Jules Evans, on The History of Emotions blog, interviews Paul Dieppe, professor of health and wellbeing, Exeter Medical School, on the connection between spirituality, ritual and healing. January, 2015.
Can you tell us about your research into ‘the healing response’?
I’ve been interviewing healers and people who think they’ve been healed, doing in depth qualitative interviews to get a sense of the experience of both parties, and the views of both parties as to how it works. I’ve also been doing sensory ethnography tests – I ask people to give pictorial representations of what healing represents to them. That’s been absolutely fascinating. They often surprise themselves by what they draw. One person burst into tears while drawing because he had an insight into what was going on in his life. Drawing seems to access a different part of our brain.
So how do the healers think healing works?
The dominant narrative is about energy flow. Some think in an externalised way of energy from outside being channelled through them. Others speak of rebalancing natural energy levels.
What about the healed?
I’ve talked to fewer of them than the healers. But I suspect they go along with whatever narrative or attribution the healer comes up with.
Have you come across many instances of actual healing?
Masses of cases. It’s anecdotal stuff, but it’s extremely impressive and extremely convincing. I’ve experienced it myself. A lot of this stuff happens completely under the radar, people just getting on with it in their back room, not part of any particular body or group, just doing their own thing. I went to see one such person, a little old lady in her front-room, and she said the best way to understand healing is to experience it yourself, and asked if I had anything I wanted working on. I told her I had a bad knee, so she said, OK let’s give it a go. And for what it’s worth, it’s been better since then. That was a couple of years ago.
There are many possible explanations, of course. I think the energy story has something to it, though I don’t understand it. But my main hypothesis is this is about switching on our own intrinsic ability to heal ourselves, which we evolved for powerful and important reasons. Healers are helping us to activate that mechanism which, for some reason, we have forgotten in our culture. Some call the process unconditional love. If that’s too difficult, my short-hand for it is ‘total attention with good intention’. It’s about having a totally unconditional desire for the other person to get better.
Do you have a sense of what happens in the brain, does it involves specific neural or nervous networks? What systems does it involve?
Life gets difficult when you talk like that. You’ve slipped into the assumption that our materialist knowledge is the appropriate framework for that. We assume our current materialist science can explain everything, so the default position is ‘how can I explain this physiologically within my own materialist framework?’ I’m not convinced that’s the right way to do it.
No, I don’t have a materialist worldview, but if there is a spiritual dimension (which I think there is) I’m curious as to how it interacts with the body. William James, for example, explored how spiritual experiences interacted with ‘the subliminal self’. I wonder if healing is connected to things like trance states, altered states of consciousness, and so on.
OK, well how might it happen in those terms? Certainly there’s a lot of evidence for our ability to alter things through the Autonomic Nervous System via hypnosis. That can give us clues to a lot of this stuff. Hypnosis certainly affects the ANS, it certainly affects the immune system…probably everything. The mind / body split is of course silly. Everything is connected, everything works together. Although it’s easiest to talk in terms of what we can observe physiologically…I think we can control pretty much all of it probably.
You spoke of ‘cultural forgetting’. How and when do you think we forgot the healing response?
It was perhaps something that followed from the invention of germ theory [in the 18th and 19th century], which allowed us to have a mechanistic concept of the cause of disease and the belief that we can isolate this factor and do something about it. It’s a result of that shift in thinking. Prior to that, there was a much more spiritual and pluralistic view of how things work, and what disease states might mean. It’s still an approach that’s prevalent in some parts of the world, other than our so-called developed world. If you talk to people in some parts of Africa, their view is more akin to where we were. Another factor was our rejection of witchcraft. A lot of the healers I meet are very strange people, who, in times of yore, would have been written off as witches. They possess an extraordinary sensitivity to others. One or two have said some really weird things, like they have blurred sense of the boundary of self – they’re not sure if what they’re feeling is their feeling or the person they’re with. They’re sometimes called ‘sensitives’. We might think of the capacity for human sensitivity as being on a spectrum – if autistic people are at one end, at the other end are these sensitives. I think that’s where the healers fit in the spectrum. When they focus their attention on others, remarkable things happen.
Paul Dieppe is professor of health and well-being at Exeter Medical School. Having spent a distinguished career researching rheumatism and specifically knee pain, he shifted his focus onto the placebo effect and, most recently, humans’ natural ability to heal themselves, which he calls ‘the healing response’. January 2015.
Jules Evans is a blogger. Read more :https://www.philosophyforlife.org