Mind-Body Medicine

By Larry Dossey, MD

“The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in the pathways and messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system.”

—Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind1

Many individuals discover the value of mind-body medicine not through a careful weighing of the available evidence, but through personal experience when conventional therapies fail. This was true for me.

Beginning in my early teenage years, I was afflicted with classical migraine syndrome—severe, protracted headache, nausea, vomiting, incapacitation, and partial blindness. I was treated with every known conventional therapy over the years; all were equally ineffective. With the stress of medical school, the problem became considerably worse. I tried to withdraw from medical school because of ethical reasons, because I felt it was only a matter of time until I experienced an attack of partial blindness during a critical situation, and I might injure or even kill a patient. My faculty adviser would not permit me to withdraw, however, and assured me the problem would get better. It got worse.

By the time I finished my internal medicine residency I was desperate for a solution. Around this time, in the early 1970s, a new technique called biofeedback burst upon the national scene. Researchers at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas, discovered, quite serendipitously, that migrainous subjects in biofeedback experiments reported that their migraine symptoms went away as they mastered the relaxation, imagery, and visualization techniques that are a part of biofeedback training. I followed these reports closely and eventually enrolled in biofeedback seminars that were being conducted in various parts of the country. The results were practically miraculous. As I mastered biofeedback skills, my migraine attacks virtually disappeared and have remained so. I was so impressed that I instituted a biofeedback facility at the Dallas Diagnostic Association, where I taught this skill to patients as an integral part of my internal medicine practice for many years.

My experience is not unique. Thousands of individuals have had similar experiences—all converts, so to speak, to nontraditional, mind-body approaches to health problems when conventional medicine is unsuccessful.

Biofeedback, regarded by many of my colleagues in the early 1970s as New Age or “fringe,” has since been vetted by the National Institutes of Health for use in several medical conditions, such as headache, the nausea and vomiting that accompany chemotherapy, and irritable bowel syndrome. It is now widely considered to be a conventional therapy.

The Double Standard

The burden of proof is on the advocates of any mind-body therapy to provide evidence for the efficacy and safety of the therapy in question. This is true for all other areas of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), as well as for conventional medical therapies such as pharmaceuticals and surgery. In practice, however, a double standard has long operated in which critics rightly demand proof of efficacy and safety for CAM, yet are lenient in these demands where conventional therapies are concerned. I raise this issue because this double standard is a major factor in understanding the barriers faced by mind-body therapies and other CAM variants in gaining acceptance.

The public has become increasingly aware of the dubious claims frequently made by conventional medicine about safety and efficacy. It seems that every few months some drug or medical device, initially highly touted, is tarnished with new revelations of side effects or industry malfeasance. To add to the public’s dismay, our citadels of healthcare—our modern hospitals—no longer command unqualified respect. Epidemiologist Barbara Starfield, of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, reported in 2000 that around 225,000 deaths occur annually in American hospitals due to the adverse effects of medications, infections, and errors. This makes hospital care the third leading cause of death in the United States behind heart disease and cancer.2 For a while, these findings became part of our national conversation following the Institute of Medicine’s startling report in 2000, To Err is Human.3

Revelations of slack standards in conventional medicine are not new. In 1978, the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that only an estimated 10% to 20% of the techniques that physicians use are empirically proven.4 In 1991, Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal, sounded the same alarm, observing, “[O]nly about 15% of medical interventions are supported by solid scientific evidence… . This is partly because only 1% of the articles in medical journals are scientifically sound and partly because many treatments have never been assessed at all.”5

In 1993, David A. Grimes, of the University of San Francisco School of Medicine, said in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “[M]uch, if not most, of contemporary medical practice still lacks a scientific foundation.”6

Dr Kenneth Pelletier, a pioneer in CAM, observed in 2002, “At the root of this debate [about CAM or integrative medicine] is a ubiquitous assertion that conventional medicine is grounded in evidence-based research and integrative medicine is not. That is grossly inaccurate… . [We should challenge] both conventional and integrative medicine to a higher standard. To provide a baseline against which to measure CAM, it is important to point out that as much as 20% to 50% of conventional care, and virtually all surgery, has not been evaluated by RCTs [randomized clinical trials.7 Pelletier observed further, “[An] article in JAMA in 1994 posited a minimum ‘error rate’ in medicine of 1%.8 In that article, the author quotes the prominent business scholar W. E. Deming, who states: ‘If we had to live with about [a] 99.9% [error-free rate], we would have two unsafe plane landings at O’Hare every day; 16,000 pieces of mail lost every hour, and 32,000 bank checks deducted from the wrong account every hour.’ Surely, even 0.5-1% error rate is alarming… .”9

Brian Berman, a CAM leader and professor of medicine and the coordinator of the Cochrane reviews at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, recently took a random subset of 159 of 326 completed Cochrane reviews of conventional medical practices. These were sorted into six categories, such as “evidence of positive effect,” “evidence of negative effect,” “treatments that are more harmful than beneficial,” and so on. Overall, the “positive and possibly positive” practices totaled 38.4%, whereas the “no evidence of effect and negative effect” practices totaled an alarming 61.6%.10

Perhaps the most alarming assessment was published in 2006 in the British Medical Journal. This was an analysis of 2,404 treatments currently used in medical practice. Of these, 360 (15%) were rated as beneficial, 538 (22%) likely to be beneficial, 180 (7%) as a trade-off between benefits and harms, 115 (5%) unlikely to be beneficial, 89 (4%) likely to be ineffective or harmful, and 1,122 (47%), the largest proportion, as unknown effectiveness.11 In other words, only 29% of conventional therapies were found to be beneficial or even likely to be helpful.

These troubling findings are consistent and they extend across three decades. They suggest that those critics within conventional medicine who excoriate mind-body and other CAM therapies might do well to reserve some of their objections for their own methods. This might help correct the egregious double standard that remains prevalent.

Healing Studies

The failings of conventional therapies are no excuse, of course, for tolerating slapdash standards in mind-body medicine and CAM. Proving efficacy for many of these therapies is challenging. Some approaches, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine, involve a knowledge system and lexicon that are foreign to Western science. Acupuncture, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other complementary therapies have arisen over millennia in social contexts different from ours. Can they be wrenched from their original milieu and retain their efficacy? Can they be expected to yield to the double-blind methods of proof favored in the West? These questions have crucial importance for all mind-body studies, especially experiments involving healing intentionality that have become popular in the past two decades.

Consider experiments involving prayer, which is often considered a mind-body therapy. Prayer is the most commonly used complementary and alternative therapy in the United States.12 Intercessory prayer is used worldwide in a consistent fashion, in which family, loved ones, and friends intercede unconditionally for those in need. Yet, in randomized controlled trials, prayer is not offered by loved ones, nor is it offered unconditionally for the needy individual. In these experiments, strangers pray for strangers, which must surely reduce the level of intimacy and empathy that are part of real-life prayer. Moreover, prayer is offered conditionally as a “perhaps” or a “may.” Planing subjects in doubt as to whether or not they will be prayed for as a consequence of their uncertainty about whether they are enrolled in the intervention or control group. Nowhere in the world is prayer employed in this way. These distortions of the ecological validity of prayer may account for the meager, neutral, or even negative results that have been seen in some clinical trials.13


It is important, therefore, that consciousness-based therapies not be deformed when they are put to the test. In testing all mind-body and other CAM therapies, the method of evaluation should be tailored to the therapy, not the other way around. Failure to do so results in what’s been called methodolatry, the obsession with a particular method of investigation and the willingness to disfigure a therapy to preserve the sanctity of the method of inquiry.

Experimenter Effects

Healing studies have raised a crucial question that has been largely ignored by the mind-body field: the impact of an experimenter’s beliefs and intentions on the results of an experiment. Achterberg and colleagueshave shown that healers can alter the functional magnetic resonance imaging patterns of distant subjects with whom they are empathic in randomized “sending” periods. These results are buttressed by many similar experiments.15,16,17,18,19

These findings pose serious questions about the intentions and underlying belief systems of investigators. If the intentions and beliefs of a healer can shape the outcome of an experiment, can the beliefs and intentions of an experimenter also “push the data around?” The conventional answer is no, of course, but evidence suggests the answer may be otherwise.

In one study designed to test this possibility, two experimenters were involved. One of them had a history of performing consistently positive experiments involving distant mental influence on the physiology of remote subjects, whereas the other experimenter consistently failed in his attempts to do so. The experimenter who achieved consistently positive results believed that the phenomenon of remote mental influence was possible, whereas the experimenter who routinely failed in his attempts was a well-known skeptic who did not believe in this possibility. The two experimenters decided to collaborate, doing consecutive runs of an experiment using the same laboratory, identical methods, the same equipment, and subjects drawn from the same pool of volunteers. When the believing experimenter ran the experiment, the results were positive, as they usually were when she did this type of study. When the skeptical, disbelieving experimenter ran the experiment, it failed, which was consistent with his previous experience.20,21

What if investigators in mind-body studies hold different assumptions about the plausibility and potential outcomes of their experiments? This general question has been explored by consciousness researchers for a half century and an extensive literature on this subject exists, but it appears to be virtually unknown or ignored by most mind-body researchers.22,23 If belief systems influence experimental outcomes, as the evidence strongly suggests, this might help explain why critics and skeptics of mind-body medicine are often unable to replicate the findings of investigators who are friendly to the mind-body perspective.

Does Mind Exist?

An unstated assumption underlies the criticism of mind-body therapies—a prejudice that is so deeply engrained in the Western psyche that it often operates at an unconscious level. It is the belief that the mind is a fiction, a “ghost in the machine.” Hard-core materialists cherish this view, according to which the mind is merely brain in disguise; thus, Nobelist Francis Crick: “[A] person’s mental activities are entirely due to the behavior of nerve cells, glial cells, and the atoms, ions, and molecules that make up and influence them.”24 In this view, “mind-body” is a misnomer because there is only the body.

This controversy reflects, of course, the venerable mind-body problem that has haunted Western philosophy since antiquity. The problem in a nutshell is how consciousness, which seems so immaterial, can be connected with the brain, which appears wholly material.

In the current contest between mind and body, the body seems to be winning. But cracks in the edifice of materialism are becoming increasingly obvious, as biologist Rupert Sheldrake explains elsewhere in this issue in his article “The Credit Crunch for Materialism.”25

British philosopher Mary Midgley thinks the mind-body problem is overblown:

The real trouble with the mind-body problem centers on the word ‘materialism.’ This word is itself a relic of dualism: it suggests that there are two rival stuffs—mind and matter—competing to be seen as basic to the world. It tells us to choose one of these and reduce the other to it. There are not two such separate stuffs. There is just a complex world containing complex creatures, about whom many sorts of questions arise. Each question must be answered in its own terms.26

When Einstein has just solved a difficult problem, Midgley says, his reasoning cannot be explained by providing an exacting account of what his neurons were doing at the time. If we suggest otherwise, this would mean the neurons did all the work and informed Einstein about it later. “Anyone,” Midgley says, “who has tried leaving such work to their neurons will agree that this story is improbable. Of course [Einstein] needed the neurons. But what did the work was the whole person, using the conscious effort which alone was able to produce it. Explaining it simply means tracing the thoughts relevant to that effort.”26

Midgley’s reasoning is rejected by those who have drunk the materialist Kool-Aid. Their ideal is always to find the “real” physical cause behind all human thoughts, intentions, and actions. “But actually,” insists Midgley, “our thoughts are quite as real as our coffee cups, and ‘matter’ is every bit as obscure a concept as mind.”26

Don’t think for a moment that the mind-body problem has been settled in medicine. In the healing professions, the tug of war between mind and matter is a never ending struggle. Consider the correlation between psychological depression and adverse outcomes in patients with coronary artery disease, which has been documented in a multitude of studies over the years. Researchers have recently claimed that this connection is explainable by reduced physical activity.27,28 When people are depressed, they don’t exercise. Lack of physical activity, not depression, is the immediate culprit. Materialists may breathe easier, having reclaimed a bit of territory previously occupied by the mind. And even when a role for depression is acknowledged, the depression itself is usually reduced to the imbalance and misbehavior of key neurotransmitters in the brain—a physical malfunction that can be set right by a physical intervention such as antidepressant medication. These skirmishes in the war between mind and body are countless.

Some materialists go out of their way to deny the existence of consciousness altogether, almost as if they bear a grudge against it. An example is Tufts University cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, who says, “We’re all zombies. Nobody is conscious… .”29 Dennett includes himself in this extraordinary claim, and he seems proud of it. Dennett is dead serious—literally—about keeping the mind confined to the brain. He has said he will commit suicide if paranormal phenomena turn out to be real.30

Promissory Materialism

If the Cricks and Dennetts are correct, the entire mind-body field is a big fat lie. There are no mental states, thoughts, and beliefs that could influence the body, but only electrochemical brain fluxes that should not be described with such inflated language as “mind” or “consciousness.” But a death sentence for the mind-body perspective is premature, because the materialistic perspective is preposterously hypocritical. As Nobel neurophysiologist Sir John Eccles said, “Professional philosophers and psychologists think up the notion that there are no thoughts, come to believe that there are no beliefs, and feel strongly that there are no feelings.”31

Eccles was satirizing the absurdities that had crept into the debate about consciousness. They are not hard to spot. Some of the oddest experiences I recall are attending conferences where one speaker after another employs his consciousness to denounce the existence of consciousness, ignoring the fact that he consciously chose to register for the meeting, make travel plans, prepare his talk, and so on.

Many scientists concede that there are huge gaps in their knowledge of how the brain makes consciousness, but they are certain they will be filled in as science progresses. Eccles and philosopher of science Karl Popper branded this attitude “promissory materialism.” “[P]romissory materialism [is] a superstition without a rational foundation,” Eccles said. “[It] is simply a religious belief held by dogmatic materialists … who confuse their religion with their science. It has all the features of a messianic prophecy… .”32

Those who dismiss the causal efficacy of the mind are hoist by their own petard. If their mind is acausal, fictional, or nonexistent, then their thoughts are merely what their brains make them think. Why then should we believe them? They have no claim to truth because they have not arrived at their conclusions by careful deliberation and weighing facts. As such, their assertions may be ignored.

But of course not even the most passionate materialists live their lives as if the mind is nonexistent. That’s why, when they kiss their children goodnight, they say, “I love you,” not “My brain loves you.”

Era III Medicine: The Next Step for the Mind-Body Field

Mind-body medicine is currently stuck. It is mired in the assumption that mind-body effects are solely intrapersonal phenomena that operate within single individuals. But this is a partial picture of the mind-body landscape.

We can take a sociohistorical approach in sorting out the panoply of therapies currently available in the health professions.33 Let’s begin this perspective with the advent of modern, scientific medicine, which medical historians date to around the decade of the 1860s. About this time, medicine began gradually to take on the complexion we see today. We can designate this as Era I medicine or physical medicine, because of its overwhelming reliance on physical measures such as drugs and surgical procedures, which continues to this day. In Era I, the mind is assumed to play a nonexistent or negligible role in health and illness (Table 1).

Table 1: Medical Eras

Era I Era II
Space-Time Characteristic: Local Local Non-Local
Synonym: Mechanical, material, or physical medicine Mind-body medicine Nonlocal or transpersonal medicine
Description: Elements of Era I are causal, deterministic, and describable by classical concepts of space-time and matter-energy. Mind is a major factor in healing within the single person. Mind is a factor in healing both within and between persons.
Mind is not a factor; “mind” is a result of brain mechanisms. Mind has causal power and is thus not fully explainable by classical concepts in physics. Mind is not completely localized to points in space (brains or bodies) or time (present moment or single lifetimes).
Era II includes, but goes beyond, Era I. Mind is unbounded and infinite in space and time, thus omnipresent, eternal, and ultimately unitary or one.
Healing at a distance is possible.
Elements of Era III are not describable by classical concepts of space-time or matter-energy.
Era III includes, but goes beyond, Era II
Examples: Any form of therapy focusing solely on the effects of things on the body are Era I approaches, including techniques such as acupuncture and homeopathy, the use of herbs, etc. Any therapy emphasizing the effects of consciousness solely within the individual body is an Era II approach. Any therapy in which effects of consciousness bridge between different persons is an Era III approach.
Almost all forms of “modern” medicine— drugs, surgery, irradiation, CPR, etc—are included. Biofeedback, relaxation, self-hypnosis, imagery, visualization, and placebo effects are included in Era II. All forms of distant healing, intercessory prayer, some types of shamanic healing, diagnosis at a distance, telesomatic events, and probably noncontact therapeutic touch are included in Era III.
Shortly after World War II, Era II medicine, or mind-body medicine, began to unfold. This was a radical departure from Era I, because in Era II the various expressions of consciousness, such as thought and emotions, were acknowledged as causal factors in health within single individuals. These factors were not trivial; they might sometimes make the difference in life and death. The mind-body perspective did not negate or displace the physical focus of Era I, however, but overlapped with the drugs-and-surgery emphasis.
We are now seeing the birth of Era III medicine, the next great step in healing. Era III medicine acknowledges the intrapersonal effects of thoughts and emotions of Era II, but recognizes interpersonal effects as well. In other words, in Era III medicine one’s thoughts, emotions, beliefs, and intentions can affect not just one’s own body but other individuals as well.
The premise underlying Era III is that minds at some level are connected and unitary. I’ve called Era III nonlocal medicine, leaning on the concept of nonlocality in modern physics. According to experimental evidence that is practically unchallenged, distant particles that were originally in contact behave as if they are a single particle, even though they may be widely separated at arbitrary distances.34 When one changes they both change, instantly and to the same degree.35
That’s not to say that the nonlocality of physical particles such as electrons or photons can account for the remote connectedness of minds, or that mental phenomena can be reduced to the behavior of subatomic particles, but that both particles and people display a kind of connectedness that defies separation in space and time. “Nonlocal” is a fitting description not only for particles but for minds as well, because nonlocal literally means “not in a place.”

The evidence that consciousness is “not in a place” in space and time is overwhelming and is too vast to review here. For over a hundred years this research has accumulated in painstaking experiments numbering in the thousands. I’ve repeatedly explored this evidence in this column, as in “Nonlocal Knowing: The Emerging View of Who We Are,”36 and in my recent book The Power of Premonitions: How Knowing the Future Can Shape Our Lives.37 For an overview of this field, I recommend two books by Explore coeditor Dean Radin: The Conscious Universe38 and Entangled Minds.39

Nonlocal Mind and Health

The reason nonlocal mind merits our attention in this issue of Explore is that it is health relevant. Nonlocal expressions of consciousness are frequently concerned with survival. When information is shared between humans remotely, it is commonly about health risks, such as impending physical dangers. The quintessential example is a mother who “just knows” her child is in danger and takes measures to prevent harm, as in the following example from the archives of the Rhine Research Center in Durham, North Carolina.

Amanda, a young mother living in Washington State, awoke one night at 2:30 am from a nightmare. She dreamed that a large chandelier that hung above her baby’s bed in the next room fell into the crib and crushed the infant. In the dream, as she and her husband stood amid the wreckage, she saw that a clock on the baby’s dresser read 4:35 am. The weather in the dream was violent; rain hammered the window and the wind was blowing a gale. The dream was so terrifying she roused her husband and told him about it. He laughed, told her the dream was silly, and urged her to go back to sleep, which he promptly did. But the dream was so frightening that Amanda went to the baby’s room and brought the child back to bed with her. She noted that the weather was calm, not stormy as in the dream.

Amanda felt foolish—until around two hours later, when she and her husband were awakened by a loud crash. They dashed into the nursery and found the crib demolished by the chandelier, which had fallen directly into it. Amanda noted that the clock on the dresser read 4:35 am and that the weather had changed. Now there was howling wind and rain. This time, her husband was not laughing. Amanda’s dream was a snapshot of the future—down to the specific event, the precise time it would happen, and a change in the weather.40

The image of consciousness flowing from this and thousands of similar cases is a nonlocal one, in which some aspect of consciousness appears unconfined to specific points in space, such as brains and bodies, or time, such as the present.

Unlike Amanda’s experience, however, the information we gain nonlocally is often unconscious. The information may be nonlocal with respect not only to space but to time as well, as mentioned. For example, an individual may cancel a travel reservation because of a vague gut feeling that something is not right, or that something ominous is going to happen, not because he actually foresees a specific event. This may be one reason why occupancy rates are statistically lower on the day of train wrecks compared to nonaccident days.41 Nonlocal awareness of dire future events may also account for why the overall vacancy rate on the four doomed planes on September 11 was nearly 80%, although we cannot know for sure because the airlines will not release vacancy rates for the preceding months for comparison.

From a survival perspective, it may be an advantage for information that is nonlocally acquired to be unconscious. Thinking, analyzing, and reasoning take time. In emergencies, instant reflexive action can save a life.

If minds are nonlocal in space and time, they are unbounded. This implies that at some level they come together with other minds and form a collective or universal mind. Nobel physicist Erwin Schrödinger, whose wave equation lies at the heart of quantum physics, was interested in this possibility and believed it to be true. As he put it, “To divide or multiply consciousness is something meaningless.42 There is obviously only one alternative, namely the unification of minds or consciousness… [I]n truth there is only one mind.”43

A similar premise has emerged from the work of researcher Roger Nelson, of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, and his colleagues.44 They have examined the function of scores of random number generators situated around the globe. These electronic devices normally spit out patternless, equal numbers of ones and zeroes. But during moments when the attention of the world is riveted on a singular event, such as the death of Princess Di or September 11, these mechanical devices deviate from their normally chaotic, random patterns and become more orderly. Nelson suggests that when the psyche of humans behaves collectively, it can impart order into situations where there was none.

Is Thought Contagious?

Evidence that our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors may influence someone remotely in clinically important ways may have surfaced in recent analyses of social networks. James H. Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, and Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School, recently published their findings in the British Medical Journal in an article provocatively titled “Dynamic Spread of Happiness in a Large Social Network.”45 Christakis says they have discovered that “happiness is more contagious than previously thought.”46 As he explains, “Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don’t even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you… . Emotions have a collective existence—they are not just an individual phenomenon.”

From 1983 to 2003, Fowler and Christakis collected information from 4,739 people enrolled in the landmark Framingham Heart Study and from several thousand others with whom they were connected—spouses, relatives, close friends, neighbors, and coworkers. They found, for instance, says Fowler, that “if your friend’s friend’s friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket.” The idea that the emotional state of your friend’s friend’s friend could profoundly affect your psyche naturally created a sensation in the popular press.

It’s not just happiness that gets around, the team reported. They had previously published studies showing that depression, sadness, obesity, drinking and smoking habits, ill health, the inclination to turn out and vote in elections, a taste for certain music or food, a preference for online privacy, and the tendency to think about suicide are contagious.47

It isn’t surprising that happiness and other feelings and behaviors might be shared by people who are physically close; the odd thing is that, as one analyst said, “emotion can ripple through clusters of people who may not even know each other.”48

How could the feelings and behaviors of someone you don’t know and never heard of ricochet through you? So far, explanations have relied on person-to-person transmission of sensory cues, like falling dominos, until the information eventually collides with you. “You have to see them and be in physical and temporal proximity,” Christakis said, for the maximal transmission effect to occur. Body language and emotional signals may be the main mediators of the contagion, he suggested. But, when all is said and done, Fowler and Christakis say they don’t really know the mechanism by which happiness spreads.49

There seems to be a geographic factor at work. In general, the closer a friend lives to you, the greater is the possibility that you’ll get a bump from his or her happiness. Some experts say this means that the effect fizzles with distance. But the key element may not be distance, but emotional closeness. Dozens of remote healing studies have reached this conclusion: empathy and compassion trump spatial separation; distance doesn’t matter.

Scientists are scurrying to keep the mechanism of the happiness contagion “all physical.” Some suggest that the ripples work through the action of mirror neurons, which are brain cells believed to fire both when we perform an action and when we watch someone else doing it. Others suggest the spread is through mimicry, as when people unconsciously copy the facial expressions, body language, posture, and speech of those around them.

Even if the mechanism of transmission is purely physical and sensory in nature, the implications are mind boggling. Think of the contact that is thrice removed. She in turn is connected with additional thrice-removed people, and so is each of them, ad infinitum. Thus a single individual is eventually connected with the entire human race. With these limitless connections, could happiness “go global?” Could depression? Suicide? Healing?

Beyond the Senses

No one doubts that behaviors can be conveyed physically from person to person through sensory mechanisms, mimicry, possibly by mirror neurons, and so on. But some experts who have analyzed the contagion findings concede that the transmission takes place “in ways that are not entirely understood.”49 What else might be going on?

In 2007, researcher Ashkan Farhadi and colleagues50 at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago examined whether cells in separate containers could communicate with each other. They exposed one container of intestinal epithelial “inducer” cells to hydrogen peroxide and assessed the damage done to them. Another batch of “detector” cells was placed in a separate container and was not exposed to hydrogen peroxide. Even though there was no obvious way the two batches of cells could communicate, the detector cells demonstrated damage similar to the inducer cells. “These findings,” the researchers said, “provide evidence in support of a non-chemical, non-electrical communication.” They are scratching their heads about what the signaling system may be.

Similar findings emerged from research by biophysicist Rita Pizzi and her colleagues at the Stem Cell Research Institute in Milan, Italy. They studied two cultures of neuronal human DNA that were separated and completely shielded from each other. When one culture was stimulated by means of a laser beam, the distant, shielded culture demonstrated similar reactions. Their findings, they say, “strongly suggest that biological systems present non-local properties not explainable by classical methods.”51

Similar phenomena appear to operate not just between separated batches of cells, but also between humans and cells that are far apart. Researchers at the HeartMath Research Center in Boulder Creek, California, have demonstrated that when individuals enter a loving, compassionate frame of mind and intend to change the conformation of human DNA molecules a half mile away, they can do so. Electromagnetic effects from human bodies are not known to influence biological systems at this distance. The HeartMath researchers propose that a genuinely nonlocal form of communication is taking place.52,53

Distant effects occur between separated humans as well. The late psychiatrist lan Stevenson, of the University of Virginia, has investigated scores of instances in which distant individuals experience similar emotions and even physical symptoms contemporaneously. Most cases involve parents and children, spouses, siblings, twins, lovers, and very close friends.54

In a typical example, a mother was writing a letter to her daughter, who had recently gone away to college. For no obvious reason her right hand began to burn so severely she had to put down her pen. She received a phone call less than an hour later informing her that her daughter’s right hand had been severely burned by acid in a laboratory accident, at the same time that she, the mother, had felt the burning pain.55

Another classic example, reported by the English social critic John Ruskin (1819-1900), involved Arthur Severn, the well-known landscape painter. Severn awoke early one morning and went to the nearby lake for a sail. His wife Joan, who remained in bed, was suddenly awakened by the feeling of a severe, painful blow to the mouth, of no apparent cause. Shortly thereafter her husband Arthur returned, holding a cloth to his bleeding mouth. He reported that the wind had freshened abruptly and caused the boom to hit him in the mouth, almost knocking him from the boat at the estimated time his wife felt the blow.56

Experimental psychologist Douglas Stokes reported a similar instance in 2002. When he was teaching a course on parapsychology at the University of Michigan, one of his students reported that his father was knocked off a bench one day by an “invisible blow to the jaw.” Five minutes later his dad received a call from a local gymnasium where his wife was exercising, informing him that she had broken her jaw on a piece of fitness equipment.57

Do these examples of distant communication—cell to cell, human to cell, and human to human—shed light on Christakis’s “contagion”? Could researchers studying the “three degrees of separation” be studying nonlocal connections without realizing it?

Whose Mind and Whose Body?

Regardless of how the contagion phenomena prove to be mediated, there is compelling evidence that nonlocal connections exist between distant individuals, and that these connections have bodily repercussions.

This poses a question that has yet to be faced by mind-body medicine. When we use the term “mind-body,” whose mind and whose body are we referring to? Does the specific mind-body event originate in the individual under consideration, or from someone else? Evidence points toward a collective, linked aspect of minds and bodies that involves potentially everyone on Earth, and possibly everyone who has ever lived, because nonlocal, consciousness-mediated events transcend both space and time.

If the emotions and intentions of one individual can be reflected in the thoughts, feelings, and bodily functions of a distant individual, then “mind-body” is ratcheted to a new level, which I’ve termed Era III medicine. This nonlocal, collective aspect of minds and bodies should not be considered merely metaphorical or poetic, but as a real phenomena with biological and clinical relevance.

Just as Era I physical medicine proved to be a limited template for healing, Era II or mind-body medicine as currently conceived is also inadequate. The mind-body field will not come to fruition and realize its promise unless it takes the next step to Era III nonlocal medicine.

Era III medicine may be new to us, but it is the most ancient form of medicine that exists. For 50,000 years shamans and indigenous healers have operated on its premises. They have known what we moderns forgot—that, although we function at one level as individuals, we also are inseparably connected and united through space and time. But we have something the ancients did not have—empirical evidence that our unity and oneness are a fact.

© 2009 Larry Dossey, M.D. This article is also published in the May 2009 issue of Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, available at www.explorejournal.com; HMDI has reprinted it with permission from Larry Dossey, M.D.


1. Bateson G. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. In: San Francisco, Calif: Chandler Press; 1972;p. 467.

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