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Dr. Larry Dossey

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By David Jay Brown

Larry Dossey, M.D., is considered one of the world’s experts on mind-body medicine, and is one of the leading spokespeople for integrating spirituality with medicine. He is the author of ten books on the role of consciousness and spirituality in medicine, including Space, Time & Medicine, and The New York Times bestseller Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine.

Dr. Dossey graduated in 1967 from Southwestern Medical School in Dallas. He then served as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam and spent hundreds of hours in helicopters, rushing around with—paradoxically enough—a medical aid bag and a rifle. He says that these daily close encounters with death profoundly affected him, and they gave him an immense sense of gratitude toward life.

In the 1970s, after completing his residency in internal medicine at the Veterans Administration Hospital and Parkland Hospital in Dallas, he helped to establish the Dallas Diagnostic Association—the largest group of internal medicine practitioners in the city—and served as Chief of Staff at the Medical City Dallas Hospital. While there, he became intrigued by patients who experienced remissions that conventional medicine could not adequately explain, and by the interactions between mind and body. These experiences lead to the development of a biofeedback department at the Dallas Diagnostic Association, and to an interest in alternative and holistic medical therapy, such as imagery, visualization, and meditation.

In 1982, Dr. Dossey wrote Space, Time & Medicine, the first of a series of books about the implications that research into mind-body healing, parapsychology, and one’s world view have on medicine. This book influenced many young physicians at the time and helped promote a greater acceptance of these ideas in mainstream medicine. Some of Dr. Dossey’s other books include Beyond Illness, Recovering the Soul, Reinventing Medicine, and Prayer is Good Medicine.

More than anything else, Dr. Dossey is probably best known for his work popularizing the research which demonstrates that prayer can have measurable healing effects. Although the evidence for this phenomena—known in the scientific literature as “remote healing”—is impressive, as with much of the research into psychic phenomena, the carefully controlled, double-blind studies that have been done in this area are virtually unknown to the average person, and many scientists persist in ignoring the very interesting and compelling data that has resulted from these studies.

Dr. Dossey served as co-chair of the NIH panel on Mind/Body Interventions at the government’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. For nearly ten years he was the executive editor of the medical journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, which he helped found in 1995. Currently, he is executive editor of Exlore: The Journal of Science and Healing. He is a very popular public speaker, and has appeared on Oprah Winfrey, Larry King, Good Morning America, and NBC TV’s Dateline. Dr. Dossey was the first physician ever invited to deliver the Annual Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, India.

Dr. Dossey lives in New Mexico. I interviewed him in January, 2006. I was instantly comfortable with Larry. He’s very kind and gracious. I was particularly struck by his strong sense of optimism and his contagious sense of hope. We talked about mind-body medicine, research into remote healing, the problems with conventional Western medical treatments, and the future of medicine.

Q: What originally inspired your interest in medicine?

Larry: I’m still trying to figure that out. There’s no tradition in my family of medicine, and there have never been any other doctors in my family, as far as I know. I seem to have an innate fascination with science. I went away to the University of Texas at Austin, and fell in love with biology and chemistry. I got a degree in pharmacy, with almost a major in chemistry, and studied pre-med as well. I actually worked my way through medical school on weekends as a registered pharmacist. So I don’t know how to explain my fascination and obsession with medicine—but it’s certainly very deep, and it’s been a commitment all my life.

Q: How did your experience in Vietnam affect your perspective on medicine?

Larry: I had one of the strangest assignments possible for a physician in Vietnam. I functioned basically as a high-powered medic, beyond anything that would resemble a M.A.S.H. unit, carrying basically an aid bag and a rifle around. I actually went on patrols, spent hundreds of hours in helicopters, and fortunately got back alive—which took some doing. It was a daily confrontation with one’s own mortality. I was in combat for the entire time, and this experience certainly makes one humble about the blessings one has in this culture. I can assure you that, and I’ve reflected on that every day since I came back from Vietnam. It’s been a kind of indwelling presence really—the fact that I did remain alive—and it’s filled me with gratitude. I don’t think that it changed anything about my commitment to medicine, or made me see healing in any different way, but it was a confrontation with the immediacy of death, and it really was a powerful experience for me.

Q: What do you think are some of the biggest problems with the way that medicine is practiced today?

Larry: Let me just name three or four. One is that it’s become so complex that it’s practically unmanageable. The institute of medicine several years ago began to make a national issue about the death rate in their hospitals from errors, and the side-effects of medications, and just flat out mistakes. There was a survey of this published in the Journal of the American Medical Association three or four years ago in which these statistics were analyzed. In this paper the third leading cause of death came out to be hospital care. The death rate in American hospitals from medical mistakes, errors, and the side-effects of drugs now ranks as the third leading cause of death, behind heart disease and cancer.

Well, the objectors came forward and were able to reanalyze the data. I think they demoted it down to five or six, as if that’s some great accomplishment. But many experts still say that it’s number three. Even so, the fact that it’s even number five or six is still a national scandal. It should be a disgrace. But somehow people just accept this as part of the way medicine is. So the lethality of medicine is one problem. Another problem with medicine is its applicability. It’s been estimated that three-fourths of people who go to physicians have nothing physically wrong with them, which means that they’re beyond the reach of what high-tech, complex, modern medicine has to offer.

There’s also a problem with the expense. We’re nearing fifty million people in this country who don’t have health insurance. That’s a national disgrace. We’re the only western industrialized country for which this is so. There was a survey published in The Wall Street Journal last year which found that medical illness and medical expense was the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the United States. Now, this didn’t just apply to low income families. This applied to middle-income families. Many of them had college educations, and many of them had health insurance, but the insurance didn’t pay. This is a scandal.

Another problem with modern medicine is that it is not as effective as we want it to be. For example, take longevity. Currently the United States ranks twenty-sixth in longevity in countries in the world, behind countries like Costa Rica. Take infant mortality. We’re now thirty-ninth in the world, behind countries like Cuba, Slovenia, and Aruba. This is disgraceful. We spend more money on healthcare than any other country, I think by a factor of three now, so we’re not getting our money’s worth in many areas. You add up all of these things, and you think, well, we’ve lost our way here. I think we have lost our way, and so those are just a few of the problems I see.

Q: What do you think can be done to help improve the situation with modern medicine and reverse those problems?

Larry: For one thing, we urgently need a government-financed, centralized healthcare plan for everybody. It’s shameful that we don’t have it; we’re the only industrialized western country that does not. This is a tall order now, particularly when one political party controls all three branches of government and is opposed to such changes. But there are hopeful signs.

This gives me an opportunity to make a shameless advertisement for my new book I mentioned awhile ago called The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things. In this book I’ve tried to steer the medical conversation away from costly, high-tech, complex things like stem cells, transplantation, drugs, and surgery. This is not because I’m opposed to those things; I really support them. But high-tech, expensive approaches have dominated the efforts of medicine in this country, to the exclusion of many other valuable approaches. So I singled out fourteen really simple, commonplace, freely available things that pay huge dividends in health that are hardly ever talked about.

Some of these things have to do with prevention and with mental attitude. This may sound like New Age stuff, but the statistics show that the health benefits of these things are absolutely huge. Most people in their lives are not going to need things like an organ transplant or stem cells. Ninety percent of us live ninety percent of life needing to focus on a completely different perspective. I’ll just give you one example—optimism. People who are optimistic live longer and have a lower incidence of disease than people who are pessimistic. Who ever talks about this?

One could single out any number of other extraordinarily simple things that pass under the radar screen yet yield huge health benefits. So we need a greater sense of openness to the simple, the plain, the ordinary.

A part of a physician’s education should focus on prevention, and we need a government that emphasizes prevention through public health measures. We need to provide some sort of safety net for people who get over their heads with horrible illnesses and can never get out again. The need is urgent. For instance, the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in America is medical costs, and most of these bankruptcies occur in middle-class families. I’m not a medical architect who sits around at high policy levels and imagines how we might work this out. But I do know we need to spend national energy and federal capital making these things happen.

The emphasis in medical technology and pharmaceutical manufacturing is on shareholder profits. Like what’s the new Viagra going to be? I’m not opposed to corporate profits, but the tail has begun to wag the dog. Today we have this widespread practice of private, academic medical researchers who are in bed with corporations, getting stock options, perks, and kickbacks on products they develop. In many cases, the corporations control the design and reporting of clinical trials. We’ve taken our eye off the ball. The nation’s medical endeavor should be about helping healthy people stay healthy, and helping sick people get well. We’ve lost our way in this mission, and we need to wake up.

Q: How did you become interested in the mind-body connection?

Larry: As so often is the case in doctors’ accounts of how they become interested in these matters, it was through a personal medical problem. From grade school onward, I had profoundly severe migraine headaches, associated, not just with pain, nausea, and vomiting, but also with partial blindness. The partial blindness was the worst thing, and this almost derailed my career as a physician before it even got started. I actually tried to drop out of medical school because of this problem. I was convinced it was an ethical issue. I was certain that sooner or later I would have an episode of partial blindness and hurt or kill someone, in surgery for example.

However, my advisor wouldn’t permit me to drop out. He told me that the problem would get better and it got a lot worse. This was really stress-related, but back in those days one didn’t really talk a lot about stress, and certainly the mind-body connection was a term that had yet to be invented when I was in medical school. We talked about psychosomatic disease, but we certainly didn’t talk about the mind-body connection in positive ways.

In any case, back in the early 70s, biofeedback burst on the medical scene in this country quite by accident. I found out that reports were coming out of biofeedback centers that people with migraines who practiced biofeedback noticed that their symptoms got better. I was desperate because none of the medications that were in common use worked for me. I chased all over the country learning how to do this for myself, and it was a miraculous outcome. It was almost like turning a switch in my brain and my body. I learned about the mind-body connection, about the meaning of relaxation, and the use of imagery and visualization. I took up meditation because it was a short step from biofeedback learning to meditating, and I became absolutely fascinated with the mind-body research area.

I began to follow it intensely, got certified in teaching biofeedback, became something of an expert in the field, and established one of the first biofeedback labs in the state of Texas for my patients and the patients of the other physicians in my group. I taught biofeedback for years as part of my internal medicine practice.

From there it was really easy for me to begin to follow the research in remote healing and intercessory prayer that began to come out of universities and medical schools in the mid-eighties. I was really primed for that. That’s really a fairly short version of how I got interested in the mind-body area, and consciousness in general. I’m not sure that I would have become interested in mind-body medicine as quickly as I did without the impetus of a personal medical problem, and sheer desperation. But I certainly had a personal incentive. My back was really against the wall professionally and personally because of the intractable migraine, for which nothing else was helpful.

Q: What role do you think one’s mind plays in the health of the body?

Larry: I think that ‘bodily health’ is practically an oxymoron. One can’t talk anymore about the health of the body without bringing in the effects of consciousness—by which I mean belief systems, meanings, emotions, attitudes, feeling-states, and so on. The day is long gone when we can separate the two. It’s just inconsistent with the data. When we try to do this we really come up short, even when we attempt to treat the body as just a physical system and ignore the mind. We have to acknowledge the numerous double-blind, randomized controlled studies that take into account the placebo response, which clearly is an indication that the mind cannot be ignored. The placebo response is simply an expression of expectation, suggestion, and optimism about how a treatment is going to turn out. There may have been a time when doctors could get away with focusing on the body and ignoring the mind, but those days are gone forever.

Q: Can you talk a little about the research that has been done in remote healing and why you think that these studies are important?

Larry: They’re important because they force a total revision of our ideas about the nature of consciousness and its relationship to the brain and body. The old idea is that consciousness was simply an epiphenomenon of the brain; the brain made consciousness sort of like the liver made bile. In any case, the effects of consciousness were confined to one’s own body. They had no ability, in principle, to reach out and make a difference remotely in someone else—but that’s precisely the new image that is forming on the medical horizon.

It’s an image of what I call “nonlocal mind.” “Nonlocal” is simply a fancy word for “infinite.” Nonlocal mind is unrestricted to specific points in space, such as individual brains and bodies, and it’s unrestricted to specific points in time, such as the present moment. This sounds nutty and off-the-wall to people who’ve bumped into this for the first time, but if one has the willingness to look at the data emerging from healing studies, I think that the picture becomes quite compelling—at least it has for me and many other researchers in the field.

So, just to summarize where we stand data-wise, Dr. Wayne Jonas, who is the former director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, recently did a review and came up with 2,200 papers and citations in this field of remote healing. Over two hundred of these studies were controlled clinical trials and laboratory studies. The quality of the studies is quite good. Using what are called CONSORT criteria, he was able to assign either an “A” or a “B” level of excellence to these studies in remote healing. Eighteen of these studies are major controlled studies in humans, eleven of which show statistically significant results. The laboratory studies look at the effects of people’s intentions on nonhumans—rabbits, mice, rats, plants, even bacteria growing in test tubes, fungi, yeast, and so on.

Occasionally the subjects of these lab studies are inanimate objects, such as random event generators. The majority of all these studies yield statistical significance, which shows that something is going on that you can’t ascribe to chance. This is just a huge area. It’s infuriated skeptics, who really aren’t very much inclined to look at the data or even read all the studies. All told, this data calls into question fundamental assumptions about the nature of consciousness, as I’ve mentioned, and it’s forcing a revision of how consciousness operates or manifests in the world.

There’s a paradox here, because for most of human history people believed that these things actually happen, but it’s only in the past two hundred years that we’ve developed a tremendous level of intellectual indigestion over this idea that consciousness could function remotely. So it’s ironic that we’re getting back to this ancient idea. What’s further ironic is that science, which has denied for two hundred years that these things are possible, is pointing the way back. So, in a sense, science is shooting itself in the foot by producing this sort of evidence that contradicts what it has claimed regarding consciousness for two centuries.

Q: Why do you think that the study of consciousness and research into psychic phenomena has important relevance for medicine?

Larry: There are several reasons. One is that it has health consequences. In my judgment the studies clearly show that people’s intentions, prayers, and healing efforts at a distance can make the difference between life and death. It’s important also because we really do want an accurate idea of the nature of our own consciousness. It’s important because honoring this information leads us to a view of consciousness which is full of hope about our origins and destiny.

If we acknowledge that consciousness is nonlocal—that it’s infinite in space and time—then this really opens up all sorts of possibilities for the survival of consciousness following physical death. If you reason through this, and follow the implications of these studies, you begin to realize that consciousness that’s nonlocal and unrestricted in time is immortal. It’s eternal. This is as hopeful as the current view of the fate of consciousness is dismal. This totally reverses things. So we are lead to a position, I think, where we see that even though the body will certainly die, the most essential part of who we are can’t die, even if it tried—because it’s nonlocally distributed through time and space.

Our grim vision of the finality of death is revised. Death is no longer viewed as a gruesome annihilation or the total destruction of all that we are. So there are tremendous spiritual implications that flow from these considerations, in addition to the implications for health. In fact, I believe that the implications for health are the least of it. A lot of people who encounter this area take a practical, bare bones, utilitarian approach to it. They say, wow, now we’ve got a nifty new item in our black bag—a new trick to help people become healthier. Certainly these studies do suggest that this is a proper use of healing intentions and prayer, and I’m all for that, but the thing that really gets my juices flowing is the implication of this research for immortality. For me, that’s the most exciting contribution of this entire field.

The fear of death has caused more pain and suffering for human beings throughout history than all the physical diseases combined. The fear of death is the big unmentionable—and this view of consciousness is a cure for that disease, that fear of death.

Q: What role do you think that spirituality plays in health?

Larry: There are a lot of people who just don’t want to get close to this prayer stuff because they think “it’s just parapsychology” and that all parapsychology is crazy. However, they often feel a little more comfortable when they look at another set of data having to do with the impact of spirituality on health. There are over 1,200 studies which look at the connections between religious behavior, such as attending worship services, and health outcomes. Currently meta-analyses of these studies show that people who follow some sort of religious path in their life live an average of seven to thirteen years longer than people who don’t. That’s just a huge health benefit. There isn’t a whole heck of lot that physicians can recommend to people that will add seven to thirteen years on average to their lifespan.

People who like to think materialistically can come up with some fairly naturalistic explanations for these health benefits. For example, people who follow religious paths often have pretty good health habits. They may smoke or drink less. They are part of a social network by virtue of belonging to a congregation, and rich social networks have a health payoff. Nobody argues much against that anymore. Also, these people have a sense of meaning and purpose in life that comes from their religious affiliation. So if you add up all these things then it’s not hard for even skeptics to imagine how people who are religious might enjoy longer life and have a lower incidence of disease. And they do.

But it’s when people go into the area that Rupert Sheldrake, I and others have ventured into, where we talk about the remote effects of consciousness, that people really get cold feet. So it’s been our self-appointed, elective task to hold people’s feet to the fire and say, look, this information isn’t going to go away. There’s too much of it. It’s becoming more abundant, so wake up. This is where we’re headed, like it or not.

Q: How do you see spirituality and medicine becoming more integrated in the future?

Larry: That’s inevitable. One of the most telling indicators is how medical schools have responded. Back in 1993, when I first began to publish in this field with a book called Healing Words, there were only three medical schools in the country that had any coursework exploring the role of spirituality in health, out of one hundred and twenty-five medical schools total. Now ninety schools offer such coursework. That is a historic development. Ninety medical schools have either formal courses, a lecture series, or some feature of their curriculum that honors and addresses this field. So it’s kind of a done deal.

Young doctors have much less of a problem with this than my generation has had. One major reason is that half the medical-school enrollment these days is made up of young women. They have a lot less trouble with these ideas than intellectually-oriented guys do. So I think that the entry of women in medicine has really opened up things quite a bit.

In the final analysis, the evidence favoring spirituality is so impressive that there’s no way that medicine is going to be able to stand on the sidelines and ignore it. Sooner or later, good data rises to the top and prejudices sink to the bottom. This process may take awhile, and there will certainly be people who will try to obstruct it, but I think that there’s no way to stop it.

I see this in my own career. I am embarking on a four-month author book tour next week, and slotted into this tour are lecture appearances at medical schools all over the country.

There’s an old saying that’s attributed to Max Planck, the physicist, who helped create the revolution in physics in the last century. Planck said that science changes funeral by funeral. And as Einstein once said, “It’s harder to crack a prejudice than an atom.” I used to believe that it’s possible to come up with such compelling evidence that it would change things overnight. Well, that didn’t happen in physics, and it’s not going to happen in medicine. These things always take awhile. Moreover, there are some physicians who are so resistant to these ideas about consciousness and healing that they will never come around. They’ll simply die off, as Planck suggested. I hate to say it, but that has come as a consolation to me, periodically through the years (laughter).

David Jay Brown is the author of four volumes of interviews with leading-edge thinkers, Mavericks of the MindVoices from the EdgeConversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse, and Mavericks of Medicine. (Mavericks of Medicine will be published by Smart Publications as a book in late 2006.) He is also the author of two science fiction novels,Brainchild and Virus. David holds a master’s degree in psychobiology from New York University, and was responsible for the California-based research in two of British biologist Rupert Sheldrake’s bestselling books on unexplained phenomena in science: Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and The Sense of Being Stared At. To find out more about David’s work visit his award-winning web site: