Prayer as Medicine

WHAT is health? How do we attain it? Among the hundreds of thousands of words, and many plans spawned by the great US health-care debate, few are devoted to those basic questions.

What heals a patient? Molecular changes within cells? Neuron response in the brain? Mental attitude?

Remarkably, in this age where specialists explore almost every aspect of human existence, few researchers attempt an answer.

From 17th-century mathematician Rene Descartes, who asserted ''I think, therefore I am,'' to today's geneticists, who see life centered on insensate genes competing to reproduce themselves, explanations of mankind's being seem to have dwindled from all-mind to mindless.

A medical conference in Boston earlier this week therefore comes as a surprising challenge to conventional wisdom about human health. Two sharp and original thinkers - Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson and global investment legend Sir John Templeton - collaborated to convene a mind-body-spirit conference of striking value to the health (and self-knowledge) of humanity.

Dr. Benson cites an example of the research that led to the conference, of which his Mind-Body Medical Institute at Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School were sponsors:

In a standard controlled experiment with asthma sufferers, one group of volunteers was given what they were told was a bronchial-constricting nasal spray. They inhaled. Shortly they were wheezing with strong asthma symptoms. The subjects were then asked to inhale a bronchial dilating mist. They soon breathed freely once more.

Effective pharmaceuticals? No. Both the first and second sprays were nothing more than distilled water.

Moving beyond such experiments, Dr. Benson has concentrated on testing the efficacy of mental approaches to healing. These include prayer, one of the nonphysical methods within what he terms the ''relaxation response.'' The results are statistically impressive.

That brings us back to the two conference sponsors. Neither is a wishful thinker. Both are results-oriented, proof-demanding.

Sir John Templeton's opening remarks set the stage. ''My grandfather,'' he said, ''was a surgeon in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and he knew less, certainly, than 1 percent of what is known by my three children who are now medical doctors. The same rapid progress in a short period has occurred also in science and technology - such as physics, electronics, communications, astronomy. Now, why has it not occurred in the most important area of all, which is spiritual knowledge? Possibly it's because of attitudes.''

Dr. Benson's exploration of the healing results of prayer, meditation, and the spiritual approaches of many religions, including Christian Science, established by the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, represents a welcome change of attitude. He has summoned his own profession to learn more about what he called ''the relationship between spirituality and healing.''

As the planet fills with growing populations, increasing attention is paid to nutrition, environment, new strains of disease, contagion - and to the mental-health effects of intense lifestyles, mass persuaders, family strains, and the sheer density of urban megalopolises. All those factors add weight to the need for reexamining the methods by which humans approach health.

Looked at in this light, the work that Dr. Benson and Sir John have started - to reconnect spirituality to the community honestly seeking to heal mankind's ills - can be seen not as an interesting option but a necessity. We applaud their efforts.

A medical-institute conference explores the healing results of spiritual approaches.

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