while other subjects were similarly rewarded when the blood pressure dropped a point or two. All subjects were additionally rewarded (reinforced) after every twenty successes by the pictures.
The average decrease for those rewarded for decreasing pressure was about two points. Statistical analyses revealed (!) that these were not significant changes.
The real drama occurred after the study. Some of the subjects were instructed that the experiment was now over, but would they please continue to try to make correct responses although there would now be no feedback and no pictures. At this point the blood pressure of subjects rewarded for going up really bounced upward (at least in comparison to what they did during the experiment), rising on the average about eight points, while those rewarded for going down dropped about three points. Largely on the basis of this unexpected event the investigators concluded that human subjects can learn to raise or lower their diastolic blood pressure.(161)
The results of this experiment are significant for Type-A personalities!
Brain waves too have been brought under control with biofeedback. Brown describes one of her own early experiments, in which the subjects learned to control their own brain waves, not only when the biofeedback devices were attached, but also later, when they were disconnected. In the end, the subjects had learned how it felt to produce alpha brain waves themselves -- and then, using only the subtle feelings discovered during biofeedback, to induce them intentionally:
Pairs of electrodes were applied to the scalp to record a conventional EEG. [T]his system turned the light on when alpha activity was present and turned it off when alpha disappeared. There was, however, one more feature: the intensity of the light reflected the size of the alpha.
For the experiment itself the subjects were simply asked to try to find some feeling state within themselves that would keep the blue light on as much of the time as possible.
The results were quite startling. By the end of the first practice session, the average subject bad more than doubled the amount of alpha in his EEG, and he tripled the amount during the third practice session. In the third practice session the abundance reached the extraordinary high of 60 percent of all EEG activity. This is as much or more than the average person shows when he has his eyes closed and is very relaxed.
[A]t the end of each practice session and in subsequent practice sessions, a number of subjects produced large amounts of alpha during the feedback periods, then tended to show the desynchronized or "alert" EEG patterns during the rest periods. This suggested that when they were attending to the feedback signal, they continued to increase their alpha, and when attention to the task was no longer required, alpha disappeared. This was opposite to the usual sequence of changes observed for alpha: that alpha generally disappears during attention and reappears when attention is relaxed.
One of the most exciting consequences of the alpha bio-feedback experiment took place as the study was ending. It occurred to me that if the experimental subjects had truly learned to control their own alpha, then they should be able to perform the feat without the help of bio-feedback.
A month or so after their alpha experiences, we recorded the EEGs of a number of the subjects from the original study. This time there were no feedback signals. Over an hour's recording time, the accuracy of the subjects for knowing when alpha was present ranged between 75 and 100 percent. Even two months later, accuracy remained above 70 percent.(162)
To my knowledge, the therapeutic value of brain wave control per se may be somewhat limited, but the fact that it can be brought under conscious control suggests some amazing possibilities. If brain waves can be brought under conscious control, what else can? What if we could learn, via biofeedback how it "feels" to produce white blood cells, or bring about other immune system activities consciously? Though these questions remain unanswered, the findings from biofeedback research render such speculations much more realistic.
One of the most remarkable discoveries from biofeedback research is that in some cases we can learn to control the metabolism of a single cell -- consciously. Early biofeedback researchers knew that the neuro-muscular system was comprised of entities called "motor units," which consist of several muscle fibers controlled by a single nerve cell. Brown explains how these researchers used biofeedback from these motor units to train subjects how to control the metabolism of the nerve cell:
Each motor unit has its own electrical signature, easily seen when the changes in electrical energy are allowed to flow across an oscilloscope screen or move a recording pen across paper....
The first researchers made a puppet show of the motor-unit muscle cells. Their electrical dancing is caught by the electrode, acting like a television camera, and fed by cables into the television receiver, the oscilloscope version used in laboratories. Each small cell group dances access the screen in distinctive shapes. The subjects watching their own interior, minute, unconscious body activity would begin to say, "Oh, there's Charlie, and there's Sam, and here come the twins." Then a very curious event occurred. Soon the subjects began to announce, "Did you know that I can make Charlie come by whenever I want," or, "Watch me make Sam disappear."(163)
Given the physiology of motor units, controlling an individual unit entails controlling the metabolism of a single cell, and this is in fact what the subjects were doing when they made "Charlie come by" or "Sam disappear."
Another area of biofeedback research was the electrical conductivity of the skin, or "skin talk," to use Brown's terminology. According to Brown, skin talk holds a unique place in biofeedback research:
Skin bio-feedback takes quite a different form than that of other body systems such as heart, muscles, or brain waves. The biofeedback monitors of those organs or systems give information that appears to relate to changes directly within the systems themselves. Bio-feedback of heart rate information, for example, tends to emphasize primarily how the heartbeat is performing; brain wave biofeedback tends to emphasize how brain electrical activity is performing. Because of their vital role, the fact that these body activities are expressing emotion and mind function as well as their life-supporting function tends to be a secondary consideration. But in the case of the skin, with its less well appreciated vital function, it is not the skin that skin talk is talking about primarily; the skin is talking about the mind.
With the skin, then, the priorities are reversed: the skin monitor is feeding back information primarily about the mind, and only secondarily, if at all, information about the skin itself. And what we can learn in skin biofeedback is not control of the skin, but control of emotions and mental activity. This might seem to make heart muscle or any other kind of bio-feedback obscure indicators of emotion as compared to the skin's ability to communicate the inner being.(164)
Ontological materialists might take issue with Brown here, arguing that although the skin is not talking about itself, neither is it talking about the mind per se. It could be talking about the brain. Nevertheless, be it mind or brain, the skin is talking about what we would normally call thought processes, albeit in some cases unconscious ones. Brown elaborates on the scope of skin talk:
Not only can the skin talk profile personality and cultural backgrounds, it also reflects mood, that emotional tone of the individual around which his more immediate emotional reactions swing. Like the voice from the larynx, the voice of the skin rises and falls, becomes loud and soft, hesitates and delays, explodes with vigor. Every emotional nuance is reflected in transposing relationships of its electrical components, weaving them into ever more complex patterns to be puzzled over by psychophysiologists.(165)
The skin's response to emotions is no surprise. What is remarkable is its response to abstract concepts. Brown describes an experiment in which the skin was trained to obey verbal commands. In the first part of the experiment, the subjects were given an electric shock along with the words "receive a shock." In Pavlovian fashion, the skin soon began to react to the words themselves in the same way as it had when paired with an actual shock. This was expected. However, the experimenters then told the subjects that in upcoming experiments, the words "green light," which make no reference to shocks in themselves, would be accompanied by a shock. The subjects' "skin-mind" learned to respond to the words "green light" as if the shock were received before any actual shock was ever administered. In effect the skin-mind had learned to make an a priori judgment. According to Brown:
The skin-mind learned so well that when the real experiment using lights and shock was subsequently carried out, no further learning occurred. It was somewhat anticlimactic that when the experiment was reversed and the subjects were told that the words "green light" no longer meant that a shock would follow in the make-believe experiment, the skin responses gradually diminished until they failed to occur at all. The responses to verbal suggestion even evoked the process of physiologic adaptation.
I find it one of the more curious episodes of behavioral research that no one then asked the question: how can man remember a specific skin answer (that he was not consciously aware of, nor even knew occurred) to the word "shock" long enough or well enough that he can evoke that same answer when he is asked to make that skin answer to the words "green light"? Or that he performed this task better than when he actually saw the light and felt the shock? The light of those experiments thirty-five years ago shining on man's ability to control the activity of his body has lain sleeping, imprisoned in behavioral control science. Today bio-feedback researchers have demonstrated unequivocally that the mind, the will, can and does control nearly all body activities.(166)
Brown's point here is very important. Our metabolism is not controlled by a simple, mechanistic process of stimulus and response, but it can be, and often is, mediated by conscious thought. In the case of the later experiments Brown mentions here, there was never any actual classical or operant conditioning in which the subjects were trained to expect a shock when they heard the words "green light." It was only via their thinking, their understanding of the experimenters' words, that they associated the symbol with the action.
One of the discoveries of biofeedback with respect to skin talk was evidence for the existence of subconscious thought. By "thought" here, I mean the power of reason and the ability to make intellectual and moral judgments. A cognitive psychotherapist I once knew said that the most useless thing any therapist can do is to attribute a client's problems to something in the subconscious mind. You might as well say, The devil made me do it. He then suggested that unconscious "thoughts" are not thoughts at all, because thought by nature and definition is necessarily conscious. The evidence from biofeedback experiments, however, suggests otherwise. Brown cites an experiment in which the skin revealed subconscious reason and judgment:
Naughty words or other emotion-arousing words were flashed on a screen so briefly that the subjects could not perceive them intelligently. Mixed in with the arousing words were some neutral words. Although it was impossible for the subjects to see the words and so consciously recognize them, something in their brains did recognize every word, and this recognition was voiced by the skin. For every naughty word there was an orienting response by the skin, but no responses to the neutral or bland words. A number of brain electrical responses have also been found to occur at the same time, indicating that long before conscious recognition the body and its subconscious substructure both recognize and make judgments about what goes on in the environment.(167)
Not only does skin talk reveal the process of subconscious thoughts, but it also reveals its intelligence, which in some cases is greater than that of the conscious mind:
This was shown by an experiment in which subjects were asked to rate the intensity of a noxious stimulus both verbally and by their skin responses, The subjects verbally rated the most noxious as the least noxious, but the skin's electrical response was largest and longest when the stimuli actually were the most noxious. This curious result was interpreted as indicating the effect of expectancy on subjective feeling; that is, subjectively the more noxious stimuli weren't as bad as expected, so the brain compared the expected bad with the real not-so-bad-as-expected. The skin, however, was with reality all the way.
Further evidence that the subconscious is not only more in touch with reality than consciousness but also has the facility to express its recognition of reality via the skin can be seen in an experiment where subjects were given shocks and told that these would vary in intensity when actually the shocks were all of the same intensity. The subjects reported that the intensity of shock became less and less, that is, they adapted subjectively to the shock but their skin responded exactly the same to each and every shock.(168)
Of special interest to process philosophers and theologians, biofeedback studies have shown that the skin reacts to color. Brown cites the following experiment:
The skin also is a good color detector and seems to reflect the way in which brain neurons process color information. Experiments demonstrating nonconscious body reactions to colors support the common belief that colors induce emotional states which are specific to different hues. We all know people who prefer the yellow-green part of the spectrum and others who like blues and still others who dote on reds and pinks. In general there are many more people who like the blue-green part of the visual spectrum. One author has postulated this is because it is the "safe" part of the spectrum, being in the middle, whereas colors at the opposite ends of the spectrum -- infrared and ultraviolet -- have dangerous connotations. First he compared skin responses to slides projected on a screen of the colors red and green, and found that skin responses were much larger to red. He then compared green to the color at the other end of the spectrum, violet, and again found that skin responses to violet were larger than those to green. When the experimental subjects were asked how they felt about the colors, they reported that the reds and violets were much more arousing, exciting, and lively.(169)
This suggests that colors carry emotional connotations, making more plausible Whitehead's contention that our perception of colors as seen actually arises out of colors as feelings.
Biofeedback research has therefore made two distinct contributions to our discussion. The first is that metabolic processes hitherto believed to be purely autonomous can in fact be brought under control by means of thought -- provided they are brought before consciousness. This suggests that biofeedback could at least theoretically be used to bring metabolic processes such as immune responses under conscious control. However, I was unable to find any studies in which anyone actually succeeded in doing it. The second is empirical evidence for the existence of unconscious thought. Biofeedback experiments have shown us fairly conclusively that the ordinarily conscious processes of reason and judgment can be exercised at a subconscious level.
V. Summary and Conclusion
To summarize the evidence in this chapter: Thinking has been shown to affect the body in many extraordinary ways. People have accomplished things with, and under, hypnosis that would be impossible in a waking state. Holy people and spiritual adepts in various traditions have also displayed extraordinary physical capabilities and physiological processes. Finally, biofeedback studies have shown us that many processes, previously believed to be totally automatic, can be brought under conscious control. Given this background, psychosomatic healing in particular should not seem so strange and implausible. The claim that a strong-willed, positive attitude can generate sufficient immune system activities to destroy cancer cells, for example, may not be so wild after all.
Notes on Chapter 7
113 Murphy, 297-8. Return to text
114 Murphy, 325-6. Return to text
115 Murphy, 331. Return to text
116 Murphy, 328. Return to text
117 Murphy, 328. Return to text
118 Murphy, 332. Return to text
119 Murphy, 334-5. Return to text
120 Murphy, 332-3. Return to text
121 Murphy, 333-4. Return to text
122 Theodore Barber in Murphy, 335. Return to text
123 Murphy, 335-6. Return to text
124 Murphy, 336-7. Return to text
125 Murphy, 481. Return to text
126 Murphy, 483. Return to text
127 Murphy, 485-6. Return to text
128 Murphy, 487. Return to text
129 Murphy, 488. Return to text
130 Murphy, 489. Return to text
131 Murphy, 491. Return to text
132 Murphy, 493. Return to text
133 Murphy, 495. Return to text
134 Murphy, 502-3. Return to text
135 Murphy, 506. Return to text
136 Murphy, 509. Return to text
137 Murphy, 508. Return to text
138 Murphy, 511.Return to text
139 Murphy, 516. Return to text
140 Murphy, 465. Return to text
141 Murphy, 467. Return to text
142 Murphy, 467. Return to text
143 Murphy, 468-9. Return to text
144 Murphy, 474. Account given by Sir Claude Wade, a British resident of the court of the Maharaja Runjeet Singh. Return to text
145 Murphy, 476. Return to text
146 Murphy, 528-9. Return to text
147 Murphy, 532. Return to text
148 Murphy, 534-5. Return to text
149 Murphy, 527-8.Return to text
150 Murphy, 234. Return to text
151 Murphy, 234-5. Return to text
152 Murphy, 236-7. Return to text
153 Murphy, 239. Return to text
154 Murphy, 239-40. Return to text
155 Murphy, 241. Return to text
156 Barbara Brown, New Mind/New Body (New York, Evanston, San Francisco, and London: Harper and Row, 1974), 15. Return to text
157 Brown, 237. Return to text
158 Brown, 239.159. Return to text
159 Brown, 239-40. Return to text
160 Brown, 246-6. Return to text
161 Brown, 293-4. Return to text
162 Brown, 331-2. Return to text
163 Brown, 157-62. Return to text
164 Brown, 50-51. Return to text
165 Brown, 61. Return to text
166 Brown, 68-69. Return to text
167 Brown, 75.168. Return to text
168 Brown, 77. Return to text
169 Brown, 83-84. Return to text