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Bengston's Energy Healing - Too Good to be True?

William Bengston's The Energy Cure came out at the end of last year, but I only just got around to it. I have an excuse I suppose, as my own book was coming out at the same time. But it's so extraordinary, I can't understand how I could have missed it.

This is how Bengston begins:

Over the past thirty-five years I have successfully treated many types of cancer - bone, pancreatic, breast, brain, rectal, lymphatic, stomach, leukemia - as well as other diseases, all using a hands-on technique that is painless, non-invasive, and has no unpleasant side effects. To my knowledge, no person I have healed ever experienced a recurrence.

Excuse me, what? In our disease-ridden world, this is about as large a claim as it would be possible to make. A high success rate for the nastiest diseases, for which the existing cures have horrible side effects and often don't work? Psychics and healers have been pilloried for claiming far less.

Yet Bengston's story is soberly told, not remotely New Agey, and includes impressive scientific evidence to back it up. So I'm surprised that the book has not made a bigger splash. I found plenty of references to it, but they are rather low key, and certainly not on the scale I'd expect. In particular, there's seems to have been little scientific discussion, and sceptics appear hardly even to have noticed it - usually a sign that no one else has either.

For anyone who's not familiar with the story, here's a brief summary. Bengston is a sociology professor at St Joseph's College in New York. After leaving college aged 21 he met 48-year old Bennett Mayrick, who had himself recently discovered an aptitude for psychic readings. Bengston had previously had an interest in the paranormal and was fascinated to observe Mayrick's abilities, particularly with psychometric readings. Mayrick then started doing informal energy healings in his own home, placing his hand over the patient's affected area for thirty minutes to an hour at a time. The healings worked and Bengston describes some remarkable cures. Word spread, and soon Mayrick's living room was full of sick people seeking help.

However this was just the start. Bengston wanted Mayrick investigated by scientists, and managed to set up a healing experiment at the biology department of Queens College in New York. However Mayrick, a contrary soul, backed out, and Bengston found himself substituting in his place.

The experiment was simple: five laboratory mice were injected with cancer cells, which were expected to kill them within 24 days (none had ever survived beyond 27 days and most died within 20). Another set of mice were injected at the same time and kept elsewhere as a control. Bengston treated the cage containing all the mice, using Mayrick's method; this involved imagining an energy flowing down his left arm through the cage and into the mice, then out the other side into his right hand and up the arm. He also applied a mental imaging technique that the two of them had designed together.

The first session established the pattern for those that followed. Usually my left hand would heat up for the duration. If it cooled after about twenty minutes, I still kept my palms against the cage for the entire hour. The more confident I felt, the more detached I became. My hands seemed to be working automatically while I observed.

Along with the desired detachment came intense boredom. Sometimes I would prop open a book or bring a radio, though I never lost my awareness of the mice. I could now empathize with what Ben must have gone through during his years of healing. At least with people there could be dialogue. Ironically, Ben probably would have preferred the mice.

On rare occasions, an indescribable feeling overcame me. I would be watching the mice or reading, when suddenly my whole body felt bathed in a warm glow. The detachment I felt from my hands, then my entire body, coalesced into a sense of oneness with the mice. All my doubts about the healings seemed trivial, and I was pervaded with peace and well-being. My mind emptied of thought. I simply was.

These sensations probably lasted about one to two minutes, leaving me relaxed and happy. I was never consciously able to create the experience. It happened or it didn't - a gift of grace.

After a week the mice started developing visible tumours, and Bengston was so disappointed he was ready to quit. But it was pointed out to him that the mice were otherwise acting normally, while the control mice, he learned, had started to die. He went to visit them and found them in a pitiful condition. By comparison, his own mice didn't look so bad: the tumours were ghastly but didn't seem to be affecting their behaviour. By day 28, they were still alive. During the following week the tumours started shrinking and eventually they disappeared. 'My patients now looked the same as when we had begun - little brown creatures of normal shape and size.'

A second experiment was carried out, in which Bengston trained four volunteers in his healing technique. Two were students, chosen for their strong scepticism (he wanted to eliminate faith as a factor). Another was the chair of the biology department. The outcome was the same: all the mice grew tumours but completely recovered. Two further experiments also succeeded, although in the case of sceptical trainees some mice treated on campus died while those they bonded with at home survived.

To confuse matters most of the control mice also survived, apparently because the protocol was broken and they received visits from the healers. However in the later experiments control mice that were sent to another city all died, while controls that received some visits on campus survived.

Bengston comments:

By any fair-minded assessment, our four experiments had proven that 87.9% of our cancer-injected mice had far more likely been cured by hands-on healing than through natural remission. This result was achieved despite the fact that Carol [the experiment supervisor], unbeknownst to me, had double dosed some of the mice going into the last experiment. Even more promising: the histology tests, showing cancer cells at all preliminary stages, were a recognizable sign that the key to cure was immunological response. Previously I had assumed we had been killing cancer cells. Now I strongly suspected we had been stimulating the mice's own immune systems to fight the disease.

This theory was greatly strengthened when I learned that Carol, once against unbeknownst to me, had reinjected a couple of the cured mice from the third experiment, only to discover that the cancer hadn't taken. The treated mice, it appeared, had developed an immunity!

A sceptic cliché holds that if parapsychologists ever managed to find incontrovertible evidence for psi they would be elbowed aside in the stampede to the laboratory. I've always thought that was nonsense, and the rest of Bengston's book eloquently demonstrates why: it fails to factor in the power of emotional resistance.

Even scientists who had been involved in the experiments - and could plainly see the results - didn't want to carry on with them. It just didn't fit into their career plans and objectives. At one point Bengston was offered an opportunity to carry on his research at a university. But he gradually realised he was being frozen out by the department where he had been offered facilities, who hated the idea of what he was doing and subtly obstructed him until he was forced to give up.

His experiences also provide rich insights into patients' paradoxical behaviour. At an early stage he is astonished to find that even patients who have initially benefited from the healing don't return for further treatment: indeed they may even settle down as perpetual invalids, as though this is what they somehow want. A young African professional was spooked when Mayrick banished his acute leg pain in a single session, regarding it as witchcraft, and strived to restore normality by getting the pain back. Gratitude could also be a problem: a woman who he had cured of breast cancer didn't want him to treat her husband, hospitalised for chest pains while jogging, because 'then both of us would owe you our lives!"

There are some tragic stories. Bengston treats two women in his sociology class who are both diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer at the same time. One is keen for Bengston to treat her and eventually remits, by which time both she and him have attended the other woman's funeral. In another case, he quickly cures a woman of an aggressive cancer, but her bewildered doctor, suddenly unable to find any sign of it, decides she should go ahead with radiation and chemotherapy just to be on the safe side - and the treatment rapidly kills her.

One might dismiss a lot of the anecdotal claims as exaggerations and half-truths, but the addition of some seemingly sound scientific data reinforces the feeling that this is real (Bengston has published some results in the Journal of Scientific Exploration and Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine). How could it be explained away? The rational mind says, well, hell, the mice would have got better anyway: the remission was a 'natural' process. That might seem to be supported by the fact that the control mice also survived. But if it's true, as Bengston claims the biology lab staff insist, that the strain of cancer that the mice were injected with is invariably fatal, then this approach won't work.

As Bengston readily concedes, one is left with all sorts of questions unanswered. For myself, I felt unsure whether this is a process that really can successfully be taught to anyone, even sceptics, as Bengston implies. Might it not be a special talent, one that he happens to possess in abundance and which he can psychically pass on to other people - as perhaps Ben Mayrick passed it on to him?

Naturally I hope that's not the case. But Bengston himself focuses on the emotional connection between healers, which he believes is indicated by the tendency of control mice to remit, and which he calls 'resonant bonding'. If it connects all the healers into 'a single shared consciousness, combining empathy and intention, the treatment of any mouse by any healer would have been a treatment for the bonded mice - including the control mice.'

That's the sort of question one can only start to answer with a serious programme of research. I confess I know very little about psi-healing, and need to get to grips with the literature. But my impression is this has not been much of a priority, at least compared with approaches such as remote viewing, ganzfeld, presentiment, etc. But Bengston's book left me wondering why.

Apart from the conventional objections - such as the lack of a plausible mechanism - it may just seem too good to be true. A more practical reason might be the need for the kind of medical and biology facilities that parapsychologists don't have access to, and which might require special funding, as well as buy-in from other departments.

But the sceptic complaint that psi has no practical benefit is dramatically refuted here. A person who can't see the point of remote viewing must surely understand the value of being able to stop an aggressive cancer in its tracks. It seems to me that this is just the kind of thing that parapsychology should be deeply involved in, fertile ground for some wealthy entrepreneur to step forward with the funding for an aggressive and imaginative research programme - or indeed several such, all competing with each other and publishing papers in mainstream peer-reviewed medical journals.

Reading about Bengston's experiences have left me once again with that feeling of strangeness - of living in a world where extraordinary opportunities and solutions present themselves, but which we nonchalantly pass up, because they don't fit with our existing ideas and preconceptions.

Psychic Research on Kindle

Cover I've had a project in mind for some time now, and it's starting to take shape. It's a response to the objection that there is no evidence for psychic phenomena.

The complaint is largely rhetorical, of course. The implication is that the evidence, being anecdotal, is too weak to merit consideration: in other words it isn't really evidence.

But I believe a lot of people think there is no evidence - literally. And the best reason I can think of for this is that they seldom hear about it directly. Take a subject like poltergeists: it's just not on the general radar, except as something that people 'believe in'; there's little sense of it as a distinct phenomenon.

I believe we'd benefit from listening to people who have experienced it. It might improve the level of the debate.

So my idea is to try to make the primary sources more accessible, taking advantage of the e-book revolution. I've made a start by publishing a collection of poltergeist reports on Amazon Kindle.

These are the original eyewitness accounts, the source of much of what is known about the phenomenon, in the form of letters, diary entries, pamphlets and journal articles. There's Stans, which I covered here recently, and Hydesville, which I discussed a year ago (full list below). These very dramatic cases are striking, but the sober observations of investigators are just as interesting, for instance the so-called Atlantic Monthly case, which is frequently cited in books, and the Worksop poltergeist investigated by Frank Podmore on behalf of the Society for Psychical Research.

Much of this can be found somewhere online, in some form or other (some of it is here under 'resources'). But I suspect there's a limit to the amount of time people want to spend reading material on a computer screen. The material also has to be located and accessed, which can be fiddly. If you can treat it as a book, and download it onto your Kindle for a few pence and in a matter of seconds - and then read it on the bus, or wherever - then it might circulate a bit more.

As I described in Randi's Prize, in the beginning I did struggle to think of these events as hoaxes and natural events. But my imagination wasn't equal to the task, and I had to give up. I've no doubt that sceptics will have better luck, and I shall be curious to see, a) whether they avail themselves of the opportunity to read about these experiences, and b) how they will formulate their responses. I wonder, in particular, how insistent they will continue to be that the witnesses of the mysterious rapping noises at Hydesville were actually hearing two little girls bumping apples on the floor.

I believe that the accumulated effect of reading these narratives is to instil the sense of a quite distinct, psychokinetic phenomenon, one that cannot be blithely dismissed in terms of children's games. That, at least, has been my experience.

These are obviously older cases, and the style and language can take a bit of adjusting to, particularly the eighteenth century ones. On the other hand they happened to human beings just like us, so they're hardly any less relevant. And it's good to read the actual detail of what occurred. I've also provided summaries of more recent twentieth century cases, including Matthew Manning and Columbus, Ohio (Tina Resch) - for the purposes of comparison, to show that all belong essentially to the same category of experience. However I omitted several, such as the investigation of the Enfield poltergeist, as Guy Lyon Playfair has recently republished his excellent book on the subject - This House is Haunted; and the recent South Shields case, which I reviewed here and which has also been written up by the investigators.

I've got another half dozen or so ideas for similar compilations, which I'll try to get round to over the next few months. It's quite time-consuming to photocopy, scan, correct and format, so it may be a while. In the meantime, if anyone else has ideas about what would be good to put out there, or would like to get involved, then please get in touch.


Stans, Switzerland, 1862; Stockwell, London, 1772; Hydesville, New York, 1828 (Fox sisters); Epworth, Lincolnshire, 1716-17 (Wesley family); Slawensick, Germany, 1806; Massachusetts, 1867 (Atlantic Monthly); Derrygonnelly, Ireland, 1877; Worksop, Nottinghamshire, 1883; Bell-ringing in London, 1887; Three short cases;

Summaries: Sauchie, Scotland, 1960; Andover, Hampshire, 1974; Columbus, Ohio, 1984; Miami, Florida, 1966; Matthew Manning, Cambridge, 1967

US Amazon Kindle: $1.20

UK Amazon Kindle: £0.77

Randi's Prize on Kindle is now only $2.99 + vat and equivalent elsewhere, eg. £2.56 in the UK.