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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Christian Science, faith healing and mind-body medicine with mention of the work of Elisabeth Fischer Targ MD

Just this last week I saw a couple of ancient people who were at the end of their lives, had been very healthy up until recently and had received close to no medical care for nearly 9 decades. One of them was a devout Christian Scientist and the other was a Seventh Day Adventist. Christian Science began in 1871 based on the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy, and follows her teachings as laid out in her blockbuster bestselling book Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures which has been translated into just about every known written language and outlines the philosophy and practice of healing based on Christian faith. Seventh Day Adventists also have pretty strict health prescriptions and many of them eat a plant based diet, avoiding animal products, especially meat. I have had other Christian Science patients in the past, of great age, and am very curious about what draws them to it and how they weave it into their very healthy lives.

Mary Baker Eddy was a "sickly child" who heard voices and was known as someone who could heal sick animals. She remained sick for much of her adult life, even giving up care of her only son due to illness. She believed (and this is based on a pretty cursory look at her book, so take it with a grain of salt) that God and the spirit, love and truth and good, were all the real things of existence, and material things, including the body and matter in general, were false and mostly unimportant. Regarding healing she wrote "When the sick are made to realize the lie of personal sense, the body is healed." She described her religion as "primitive Christianity" and the churches she established were very popular and remain so, to some extent. One of the publications that began with the movement, the Christian Science Monitor, is still very active and an excellent source of non-partisan news.

I am neither a devout Christian nor an integrative medicine specialist or mind-body practitioner, yet I have had a longstanding interest in the power of meditation and focused thought or visualization to heal. Even at Harvard, that bastion of evidence based medicine, we see practitioners looking to find the science behind the success of various relaxations techniques and spiritual practices in curing illness and promoting wellness. A rather funny animal model of meditation (which I heard about at the Mind-body medicine course I just attended last month at Harvard) is allowing rats to shred pieces of compressed fiber to make nests. The happy shredders heal up experimentally inflicted burns much faster than their bored and idle litter mates.

I think that Mary Baker Eddy must have been sick with one of the diseases that is primarily characterized by pain and fatigue, like fibromyalgia, migraine headaches or chronic fatigue syndrome, since she died in her late 80s despite years of being ill in a time when medical care was at best ineffective and at worst toxic. Even now, though we have potions and pills galore for these conditions, most of them work poorly, with high costs and sometimes devastating side effects. I suspect that faith healing was a truly excellent approach for what she had, though it might not have been so effective had she suffered from tuberculosis or vitamin B12 deficiency.

What I end up with, after looking at the lives of healthy very old Christian Scientists, is a respect for their particular path. Much of what we, as physicians, hand out for diseases will someday be found to be at least as bad as blood letting, which does in fact work pretty well for both acute congestive heart failure and hemochromatosis. In a couple of decades we will cringe as we think of the patients who we treated with chemotherapy drugs for cancer who died of side effects with no significant beneficial effects on their tumors. I have seen a few tragic results of using faith healing to treat cancers, but I have also seen people who were diagnosed with relatively small tumors, treated with chemotherapy agents that made them feel terrible and died anyway. It seems clear that there are some people and some diseases that probably respond dramatically to faith healing and some that respond dramatically to the right chemotherapy drug.

My best friend in college, Elisabeth Targ, graduated from Stanford and became a psychiatrist who had a special interest in remote healing by non-denominational prayer. She attempted to rigorously test the effect of distant prayer on patients with AIDS and saw a significant improvement in their outcomes. The study was later questioned, but she was pretty impressed with the results when I talked to her before her death. She died of a very nasty brain tumor in 2002 despite prayer and psychic healing attempts from her very wide range of friends. The problem was, I think, that she just had a really bad disease that neither surgery, radiation, chemotherapy nor as yet undescribed psychic processes could cure. Watching her struggle with the side effects of her expensive chemotherapy drugs I would say that the psychic part of the healing was not nearly so nasty. Kind of nice, actually.

I think psychic healing and faith healing probably have an effect that is mediated by some of the same processes that are involved in the less far-out practices that are part of mind-body medicine. Meditation and guided imagery will be more easily accepted by the medical field because we come closer to understanding them and can more easily test them. The science involved in this will continue to be really difficult to do well, because you can't have a control group "pretend" to meditate, since even pretend meditation is meditation. Practices that can be taught and learned and repeated without medical supervision will be attractive for payers and this will partially counter the medical profession's reticence to use techniques that they feel are unscientific. Already the teachings of John Kabat-Zinn have been codified into a curriculum called "Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction" which has been spectacularly effective in treating conditions such as anxiety, chronic pain and insomnia. We will continue to learn what these sorts of things are good for, and perhaps we will move ever so slightly away from the modern approach of a pill for every problem.


Unknown said...

Appreciate your thoughtful comments. Just to clarify, after discovering Christian Science, Mary Baker Eddy enjoyed excellent health and reporters who interviewed her in her 80s commented on her vigor and mental accumen. Several biographies bear this out and as you can tell, I'm a fan.

Janice said...

Thanks. I was motivated to read more about Christian Science just recently because the patient I mention above was a professor and writer who was active and insightful well into his 80s and clearly could have chosen any theology he liked. Reading some of Mary Baker Eddy's book, I noticed some similarities between her philosophy and some Zen buddhist writings--especially the part about the un-reality of death and disease. It's hard to wrap my mind around, but the fact that she reached the same conclusions through what must have been years of quiet contemplation as monks did over a thousand years ago is really interesting. The overwhelming popularity of her religion and its longevity suggest there must be something in it that is valuable to people.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your balanced assessment of Christian Science. I hope it can help you in your practice when you address your patents' mental needs. There is much to be gained from understanding spiritual healing. Blessings to you too.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for a very 'mindful' posting, helpful to those in need and respectful of much that includes Christian Science and also 'Mindfulness' as meditation. The efficacy of thought as evidenced by MRI scans has recently been publicized by the BBC in the UK. Headed "Scans 'show mindfulness meditation brain boost'" - see

pcookcs said...

Thank you for your thoughtful observations. I encourage you to keep reading Science and Health, to learn more about this remarkable and, yes, provable approach to healing, and then try it for yourself. Enjoy!

Roy D. Slater said...

I've always been a big fan of christian science healing. It has always worked very well for me, and I've tried to get a few of my friends to join me. It's always been a great experience. Thanks for sharing your experiences.