You won’t find their names listed by the American Medical Association. There’s no degree on the wall. The knives they use for surgery might be rusty, or they might use no knives at all. Yet, thousands of ailing people have, for centuries, reported miraculous cures by psychic healers.
These unorthodox practitioners of unorthodox healing defy conventional Western medicine, which is usually described within the accepted framework of physics and chemistry. Yet inexplicable, almost miraculous cures do occur in medical practice. These, along with the effects of psychic healers, are usually labeled anomalies and forgotten. Psychic healing (also known as faith, spiritual, or mental healing) is viewed by medical societies as quackery; they ascribe any apparently favorable results obtained by such means to suggestion or spontaneous regression. Not long ago, however, suggestion itself was not accepted by the scientific community. Yet at the present time it is considered worthy of study. Suggestion may be the explanation; then again it may not.
Psychic healers claim to have, usually in the absence of medical knowledge or skills, the gift of healing. Some also have the ability to diagnose, not by chemical tests, blood tests and X-rays, but simply by looking at the patient (or an intermediary such as a photograph or signature) for a few seconds. Treatments vary, but in general are not common to orthodox medical practice. Basically there are two methods: (1) Methods involving touch, known as manual healing. Of all the forms of healing, this is perhaps the most common; (2) Methods in which there is no physical contact. Some healers never touch the skin but pass their hands over the body or place them on opposite sides of the afflicted area. In absent healing, the patient may not be physically close to the healer or even be aware of his existence.
Some healers say that care must be taken not to draw the illness into themselves. Washing or flicking the hands are said to be effective antidotes. Healers, too, often feel that the temperature of their hands is raised. Patients may also feel warmth, or a pins-and-needles sensation.
One element common to most successful psychic healing is an acceleration of normal biological processes. For example, a skin wound may heal in one-half the time normally required. The limitations of the psychic healing process seem to be the body’s own limits of self-repair. For instance, there are no reported cases of the regrowth of an amputated limb or the resuturing of an optic nerve. It is claimed that some healers have regenerated missing tissue, but the only well-known example is the Biblical account of Christ healing the right ear of Malchus by touch after it had been cut off by one of the disciples.
Surgery done by a healer mimics all the essential acts, but violates every principle, of modern surgery. Here also procedures are highly accelerated. In the Philippines there are healers who are reported to practice surgery by simply pointing their finger at the skin area to be incised; the flesh opens with minimal bleeding. Most good healers who practice surgery with a knife are also reputedly capable of opening and closing surgical wounds with their bare hands. Such wounds may heal more or less instantaneously, sometimes with no observable scars. Moreover, some healers can perform surgery painlessly, without using any known means of anaesthesia.
Science can’t explain it, but science can’t explain aspirin.
Primitive life forms have extraordinary powers of self-repair and self-regeneration. Worms, for instance, if severed in two or more pieces, can grow an entire organism from each of the parts. Animals in their natural habitat rarely fall ill, except when deprived of some essential need. Even then, instinct will usually lead them to whatever will aid them. However, as consciousness (in the sense of self-awareness) evolved, man lost touch with his instincts; he came to rely on memory or the advice of others in times of illness. In tribal societies this person was the shaman, the priest or medicine man, who had the ability to peel away layers of consciousness through techniques of ecstasy, dissociation, or trance and so rediscover his instinctual nature. Illness was considered to be a “loss of soul” which was then returned as a result of the healing process.
In the ancient world medicine was an art closely linked with religion and magical beliefs and practices. In time, the concept of healing power was projected outward from the individual to the province of the gods. The most famous healing god of classical antiquity was the Greek Asclepios. Many cures were reported in his temples, where the ill would come to sleep and be cured. The Romans also adopted this cult which was eventually wiped out by the rise of Christianity.
In the Christian Church, the tradition of faith healing dates from the earliest days of Christ and includes healings first by the Apostles, then by their successors. The Catholic Church has continued to recognize the possibility of miraculous cures, achieved by faith, or through the grace of God. Certain places, Lourdes being the best known, have been recognized as centers to which pilgrims can go in search of miraculous healings.
Paracelsus, at the end of the 15th century, was one of the first exponents of what can be termed psychological healing and theories linking magnetic influences with stellar and planetary forces. Later followers of this great physician began to emphasize this theory of a vibratory universe and insist that magnetic radiations might be primary factors in human life, both in health and in disease.
The ideas of Paracelsus were eventually adopted by Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who gave rise to the movement known as mesmerism. Mesmer provides an essential link between the healing techniques of the shamans — and the healing ministry of Christ — with psychic healing today. In addition, he wrested the privilege of healing from the Churches.
Mesmer described the existence of a “universal fluid” which could be directed and utilized by man. He maintained that this subtle force, which he named “animal magnetism,” could be manipulated to influence people’s minds and heal the sick.
In France, Mesmer’s work became so popular that the scientific world could no longer ignore him but was forced to follow up tales of his miraculous cures. However, in spite of the many converts, the majority of academic authorities were still bitterly antagonistic. And, in 1784, a scientific commission, which examined the phenomenon of animal magnetism, pronounced it a fraud and a delusion.
On the other hand, the work of the Marquis de Puysegur was more acceptable to the scientific community. In 1784, he observed that his mesmerized subjects often passed spontaneously into a state which he called “artificial somnambulism.” In this condition of sleeplike insensibility, the magnetized person became extremely suggestible and could be directed by the magnetizer. The cause of healing was said to lie in the suggestible mental state of the sleeper and was not to be accounted for by any physical or psychic activities of the mesmerist. In other words, it was all in the mind. Therefore, de Puysegur, rather than Mesmer, is generally considered to be the founder of modern hypnotism with its deliberately induced state of hypersuggestibility.
Exponents of animal magnetism soon split into two opposing camps. One faction upheld Mesmer’s thesis that a subtle magnetic force was involved in the production of the phenomena. The other faction maintained that mental suggestion alone could account for the healings which occurred. After almost two centuries, this split is still unresolved, although the hypothesis of mental suggestion is generally preferred. Possibly, the animal magnetism theory of Mesmer and the mental suggestion theory of de Puysegur are both correct but refer to complementary aspects of the same phenomenon. The controversy is analogous to the question of whether light is composed of particles or waves.
Outside the medical mainstream, mesmerism and somnambulism gave rise to two new religions: Spiritualism and the Christian Science of Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, in which the wheel has at last turned full circle, and the practice of healing has again become inseparably connected with religion. Spiritualist healers believe that not only do they have the gift of healing, but that they are also actively assisted in their work by doctors and guides “on the other side.” One of the fundamental tenets of Christian Science is that disease is a form of deception based on errors of thinking; to cure it the error must be destroyed.
Even though stories of miraculous cures by such contemporary healers as Kathryn Kuhlman, Olga Worrall, and Harry Edwards fill pages of popular newspapers and magazines, they cannot be verified, since alternative explanations are possible. However, this lack of orthodox recognition doesn’t shake the belief of the healers that they have a vocation to heal or the belief of the patients that they have been cured by such healers when orthodox medicine has failed them. “One thing I know, that, whereas I was blind, now I see” (St. John, IX, 25). Skeptics must remember that there are two modes of knowing — through argument and direct experience. Most of those who have actually undergone a cure through paranormal methods are not concerned with how the healing happens. Yet, if the so-called healer can really heal, this should be obvious to the more skeptically inclined under experimental conditions. What is required are experiments to answer whether it is true that some persons can accelerate the process of healing and, if so, to understand the mechanisms.
The great physicians have always spoken of Nature as being the great Healer . . . This is only partially true. Nature alone can do nothing. Nature can cure only when man recognizes his place in the world, which is not in Nature, as with the animal, but in the human kingdom, the link between the natural and the divine.
Henry Miller, The Colossus of Marousi
There are four possible explanations for healing power: God, guides or spirits, the power of the healer himself, and the suggestible mental state of the patient.
Most healers describe their work as “prayer” and believe their success is due to the intervention of God. Edgar Cayce, for example, believed that all healing, whether through prayer or medicine or knives or the laying on of hands comes from one source — God. In this respect healing by penicillin is not that different from healing by prayer. It’s just the difference by which the healing power comes into the body.
I can offer no argument against this explanation. Some say that all of life is merely God playing hide and seek with himself. However, the God concept does little either to further one’s understanding of the process or to increase one’s healing ability. An individual can learn to pray better, but that is about all.
Many psychic healers believe that the source of their healing power is “spirits” who use the healer as a channel or link from the “other side” to the patient. These spirits are sometimes thought to be deceased persons who guide the work of the healer. The healer may hear the voice of his guide or merely feel his presence. The famous Brazilian surgeon-healer Arigo claimed to be guided by Dr. Fritz, a long-deceased physician whom he had never known. (2)
Unfortunately, there is no scientific way to validate or invalidate this sort of claim (see W. G. Roll’s article on Survival After Death, SUN, June, 1975).
Other healers consider themselves to be either transmitters or originators of some special form of “energy” that has healing effects. This healing current is referred to in different ways. Mesmer’s was animal magnetism; some employ a green healing light; others a vital force or fluid, nervous energy, or absolute energy. In yogic terms one refers to prana, an energy from the sun. Your body gets it from the air you breathe and the water you drink. Prana can be transformed to a sick person by the laying on of hands. This vital force supposedly repairs the tissues, mends the bones, heals the nerves, and generally restores sick parts to health. Yoga also teaches that an individual can cure himself by the correct use of his own vital forces.
However, we must be careful. Is there really a healer and a healed in the psychic healing process? All the explanations given so far assume that there are, just as we in our ordinary waking state of consciousness make distinctions between ourselves and everything else: other people, shoes, centipedes. Furthermore, we assume that the contents of our consciousness are private, an assumption that the findings of parapsychology do not support.
As a result of his researches into psychic healing, the New York psychiatrist and self-taught healer, Dr. Lawrence LeShan, has differentiated what he calls type I and type II healing. In type I the healer goes into an altered state of consciousness in which he views himself and the patients as one entity. Only a brief time is needed for this type of healing. There is no attempt to do anything to the patient, but simply to be one with him. “The healer does not do something or give something to the healee; instead he helps him to come home to the All, to the One, to the way of ‘unity’ with the Universe, and in this ‘meeting,’ the healee becomes more complete and this in itself is healing.” (6)
In type II healing, on the other hand, there is a definite attempt made at curing. The healer’s hands are generally placed on either side of the affected area. The healer perceives a pattern of activity, or a flow of energy, between his facing palms and through the trouble spot. Some healers see themselves as the originators and others as the transmitters of this healing power.
Finally, suggestion remains as a relatively simple and conventionally palatable explanation of paranormal healing. But where does suggestion end and psychic healing begin? Or is psychic healing no more than applied suggestion? It is difficult to define a boundary between paranormal healing and orthodox medical practice. A doctor may give a patient a placebo (a pill or other medicine which is a dummy and which has no known chemical action) in the hope that it will benefit him. A psychic healer may believe that he is doing something positive and this may also serve as a placebo. In either case, the patient feels better.
So, an accurate description of what is actually occurring still eludes us. Still, some of the better research on psychic healing reveals that something other than suggestion is taking place.
A gerontologist and endocrinologist at McGill University in Montreal, Dr. Bernard Grad started a series of experiments in 1957 with a self-styled healer, Oscar Estabany, who claimed that a “power” passed between his hands. Since Estabany felt confident of his ability to affect animals, where suggestion would be an unlikely explanation of cures, experiments were conducted involving wounded mice. A piece of skin was cut from the backs of mice; the area was then measured periodically over an 18-day period. Treatment consisted of Estabany’s holding the caged mice between his hands for 20 minutes twice daily. A control group remained in a similar cage without handling. Results showed that the wounds of the mice treated by Estabany were smaller than those which had not been. (5)
Utilizing the same idea, another series of experiments was run introducing more safeguards. In this series there were three groups of experimental animals — those treated by Estabany; those treated by individuals claiming no healing powers; those given no special treatment. Two new conditions were also introduced. In the first the metal cage was sealed in a heavy paper bag by closing the mouth of the bag with staples. The hands were not allowed to come into direct contact with the metal cage or the animals. In the second group, the cage was concealed in an open paper bag and those concentrating on the mice were allowed to hold the cage directly between their hands by inserting them in the bag; however, they were not allowed to look at the mice or cage. On the 15th and 16th days after the wounding, the mice treated by Estabany in open bags had statistically smaller wound surface areas than the other groups. Those treated by him in the closed bag condition showed similar tendencies, but did not reach statistical significance. There was no appreciable difference between those groups which were treated by individuals claiming no healing power and the mice that were not handled in this way. (5)
Dr. Grad then tested Estabany with barley seeds which were watered with a 1% saline solution. The seeds were separated into two groups — those watered with treated and those with untreated saline. “Treatment” consisted of Estabany’s holding the bottle containing the solution in his hands. The experiment showed that the plants watered with the treated saline were growing more quickly. It was also found that Estabany was actually altering the structure of the water molecule by increasing the distance between the oxygen and hydrogen atoms. (4, 10)
In a later experiment, Grad decided to test whether it was possible for persons to retard plant growth. Three people (one healthy and two suffering from depression who were in psychiatric hospitals at the time of the experiment) hand held for thirty minutes bottles of normal, sterile saline. The solution treated by each of them was used for the initial watering of barley seeds in peat pots. A control group was initially watered with an untreated saline solution. Thereafter all four groups were watered with tap water. At the end of the sixteen day experimental period, the group treated by the healthy individual had produced the tallest plants and the greatest yield of plant material. However, contrary to Grad’s initial prediction, one of the depressed “healer’s” pots produced more plant material than the control group, while the other’s produced less. He traced this difference to the initially overlooked factor of the mood of each while holding the bottle. The person whose pots produced more plants showed a great interest in the experiment; she was not depressed at the time of the experiment, while the other was. Thus, these experiments suggest that a positive mood is required for a significantly positive result. (3)
Dr. Justa M. Smith, Chairman of Biology and Biochemistry at Rosary Hill College, Buffalo, N.Y., also investigated the effects produced by Estabany, this time on enzymes. Our bodies have about 2,000 different enzymes which act as catalysts for particular biochemical reactions. Since Dr. Smith believes that illness is due to malfunctioning enzyme systems she reasoned that an effective psychic healer probably increases the activity of one or more of the patient’s enzyme systems. Sister Justa invited Estabany to Buffalo for experiments in which the activity of untreated solutions of trypsin (one of the enzymes that aids in the digestion of food) were compared with that of solutions in tubes hand held by him for seventy-five minutes. Though one series of experiments showed no effect, another series gave very striking results. The treated trypsin showed an increase in activity of about the same magnitude as would have been produced by exposing it to a very strong magnetic field of about 13,000 gauss (that of the earth is only about 0.5 gauss). When she tested Estabany to see if he was generating an intense magnetic field near his hands, delicate magnetometers registered nothing. It therefore seems that the force or energy by which Estabany influences enzymes or water is not the ordinary magnetic field. Dr. Smith has since duplicated her results with seven other healers. (11)
While working at the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in Durham, Graham and Anita Watkins experimented with individuals who attempted to influence the recovery rate of anaesthetized mice. Subjects concentrated on an anaesthetized mouse to see if they could cause it to wake up more quickly than a mouse lying next to it. Though there were no statistically significant healing results, an interesting finding came to light. It seemed that the effect which was causing the accelerated waking of the mice did not immediately dissipate when the subjects ceased to concentrate, but lingered for a certain period of time, affecting other anaesthetized mice placed in the same area. A second series of experiments seemed to indicate that the “linger effect” is a more reliable finding (at least in terms of replicability) than is the main effect of the arousal of the mice.
Recently, an important experiment with the spiritual healer, Olga Worrall, was conducted by Dr. Robert N. Miller, Dr. Philip Reinhart and Anita Kern (conducted under the auspices of the Ernest Holmes Research Foundation) to determine whether measurable energy is given off by a healer’s hands. (7) The detector used was a cloud chamber, an apparatus originally developed by nuclear physicists for making visible the path of high energy nuclear particles. When Dr. Worrall placed her hands at the side of the cloud chamber and visualized energy flowing from them, the experimenters reportedly observed a wave pattern develop parallel to her hands. The apparent direction of motion was perpendicular to the palms. When she shifted her hands, the waves followed suit and were soon moving perpendicular to her palms again.
A follow-up experiment was conducted and films were taken of the results. This time the cloud chamber remained in the physics laboratory at Agnes Scott College in Atlanta but Olga Worrall was 600 miles away in Baltimore. At the designated time she was to visualize the cloud chamber and attempt to affect it as she had previously. The results were the same as in the first experiment when she was present in the room. This distance effect was tried once more, with the same result. Both times, an interesting effect was noticed that corroborates the concept of a “linger effect”: a time interval of approximately eight minutes was required for the turbulence to subside. It seemed that the cloud chamber had become charged with some type of energy and a finite time was needed for its dissipation.
At Duke University Dr. William Joines and Larry Burton have found that the body of a psychic healer can emanate ultraviolet light, which is picked up by a photomultiplier tube. This same healer also has the ability to block a beam of visible light directed at the photomultiplier.
Within ourselves there seems to be a power which can heal. Yet the limits of that power are, right now, impossible to define. Perhaps, as we begin to turn in upon ourselves to study the workings of consciousness we will begin to understand, as Arthur Koestler says, that “there is no sharp dividing line between self-repair and self-realization.”
(1) Encyclopedia of the Unexplained. ed. by Richard Cavendish. McGraw Hill, New York, 1974.
(2) Fuller, John G. Arigo: Surgeon of the Rusty Knife. Pocket Books, New York, 1975.
(3) Grad, Bernard. “The ‘Laying on of Hands’: Implications for Psychotherapy, Gentling, and the Placebo Effect.” Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, Vol. 61, No. 4, Oct. 1967, pp. 286-305.
(4) Grad, Bernard. “A Telekinetic Effect on Plant Growth II.” International Journal of Parapsychology. Vol. VI, No. 4, 1964, pp. 473-498.
(5) Grad, B., Cadoret, R., & Paul, G. I. “The Influence of an Unorthodox Method of Treatment on Wound Healing in Mice.” International Journal of Parapsychology. Vol. III, No. 2, 1961, pp. 5-25.
(6) LeShan, Lawrence. The Medium, the Mystic, and the Physicist. Viking Press, New York, 1974. p. 111.
(7) Miller, R., Reinhart, P., & Kern, A. Science of Mind. July, 1974. pp. 12-16.
(8) Mitchell, Edgar D. Psychic Explorations. ed. by John White. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1974.
(9) Podmore, Frank. From Mesmer to Christian Science. University Books, New Hyde Park, New York, 1963.
(10) Proceedings of the Canadian Conference on Psychokinesis. New Horizons Research Foundation, 1975.
(11) Smith, Sister Justa M. Human Dimensions. Rosary Hill College, Buffalo, 1972.
Mesmer began his career as a healer by studying medicine at the University of Vienna, where he wrote a thesis entitled “Of the Influence of the Planets on the Human Body.” He was concerned with intangible, universal forces which he imagined pervaded space and affected us imperceptibly. In 1774 he learned of the experiments of a professor of astronomy at Vienna, a Jesuit priest named Maximilian Hell. Hell was apparently having astonishing success in curing the sick by applying magnets to their afflicted parts, a method derived from the 17th century magus and practitioner of mystic medicine, Paracelsus. Paracelsus advocated a theory common among the magi and scholars of the late Renaissance, known as the theory of correspondence or “sympathies,” which postulates a connection, often unrecognized even today, between all parts of the universe.
Mesmer’s earlier thoughts on the influence of the planets were obviously similar, and he began to follow Father Hell in using magnets to induce the “spiritual continuity” or “magnetic concert.” Soon, however, he became convinced that his successes were caused by the affect of his own body, not by the magnets. He labelled his newly discovered force “animal magnetism.” Mesmer claimed for animal magnetism not simply a healing influence, but a direct physical effect upon the human body. According to his theory, the “magnetizer” wielded a subtle fluid, akin to, yet distinguishable from other subtle fluids — electricity, magnetism, vital heat, etc. — with which the science of the day was acquainted.
Mesmer formulated 27 Propositions regarding animal magnetism of which the first three are (1) between the heavenly bodies, the earth and all animated bodies exists a responsive influence; (2) the means of this influence is a fluid universally diffused, so continuous as to admit no vacuum, incomparably subtle, and naturally capable of receiving, transmitting, and communicating all motor disturbances; (3) this reciprocal action is subject to mechanical laws with which we are not yet familiar.
Animal magnetism soon became the vogue in Paris, where, with his theatrical techniques, Mesmer supposedly cured several prominent people of their disorders. The treatment took place in a large, dimly-lit room and centered around a one-foot high oak tub filled with water and known as a banquet. Into the tub were placed bottles full of water in rows radiating from the center. All these bottles had been previously “magnetized” by Mesmer. Sometimes there were several rows of bottles, one about the other, at which point the machine was said to be at high pressure. The bottles rested on layers of powdered glass and iron filings. Over this was placed a wooden cover through which projected jointed iron rods, held by the patients or applied to their afflicted parts. Against a background of eerie music, Mesmer would suddenly appear dressed in flowing lilac robes and brandishing an iron rod like a wand. He would circle the banquet and alternately stare at the patients, touch them with the rod, or merely pass his hands over them. Successful healings were sometimes followed by a “magnetic crisis,” whose effects were often so violent the patients were put in specially padded rooms, the “Salle des Crises.” Here, they went into trances, had convulsions, sank into comas — and often felt better. Or so several of them told a 1784 committee of inquiry from the Academy of Sciences on which were such distinguished thinkers as Benjamin Franklin, Lavoisier, Pinel and Dr. Guillotin. Unable to deny that the method seemed to produce some effects, in spite of finding no trace of the “magnetic fluid” (which Mesmer’s patients insisted they saw, though they were never able to agree on the color), the commission reported it worked only in the imagination of the patients. Mesmer, on the other hand, still felt that his device transmitted “animal magnetism” to sick people, whose illness resulted from the failure to draw sufficiently on their aetheric continuum reserves.
Mesmer’s career was interrupted by the French Revolution. Wisely — as Marie Antoinette and others from the Court had been his patrons — he left France for Switzerland, where he ended his days in obscurity.