Can prayer heal? Does touch matter in medicine? Long considered a nonrational part of Western medicine, these “lighter side” topics are now receiving close attention and study.
I am reminded about distant healing on the anniversary of the death of a medical school classmate and friend Dr. Elisabeth Targ. As a psychiatrist, daughter of a parapsychologist and niece of chess champion Bobby Fischer, she was not only bright, but also a bit paranormal herself. As a child, she played hide-and-seek with friends and would attempt to use clairvoyance to find them. She was also expected to call out her Christmas presents before opening them. As a trained scientist, she performed some of the best studies showing the effect of prayer or “distant healing” on extending the survival of AIDS and breast cancer patients.
In her study of how prayer can heal, Dr. Targ used scientific methods to determine whether “intention” from others 1500 miles away could help treat medical ills. In small studies of AIDS patients before current treatments were developed, she showed that they could live longer and spend less time in the hospital with distant healing. Her papers are in no way definitive and are highly criticized, but to date remain the best and most scientific attempts the world has seen in the last 150 years to define the potential of faith to heal.
What made Elisabeth Targ a unique force in her field is that she refused to speculate about how or why distant healing works. She had a simple goal: to define the existence (or not) of the effect. Her boyfriend, Mark Comings, however is more daring in this regard. A theoretical physicist, he suggested that if we actually live in an eight-dimensional universe instead of the accepted three dimensions, then we might be more interconnected than we currently understand, and this could explain how a healer in Santa Fe could influence a patient in San Francisco. Sadly, Elisabeth died at age 41 years of a brain tumor. Ironically, it was the same kind of tumor that she was studying with distant healing treatment.
What about the role of touch in medicine? Clearly, patients who visit doctors for terrifyingly short visits feel that the visit is incomplete without a physical exam. The doctor’s visit is just not the same as that with your accountant, lawyer or financial advisor. The laying on of hands is a special part of the medical relationship and has been for millennia. In fact, there is good science to show that the physical exam is not as good at disease detection as a good patient history. What needs more study is what makes touch so special, almost medicinal, in the doctor’s office. Can it cure disease? I wish that my friend Dr. Targ were around for this one. She might be able to help us decide whether, in the words of Diane Ackerman: “touch seems to be as essential as sunlight.” My view as a men’s health specialist is that if it has the potential to heal, then use it, regardless of whether we understand why or how it works.