The Science of Blessing and Cursing

Organized skepticism is a two-edged sword. It allows us to question orthodoxy as well as unorthodoxy … The scientist who claims to be a true skeptic, a zetetic, is willing to investigate empirically the claims of the American Medical Association as well as those of the faith healer; and, more important, he should be willing to compare the empirical results for both before defending one and condemning the other.
— Marcello Truzzi, Ph.D. The Zetetic Scholar, Nos. 12-13 (1987)

In 1962 a man named Vittorio Michelli was admitted to the Military Hospital of Verona, Italy, suffering from a progressive carcinoma of the left hip. The whole hip was being eaten away by the cancer, and his left leg was literally being separated from his body. Despite all that medicine could do, Michelli’s disease worsened and the actual bone of the pelvis began disintegrating. After ten months of unsuccessful treatment, the patient left the hospital and went to Lourdes on May 24, 1963.

Bathing in the “miraculous” waters of Lourdes, Michelli experienced sudden sensations of heat moving through his body. His appetite, which had virtually disappeared, suddenly returned and he began eating heartily again. He felt new life and energy and began to gain weight. After about a month, he returned to the hospital and was X-rayed. The tumor was visibly smaller. Then the tumor disappeared and the bone began to regrow and completely reconstructed itself.

Some people, especially devout Roman Catholics, are very eager to believe such a story. Another fervent group consisting of Fundamentalist Materialists, the American Medical Association and devout believers in the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) are equally eager to disbelieve. Only a small minority — holistic physicians, enquiring philosophers, the young and open-minded — are intensely curious and want to know more about such healings. It is for the third group that I write; the first two groups — the dogmatists on both sides — will be offended and annoyed by what I have to say.

For what it’s worth, my source for the Michelli cure is Brendan O’Regan, Healing, Remission and Miracle Cures, (See Recommended Reading at the end of this piece.) O’Regan’s source is the International Medical Commission on Lourdes, which is made up of 25 scientists, consisting of 4 physicians, 4 surgeons, 3 orthopedists, 2 psychiatrists, a radiologist, a neuropsychiatrist, a dermatologist, an ophtamologist, a pediatrician, a cardiologist, an oncologist, a neurologist, a biochemist and 2 general practitioners. Ten of the 25 hold chairs in medical schools.

There have been 6000 alleged cures at Lourdes since 1858 and only 64 have been authenticated by the International Medical Commission. The other 63 are much like the Michelli case. Since millions have visited Lourdes in the hope of a “miracle” cure, these cases do not seem, to me, to prove that the Catholic God is omnibenevolent and omnipotent. They seem to suggest that Lourdes is a trigger, and perhaps not the only trigger, which can set off some unknown process within the suffering person that leads to a “miracle” cure.

In 1957, agitated by Martin Gardner and other Inquisitorial dogmatists later prominent in CSICOP, the U.S. government burned the books of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, invaded his laboratory to smash his experimental equipment with axes, and threw Dr. Reich in jail. Dr. Reich had been curing cancer, and other ailments, with an allegedly non-existent energy which he called “orgone.” The books of Reich remained out of print in this country for over ten years, and even today one of them is still strangely unavailable; the research journal published by Reich and his co-workers has virtually perished. A few copies of these journals can be found in a few libraries, but it takes hard work to unearth them. I found one of them once, and in it I saw x-rays, taken by Dr. Victor Sobey, of a patient whose cancer tumors visibly shrunk and disappeared during a course of “orgone” therapy.

Members of CSICOP will be quite sure Dr. Sobey faked those x-rays, of course. Of course. Those less committed to dogma will have to choose between the only two other theories that appear thinkable: (1) the damned verboten “orgone” really exists, or (2) the belief in “orgone” caused the patient to lose the tumors.

Curiously, the first perceptible effect of using “orgone,” reported by all who have tried it, including the present author, is a sensation of heat moving through the body. Just like the Michelli case …

Here’s a medical oddity that seems less “spooky” (on the surface) than 64 documented cures at Lourdes, or tumors destroyed by an officially non-existent energy: a patient called “Mr. Wright” (by Dr. Philip West, who recorded this incident) was suffering from a cancer considered terminal. “Wright” was febrile, bedridden and considered only days from death when Dr. West gave him an experimental new anti-cancer drug. Within a week, “Wright” was out of bed, walking around the ward and chatting happily with everybody, convinced he was cured. His tumors had shrunk to half their previous size. (Cited in The Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing, by Ernest Lawrence Rossi, W.W. Norton, 1988.)

Obviously, in this case, the new drug was responsible?

Not at all. “Mr. Wright” was the only patient who responded so favorably. The drug, Krebiozen, was eventually junked as entirely useless. “Mr. Wright” got better because he thought he would get better. When he heard that other people treated with Krebiozen were dying, he got sick again. Fundamentalist Materialists can only rejoice over this downbeat ending if they conveniently forget that there is no explanation within their philosophy for the measurable shrinkage of the tumors when “Wright” believed he was getting better.

On the other side of the dark coin of “mind-body” synergy: a South Seas shaman points a “deathbone” at a tribesman who has angered him. The victim is given the best possible medical attention by sympathetic doctors who don’t believe in Black Magic, but nonetheless he dies within a few days. The best one can say on the face of it is that the unfortunate man died of the belief that “deathbones” can kill people. (This case is also quoted from Rossi, op. cit. and is well documented.)

Thousands, or tens of thousands, of sick people are routinely cured every year by Christian Science practitioners. The outstanding cures are published regularly in the Christian Science Sentinel. Glance through any issue of the Sentinel and you’ll find “faith healings” that cured asthma, cancer, hypertension, headache, sinus problems, and anything and everything in the catalog of human illnesses. The American Medical Association does not care to look at these records, or to think about them at all; CSICOP would probably like to burn them.

Without Christian Science or any particular “religious” faith the Liberal activist Norman Cousins (founder of the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy) has set an impressive record of self-generated cures. Sent to a tuberculosis sanitarium at age 10, Cousins early noticed that the optimistic patients recovered and the pessimists did not. He became an optimist, got cured and led a varied and productive life. In 1979 on a peace mission to Russia, he contacted a rare disease, ankylosing spondylitis, which slowly paralyzes the body and invariably (except for Cousins) leads to death. Cousins refused orthodox medicine and treated himself with laughter (looking at videos of Marx Brothers movies and Candid Camera) and massive doses of Vitamin C. He recovered totally. In 1983, he had a myocardial infarction and congestive heart failure — a combination that usually results in both panic and death. Cousins stubbornly refused to panic or die. He is now teaching at UCLA Medical School, trying to show tomorrow’s doctors how to activate this “fighting spirit” in their patients. He says there is a “doctor who resides within” each of us. (Case history quoted by Rossi, op. cit.)

“Spontaneous remission” — the sudden disappearance of an illness, without any known cause — happens continually. Every doctor I have ever questioned on the matter admits to having seen some cases. Nobody understands “spontaneous remission,” and there is strong suggestive evidence that most doctors do not even want to think about it. Brendan O’Reagan, op. cit. after a prolonged search of medical data bases found only two books in English about spontaneous remission, and both of them were out of print.

As the deathbone story suggests, we can learn as much from curses that work as we can from blessings that work. The invaluable O’Regan gives us an example of what might be called an iatrogenic “curse:” In a study of cancer chemotherapy, reported in the World Journal of Surgery, a control group was given inactive substances instead of the drug being tested (a normal procedure.) Everybody “knows” that one side effect of chemotherapy is hair loss, so some of the control group (not given the new chemical, remember) started losing hair,just like the group given the chemical. 30 per cent of the control group lost their hair, in fact, just because they believed it would happen.

This hair-loss caused by belief seems less “divine” than Lourdes cures and less “diabolical” than curses with deathbones, but may, possibly, have the same explanation (as we shall see.)

Somehow, iatrogenic baldness reminds me of the case of James Joyce and his possibly iatrogenic blindness. At age 4, Joyce was told by a religious hysteric that eagles would come and peck out his eyes if he did not apologize for something he had done. (This incident appears in one of Joyce’s novels, but was not invented. Among his unpublished epiphanies at Cornell University is a draft in which Joyce himself was the boy threatened by the eye-eating eagles.) By the time he entered school, Joyce already had weak eyes. At the age of 36, walking on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, Joyce felt stabbing pains in the eyes so intense that he could not stand up. For the rest of his life, he went from one eye doctor to another, seeking a cure for progressive glaucoma. He was legally (although not medically) blind for nearly ten years.

It seems that, although Joyce (a vehement atheist in adult life) did not believe consciously in those avenging eagles, his unconscious mind went on tormenting him with fear of them …

An old English song, allegedly droll but actually (I think) nefarious, begins as follows:

Oh, my name it is Sam Hall, it is Sam Hall
Damn your eyes
My name it is Sam Hall
And I hate you one and all
Damn your eyes
I hate you one and all
You’re a gang of buggers all
Damn your eyes, damn your eyes.

When one begins to appreciate the extent of unconscious suggestibility in human beings, this song is about as amusing as radioactive fallout.

This suggestibility is illustrated by the well-documented “placebo effect,” in which inactive powders (sugar-pills, traditionally) appear as therapeutic as “real” medicine. According to six careful double-blind studies, cited by Ernest Lawrence Rossi, op. cit. placebos proved 56 per cent as effective as morphine; in nine double-blind studies, placebos were 54 per cent as effective as aspirin; in three double-blind studies placebos were 56 per cent as effective as codeine.

“Effectiveness” in these studies was measured by decrease in pain. It appears that, for more than half of all patients, belief that one has been given a painkiller is just as effective as any one of the three leading pain-killers would be.

As O’Regan points out, we now have reason to believe most medical cures throughout history were placebo effects. That is, recent biochemistry has rather clearly demonstrated that the majority of drugs used by doctors before the 1930s (i.e. before modern antibiotics were discovered) are largely ineffective. The patients got better (when they did) largely because the doctors believed in those mostly useless “medicines” and the patients acquired the faith from the doctors.

My own books, especially Prometheus Rising, give numerous examples of how optimism (“a Winner Script,” in the language of Transactional Analysis) can resolve psychological and interpersonal problems that seem incurable to those obsessed by pessimism (“a Loser Script,” in TA.) Everybody in our society, however, feels there must be something “spooky” afoot if a Winner Script can conquer not just negative feelings and bad social adjustment but concrete cancers and other physical illnesses, or if a Loser Script can cause the victim to lie down and die, like the victims of “death bones.”

I suggest that this only appears mysterious because our culture has not yet recovered from the Judeo-Christian divorce between “mind” and “body.” As K. Bowers wrote in 1977, “The tendency to split etiological factors of disease into either psychic or somatic components … perpetuates, at least implicitly, a mind-body dualism that has defied rational solution for centuries. Perhaps what we need is a new formulation … One way of reformulating the question involves the concept of information …” (quoted by Rossi, op. cit.)

A fundamental concept of Information Theory is transduction, the translation of form from one information system to another. For instance, when I talk to you on the phone, the transmitter transduces my speech (sound waves) into the quite different information system of electrical waves. At the other end of the conversation, the receiver transduces the electrical waves back into sound waves and you, miraculously, “hear my words” — without thinking it miraculous at all, because we have had a theory of transduction in electrical engineering for a century.

Another example of transduction: I am sitting here at my Mac Plus typing keys that are transduced into a digital code on my disc. I will mail this disc to Bob Banner at Critique. His computer will transduce the digital code back into an alphabetical code and — hey, presto! — his printer will reproduce my words.

Quite similarly, in psychogenic illness, a Loser Script of some sort — “Nobody likes me,” “You can’t win; the big combines have the game rigged,” “It makes me sick to go back to that job again,” or whatever — can be transduced from the cortex (the top front part of the brain, where semantic systems, or “beliefs,” are stored) into the lower back parts of the brain, where neurochemical processes occur that effect the whole body. And, in psychogenic cures, a Winner Script of some sort — “This is Lourdes water: it must cure me,” “Doctors don’t know everything, and I don’t want to die,” “This man is a hypnotist: what he says must come true,” or whatever — can be transduced into the lower back parts of the brain, where neurochemical processes occur that will also effect the whole body, more beneficially and less malignantly than in the first kind of transduction.

The most important part of the lower back brain — the so-called “old brain,” because it existed in evolution even before mammals appeared — is the hypothalamus. which regulates the neuropeptide system.

As explained exhaustively by Rossi, neuropeptides arr chemicals which lead a double life. Part of the time they live in the brain and act as neurotransmitters, allowing the formation of new connections between synapses and creating whole new brain circuits, or networks of circuits. (It is probable that all forms of “rebirth” or “Higher Consciousness” involve neurotransmitters creating new brain circuits. See the works of Timothy Leary in the bibliography.) But neuropeptidcs also circulate in the body (through the blood, the lymphic system and the Central Nervous System) and act like hormones.

There were only about 5 neuropeptides known twenty years ago; now there arc over 50 — and there is no reason to think we are near to knowing the total. The most famous are the endorphins, which have been called “natural opiates” because they act exactly like morphine and other opium-based pain-killers. Visualizing white light — a device used by most faith healers (although, curiously not by Christian Scientists) — triggers a flow of endorphins and almost always decreases or eliminates pain. The new brainwave machines, about which I wrote in a recent Critique, also trigger a release of endorphins, which is why these machines (e.g. the TENS unit) are coming into widespread hospital use in treating intractible pain.

As Rossi, a professional hypnotist, has pointed out, the probable explanation of how hypnotic cures work is, roughly: the hypnotist’s words register in the cortex. (“You are now able to summon your own internal healing energies … You will experience a fading of the symptoms at once, and they will soon go away entirely …” etc.) The cortex transduces this via neurotransmitters to the hypothalamus which releases endorphins and various other neuropeptides, which circulate through the blood, CNS and lymphic system. All of these systems transduce chemical “information” with the immunological system, which is then boosted and “lights off” the disease.

The process is analyzed in much more detail, tracing the exact neurochemical links every step of the way from cortex through hypothalamus to immunological system to specific illness or specific cure, in Rossi’s book, op. cit.

I don’t claim this is the “whole” explanation of miracle cures. We may find cases in which more mysterious processes are involved, and we may even be driven to posit some sort of “life energy” like Dr. Reich’s damned “orgone” or the chi of traditional Chinese medical theory. Right now, however, neuropeptides seem the best scientific key to understanding these psychosomatic synergies.

The next question, of course, is: Why doesn’t it work in so many cases? Why is it that most people who go to Lourdes aren’t cured? Why is it that a lot of people, hearing something like the present theory (in less precise terms usually) at New Age conferences, go around thinking “Every day in every way I am getting healthier and healthier,” and still get sicker?

Here we encounter the phenomenon of multiple personality and the very real possibility that we are all multiple personalities. As Gurdjieff indicated, elementary self-observation, if pursued ruthlessly enough, soon reveals that the “I” who toils at a job is not the “I” that makes love with joy and passion, and the “I” that gets angry for no rational reason seems a third person, and there is a fourth, and a fifth … and many more. There is nothing “metaphysical” about this; it can be measured. Dr. Frank Putnam of the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that extreme cases of multiple personality — i.e., the only ones orthodox psychiatry recognizes — show distinct brainwaves for each “personality” when measured on an electroencephalogram. It is as if the electrodes were taken off one person’s head and put on another’s. (Quoted by O’Regan.)

Dr. Rossi refers to these separate personalities as “state specific information systems.” He points out that even those who find this most repugnant to think about will admit they have different personalities when drunk than when sober. Or when on Add they differ from “themselves” when straight, and when on cocaine they differ again …

Usually, these separate information systems, or personalities, have separate memories. When drunk, you can remember things that happened, or things you thought, on other alcohol Trips, but most of that information cannot be retrieved when you are sober. You can only remember the most important parts of an Acid journey on another Acid journey. When sad, you remember only sad experiences; when happy, only happy experiences … Etc.

Information Theory, which gave us the concept of transduction, also gave us the basic law that there is “noise” (communication failure) in every communication between one information system and another. The message “This is Lourdes water: therefore I must be cured” may or may not work its way through these various “information systems” (or personalities) down to the immunological system. The faith-healer or hypnotist may or may not have the skill to break through the “noise” and get the signal to the hypothalamus.

For instance, there seems to be a type of patient who wants to get well, sincerely, because she or he has passionate interests in life (work, family, children, religion or whatever.) Another type is so conflicted (“noisy”) that they secretly wish to remain ill. (Eric Berne calls this the “Wooden Leg Game” in Games People Play.) A study in Medical Sciences Bulletin (14 September 1979) demonstrated that the first (Winner Script) type, heavily motivated, responds best to placebos, while persons of the second (Loser Script) type resist placebos as skillfully as they resist all other attempts to cure them.

If these factors affect placebos they also probably play a role in other forms of “faith healing,” including Lourdes water, Christian Science, white light visualization etc.

Rossi quotes more recent research that shows that those who respond best to placebos are especially alert to synchronicity. Those who respond least are “rigid and stereotypic” in their thinking, e.g. the average members of the AMA or CSICOP. Again, those who are alert to synchronicity will probably respond to other methods of faith-healing as well as they do to placebos, and the rigid may remain rigid until they die of it.

John Barefoot of Duke University has done a 15-year study of 500 older men and women, which shows that those who score high on suspiciousness, hostility and cynicism are more likely to die when compared to all others. The death rate of the suspicious remained higher than all others when compared by age, by gender, by previous health, and by diet and other lifestyle factors.

Again, it appears that a Loser Script guarantees a shorter life as well as a more miserable life.

A Winner Script, however, does not work automatically. It appears that one has to establish a new circuit in the brain – which Dr. Leary calls the Neurosomatic Circuit — to break through all the “noise” of our multiple personalities and form a direct neuropeptide link from cortex (normal “ego”) to immunological system. This can happen “in a flash” as at Lourdes (Leary calls this re-imprinting) or slowly (which falls into the category of conditioning.) Once such a Neurosomatic Circuit is formed-Norman Cousins‘ “doctor within” — the world becomes suddenly full of synchronicities, “miracle” healings and enriched beauty and deeper meaning everywhere.

Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, put it all in a nutshell when she told one disciple, “Love! Love! Love! That’s all you need to know to be a healer.” And the little-known Scots psychiatrist, Dr. Ian Suttie, said it even better in his remarkable revision of Freudian theory, The Origins of Love and Hate, where he argues that “Ultimately, it is the physician’s love that heals the patient.”


Recommended reading …

Steven Heller and Terry Steele, Monsters and Magical Sticks
Heller is one of the great medical hypnotists of our time and here he offers a marvelous catalog of „miracle“ healings, together with his own theory of how hypnosis works. Introduction by Robert Anton Wilson.

Timothy Leary, Info-Psychology
A witty and brilliant philosophical exploration of brain circuitry, the revolutionary role of the Neurosomatic Circuit and the implications of Information Theory for psychology and social sciences generally.

Timothy Leary, with Robert Anton Wilson, and George Koopman, Neuropolitique
Leary’s best book on the political and evolutionary implication of modem neuro-science.

Brendan O’Regan, „Healing, Remission and Miracle Cures“
A short paper giving much valuable data on „mental“ healing and some corrosive comments on the resistance of the medical profession to study of this phenomenon.

Ernest Lawrence Rossi, Psychobiology of Mind-Body Healing
Although Dr. Rossi is a hypnotist by profession, he shows extensive knowledge of all branches of neuro-science and this is the best, most detailed book yet written on the specific biochemical information systems involved in healing by hypnosis, placebos and „faith.“

Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver, The Mathematical Theory of Communication
The mathematics may floor some readers. but this is worth wading through to get the basic ideas of Information Theory — ideas which have in the past 40 years ushered in the Computer Revolution and incited dozens of less publicized revolutions in neuro-science and a dozen fields of social science generally.

Robert Anton Wilson, Prometheus Rising
A popular introduction to brain circuitry in general and the Neurosomatic Circuit in particular, with exercises designed to teach the reader how to cancel Loser Scripts and develop Winner Scripts.

Robert Anton Wilson, The New Inquisition
A rather grumpy polemic against CSICOP and other power groups who are trying to block research in this area or punish researchers who dare to suggest original ideas. Despite its snide humor, the book has much valuable data scattered throughout.

The Science of Blessing and Cursing
by Robert Anton Wilson appeared in Critique, Issue 30 (1989).