THE INNER MECHANISMS OF HEALING
With BRENDAN O'REGAN
JEFFREY MISHLOVE, Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. Our topic today is "The Inner Mechanisms of Healing," and my guest is Brendan O'Regan, the vice president for research of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and former research coordinator for Buckminster Fuller at Southern Illinois University. Welcome, Brendan.
BRENDAN O'REGAN: Thank you.
MISHLOVE: At the Institute of Noetic Sciences, you've been looking at healing for over a decade now, haven't you?
O'REGAN: Yes, we really began at the very beginning of the Institute.
MISHLOVE: Which was founded, I should mention, by astronaut Edgar Mitchell.
O'REGAN: By Ed Mitchell in 1973, basically to look at the whole mind-body problem, in science and in health and in education. The earliest grant that I dealt with, when I started there in 1975, which is twelve years ago now, was a grant to Carl and Stephanie Simonton to look at what they were doing with terminal cancer patients. Most people now know that they suggested that the mind and the spirit would have something to do with the health and healing of cancer patients, and we gave them a grant to look at the impact of their therapy on a collection of terminal patients. That was literally the first grant that I administered.
MISHLOVE: The Simontons were working with mental imagery and its effect in remission of tumors.
O'REGAN: Well, they were looking at a broad spectrum of practices. Some of them were guided imagery techniques; some of them were meditational; others had to do with exploring people's spritual needs, beliefs, feelings, and so forth, and encouraging forms of stress reduction associated with all of that; and certain aspects of exercise and diet. So they had a sort of multimodal program.
MISHLOVE: All in relationship to cancer patients.
O'REGAN: All in relationship to terminal cancer patients. People that got to them were usually people who had been told, "You have six months, you have nine months left," and these were seriously advanced cancers in many cases. I think that's changed a bit now that they are more well known; they get people at an earlier point. But when we started with that, people told us we were crazy to think that the mind had anything to do with the course of disease and illness, and that is only twelve years ago that that reaction was that strong. It's still that strong in some areas of the medical profession.
MISHLOVE: It's ironic, because of course the earliest healing techniques involved a lot of mental work.
O'REGAN: Well, yes, but you see the skeptical view would be to say that's all they knew how to do. They didn't have drugs and they didn't have surgery and they didn't have radiation, so what else could they do? That's the skeptical view of previous practice. The other view of previous practice is to say that it largely involved the placebo effect, and of course that's a very serious aspect of all medical practice. Most people think of placebos as not being terribly important, or not being terribly effective.
MISHLOVE: There's a strong tendency in medicine today to dismiss anything that doesn't have a materialistic, mechanistic basis for it.
O'REGAN: Yes, they do that, but even above that, when something like a placebo effect comes alone they'll say, "Well, that's just a placebo," as if it didn't have a physical pathway for its expression.
MISHLOVE: A statistical fluke, perhaps.
O'REGAN: Well, but you see, the other thing that's interesting is if you start looking at papers on placebos that are not there to look at it from the point of view of measuring the effect, but when it's used as a control group for testing a new chemotherapy. For example, placebos will also have side effects. There was a paper in the World Journal of Surgery that talked about a new chemotherapy, and in the control group thirty percent of the people lost all their hair.
MISHLOVE: People who were just taking a placebo.
O'REGAN: Taking a placebo.
MISHLOVE: Because they thought they were getting a type of chemotherapy where they might lose their hair.
O'REGAN: That's right.
MISHLOVE: Well, of course there's strong, strong literature in the field of hypnosis to suggest all sorts of physical effects, from raising of warts to enlarging of breasts.
O'REGAN: Yes, all of these things are there. The unfortunate thing about that literature is that it has confined itself to the demonstration of effects, and the problem is you're left with the question, well, what is the mediating pathway here?
MISHLOVE: Let's just jump back one second, though, to the work that you were talking about earlier with the Simontons. Did you find significant effects there?
O'REGAN: Well, they found a number of patients that went into remission from these techniques that they were using.
MISHLOVE: So in spite of what the skeptics were telling you, you found there was something going on.
O'REGAN: Things were happening to the patients. They were living longer. Not all of them were by any means going into remission, but they were being helped by these kinds of approaches. What we know now, for example, is that if people are, for instance, getting chemotherapy or radiation, and they are concurrently in psychotherapy, they will tolerate the radiation and chemotherapy better -- they will have less side effects, less nauseating effects, and so on. So now the establishment is coming around to using these techniques to allow their own beliefs to function better.
MISHLOVE: And correspondingly, you have come to a phase in your research where you're no longer just trying to demonstrate that there are mental effects in healing; you're trying to understand what are the mechanisms of these effects.
O'REGAN: Yes, at a much deeper level. We simply said, well, the placebo effect is something we are bumping into. It happens, and it does account for certain kinds of healing. We thought, well, maybe there is an undiscovered healing system. There is an immune system, a nervous system, an endocrine system. Is there an unknown healing system that is only kicked into action by stress, trauma, or disease, and if so, how will we find out what it's like, what kind of a system it is?
MISHLOVE: You mean some kind of an extraordinary, almost supercharged ability to cope with disease that wouldn't otherwise be there.
O'REGAN: Well, it may be that it's a special collaboration between the brain, the immune system, other systems in the body that are involved with recognition of a problem, and then there are all kinds of ancillary systems like wound healing and self repair and so on -- that they act in a special way when challenged, and they otherwise are not linked in that way.
MISHLOVE: What you're saying reminds me of these stories we hear from time to time -- you know, when a young child is caught under an automobile, for example, and a frail woman -- and there a number of cases like this documented -- may be known just to lift up the automobile.
O'REGAN: Well, that's the more extraordinary endurance or extraordinary strength kind of thing that happens. But we thought, well, if there is such a system, where would we find the best evidence for it? And so we conducted what I now believe is the largest survey ever done of medically reported cases of spontaneous remission. This is a very interesting business, because there is nowhere you can go and look up spontaneous remission. There have only been two or three studies that were done ever, and the largest one prior to ours was Everson and Cole's book in 1966, which talked about 176 cases.
MISHLOVE: I suppose in some sense spontaneous remission is not defined in medicine. It's not supposed to occur at all.
O'REGAN: Well, no, there are definitions for it, but it is also a self-canceling term, because it's one that will ultimately go away the more we learn. The usual attitude from Everson and Cole's work is that if a tumor by itself, without treatment, regresses -- either disappears, or goes into a dormant state -- that would be called a remission. People who have had remissions, if you talk to them, strongly disagree with the word spontaneous in there, because they say, "There was nothing spontaneous about this. I worked for it." But that of course isn't accepted into the standard world of medical schools. But we have now found more than three thousand separate reports in twenty different languages from over 830 different medical journals, about this supposedly nonexistent phenomenon, and they vary, and there's a curious split in that literature. The ones that are the best documented from the physical standpoint tell you nothing about the person, and the ones that have everything about the person tell you nothing about their physical condition.
MISHLOVE: That's odd.
O'REGAN: And so you have this sort of strange dichotomy.
MISHLOVE: It's as if there are two types of writers.
O'REGAN: Well, there literally are two types. What we're now trying to do is encourage studies in which the whole person is considered -- that yes, there should be good diagnosis, there should be biopsies, and there should be a good degree of certainty about what is this illness, because the usual excuse in the medical profession is that it's a misdiagnosis that caused the report to exist in the first place -- the person never really had that disease, and therefore they never really spontaneously healed of it. But now we're getting past that and saying, well, what are the kinds of things that happen to people in remission? And it's sort of tantalizing at this stage, because we don't have data that we can make definite causal statements about, but we can say some things about there are lots of interesting correlations.
MISHLOVE: There must be some patterns there.
O'REGAN: Well, we think so. There are some kinds of remissions that appear to have no connection with the conscious or unconscious awareness of the person, as far as we know. They are what you might call purely biological. These are the kinds of remissions caused by spontaneous infections, bacterial infections. Particularly there are syphilis and other kinds of skin infections which will cause fever and cause the immune system to sort of wake up.
MISHLOVE: Almost like an inoculation of some kind, I suppose.
O'REGAN: It's very similar to that. And that was actually a part of medical history before chemotherapy and radiation. William Coley, back in the 1880s up to the 1930s, was famous for his work using infections to try and stimulate remission. What seems to happen is it's as though the cancer has managed to grow by evading the recognition capacity of the immune system. It has managed to outwit the immune system into not seeing that the tumor is not-self. Then the system is woken up by this bacterial infection and says, "Oh, we have another problem on our hands," and then can attack the tumor. Well, this to us says there is a healing capacity in there that has been woken up.
MISHLOVE: Strictly a physical mechanism.
O'REGAN: That seems to be very much a physical mechanism only. I may be slightly wrong, but that's the general impression we get.
MISHLOVE: One of the other intriguing things that I noticed in a talk that you had given on this topic was the notion that when a cancer patient has had a biopsy, a tiny removal of tissue, that might also trigger a remission.
O'REGAN: Yes, that was something we noticed when we were looking at kidney cancers. Kidney cancers frequently will metastasize to the lung. It isn't unusual in medical circles that if the kidney is removed, the metastases in the lung will disappear, and that's considered normal, logical. Then we noticed that if instead of removing the kidney, they actually just biopsied the cancer in the kidney, the metastases in the lung would disappear.
MISHLOVE: And these biopsies might be with just a needle.
O'REGAN: Oh, usually, yes, a needle biopsy. Exactly so.
MISHLOVE: A very small amount of tissue, really.
O'REGAN: So there you have this whole question of the power of the operational procedure, the power of medicine --
MISHLOVE: You mean the ritual power, perhaps.
O'REGAN: Maybe the ritual power is sufficient sometimes to get this to happen. So that got me wondering about the ritual aspect of remission. There are of course psychological aspects. There's a very obvious case where a Dr. Weinstein in New York reported about a woman who had cervical cancer that had metastasized throughout her body and had three months to live. He just says in the paper, "And her much-hated husband suddenly died, whereupon she completely recovered." You sort of say to yourself, well, there may be some psychological component here.
MISHLOVE: Sounds like a very strong psychological component. I was wondering, in the case of the needle biopsy, if that might not induce a kind of trauma --
O'REGAN: Oh yes it does, yes.
MISHLOVE: -- that would again activate the immune system.
O'REGAN: It's a trauma, it's a challenge, it activates the wound-healing and self-repair mechanisms directly to deal with the biopsy. So that is happening, there's no question.
MISHLOVE: But I guess the most interesting cases to me would be the ones in your data base where the people say, "Yes, I worked on that remission."
O'REGAN: Yes, now that's a whole body of literature which we're trying to look at very carefully, because one of the things we're concerned about is that when we publish this bibliography we are not telling people not to go to their doctors, we are not telling people to stay away from the medical system. There will be a tendency for that to happen, I'm afraid; some people will do that. But cases that involve psychological factors are more common than you might think. Ainslee Meares in Australia did some of the most extensive work in this area, where he has many reports of regressions of tumors associated with intensive meditation. He also, interestingly enough, has cases where people practicing intensive meditation, who then thought, "Well, maybe I'll make myself even more sure, and I'll do some imagery on the side," found that the imagery exacerbated things. So there seem to be certain balances that have to be achieved, and we don't quite know yet how they should be styled for each individual.
MISHLOVE: You know, while I have you here I might mention I did an earlier interview with Dr. Edith Fiore, a psychologist who does past life regressions. She had a case of a woman who was diagnosed with terminal cancer of the bone marrow. Shedid a past life regression with this woman in which she recalled being an Aztec priestess in a temple, where she was forced to drink blood sacrifice, which she hated to do, but they gave her a choice, either drink the blood or we'll drink your blood. After having relived that -- call it a fantasy, or call it a past life regression -- she experienced a remission, and is still alive.
O'REGAN: Was it documented, do you know?
MISHLOVE: Yes. It's documented by Dr. Fiore.
O'REGAN: See, this is the kind of thing that gets --
MISHLOVE: It wouldn't be in your data base, though. It's unpublished.
O'REGAN: No. You see, that's the other thing that you have to say, is that what we have is a fraction of what's really happening, and we're now aware of that. There's a great deal more of it going on. Of course the classic assembly of data where spiritual events or deeply psychological events are involved, is the remission -- well, I shouldn't say remission, perhaps, but cases of miraculous cures in Lourdes, which have been documented since 1858.
MISHLOVE: We've been using a number of terms. We've talked about remission; I think we've used the term regression. Now you're using the term miraculous cures. Are these on a spectrum?
O'REGAN: Yes, each time I'm using a term I'm being a bit like Margaret Mead, or trying to be, where I'm going to the particular tribe and saying, what is their language? And the language of the tribe for Lourdes is miraculous cures. Now, the interesting thing about that is that the International Medical Commission at Lourdes, which has been in existence in current form since 1947, first ask when a claim is presented to them, "Could this be a remission?" Because if they think that the disease could have healed naturally, not supernaturally, they throw it out from further consideration.
MISHLOVE: These are religious Catholics who are looking for divine intervention.
O'REGAN: No, well, not all of the doctors are Catholic, no.
MISHLOVE: But they must be using a definition based on that kind of an approach.
O'REGAN: Well, there is a distinction here; Cardinal Lambertini's distinction was that a remission was something that took place as a natural event, a course of nature. It happened over a period of time. A miracle was something that was supernatural and happened very suddenly -- usually within a matter of hours, if not minutes. So you have this intrinsic distinction about how long these things take. One of the interesting cases is, for instance, one that happened in 1976 to a man who had a sarcoma of the pelvis. The bone was literally being eaten away by this cancer, and his hip separated from the pelvis, and he was in a full-body cast and couldn't walk. He had been in the hospital for about a year and was brought to Lourdes and immersed in the water, which is what they do with people.
MISHLOVE: I presume this has been documented by x-rays.
O'REGAN: Oh yes, we have all the x-rays at the office; we've been in touch with the Medical Commission on several of these. The doctors and the priests didn't even believe that anything had happened to him, even though when he was put in the water he felt this electrical charge run through his body, and immediately regained his appetite, which he'd been unable to eat from nausea -- had gangrene setting in, was in a pretty debilitated condition. They took the cast off and re-x-rayed him and found that the tumor was disappearing, and within two months he was walking. The joint and the socket reconstructed.
MISHLOVE: The bone actually grew back.
O'REGAN: Grew back, yes. Now, to me that's an interesting case. Ironically, when 60 Minutes did a piece on Lourdes a couple of months ago, they never bothered to talk to anybody who was actually healed at Lourdes, and there are some thirteen or fifteen of these people around.
MISHLOVE: Which is still a small number, I would suppose, considering the masses of people who go to Lourdes.
O'REGAN: I think you're talking about six million have gone over the years, and it may be higher than that. There have been six thousand claims of extraordinary healing, of which only sixty-four have made it through to the status as miracle. So we are interested in all of that, because their rejects can be part of our data base.
MISHLOVE: But the Commission, then, defines when the cure is a miracle cure. They are composed of medical doctors who really do scrutinize these cases quite carefully, I gather.
O'REGAN: Yes. There are people from every medical specialty, from almost every country in Europe. There are no Americans on the Commission, for what reason I don't know.
MISHLOVE: Well, we obviously can't trust it, then.
O'REGAN: What's also interesting is that they will dismiss any case where the disease is known to have what they call a strong psychological component. So they try to weed out placebo, they try to weed out remission, they try to take out all of the easier cases.
MISHLOVE: Well, when you're looking at the inner mechanisms, trying to understand some kind of a scientific link to explain these cases, these must be the real challenges here.
O'REGAN: Well, they're the toughest ones that we will come to, if we're lucky, later. At the moment we're looking primarily through the lens of psychoneuroimmunology to try and understand these things. The brain was presumed not to be linked to the immune system by immunologists up until the last six or eight years. That's just an artifact of how the immune system was researched. They used to do studies of the different components of the immune system in vitro, in a test tube, and notice what these could do in isolation from the body.
MISHLOVE: T cells.
O'REGAN: T cells, B cells, macrophages, natural killer cells -- all of these different pieces of the immune system. Now they know that they are closely linked to the brain, and that most of these macrophages, for instance, will have receptors on them for all the different neurotransmitters. They can receive direct chemical instructions and messages from the brain. So the brain and the immune system are deeply linked.
MISHLOVE: It's interesting to think that the brain is not only like a digital computer sending electrical spikes along the neurons, but also functions as an analog computer system, I suppose, or analogous to that, by sending chemicals into the blood stream.
O'REGAN: Well, yes, but you see, the other thing is that the immune system can talk back to the brain and make some of those same chemicals. This is what Candace Pert refers to when she talks about neuropeptides being the physical basis of a psychosomatic network.
MISHLOVE: Let's try and rephrase that, because I think it's a very important concept. I gather that what you're saying is it's as if the whole body is part of one system that is in communication with the brain on a two-way basis.
O'REGAN: The distinction between brain and body is blurring considerably. Why are neuropeptides in the gut, for example? Why are they to be found in the spleen and the liver? Why are they -- they're distributed throughout the whole body.
MISHLOVE: At one time they were thought to be only in the synapses, basically, between the neurons.
MISHLOVE: And now the various neurotransmitters that would transmit messages within the brain are discovered throughout the entire body, is what you're saying.
O'REGAN: Yes, exactly. And this may have very interesting implications for the study of a lot of different diseases.
MISHLOVE: So you mean, what my wife has been telling me all along, that I think with my stomach -- she was right.
O'REGAN: Well, a gut feeling may have more than just an old wives' tale to it. I think we're at a very exciting time in medicine, because we now have the capacity to map these receptor sites, we now have the ability to see information systems and networks that we just didn't know about, and which actually make sense of some of the claims of shamanic practice and of psychotherapeutic intervention. The whole mind-body system is intimately linked together, so things that we were looking at in the Seventies that we thought, "Well, we really can't verify that; there's no mechanism for it," in the Eighties you turn around and find people are much more open, because we know more about how the system is linked up. There's a fascinating case in the Journal of the American Medical Association of a woman who had lupus, who was not responding well to drugs, and who decided to go back to the Philippines to her family, where she was seen by a local healer -- not a psychic surgeon, I might add. He did a reading on her, and said that the spirit of a former suitor was draining energy from her, etcetera, etcetera, and did this whole ritual with her, and she came back to the United States free of all symptoms. The interesting thing is that that issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association published that story and said, "We need to understand this pathway." They wouldn't have done that ten years ago, I don't think. So it's a very interesting change in the climate.
MISHLOVE: What you seem to be suggesting is that modern science has come to a point where we're willing to acknowledge that maybe some of these ancient methods were right all along, and perhaps we still have a lot more that we can learn from practitioners of those disciplines that we formerly rejected.
O'REGAN: We may be able to finally come around and pick through that lore, and see things to do with human beings. You see, when modern medicine dropped the mind and spirit out of the picture, they thought they could do without them. But the mind and the spirit have access to pathways in the body that we didn't know were there. That doesn't make you turn around and say that everything about alternative medicine is true, or that all ancient rituals were better than modern medicine, but we shouldn't really drop them out of sight without investigating them. So we're seeing now that even within the National Institutes of Mental Health and other government agencies, the fact of remission is making them turn around and say, "Well, these mechanisms must be there, so we'd better study them." And now there are studies in process where the Office of Technology Assessment, NIMH, and other government agencies are looking at this for the first time.
MISHLOVE: Well, it sounds as if what we may have ultimately is a whole new definition of what the mind-body system is.
O'REGAN: I would think so. A lot of this, of course, is unfortunately happening because of the inability of medicine to do much for AIDS patients, and it's the AIDS crisis that got NIMH to turn around and look at -- how do they put it? -- "Psychobiological mechanisms in the enhancement of health." That's a wonderful way to cover all kinds of alternative practices without naming any of them. But I think it opens the door.
MISHLOVE: These rare, miraculous cases that you've discussed also seem to be very important in dealing with a crisis as extensive and as powerful as the AIDS virus seems to be. If ever we needed to learn how to activate some kind of a process that can work miracles, it may be with this.
O'REGAN: Well, I'd be very careful there, because there are so many false claims and false hopes being raised in that community, even by people in the scientific world who will, I think, look back at this period and ask themselves about the false hope that they've raised from time to time. On the other hand, no one ever wants to talk about false despair, which is also being created in other cases. When you tell a cancer patient, "You have nine months, you have six months, you have three months," how do you know?
MISHLOVE: It almost seems that if an AIDS patient buys into the current medical model, they're buying into a belief system that says they must die.
O'REGAN: Well, yes. Sanford Cohen at NIMH has written a fascinating paper on this entitled, "Helplessness, Voodoo Death, and AIDS," in which he points out that voodoo is the process whereby you induce helplessness.
MISHLOVE: Death by hexing.
O'REGAN: Yes, and that's in effect what we are doing to a lot of people.
MISHLOVE: I would think that perhaps in religions we're activating these spiritual archetypes, certain kinds of psychological complexes related to images of the divine, that may actually trigger these neuropeptides in a different way.
O'REGAN: Well, that's another whole story.
MISHLOVE: It is, and we're probably going to have to spend another interview on it, Brendan, because we're out of time now. Brendan O'Regan, thank you very much for being with me.
O'REGAN: Thank you.