Quote of the day

Zen master who, asked if his practice of self-insight had enabled him to work miracles, replied, “My miracle is, I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I’m tired.”

From the article:
A Psychology of the Miraculous
By:Marc Barasch


A Psychology of the Miraculous
Is there enough evidence in the various case reports of patients who showed spontaneous remission from life-threatening illnesses to prove that the human psyche has the power to heal itself?
By:Marc Barasch

Can a crisis of the flesh—say, the diagnosis of a disease such as cancer—summon barely suspected healing powers into existence?

A few years ago, something changed my life. It was a violent change—a diagnosis of cancer. Yet when my doctor sat me down on the edge of his padded table, I had felt not fear but a kind of weird exhilaration—like the moment the rollercoaster crests its first hump and you slowly begin the gravity-abducted swoosh to earth.

Something would now require me to draw on every resource I possessed, on whatever I thought I knew about myself and life in general. As my doctor strove for the right balance between dolor and reassurance, up within me sprang a fugitive hope; a hope familiar to all who find themselves in such circumstances, and which made the drone of his recitative fade momentarily like an FM station in a car leaving town: Who knows? I thought to myself: Maybe there’ll be a miracle.

At the time, I was the editor of New Age Journal. I had often heard stories around the office of patients who got well after the doctor did everything but pronounce them dead. But such tales have the ring of wistful folklore when your own life seemingly hangs in the balance. I eventually had the doctor’s surgery, and was pronounced cured.

Still, I was amazed at how sickness had affected me; how it had seemed to plunge me into a separate reality that, despite years of self-analysis, was as unfamiliar as the dark side of the moon. I had sensed the stirring of great forces I could scarcely begin to fathom. I had felt at once mortally imperiled and embarked on a great adventure; cheated of my life yet restored to some deeper selfhood. My dreams had been infused with a crystalline, terrible immediacy; emotions had swept through me in torrents. The voice of the psyche had never been so stentorian, nor so incomprehensible.

I wondered afterward: Had the luminosity I had seen in the throes of illness just been the delirium of the shipwrecked? Or was there some way that disease may summon barely suspected healing powers into existence?

Under a compulsion to sort out my own strange experiences, I spent years interviewing dozens of people who claimed to have had unusual healings. This was no academic pursuit, but a survival exercise; a way to ride out the aftershocks of a catastrophe still rumbling through my life. I was oddly gratified to discover that many of those I spoke to had also undergone inward shiftings of tectonic magnitude. Their crisis of the flesh had become, as had mine, a dilemma of the spirit.

A few people I met seemed to have had a spontaneous remission of an incurable condition, such a rara avis of an event that its every sighting is doubted. They ply the circuit, these grateful, sometimes baffled beneficiaries of healing: the man trimmed out in polyester making televised couch-chat out of his vanished polyps; a woman telling Joan Rivers how the tumor-the-size-of-an-orange that once straddled her left ovary just… disappeared. “Incredible,” Rivers brays. “You hear these stories, you just go… unbelievable!”

As well you might, if you retain a phosphor of native skepticism. But if you also possess a scintilla of innate curiosity, you cannot help but wonder, Could it be? Do miracles really happen? It is only lately that you might hear science reply, with quiet, uncomprehending vehemence, Believe it.

The evidence, as it turns out, has been there all along, literally hidden between the lines. An eye-opening encyclopedic compilation by California’s Institute of Noetic Sciences lists hundreds of case reports unearthed from worldwide medical journals, where they had lain moldering like so many Dead Sea Scrolls.

A typical account, culled from the journal Cancer, describes a 51-year-old patient with a “fist-sized” abdominal tumor with metastases to the liver—a fast-progressing, invariably fatal condition. The man’s stomach was operated on, but when his surgeons saw the spread of cancer’s malign domain, they could only close him up and send him home to die. Inconveniently, 12 years later the left-for-dead man appeared in the emergency room of a Boston-area veterans hospital and presented himself to Dr. Steven Rosenberg.

Rosenberg was a bona fide Doogie Houser: college at 16, an M.D. and Ph.D by his early twenties. This case, one of his very first as a junior surgical resident, looked routine enough if a little depressing. The man, named Mr. DeAngelo, whose symptoms led Rosenberg to correctly surmise he was now suffering an infected gall bladder, was a grizzled old vet down on his luck.

Yet Mr. DeAngelo, with what Rosenberg would later remember as “an aura of secret triumph,” regaled him with an outlandish story the young doctor was sure came from the befuddlements of age and alcohol. Mr. DeAngelo insisted he had had terminal cancer and it had just… gone away. Digging out the man’s original pathology report, a skeptical Rosenberg was nonplussed to discover it was true—the man before him with the graying stubble and self-congratulatory mien was a species of medical freak, consigned to the grave and yet risen.

Rosenberg performed the gall-bladder operation, taking time to probe the man’s liver for the cancer he was sure was still there, if perhaps inexplicably slowed in its usual growth. There was nothing.

“I rushed out of the operating room,” Rosenberg was later to write in his book, The Transformed Cell, “still dressed in green, still encrusted in drying blood. This didn’t seem possible. There had been only four documented cases—not four a year in the United States, but four ever, in the world—of spontaneous and complete remission of stomach cancer.” Mr. DeAngelo, he immediately realized, “presented a mystery of ultimately enormous dimensions. Something began to burn in me, something that has never gone out.”

From that moment on, Rosenberg dedicated himself to a quest to uncover the body’s secret cancer-fighting mechanisms. By the relatively tender age of 34, he was made chief of surgery at the National Cancer Institute. Three years ago, he devised a highly experimental cancer treatment for advanced cancer using cells engineered to produce tumor necrosis factor (TNF), a potent enzyme capable of rapidly dissolving bulging tumors in test animals, and which might have been a factor in Mr. DeAngelo’s astounding medical hat trick.

A Glimmering Pearl

But the question of what had made Mr. DeAngelo different from other patients—of who he really was—is never answered, or even asked. Rosenberg’s 1972 case report is maddeningly incurious. “No evidence of tumor or other masses could be found in the abdomen,” he states simply. “No adenopathy could be palpated.” Sieving through the medical annals of miracle, one is confronted with articles dry to the point of desiccation. If their subjects had psyches, relationships, or meaningful lives, the authors seem to be saying, these were of no more consequence than an oyster shell that accidentally produces within its dull gray housing an impossibly rare, glimmering pearl.

This has been an enduring frustration to investigators intrigued by the notion that there might be psychosocial factors conducive to spontaneous remission. However, as I and others have discovered, sometimes the simplest line of inquiry—Would you mind telling me your story?—leads beyond the mechanics of the human immune system toward the mysteries of the human soul; toward what one is tempted to call, for want of a better term, a psychology of the miraculous.

One such case is that of Mitchell May. When he was 21, May’s destiny took a horrifying wrong turn. On his way to a bluegrass festival on a rain-slicked Alabama road, a car struck him head-on, reducing his van to a twisted wreck, collapsing his lung, and shattering his leg in 40 places. He was flown to UCLA in a full body cast, where a team of several dozen orthopedic, vascular, and plastic surgeons declared his leg unsalvageable.

“From just below the knee down to the ankle:” remembers orthopedist Edgar Dawson, M.D., “there was just bare bone hanging out with no muscle or skin over it. The leg was grossly infected. It had to come off.” But May stubbornly refused amputation, even when his brother, who said his leg “looked like a pride of lions had chewed on it until they had enough;” was about to sign a court order allowing doctors to remove the dying appendage.

Desperate at the impasse, May’s mother sought out a healer whose unorthodox methods included laying-on of hands, hypnosis, and prayer. Jack Gray was not the classic image of a healer, unless one’s imagination ran to old-timers with impasto-thick New York accents in cheesy leisure suits. But Mitchell says this apparition, who drove a wheezing Pinto in from the Valley to stay by his side 12 hours a day, was seemingly able to bypass medical science completely.

“His hands would dance around me,” recalls May. “He somehow managed to take me into very deep trance states, just using his voice.” Within three days Mitchell’s constant pain—the excruciating sensation of raw nerves exposed to air that had resisted the most powerful and addictive painkillers—was gone.

Over a period of months, with Jack “lending his energy,” the two-inch gap in May’s bone began to regenerate, the missing nerve and muscle tissue filled in, and his never-set fractures began to fuse. After years, against all medical expectation, he regained full use of his leg. Dr. Dawson, when asked to explain it all, says, “That’s easy. It was a miracle.”

But May, now a cheerful 42-year-old, claims his miracle was one of the human psyche. “Being literally dismembered somehow opened up a new world. It was as if by being taken apart, other energies could enter through the broken places. I was forced to discover the life of the soul, and I think that was most responsible for my healing.”

May’s description is reminiscent of the healing path described by shamans the world over: the plummet into helplessness and mortality, the awakening of a dormant treasure-source of power, and a phoenix-like ascent to wholeness. Writes anthropologist Joan Halifax about the “initiatory crisis” of the wounded healer: “The neophyte turns away from the secular life, either voluntarily, ritually, or spontaneously through sickness, and turns inward toward the unknown, the mysterium. This change of direction can be accomplished only through what Carl Jung has referred to as ‘an obedience to awareness.’ ”

Nearly all the people I interviewed discovered their own version of this path—a journey that seemed most often to involve a sudden intensification of the inner life, replete with vivid dreams, psychological epiphanies, sometimes near-hallucinatory episodes and perceptual alterations.

One, a woman named Debby Ogg struggled to explain, “There’s a science from the inside as well as the outside.” Debby, whose spontaneous remission from lymphoma (“It wasn’t spontaneous,” she emends, “I worked my ass off for it.”) was the subject of a made-for-TV movie, says that she experienced episodes of a “floating, timeless” state of mind that had reminded her of childhood, like when “the sign for the town of Worcester was only ten minutes from our house, but getting there seemed like a whole day’s trip.”

A Submerged Memory

Many people described revisiting forgotten moments of childhood wholeness with unprecedented intensity. Peter Hettel, a Florida software engineer, was diagnosed with a deadly sarcoma in his sinus cavity. He had been offered a treatment so gruesome sounding that he refused. Instead, he drove to North Carolina to see an unorthodox therapist whose practice included “neurolinguistic programming.” During his first session, Peter was suddenly plunged into a long-submerged memory.

“I was around six years old, living in the countryside. I’d woken up really early one morning, and there spread before me was a magical-looking field with dewdrops like diamonds, and a grazing deer with its breath smoking from the cold. What I remembered was this sense of newness, of infinite possibility. Suddenly I was in it again, just exactly. I felt like I was a different person, or a person I’d once been but had completely forgotten. I just burst out laughing.”

Many ancient healing rituals seem to imply that the first turning point in the process of renewal is “becoming as a child again.” Writes mythologist Joseph Campbell: The first step of regeneration is a retreat from the desperations of the wasteland to the magic of childhood. All the life-potentialities that we never managed to bring to adult realization, those other portions of ourself, are there; such golden seeds do not die.”

In the Greek Asklepian temple, the patient would be clothed in white linen and wrapped like a child in swaddling clothes. Interestingly, the late Australian psychiatrist Ainslee Meares apparently obtained several documented and dramatic spontaneous remissions teaching patients with advanced cancers a meditation technique aimed at producing psychological “regression… a return to that state of affairs prior to the onset of the cancer… before things went wrong’ ” He postulated this return allowed the “self-righting” mechanisms of the body to again “come into play.”

Vivid recall of childhood memories is a characteristic of people rated highly hypnotizable. Psychologists S. C. Wilson and T. X. Barber found that such people were as children more likely to indulge in make-believe and retain into adulthood an ability to immerse themselves in fantasy, to “live in” the images they create. One woman in Wilson and Barber’s study described having to wrap herself in blankets in her well-heated living room while watching the Siberian winter scene in Dr. Zhivago.

Such so-called mind-body plasticity is also a hallmark of the placebo response, and may be a key component in self-healing. Good placebo responders, says researcher Ian Wickramesekera, resemble good hypnotic subjects in their ability to shift out of “the critical, analytic mode of information processing. They will tend to be individuals who are prone to see conceptual or other relationships between events that seem randomly distributed to others. They will inhibit the interfering signals of doubt and skepticism.”

It is intriguing to note how closely these descriptions tally with observations of the healers of the Africa’s Kung Bushman tribe, who, Harvard anthropologist Richard Katz notes, have “easier access to a rich fantasy life and a primarily intuitive and emotional response, rather than a logical or rational one.”

A Rising Heart

But Katz noticed another trait. The healers in the tribe, he says, seem to be more “emotionally labile. They are said to be more sga ku tsiu; that is, their ‘heart rises’ more, they are more ‘expressive’ or ‘passionate.'” During the healing dance ceremonies in which participants attempt to raise within their bodies the “boiling energy” called num, the healers’ emotions seemed to be “readily available and capable of quickly changing their intensity and content.”

I and other researchers have been struck by a similar emotional lability among self-healers. In contrast to some notions that the healing path winds through verdant swards of peace and love, many patients described the unexpected welling-up of hidden reservoirs of anger—”like a volcano,” said a former rheumatoid arthritis patient—which they associated with their unexpected recoveries. Several studies of exceptional cancer patients have confirmed such people are not infrequently “hostile, compulsive, and demanding.”

Dr. Hans Schilder, a researcher at the Helen Dowling Institute of Psychosocial Medicine in Rotterdam, Holland, has noted similar characteristics in the seven spontaneous remission cases he has studied. Schilder, who sports a mop of blond hair, looks scarcely older than 17, and is lanky almost to the point of elongation, is attempting to identify specific psychological changes that might precede healing—searching, in effect, for a Tumor Necrosis Factor of the Mind.

One of his cases, a woman with terminal breast cancer, her weight down to 90 pounds and near-comatose, had been moved to a hospice because her husband did not feel capable of caring for her in her final agonies. But realizing she had been relocated to a place to die, the woman suddenly became pugnaciously assertive. “From a neat and well-educated woman,” says Schilder, “she changed into a woman who was cursing, singing dirty songs. She carried on like this for three weeks—although she still waited until people left the room to do it!” An internist was shocked to observe that her tumor was starting to regress. Ten years later, she remained in a good state of health—”still very tidy,” says Schilder, “but now very earthy as well.”

Japanese researcher Yujiro Ikemi, one of the pioneers in the study of spontaneous remission, also observed an increase in emotional expressivity and autonomous behavior. He describes the case of a 58-year-old farmer’s wife who, after years of knuckling under to a harpy of a mother-in-law and a “bossy and self-centered husband,” abruptly rebelled upon being diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. As one token of her new assertiveness, Ikemi notes, she insisted on joining a group that specialized in “the loud recitation of Chinese poems.”

Although only one of Schilder’s cases had a formal religious experience during their healings, Ikemi noted a particular quality of faith—the farmer’s wife along with all four other cases in his initial study had, as he puts it, “completely committed themselves to the fate or the will of God.”

But how integral is spiritual experience to the seeming occurrence of miracles? In his independent study of the reported healings at the shrine of Lourdes, psychologist Donald West observed that many cases were diseases known to normally undergo remission—tuberculosis, for example. Researcher Alexis Carrell concluded that most of the Lourdes cures that have been officially certified as miracles (a total of 65 out of 6,000 claimants and tens of millions of supplicants since 1884) seemed to occur through an enormous acceleration of the body’s natural healing processes.

The Lourdes Medical Commission, however, insists that it bars cases of spontaneous remission when it deems these could have resulted from biological mechanisms that would require no spiritual intervention to explain them.

Until very recently, there seems to have been an odd collusion between conventional medicine and religion to make God a kind of catch basin of anomaly. “I can’t explain why you got well;” the doctor says to the patient who defies his prognosis. “The only word I can think of is ‘miracle.'” James Gordon, M.D., a professor at Georgetown Medical School and director of the Center for Mind-Body Studies, notes that “science often ignores these cases because it is busy looking for statistical averages. This is not good science, just convenient science. Even if they hardly ever happen, these ‘miracles’ are the kinds of exceptions to the ruling paradigm that inevitably create new areas of study.”

As Dr. Rosenberg wrote about the mystifying Mr. DeAngelo, “The single most important element of good science is to ask an important question.” The Institute of Noetic Sciences’ Caryle Hirshberg, Ph.D., a former Stanford biochemist, has become one of the leading inquirers into the subject of spontaneous remission. For the last eight years, beginning with a data base search on a donated computer and time spent “poring over big, dusty old volumes of the British Medical Journal,” Hirshberg eventually gathered hundreds of cases into a massive book, Spontaneous Remissions: An Annotated Bibliography.

Simply Remission

Her undertaking cannot help but spawn a few revolutionary questions. What percentage of medical cures, for example, may be instances of spontaneous healing mistakenly attributed to treatment? As Hirshberg writes, “Since remission happens with unknown frequency, it can convincingly be argued that some of both conventional and unconventional therapies’ ‘successes’ are simply cases of remission and have nothing to do with the [therapies’] efficacy.”

Could remissions be a more common phenomenon than we suspect? Says Patricia Norris of the Menninger Clinic, who’s best known for her work with a nine-year-old boy who healed of a terminal brain tumor, after all treatment had failed, using only biofeedback and mental imagery, “It’s completely natural to heal. Spontaneous remission is too mystical-sounding; it’s like the medieval term “spontaneous generation,” when they didn’t have enough science to see germs. Doctors think mind-body factors are a very minor part of curing cancer. But patients who heal say it’s major. If our culture supported it, I think more people could get over cancer by bolstering their own immune systems.”

In this, she edges further out on a theoretical limb than Hirshberg, who stressed at a recent conference, “We can’t withhold treatment if statistics—at least, the ones available to us—tell us spontaneous remission is still only one chance in eighty thousand.” She proposes “offering conscientious hope. We should ethically be able to say, ‘Here are the survival statistics on your disease, here is the mortality rate, and five out of every three hundred or whatever have a spontaneous regression. You’re just presenting the information.”

But what is the information? Discussing the story of Dr. Rosenberg’s Mr. DeAngelo, an alcoholic who polished off four quarts of bourbon a week, a doctor interrupted: “Did the guy quit drinking after they told him he had cancer?” Told no, he asked amid swelling laughter, “Well, what kind of whiskey did he drink?”

The lighthearted exchange belies its cut-to-the-chase significance. The mechanisms of spontaneous remission remain obscure. Mitchell May’s orthopedist avers, “I have a lot of respect for the body’s ability to heal itself—I literally take people half apart and put them back together again, and the human body comes through time after time.” But in the case of his most famous patient, he says without hesitation, “We tried the ordinary and the extraordinary as far as medicine goes, from mind-altering medication right up to hypnosis and acupuncture. Nothing worked. Whatever turned the switch and made him heal, it did it much more rapidly than conventional explanations allow.”

Perhaps, suggests Dr. Gordon of the Center for Mind-Body Studies, explanation isn’t the only agenda. “Trying to systematize these phenomena may be the wrong way to go. Maybe for now we should concentrate more on how to create the conditions to help mobilize the amazing plasticity of the mind-body.”

It is a strategy well known to shamans, whose elaborate, emotionally charged ritual ceremonies seem to create optimal conditions to arouse the inner capacity for healing. journalist Rob Schultheiss, writing about his survival of a devastating climbing accident, suggested that “perhaps the powerful hidden self only appeared when the normal limited self was shocked or scarified or otherwise blown out of the way for an instant, clearing the boards.” Perhaps it is the same hidden self the late Norman Cousins referred to when he surmised the existence of “a healing system… a grand orchestration of all the body’s systems in enabling human beings to meet a serious challenge.”

But can the orchestra be conducted at will? Mitchell May, who eventually became an apprentice to healer Jack Gray, suggests that “dissecting a person’s experience might not enable you to recreate it. It’s like lightning.” He pauses for a minute, looking for a better analogy. “Or like an amazingly delicious pot of soup, where there are all these ingredients plus something else, some art, that makes it taste so good.”

Dr. Schilder, who believes it possible to create a psychology of healing, nonetheless reports the case of a woman who, returning to a stressful family situation, had a recurrence of a tumor after a year of apparent remission. “She tried to repeat a profound spiritual change that had occurred on a trip into the mountains, which she felt had started her spectacular recovery. But she found that she couldn’t force that change to happen again.”

“If you took these cases as literal instructions, you would have to somehow create a dramatic replay of a pivotal event—or an entire set of circumstances in the person’s life. It would certainly be a different sort of therapy than we’re used to.” In the meanwhile, it may be as one patient who had experienced a remission enigmatically put it: “You can’t prescribe it, it can’t be taught, and you can learn it.”

What then can we draw from the archives of the miraculous? I find inspiration in the frequent evidence that, as the Arabic physician Ali Pul once wrote, “The medicine of the soul is the medicine of the body:” that what we do to live more wholeheartedly has innate healing power.

The Psychological Pivot

Dr. Schilder notes that spontaneous remitters “often gain access to something that is essential to them. Often the psychological pivot associated with healing is seemingly very small: For a patient who has been a strict, loyal housewife for 30 years, just taking a few minutes to sit in chair, stretch your legs, and let the kids run around and the hell with housekeeping can be a hell of a transformation.” Schilder’s story reminded me of the story of the Zen master who, asked if his practice of self-insight had enabled him to work miracles, replied, “My miracle is, I eat when I’m hungry, I sleep when I’m tired.” Or of Rosa Parks, whose small act of authenticity on an Alabama bus mobilized the healing resources of the social body to defeat a seemingly invincible pathology.

“Spontaneous remitters,” another physician told me, “almost invariably say they weren’t shooting so much for a cure, but rather to live congruently at long last with their inner values.” Rosa Parks just didn’t feel like giving up her seat. Perhaps the most spectacular miracles begin with a single instance of self-listening, a few small acts of affirmation—with the tiniest mustard seed of faith in the deeper self. For some of those who walked the path of healing, disease seemed to have forced a moment that arrives for most of us all too infrequently, when life itself depended on becoming authoritatively, powerfully, even crazily, the person they were meant to be.

What most of the patients I interviewed wound up doing was the opposite of what sick people are usually expected to do: Rather than simply trying to “get back to normal,” many had embarked, at the most harrowing of times, on a voyage of self-discovery. They had clung instinctively to the circumnavigator’s faith that the only way home was forward, into the round, unknown world of the self. People who have been through illness’s dark passage can occasionally give us a glimpse not only of what it is like to become whole, but what it is to be fully human.

Type M: Do You Have A Miracle Personality?

At present, there is no way of knowing to what extent psychosocial factors play a key role in spontaneous remission. Any number of unique factors might prove crucial—genetic inheritance, nutrition “alternative” medicines with immune-enhancing properties, perhaps some still-undetectable quirk in a person’s neuroimmunological “wiring.”

Inner Change

Self-healers often report what the researcher Ikemi called an “existential shift” in the way they view themselves and their lives (another physician calls it “a psycho-social-emotional-spiritual about-face”). Psychologist Lawrence LeShan, quoting the poet W. H. Auden, talks about a rekindling of “foiled creative fire.” One study cites a man with an inoperable brain tumor who made a remarkable recovery after resuming a long-abandoned singing career. Other researchers refer to “a shift from dependence to autonomy”, sometimes beginning at the very moment of diagnosis. Says former cancer patient Peter Hettel: “As soon as I was diagnosed, I was scared, sure, but I also felt like I’d been given a hall pass: All right. No one’s gonna tell me what to do now. No one can argue with fatality. I had an honorable way of dumping these imposed responsibilities and putting myself first.”


Psychiatrist Ainslee Meares postulated self-healing might stem from a “return to an earlier mode of function,” a state that he called “mental ataraxis” and compared to states like hypnosis and absorption. Mitchell May remembers Jack Gray telling him that healing “was the art of doing absolutely nothing. When you learn to do nothing, everything is possible.” This “return to an earlier mode” often seems to include long-buried memories of childhood. Self-healers often describe pleasure in giving way to almost irresistible urges to behave “childishly.”

Active Surrender

Says Mitchell May: “When I woke up from my accident, I did not feel, why did this happen to me? I’ve always felt life just is. It’s not either fair or not fair. The universe doesn’t arrange itself around my ego.” Patients told me they had felt that the moment they could clearly imagine their own deaths was a powerful turning point in their healing process. (“I lay in hospital bed saying I have cancer, I have ovarian cancer,” said one, “till I could say it without cringing.”) At the same time, other researchers have observed a kind of selective denial, as one put it, “They didn’t deny the seriousness of their terminal diagnoses, but they denied that they themselves would succumb.”

Altered States

Qualities like high hypnotizability, fantasy-proneness, and even dissociation seem to be correlated with self-healing abilities. Many people reported having exceptionally vivid dreams and perceptual alterations during their healing process. As a somewhat prim-looking, middle-aged survivor of advanced ovarian cancer recalls, “Life became, well, psychedelic. I remember one gloomy, cold, dark, Northeastern winter day. I saw a fire hydrant reflected in a puddle on the pavement and it was like Disney World multiplied by 150 million. It made me realize I want to live more than I ever knew.” Altered states are also associated with a mind-body plasticity, which often seems to go back to childhood. Niro Assistent, a rare case of apparent AIDS remission, told me she was able to paralyze her legs in order to get out of school—a paralysis so convincing that physicians could elicit no reflex.

Emotional Expression

Self-healers seem to exhibit strong mood fluctuations. One personality-attitudinal study of longterm cancer survivors concluded they tend to have “more expressive and sometimes bizarre personalities.” In another study, exceptional cancer patients scored high on indices like “nonconformity” and “rebellious spirit.” Many researchers have also noticed a sort of emotional inconstancy one called “ambivalence.” Former patient Peter Hettel told me, “I began to see it’s not that one state of mind is good and one is bad, but which state is appropriate to what you are trying to do. When you can shift easily back and forth between them, you don’t get stuck.”

Social Change

Almost all researchers note a change in interpersonal relationships. Sir David Smithers concluded that a contributing cause of cancer was the “traumatic interaction between the patient and his human environment,” and a key healing catalyst was the social milieu’s “intentional or accidental” change for the better.

Charles Weinstock, M.D., a former professor of psychiatry at Albert Einstein College of Medicine lists the examples of “a sudden fortunate marriage by a woman of 40; a nun’s experience of having the entire order engage in intercessory prayer for her; the fortunate death of a decompensated addicted spouse who had blocked the patient’s musical career by his dependency; unexpected, enthusiastic praise and encouragement from an expert in one’s field.”

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Publication: Psychology Today Magazine
Publication Date: Mar/Apr 1994
Last Reviewed: 22 May 2007
(Document ID: 1526)