In December 1998, forty scientists from universities and research laboratories around the United States gathered at the Swedenborg Chapel at Harvard University for a three-day conference jointly sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the Harvard University School of Medicine. Their focus: to examine and evaluate data on a remarkable phenomenon baffling to modern medical science. The attendance list was confidential, and the proceedings closed. Preliminary data presented at this conference suggested that we are on the verge of an explosion of evidence to support the efficacy of distant healing.
While distant healing has historically received little attention from mainstream medical institutions and laboratories, a substantial body of published data supports the possibility of a significant effect. Over the last forty years, more than 150 formal, controlled studies of distant healing have been published—more than two-thirds of them showing significant effects (a less than one-in-twenty likelihood of the effect having occurred by chance; in scientific terminology, p .05).
The most exciting and the most controversial studies in the area of distant healing have involved human beings as subjects. These studies are challenging to design because of uncontrollable factors such as hope, expectation, and the role of the relationship between the healer and the patient.
A seminal paper presented at the 1998 conference was "A Study of Distant Healing as an Adjunctive Intervention for People with Advanced AIDS," initiated by IONS member Fred Sicher. This project, recently published in the Western Journal of Medicine, represents five years' work by a research team at California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC). While many studies of distant healing have focused on more benign conditions—such as headache, high blood pressure, or recovery from minor surgery—after interviewing numerous healers, Sicher had observed that many healers feel they do their best work when the need is greatest.
The healers suggested that if we want to see a significant effect on someone's health, there has to be a significant motivation—the patient should be in extremis. Continuing his survey, Sicher also found that, unlike in many healing studies, distant healing is not usually performed as a one-time effort. Most of his interviewees stated that they tend to work with patients over a period of time, often many weeks. In an effort to bring the scientific approach in line with this "community standard," Sicher then proposed that a study of distant healing should involve people with an incurable disease such as AIDS, that the treatment should occur over at least two months, and that many healers be involved.
The CPMC Research Trials of Distant Healing for AIDS In 1994 Sicher joined our team at the California Pacific Medical Center to design a methodologically airtight collaborative research project. The CPMC trial of distant healing for people with AIDS was a "proof of principle" trial. It made no effort to investigate any mechanisms. The sole purpose of the study was to determine whether or not there is an effect of healing intentions over distance. Because of the controversial nature of this area of investigation, the research protocol was discussed and reviewed by numerous scientists, by AIDS specialists, and by self-identified healers before the first patient was enrolled.
Two studies were eventually completed, a pilot of twenty patients, followed by a confirmatory study of another forty patients. The pilot, considered exploratory, produced the surprising finding of 40 percent mortality in the control group, but no deaths in the treatment group. This striking result occurred despite the fact that patients and researchers did not know who was in the treatment group, and that the two groups were balanced for CD4 count. Both of these studies are reported in the December 1998 issue of the Western Journal of Medicine.
The two studies presented here represent only the latest work in a nearly forty-year process of developing, refining, and repeating studies to evaluate the effects of healing attempts at a distance. The two current studies, like the majority of other published studies, confirm such an effect. This work raises many more questions that will be the focus of future studies. What healing techniques or attitudes are the most helpful? Are certain individuals more likely to be able to develop healing abilities? Is distant healing more effective for some conditions than others? What is the role of the patient in the healing process? Is healing additive? Is it beneficial to have groups of people sending prayers or making healing efforts? Are there certain biological pathways that are specifically affected by healing efforts? And last, of course, how does it work?
The work described here is one piece in a puzzle that is bringing together medicine, philosophy, physics, and spiritual science to create a new picture of a highly connected and interactive universe. We look forward to seeing the results of the many other studies which are ongoing, and to exploring ways of introducing these interventions into mainstream medical settings.
Elisabeth Targ, MD, is a director of the Complementary Medicine Research Institute at California Pacific Medical Center, assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, and a fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences. She was principal investigator of the studies of distant healing in AIDS described in this article.
Nonlocal or Nonlocated?
CommentB y C h r i s t i a n Q u i n c e y
Does distant healing using the intentionality of prayer indicate nonlocal consciousness at work? Elisabeth Targ and her colleagues have experimentally documented an effect, but deliberately make no attempt to explain any mechanism. One suggestion often made about such "action-at-a-distance" is that we are dealing with the phenomenon of "field consciousness"—but this may well turn out to be a confusion of metaphors.
We have to be extra careful with attempts to explain consciousness by means of metaphors derived from physics—for example, the idea of "field consciousness" or consciousness as energy. The core difficulty is that the notion of "field" (and "energy") implies something extended in space, and this is in direct contrast to what we actually know about consciousness.
Experientially, consciousness does not occupy any particular region of space—though we certainly do associate it with the region of space that coincides with our body, specifically our head. Anything that occupies space has size, so what size could a mind be? Is it something to be measured in inches or feet, or miles or light-years? Empirically, no one has ever measured consciousness, and no one has proposed even how we might ever measure it. (Though, of course, we have many kinds of measurements of correlates of consciousness—for example, activities in the brain, especially at the level of neurons and synapses.)
So, if consciousness does not occupy space, are we justified in calling it "nonlocal"? Certainly, we may say it is "nonspatial," but this is not quite the same as saying it is "nonlocal" in the sense used in quantum physics. In quantum physics, nonlocality refers to a measurement of correlated behavior of two quantum events separated in space in such a way that there is no possibility of a light signal passing between them. Therefore there cannot be any energetic causal connection between them, even though the behavior of one event is experimentally demonstrated to be clearly associated with the behavior of the other.
"Nonlocality" in quantum physics refers to an effect separated in space from a correlated event which seems to act as cause. But since such correlations cannot be accounted for by any exchange of energy or information, the coupling of the "effect" with the "cause" confronts us with the conundrum of "action-at-a-distance." How can something "here" affect another thing over "there" if there is no possible medium connecting them? Physicists call this phenomenon "nonlocality" because the effect takes place in a region of space energetically and informationally separated from the apparent cause. Of course, both the "effect" and the "cause" are "local" to their own respective spacetime regions. Both are located in space—but in energetically isolated regions of space. Thus, "nonlocal" means isolated regions of spacetime. It does not mean "nonspatial."
This is very different from the kind of "nonlocality" some researchers attribute to consciousness. Consciousness does not occur in any region of spacetime isolated from any other spacetime region. It is not merely nonlocal in the physical sense, it is nonlocated— it is not located anywhere in space at all. It is nonspatial.
However, if we still choose to talk of "nonlocal" (rather than "nonlocated") consciousness or intelligence, it would be inconsistent to then speak of consciousness "permeating space and time." How can something that is either nonlocal or nonspatial "permeate space"? It is not that consciousness permeates space like a field, but, as just noted, that it is not located anywhere in space at all. This is why the metaphor of "field" may be misleading when applied to mind or consciousness.
Yet it is experimentally true (according to experiments described, for example, by Dean Radin in The Conscious Universe; see IONS Review, number 46) that consciousness associated with matter located at one region of space appears to affect matter located at some distant location in space, and that consciousness associated with groups of people spread out in space appears to affect the behavior of matter some distance away. This certainly looks like "consciousness spread out in space" or "field consciousness." But actually all the data reveal is that the (inferred) state of mind of a group of people in one (or multiple) locations is correlated with the behavior of distant or "nonlocal" matter (in this case, random number generators). It is a leap of faith or imagination to assume that the nonlocal effect is "caused" by consciousness rippling through space like undulations in a field.
That there is an effect-at-a-distance is clearly suggested by the data; and since similar effects are accounted for in physics by, for example, electromagnetic or gravitational fields, we may be tempted to assume that the at-a-distance effects correlated between consciousness at one location and some physically unconnected, distant location must also be a "field." But this would imply that consciousness spreads itself out in space—which is incompatible with phenomenological and empirical data. Perhaps the most we can do is use "field" as a metaphor and talk of "field-like" effects of consciousness—but not of literal "consciousness fields."
My own guess is that if there is any relationship at all between nonlocal quantum events and nonlocated consciousness events, and the notion of "quantum field potential" and "field consciousness," it has far more to do with the nature of time and probabilities than with space. So-called quantum fields are not actually fields in any spatial sense. They are abstract mathematical descriptions of matrices of probabilities (of tendencies for certain events to occur). It is only the representations of such probabilities that take on the characteristics of fields. Probabilistic events, as tendencies of events to occur, are temporal—perhaps even psychological. In the end, statements of probability are statements about psychological expectations.
As a temporal, and not a spatial, phenomenon, consciousness may, perhaps, in some highly mysterious way, affect the probabilities of some physical events—and, therefore, of their actual occurrence. The key phrase, as far as theory and explanation go, is the throwaway "in some highly mysterious way"—how this mind-matter interaction could occur is at the heart of the perennial mind-body problem in philosophy. All we have are anomalous data; we have no coherent theory to account for them—unless, following A. N. Whitehead, we take the radical step of shifting from "space-talk" to "time-talk," that is, recognizing that both the ontological nature and relationship between consciousness and IONS editor Christian tie Quincey matter grow out of process rather than substance (see C. de Quincey, "Past Matter, Pre- is professor of consciousness studies sent Mind," Journal of Consciousness Studies, volume 6, 1999).
IONS editor Christian de Quincey is professor of consciousness studies at John F Kennedy University.