The Power of Biology and Belief
by Herbert Benson, MD with Marg Stark,Scribner. 304 pages. Hardcover.
Herbert Benson’s research on meditation, described in his 1970s bestseller The Relaxation Response, proved crucial in moving mind-body medicine into the medical mainstream. Benson took a traditional Indian mantra meditation method, adapted it to a secular western format, demonstrated its effectiveness in counteracting stress, and then spent the next two decades spearheading an effort to include this proven stress reduction technique in hospitals and medical practice. His success at this endeavor marked a key early breakthrough in the late 20th century mainstreaming of alternative medicine.
In Timeless Healing Benson emphasizes the deep human need for faith, and explores what he finds to be a crucial role for belief in catalyzing the healing process. He offers telling examples of patients for whom faith was a crucial factor in their recoveries.
Benson also contends that “remembered wellness,” his name for what is commonly called the placebo effect, is a source of tremendous untapped potential in the healing arts, and should be consciously cultivated in the practice of medicine. He reviews the wide-ranging scientific research supporting this concept, presenting in terms accessible to a general readership concepts which once lay solely within the domain of specialists. According to Benson, the three components of remembered wellness are: belief and expectancy on the part of the patient, belief and expectancy on the part of the caregiver, and belief and expectancies generated by a relationship between the patient and the caregiver.
Keeping one’s beliefs positive is not always easy in an era when we are constantly bombarded by negative messages, particularly from advertising. As Benson puts it, “we harangue ourselves for not being perfect, for not living life with the panache portrayed in magazines or on TV. We adulate the firm-bodied, we exercise like zealots or wallow in guilt if we don’t, choosing diet shakes over moderation . . . we aspire to parent perfectly, to juggle flawlessly the demands of work and home, and to have marriages and relationships of unwavering passion . . . In this climate, it’s very hard to remember wellness.”
While no one has a perfect antidote for all the ills of civilization, Benson offers some helpful hints for reversing negative patterns. First, he strongly urges us to modify our addiction to pre-programmed information designed to manipulate us for commercial purposes. Then he suggests visualizations and affirmations, “not to deny reality, only to project images and ideas of something better for yourself.” Next, he reminds us of the healing power of humor.
Finally, Benson offers the following set of recommendations, striking in simplicity and value, offering with each a clear, cogent explanation: (1) Practice and apply self-care regularly; (2) Know your truth; (3) Beware of people with all the answers; (4) Remember the power of the nocebo (negative programming); (5) Trust your instincts more often; (6) Remember that [physical] immortality is impossible; (7) Let faith, the ultimate belief, heal you; (8) Respect others’ beliefs. Don’t impose yours; (9) Believe in something good.