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Healing Medicine

The biomedical model we have used for the past century has reached its limit of effectiveness. The word "healing" is not used in medicine today, with one exception. The first-year histology course includes some talk about wound healing. But outside of that, the word healing is not used in medicine. One of the points that I made in Spontaneous Healing was to suggest that the human body has a healing system. Not a very radical idea. All you have to do is watch a cut finger heal to see very clearly that the body has a capacity for awareness of troubles and the mechanisms for repairing tissue. Yet it is discouraging to find that it's much easier to talk with children about the body's healing capacities than with most of my colleagues. If a kid gets an "owie" you say watch what happens. If you try to talk to most physicians about the body's system, it's easy for them to dismiss this as more New Age fluff. It is not New Age fluff; it is physiological reality. Any level of biological organization that we examine, from DNA up to the most complex body systems, shows the capacity for self-diagnosis, for removal of damaged structure, for regeneration of new structure.

Why are medical students never taught that the body has healing functions or healing systems? First, consider the great lopsided emphasis on disease processes rather than on health in the pre-clinical years of medical school. Second, when medical students get to their clinical years, they are seeing very sick people, hospitalized people, a population in which healing responses occur less frequently than in the general population. If your whole world of illness is hospitalized patients, that tends to make you more pessimistic about possibilities of healing.

But there is a deeper problem here with the nature of western science and medicine in general. We are very locked into looking at the body as a set of structures and structural systems rather than functional systems. The healing system is not a structural system. I can't show you a slide of it, the way that I could show you a slide of the circulatory or digestive systems. In some cases, as with circulation and digestion, structure and function are relatively synonymous. But other cases, notably healing, demonstrate no neat correlation of a function with a set of body structures. The healing system makes use of all of the structural systems—the normal operations of the circulatory, nervous, immune, and endocrine systems, and more, for its operations.

For a variety of cultural reasons, Chinese medicine developed along functional rather than structural lines. For one, it was unthinkable in traditional Chinese society to cut into a dead human body. So Chinese thinkers had to develop their system in the absence of detailed knowledge of internal structures of the human body. They focused instead on developing a science of functional relationships, spheres of function and their inter-relationships. One sphere identified very early was a defensive sphere concerned with self-protection against various kinds of environmental or internal threats. That concept led physicians to explore Nature to find ways to protect and enhance this function. An impressive array of remedies in the Chinese traditional pharmacopoeia are highly valued because they are believed to increase body defensiveness. This includes a number of species of mushrooms and some higher plants, which are very much prized as tonics to extend longevity, increase resistance of all kinds, make people generally healthier.

Note how recently, in western medicine, we identified and recognized the functions of some organs. We identified these as structures, but didn't know what they did. When I was at Harvard Medical School in the late 1960s, I was still taught that many of these organs were functionless. It requires an amazing degree of hubris to say that because you don't know the function of something, therefore it has no function, then to take it even one step further, and give surgeons license to take it out because it's just taking up space. When I was growing up, no one made it to adolescence with their tonsils and adenoids intact. Similarly, I know many patients, right up through the 1980s, who went into leading hospitals for abdominal surgery, a hysterectomy, or gall bladder removal, and did not find out until they got their hospital bills that their appendix had also been taken out, as a useless structure that could give trouble at some point. Physicians systematically destroyed young children's thymus glands throughout the 1950s in the belief that they were useless structures that got too big in childhood and adolescence and should be bombarded with X-rays to shrink them to normal size.

Meanwhile in the East, without any knowledge of thymuses and appendices, tonsils and adenoids, Chinese doctors recognized a defensive function of the body and gained very practical information about how to strengthen it. The mushrooms and plants that the Chinese doctors have been using for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, now turn out actually to increase immune function. They are non-toxic, they increase phagocytosis, movement of macro phages, and various aspects of immune function. They are now a very hot item of research because they may be potentially useful for the treatment of AIDS and other chronic viral conditions that we can't manage in western medicine because we don't have technologic weapons. This is not to deny the importance of structural thinking, but more emphasis on function would make apparent the body's principle of self-organization, the ability to diagnose problems, repair damaged structure, and regenerate structure.

Remarkably, no systematic study has ever been made of healing. We have a phenomenon that we call "spontaneous remission" which is considered a curiosity with no particular explanation. When you talk to doctors and to most patients about spontaneous remission, they immediately think of cancer. Cancer is the worst place to look to understand the functions of the body's healing system because, very simply, in order for a malignant cell to survive all of the levels of defense that the body has for weeding out malignancy, and to get to the point of a clinically detected tumor, a long-term failure of the body's healing mechanisms has already occurred.

Cases of healing in cancer still occur, and are fascinating, but that's not the best place to understand the body's healing system. A much better place to look, for example, is autoimmunity. It is the nature of autoimmune diseases to go into periods of remission and exacerbation. Therapists and clinicians should be working on diseases like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis, because these have a natural tendency to go into remission.

I would argue that most disease is self-limited. This is certainly my experience as a clinician and as a patient. This fact makes interpretation of therapy very difficult. If most diseases end by themselves, then it may be that a great many practitioners, both conventional and unconventional, are taking credit for methods that have nothing to do with the outcomes. At any rate, I can think of nothing more important to study than how diseases end. Yet we have not done this in medicine. This is not a research priority. We don't collect these cases, we don't try to analyze them, we don't try to look for common factors.

Furthermore, one of the connections of the healing system is to consciousness. In many cases a healing response seems to have followed immediately upon some change at the level of consciousness. That does not prove that there is a cause-and-effect relationship but it certainly is suggestive. There is a danger, especially on the part of New Age therapists, of suggesting to patients that illness is entirely the result of people's emotions, or moods, for which they are responsible. A dangerous line of reasoning, this is often unhelpful and creates in the patients guilt which will, if anything, interfere with healing.

When I was in medical school, I asked many women of my grandmother's generation why they had breast cancer. The answers, 100 percent of the time, had to do with an old injury. Today we know of no association between trauma and breast cancer, but this was the idea then. Today, if you ask American women why they think they got breast cancer, they respond with formulations like, "I bottled up my feelings for all those years" or "I never expressed the rage I felt at my husband." That may have no more of a causal relationship with breast cancer than the idea that an injury caused it, but a cultural shift has happened. If you believe you get breast cancer because you fall against a table, that's fate. But if you get breast cancer because you don't express feelings, then that's your fault. I am not suggesting that. I just point out that I have repeatedly seen healing responses, some very dramatic, immediately following some shift at the level of consciousness.

Some years ago I reported two cases of women in their thirties who came into my experience at the same time. They both had advanced cases of systemic lupuserythematosous. One woman was hospitalized and was not expected to live. Her kidneys and autoimmune process were severely impaired, and she had malignant hypertension, which could not be controlled by pharmaceutical agents. The other woman also had a lot of kidney and brain involvement. She had psychotic periods and her lupus was unresponsive to the strongest immunosuppressive drugs. The hospitalized woman had a conversion in the hospital to some variety of fundamentalist Christianity. The other woman fell in love and subsequently was married. To the astonishment of their doctors, both of them are now in permanent remission.

I cannot often arrange for my patients to fall in love or have religious conversions, but it's very important to note that possibility, even if you don't know how to make it happen. Something can be accessed there. I cannot tell you how many cases I've seen, mostly in men, who have had debilitating back pain to the point where they were told they had to have disc surgery. Their CAT scans and MRI scans looked awful. Nobody knew what to do to them, they were on immense amounts of pain medication. Then they fell in love and the back pain disappeared instantly. That's amazing! What happens? Is this just a matter of endorphins? I don't think so. I think there is something more going on, and it certainly behooves us to direct our research attention to it.

I have reported many things done by people in different cultures to get rid of cutaneous warts. Most interestingly, there is no unity to what people do. Treatment ranges from rubbing a wart with a cut potato and burying the potato under a particular kind of tree during a particular phase of the moon, to being touched by the neighborhood wart healer, to selling your wart to your sibling. These actions seemingly have nothing in common, but people will do them, with two types of response. Some do it in the evening, and the next morning they touch the wart and it falls off and doesn't grow back. Equally common is to do one of these procedures and over the next two to three weeks the wart shrivels up, goes away, and doesn't grow back.

In allopathic medicine, we burn warts off with an electric spark or freeze them with liquid nitrogen, or use an acid that is so corrosive that you have to be very careful not to get it on normal skin. When we apply these methods to warts, in better than fifty percent of the instances the warts grow back, usually in multiple clusters. This is a model for how allopathic medicine has evolved. We approach many problems with the same crudity that we approach cutaneous warts, and with not much better success, while we ignore the possibility that there is a very precise innate healing mechanism that can be activated through the level of consciousness.

Stories about wart cures are told sometimes by doctors as examples of patients' gullibility. One doctor told me that he had a patient at a rural hospital in South Dakota who had warts all over his body. They had been burned off repeatedly and had always regrown multiply. Finally, on a whim one day, the doctor and a colleague told the guy that they had a new form of radiation that could make warts go away. They had him stand in a darkened X-ray room while they made the machine hum for thirty seconds. The next day the warts fell off all over his body and didn't grow back. But this story was told as an example of how you can really put things over on patients, rather than seeing it as a marvelous example of how the body's healing machinery can be accessed through the level of belief. We don't take these things seriously in our medical teaching and research and practice because they don't fit our conceptions.

One other anomaly: our culture manifests an epidemic of multiple personality disorders. When I was in medical school, multiple personality was so rare that if you ever got a case of it, you were guaranteed publication in a psychiatric journal. Now, everyone is seeing cases of multiple personality, and people have far more personalities than they used to in the past . . . thirty, forty personalities. One of the most interesting aspects is physiological differences between the personalities. One woman with a violent allergy to citrus gets giant hives on consuming citrus, but one of her personalities is not allergic. If that personality can emerge within fifteen minutes of consuming a citrus fruit, there is no allergic response. We have seen reports of insulin-dependent diabetics with different insulin requirements for different personalities. A woman with multiple personality was studied by a friend of mine. They were having dinner together. They had wine with dinner, they had a before-dinner drink and she ordered an after-dinner drink, and he said "You know, we have to drive home" and she said, "Don't worry, I'm not the one who is going to be driving."

This is easily researchable. Apparently, it doesn't matter how multiple personality disorder is explained, or whether or not it is "real"; the brain is the hardware of the system and you can run different software through it and come out with very different results. What a wonderful thing to know in clinical medicine. These people, if you could get them together, could be fabulous teachers, fabulous people to have as your allies as a doctor, to teach patients with allergies or with various conditions how to modify their physiology. That would be a wonderful thing, but we'll never know that if we don't research these things, if we don't take them seriously, if we don't adjust our view of the body and of illness to take account of consciousness.