The study day held on 17 April 2010, organised and chaired by Robert Charman, was on the subject of Healers and Healing. Five speakers supplied a broad overview of some of the theory and practice of healing, applied to both humans and animals in a variety of situations.
After some scene-setting by the chairman, the first speaker, Dr Tony Scofield, gave a clear but sadly all-too-too brisk description of many of the experimental issues involved. He illustrated his points with numerous examples to show just how broad a category 'healing' is and how strong the evidence is, though acknowledging that some experiments have contained procedural flaws.
He discussed problems with confounding variables (even more difficult when using animals), for example a study examining therapeutic touch which did not check on any medication being taken, and the problem of subjects not being equivalent in terms of degree of illness. Spontaneous recovery can make attributing an improvement to healing problematic. Simple human contact can be beneficial, and it is difficult to disentangle healing from the presence of another person who has no intention to heal. Even testing a seemingly straightforward procedure like intercessionary prayer – for example a finding that cardiovascular patients needed less medical intervention when prayed for - can be complicated, in a study with a control group supposedly not receiving prayer, by the possibility of other people praying for patients in all groups, or the possible role of other factors which have not been controlled.
But the studies he outlined did on the whole tend to show positive results for healing, and such counter-explanations as the file-drawer effect (ie publication bias) and the role of expectancy in healing did not account for them in full. These experimental outcomes included both work with humans with naturally-occurring diseases, and animals with induced ones. Expectancy was certainly not an issue in work with animals and plants, and even sceptics could be trained to treat animals with good results. Work with plants simplifies the system even more, with stressed cress seeds growing more vigorously when given healing. Cell culture involved looking at parts of a system, and often produced more dramatic consequences than the treatment of an entire organism.
So if it seems to work, why do we need to prove healing’s efficacy? What is the point of all these controlled experiments? While at an everyday level the evidence for the reality of healing seems to be established, there is still no consensus about the mechanisms by which it might operate (though it seems that entropy is an issue, an increase of it in a system rendering healing more difficult). There is also a funding issue, and those holding the purse strings within the NHS are often resistant to the findings of researchers, even when presented in peer-reviewed journals. While there is still a long way to go in terms of a consistent body of high-quality research, it is reasonable to conclude that healing’s value has been established.
The day’s second speaker, Lucinda Peyton-Jones, works as a Reiki practitioner with cancer patients in two outpatient clinics, one on London and the other on the Isle of Wight. University College Hospital in London is busy and noisy, creating extra stress for those who most need to relax. Waiting times can be lengthy, and Lucinda offers twenty-minute sessions to patients, and their carers, in a small curtained-off area while they wait.
By contrast, the hospital on the Isle of Wight is smaller and quieter, and treatment is given while patients are receiving chemotherapy. Responses from patients at both locations have been positive, and they and staff report that recipients of healing are more relaxed and the side-effects of chemotherapy are reduced. Everybody feels some benefits, and those who are initially sceptical often change their minds about healing. It is a useful adjunct to medical treatments as it does not require equipment and can be used in many different therapeutic situations. What Lucinda does works on a different level to the drugs that patients are also taking, and she finds that the reduction in side-effects makes the condition more bearable.
There was initial resistance from some NHS staff (and the paperwork involved when working within the system was mentioned a number of times during the day) but there was increasing acceptance of the positive role complementary therapies could play in pain relief and palliative care. Sessions with staff had shown first-hand how beneficial Reiki could be. Lucinda was pragmatic about the theory, only interested in the fact that it works. She was positive that she is not transferring energy to patients; rather the energy is new, coming in from outside her and using her as a channel, exiting through her hands to the patient.
Dawn Redwood has worked as a reflexologist and healer in a number of GPs’ surgeries and in a hospice, helping patients who have terminal illnesses. Such individuals require a specialised approach to the use of energy compared to people with non-life threatening illnesses. She prefers to use the term ‘complementary therapist’ rather than spirit healer within a medical setting, even though in reality there is no difference. Her aim is to make people whole, and while she cannot provide scientific evidence that what she is doing works, the proof is in the impact she has had on those she has treated, so in that sense what she does is evidence-based.
She downplayed her role, claiming that healing was really ‘self-healing’ and her role was as a facilitator for that process. She had a conception of the “perfect person” which is their essence, not what is wrong with them, and she quoted Krishnamurti’s words, “Truth is a pathless land” as a guiding principle. She has to adhere to strict guidelines working within the NHS which prohibit her from discussing medication. Like Lucinda, she had faced scepticism from some staff and also commented on the paperwork, which she tries to keep as simple as possible. Despite these issues, she finds that patients obtain physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual benefits. They are more able to accept their situation, with reduction or even neutralisation of fear, and make their farewells in a peaceful manner. She also teaches self-help techniques which can be used in her absence.
After lunch, Sandy Edwards discussed her work in an outpatient gastroenterology unit.
Her view of the process was that the healing ability comes from within the patient, rather than her being a channel. Regarding terminology, she felt that the labels were irrelevant; Reiki, therapeutic touch, spiritual healing, all are largely the same phenomenon. She had set up a healing group which has become immensely successful, with about twenty-five healers providing their services, and it also organises workshops. In addition, she works with The Healing Trust (the working name of the National Federation of Spiritual Healers). Building on this, Sandy moved into providing voluntary healing at a hospital’s outpatient gastroenterology department.
The response from the staff was positive, with some receiving healing themselves, and the sessions with patients apparently successful. But seeking hard data, Sandy put together a questionnaire to provide feedback. Part one was completed before healing was given and part two a week later. An analysis of the first seventy-five responses was extremely encouraging. Patients reported a wide range of benefits, not just improved digestive function, but others ranging from an enhanced sense of wellbeing to better relationships. Based on the results from this pilot study, lottery funding to the tune of £205,000 was obtained, despite fierce competition, for more elaborate research which it is hoped will begin shortly.
Sandy pointed out that she did not need to know what the specific illness was, the healing was still effective. Some individuals to her surprise do not want healing, which suggests that a fear of the unknown can be inhibiting. She acknowledged the placebo effect, and noted that the presence of sham healers can lead to improvements as well. This could mean that we all possess healing abilities to some extent, which chimes with her feeling that we are all interconnected. But the problems of imposing controls cause difficulties in teasing out the variables.
The final speaker was Margrit Coates, who described her work with animals. These had an intuitive understanding of the healing process and the role of the healer, and some remarkable recoveries have occurred. Again Margrit talked in terms of connectedness, with humans and animals indistinguishable in spirituals terms. Yet animal healing is a relatively new field, with no books at all on the subject in the late 1990s. Just as healers in a medical setting work with doctors and nurses, so animal healers work with vets. What they do is never seen as a substitute for veterinary treatment.
A positive side-effect of helping animals is that it often brings humans to healing as well. There are though differences between humans and animals. The latter do not display scepticism, but are more accepting of what the healer is doing than some people are, and they are not subject to the placebo effect. The interconnectedness of all living things means that it is possible for animals to heal each other. Animal healing is able to ameliorate a wide variety of ailments: emotional and mental trauma, behavioural problems, tumours, cancers and cysts, weakened immune systems, neurological problems, physical wounds, fractures, falls, shock, and general pain. The results cannot be explained simply by the attention paid because animals receive attention from non-healers without such marked improvements. A number of photographs demonstrated the remarkable changes that can take place after healing sessions in different species.
As might be expected, the discussion session at the end of the day ranged widely. The speakers were asked if they were treating the underlying condition or merely the symptoms, to which the response was that healing does not distinguish, it deals with the entire person. It does not ask for a specific outcome, rather it concentrates on the greater good of the organism undergoing the healing process, looking for energy blockages and trying to free them. Other issues raised dealt with psychological problems and how healing might help, and questions on specific experimental procedures. In answer to the question, “What is the future for healing?”, the unanimous response was that it was for everybody, we can all do it, no single organisation can represent all its facets, and for those who practise it in its many forms, it is a way of life.