Does Faith Healing Really Work? by Dr. Danny Penman

After six years of agonising pain, Ailsa Marsh was stunned to the core when a spiritual healer managed to banish her suffering in an instant. “It was gone in the blink of an eye,” says Ailsa, a 28-year-old complementary medicine student from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. “It felt as if he had put his hands inside my shoulders and turned off a tap.” “Before the healing I was constantly wracked with tortuous pain. I was bed-ridden with ME and couldn’t leave the house. All of my senses became hypersensitive. If somebody spoke to me it felt as if they were shouting. I couldn’t bear the light so my parents hung duvets over the windows. Even lying in bed or sitting down was difficult and painful. “It got to the stage where I just wanted to end my life. The only reason I didn’t kill myself was because I couldn’t bear the thought of my mother finding my body.”

Ailsa’s suffering began in 1998 following a bout of glandular fever. At the time she was a bright, gregarious politics and philosophy student at Durham University. But the disease robbed her of drive and energy, eventually forcing her to leave university and return home to her parents. Over the following months she became weaker and weaker and was eventually diagnosed with ME, a disease which leaves the sufferer listless and bed-ridden. It also left Ailsa in intense pain. Conventional medicine offered no hope. She saw over 20 doctors and was hospitalised countless times. All doctors drew the same conclusions: they could find no cause for the ME and there was no cure. Then in January 2004, quite by chance, Ailsa read an article about the spiritual healer David Cunningham. “I’d tried everything else,” says Ailsa. “So I thought I might as well try David. “I went along not knowing what to expect. I thought he might start chanting at me or making weird symbols with his hands. Instead he listened intently to me for about half an hour. He then put on a tape of soothing music and I began to relax. “David then placed his hands about a centimetre above my shoulders. I felt as if he was putting his hands inside me and untwisting a tap. The pain just vanished. It went in an instant. That day I left David with more energy than I’d had in six years.”

Over the following four months, Ailsa returned every week to complete the healing. Within a few months she was able to go shopping and walk from one side of Newcastle to the other. “After ten months I went on a family holiday,” says Ailsa. “There’s pictures of me doing handstands in the sea. I’d gone from being in a wheelchair to being able to do all the normal things a woman of my age could do. That’s when I knew I was alright. I’d recovered!” Although Ailsa is utterly convinced that David Cunningham cured her of ME, many others are rightly sceptical. How can a man with no medical training treat a chronic painful disease merely by placing his hands over a patient’s body? No drugs were administered and no operations performed. Even the maligned “placebo effect”, where a patient �tricks’ themself into getting better, takes far longer to take effect. Everything we know about conventional medicine screams that spiritual healing is a myth, a delusion and a hoax perpetrated on the feeble minded. For these reasons and more, cases such as Ailsa’s have been dismissed by researchers for decades. But now scientists in the US and UK may have found proof that prayer and spiritual healing might actually work. Professor Harald Walach, from the University of Northampton, says: “We should take this phenomenon seriously even if we don’t understand it. To ignore it would be unscientific. “Our work shows that there is a strongly significant effect.” The most common form of spiritual healing in Britain remains the humble prayer. When you are really up against the wall, only the most devout of sceptics manages to resist a prayer. And who doesn’t pray for a loved one when they are dying? Despite being the most widely practised alternative remedy, science has only recently begun to investigate whether spiritual healing actually works. Scientists and doctors simply assumed that it didn’t because there is no obvious way that it could. MoldOne of the first attempts to investigate healing focused on its flipside – the curse. In the late 1960s, American scientists decided to see whether focusing bitter, vindictive and negative thoughts on a mould – the scientific equivalent of the witch’s curse – could inhibit its growth. Out of 194 mould samples �cursed’, 151 showed retarded growth. And if all that wasn’t strange enough, in later experiments some of those attempting to influence the mould were stationed 15 miles away. Other scientists soon found that negative thoughts could also slow the growth of the food poisoning bug E. coli. With potency like that, it’s hardly surprising that the US military started taking an interest. They were not interested in killing mould and bacteria of course, but people. The renowned psychic Uri Geller was even recruited into a secret programme to harness the power of negative thought to kill Uri Andropov, head of the KGB. Uri left when his masters decided to test his powers by asking him to psychically kill a pig by stopping its heart. It clearly hadn’t occurred to them that a vegetarian would be extremely reluctant to kill an entirely innocent animal. At around the same time, civilian scientists began researching whether prayer and spiritual healing could be used to help animals. Experiments quickly revealed that mice awake faster after a general anesthetic if healing thoughts are sent their way. In other studies, mice recovered faster and more completely from a form of breast cancer if healers “laid on hands” whilst sending them positive thoughts and energy. Positive thoughts were soon shown to help human blood cells resist damage and brain cells to grow faster. If healing helps ailing lab animals, might it also help the sick to recover faster? Surprising as it seems, there’s growing evidence that it just might. According to the cardiologist Dr Randolph Byrd at San Francisco General Hospital, heart patients who are prayed for by Christians need less medicine and suffer fewer complications. In case you were thinking that he is a wacko fringe scientist, its worth noting that his work was published in the prestigious Southern Medical Journal and numerous other scientists have found similarly inexplicable results. And prayer doesn’t just appear to help heart patients. In virtually every area they have looked, scientists have found evidence that praying for the sick helps them recover faster. For example, studies at the California Pacific Medical Center on AIDS patients found that they survive in greater numbers, become sick less often and recover faster than those who are not prayed for. All these studies beg the question: which form of spiritual healing works the best? Is Reiki better than the traditional, almost biblical, “laying on of hands”? Is Buddhist meditation as good as praying to the Christian God? Or does something as simple as relaxing and cultivating a positive mental attitude beat them all into a cocked hat? It’s extremely difficult to answer questions like this, but scientists have discovered the tantalising possibility that the kind of prayers taught in Sunday school might be the best of all. Several years ago spiritual healers from around the world were recruited into a study to answer just this question. Dr Michael Krucoff, a respected cardiologist at Duke University in the US, persuaded people from a range of faiths and beliefs to help him. Jews left prayers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, Buddhists prayed in monasteries in Nepal and France, Carmelite nuns in Baltimore offered prayers during vespers, and Moravians, Baptists and fundamentalist Christians prayed in church. It turned out that those who were prayed for in the traditional manner fared the best, followed by those who had been treated by the “laying on of hands” or who had been coached in stress reduction. Those undergoing conventional medical treatments fared least well. Surely, whilst admittedly fascinating, these results might simply be the result of chance? Sceptics argue that there must be a more rational explanation than believing in such medieval-sounding things as prayers and curses. Whilst many would wholeheartedly agree with these sentiments, there’s a growing body of doctors and scientists who would not. Professor Harald Walach, who now works at the University of Northampton, recently conducted an exhaustive analysis of all the data and came to the conclusion that spiritual healing really does work. And he’s gaining powerful supporters. Professor Peter Fenwick, from King’s College London, says: “The studies do point to healing actually occurring. “There’s four possibilities. Either we’re dealing with fraud on a massive scale, large numbers of able and gifted researchers are simply wrong, or hundreds of reports disproving healing haven’t been published. All these seem unlikely so we’re left with the possibility that the effect is real.” “Now we need to move on and understand what �healing’ is and how it works. And we’re starting to do just that.” Dean Radin, working at the Institute of Noetic Sciences in California, is in the vanguard of this research. He and his colleagues at the California Pacific Medical Center have found compelling evidence that one person’s positive healing thoughts has a noticeable impact on another’s mind and body. Radin focused his work on couples, one of whom had cancer, reasoning that any �psychic’ connection would be strongest between people who loved each other. He trained the healthy partner to cultivate and project positive healing thoughts towards their ailing loved one. The healing thoughts were promoted using the Tibetan practice of Tonglen, a meditation focused on cultivating loving kindness and applying compassionate intention towards others. The healthy partner was then asked to send the healing energy at a time randomly chosen by computer. The results were amazing and startling in equal measure. At the precise moment the healthy partner transmitted the healing thoughts, remarkable changes occurred in the mind and body of their ailing partner. Their breathing and blood flow increased significantly whilst their brain and skin electrical activity went berzerk. Clearly something profound was happening. “We saw the equivalent of having a warm feeling inside,” says Dr Radin. “Whether this promotes healing remains to be seen. According to anecdote though, it does have a noticeable affect on health.” Of course, all of these studies don’t wash with the sceptics who think that all complementary therapies are bunkum. They point to a study of prayer on heart patients published earlier in the year. This claimed that prayer had no effect – and may even have harmed patients Emeritus Professor Lewis Wolpert of University College London says that spiritual healing “is out of the question”. “I don’t believe that you can send thoughts,” he says. “I’m terribly suspicious of these studies. If you’re looking for something then that’s what you will find. Either that or it’s due to chance and the placebo effect.” Although the apparent effectiveness of spiritual healing is shocking and inexplicable in equal measure, this hasn’t stopped the NHS from employing healers to help seriously ill and dying patients. Ruth Kaye, mother of the Daily Mail’s astrologer Jonathan Cainer, treats patients at the Yorkshire Centre for Clinical Oncology in Leeds. She has spent the last sixteen years spiritually healing patients in the NHS. Her aim is to augment conventional medicine and to help eliminate the side effects of such treatments as chemotherapy. She emphasises that she is not offering a cure for cancer. Ruth works by the �laying on of hands’ to help realign the body’s energy. It’s been described as chemotherapy for the soul. She says: “The spirit is the missing link that medicine does not address but it is the key and secret of life. One of my patients described my work as a three legged stool. There is the medicine, the surgery and the spirit. Without the spirit, the stool would fall over. “Patients who use things like spiritual healing often use less drugs, they are less reliant on anti-depressants or sleeping tablets. In short they are less of a drain on what we know is an over-stretched NHS. If the sceptics really took the time to analyse it, they’d find it was in fact very cost-effective.” And those who have benefited from Ruth’s healing hands agree wholeheartedly. Dr Jenny Quantrell, who successfully underwent treatment for breast cancer, says she was helped enormously by Ruth. California Dreamin': Photograph by Dena Ventrudo“Ruth has a special gift. I simply closed my eyes when she was healing me and I saw loads of bright lights. It felt as if I was having my battery recharged. She gave me energy and calmness. At the time of my treatment I hadn’t slept for days but afterwards I fell into the most wonderful relaxing sleep. “I don’t know how it works but I know that it does. I don’t need to understand it.” And that’s perhaps all the faith you need to be healed. It can’t do you any harm and if Jenny, Ailsa and countless others are right, it just might work.

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by Dr. Danny Penman
Dr Danny Penman is a writer and broadcaster based in London. He writes regularly for the Daily Mail and has made a number of documentaries for the BBC and Channel Four. He's the author of the No Diet Diet. For more stories on health, the environment, the paranormal, and animal welfare go to http://www.newsmonster.co.uk Published with kind permission of Dr. Danny Penman