“Can positive thoughts heal another person?”

No–much as we wish they would.
NPR may be the best thing going in serious journalism these days. So why is it running magical-thinking stories about the healing power of spirituality?

No–much as we wish they would.

NPR may be the best thing going these days in journalism. Its web offerings are great. It is among the few serious mass media operations not on life support, peddling celebrity flesh, or whose future seems foreordained by a depressing numbers of Depends commercials.

Its reporters have done a fine job covering health reform and, often, difficult medical issues. I enjoy listening to Barbara Bradley Hagerty, who has a wonderful way with people and is an appealing person. So it’s especially disappointing to hear her appalling series on “the science of spirituality”….

Thursday’s story, “Can positive thoughts help heal another person?” drove me over the edge (though Friday’s account of near-death experiences was scarcely better).

Like others drawn to magical thinking in response to human problems, Bradley presents a gauzy version of quantum mechanics to draw mystical connections between ourselves and the suffering people we love and desperately wish to help. A casual friend, web journalist Jesse Singal, notes that quantum mechanics is the greatest gift to science and to pseudoscience in human history. Quantum mechanics applies to a realm we can’t directly observe. It is insanely bizarre, and no one fully understands it. So this branch of physics creates a huge opening for people who wish to believe that human consciousness feeds a cosmic life force that influences the physical world in ways that—you knew this was coming—currently elude modern science.

Thus Hagerty reports:

The ‘Quantum Entanglement’ Of Love

So how do you explain this? No one really knows. But Radin and a few others think that a theory known as “quantum entanglement” may offer some clues. [Dean Radin is a senior investigator at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, near San Francisco.]

Here’s how it works. Once two particles have interacted, if you separate them, even by miles, they behave as if they’re still connected. So far, this has only been demonstrated on the subatomic level.

But Radin wonders: Could people in close relationships — couples, siblings, parent and child — also be “entangled”? Not just emotionally, and psychologically — but also physically?

“If it is true that entanglement actually persists, by means of which we don’t understand,” he says, “if they are physically entangled, you should be able to separate them, poke one, and see the other one flinch.”

This idea — that we may be connected at some molecular level — echoes the words of mystics down the ages. And it appeals to some scientists.

But it infuriates others — like Columbia University’s [Richard] Sloan. The underlying idea is wrong, he says. Entanglement just doesn’t work this way.

“Physicists are very clear that the relationship is purely correlational and not causal,” Sloan says. “There is nothing causal about quantum entanglement. It’s good to be open-minded, but not so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

Radin and others agree that that’s what science says right now. But they say these findings eventually have to be explained somehow.

No wonder Sloan is incensed. I’m baffled that Hagerty’s editors would allow her to characterize this as he-said she-said conflict between two behavioral researchers when one side provides thinly-disguised magical thinking and the other includes virtually everyone who knew what quantum entanglement was before last Thursday.

Every day in America, millions of people are suffering or dying. Many are blessed with the prayers of loving and supportive friends and neighbors who wish them well. An even larger number of people pray every day asking God to relieve world hunger, to reduce the suffering of children afflicted with malaria, dysentery, simple hunger, or AIDS. The love and support are precious. And I would not disparage anyone who wishes to pray for any good person or cause—especially because so many of the people doing the praying do so many other wonderful things to make our world a better place. Sadly, there is no evidence that the more spectral aspirations of these prayers is doing any good. The only reason to believe otherwise is our fervent wish that this were true.

And the alleged link between spirituality and healing includes an ugly underside, as well—one that peeks into Hagerty’s report. Consider:

“If you ask people what’s kept you going so long, what keeps you healthy, often people would say spirituality,” [HIV researcher Gail] Ironson says. “It was something that just kept coming up in the interviews, and that’s why I decided to look at it.”

Ironson began to zero in on a patient’s relationship with God in an attempt to predict how fast the disease would progress….

Ironson says over time, those who turned to God after their diagnosis had a much lower viral load and maintained those powerful immune cells at a much higher rate than those who turned away from God.

“In fact, people who felt abandoned by God and who decreased in spirituality lost their CD4 cells 4.5 times faster than people who increased in spirituality,” Ironson says. “That was actually our most powerful psychological predictor to date.”

“Just so I understand it,” I confirm, “if someone weren’t taking their meds and were depressed, they would still fare better if they increased in spirituality?”

“Yes,” she says. “Now, I’m not in any way suggesting that people don’t take their meds,” she adds quickly, laughing. “This is really an important point. However, the effects of spirituality are over and above.”

This is such a profound insult to victims of an awful disease. Patients with unresponsive HIV disease are going blind from cytomegalovirus scoring a trench through their retinas. Others experience exotic HIV-related cancers, not to mention central-nervous-system damage, standard-issue GI complications and the variety of toxic side-effects from AIDS meds. If some of these patients turn away from God, who could blame them?

When I was young, my faith was broken by God’s apparent stony silence in the face of such agonies, not only among AIDS patients or among the thirsty and dying children of Darfur, but among the countless people around us who suffer greatly from with more mundane ailments.

Tonight, I will have dinner with a wonderful man who has the cognitive skills of a kindergartner. His brain is damaged because of one damned repeating sequence CGG, CGG, CGG… at position 27.3 on his X chromosome. He has every right to ask: “God, why have you forsaken me?” The question is not only unavoidable. It is more polite than I would put it.

Author: Harold Pollack

Harold Pollack is Helen Ross Professor of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. He has served on three expert committees of the National Academies of Science. His recent research appears in such journals as Addiction, Journal of the American Medical Association, and American Journal of Public Health. He writes regularly on HIV prevention, crime and drug policy, health reform, and disability policy for American Prospect, tnr.com, and other news outlets. His essay, "Lessons from an Emergency Room Nightmare" was selected for the collection The Best American Medical Writing, 2009. He recently participated, with zero critical acclaim, in the University of Chicago's annual Latke-Hamentaschen debate.