Dr Herbert Benson, who saw the spirit as medicinal, dies at 86

Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research showing the power of the mind over the body helped bring meditation into t...


Herbert Benson, a Harvard-trained cardiologist whose research showing the power of the mind over the body helped bring meditation into the mainstream, died Feb. 3 in a Boston hospital. He was 86 years old.

His wife, Marilyn Benson, said the cause was heart disease and kidney failure.

Dr. Benson did not seek to defend meditation; in fact, even after his early pioneering studies, he remained skeptical, not taking up the practice himself until decades later.

He was, however, open to the possibility that a state of mind could affect a person’s health – common sense today, but a radical, even heretical idea when he began his research in the mid-1960s.

During a stint with the United States Public Health Service in Puerto Rico, he noticed that island residents often had significantly lower blood pressure than their mainland counterparts, all else being equal. . He began to wonder if part of the cause lay outside the usual explanations of diet and exercise, a question he addressed when he returned to Harvard as a researcher in 1965.

Working in a lab at Boston City Hospital (now Boston Medical Center), he and his colleagues devised a way to train monkeys to raise and lower their blood pressure, based on a reward system. The work was discreet; many medical researchers took it for granted that although a stressful situation could increase heart rate through the fight-or-flight response – discovered, coincidentally, in the same lab where Dr. Benson worked – the mind -even had no control over her.

Word spread, however, and one day he was approached by several followers of the founder of Transcendental Meditation, a technique that claims to allow practitioners to enter a higher state of consciousness through the repetition of a mantra. Why teach monkeys, they told him, when we have already perfected the practice?

“At first I didn’t want to get involved with them,” Dr. Benson said. told the New York Times in 1975, referring to practitioners of meditation. “The whole thing seemed a bit remote and somewhat peripheral to the traditional study of medicine. But they were persistent, and I finally agreed to study them.

To avoid attention, he insisted they come after hours and through a side door. He strapped sensors to their chests and masks to their faces, to measure their breathing, then toggled them between periods of normal reflection and focused meditation.

The meditators were right: Across a variety of parameters – heart rate, oxygen supply – they showed an immediate and significant drop during their moments of contemplation, similar, according to Dr. Benson, to entering a state of sleep while they were still awake.

“I wasn’t as shocked as I was suspicious because I knew what was in store for me because the negative mind-body bias was so strong,” he told Brainworld magazine in 2019. “I’m remained a cardiologist and also head of cardiovascular education at harvard medical school but had two working lives kept respectability within cardiology while also working in the field of mind and of the body.

Working with Robert Keith Wallace, a young physiologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, he published his first findings in the early 1970s. News articles called him a renegade and maverick, and many members of his profession shunned him.

But others were impressed by the strength of his research and his objectivity. Unlike some scholars of the time, including Dr. Wallace, Dr. Benson was not a proponent of transcendental meditation; in fact, he parted ways with Dr. Wallace when he insisted that there was nothing special about the practice or use of mantras – any word or phrase, repeated over and over again. again, will do, he said.

Dr. Benson called his approach the relaxation response – the opposite of the fight or flight response. But while a stressful situation causes the body to automatically increase its heart rate and release adrenaline, the relaxation response must be consciously asserted.

He showed how to do this in his 1975 book, “The Relaxation Response”. It struck at the right time: That same year, the Transcendental Meditation movement claimed more than 400,000 adherents, studying at more than 300 centers in the United States alone.

Millions of other Americans, though skeptical of alternative medicine and Eastern spirituality, were still curious about meditation, and Dr. Benson, with his Ivy League pedigree and clinical approach to research, gave them the right to indulge. The book has sold over four million copies and was a New York Times bestseller.

Over time, Dr. Benson’s insistence on the connection between mind and body has become accepted, even standard, among establishment scholars. In 1992 he founded the Mind-Body Institute, which in 2006 moved to Massachusetts General Hospital and, with an infusion of money from investor John W. Henry, changed its name to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, with Dr. Benson as Director Emeritus.

Herbert Benson was born on April 24, 1935 in Yonkers, New York. Her father, Charles, ran a series of wholesale businesses and her mother, Hannah (Schiller) Benson, was a homemaker.

He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1957 with a degree in biology and received his medical degree from Harvard in 1961.

Along with his wife, he is survived by one son, Gregory; one daughter, Jennifer Benson; and four grandchildren.

Dr. Benson wrote 11 books after “The Relaxation Response”, several of which delved into the physiological effects of spirituality and faith. He was the first Western doctor allowed to interview Tibetan monks about their practices, and he befriended the Dalai Lama when the Buddhist spiritual leader visited Boston in 1979.

Dr. Benson discovered, among other things, that Buddhist monks could, during meditation, raise their body temperature enough to completely dry the damp sheets that had been draped over their bodies.

Such conclusions were later challenged, and Dr. Benson was rarely without his detractors. But he was undeterred, comparing himself to William James, a Harvard predecessor and another pioneer at the intersection of mind and body.

Dr. Benson was not himself a man of prayer, but in the 1990s he was convinced that prayer, and faith in general, had a physiological impact. For him, the explanation lies in a version of the placebo effect: if we believe that something is helping us, our body will work harder to heal.

With a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation, in 1996 he began a decade-long study of the healing power of prayer – specifically, whether a person’s prayers could help them. another one.

The findings, published in 2006, were definitive and disappointing (at least for believers): not only did intercessory prayer have no impact, but in some cases where people believed they were being prayed for, they worsened – a result, Dr Benson says, of their belief that if someone prayed for them they must have been very sick, their bodies trying to match that impression by getting sicker.

Yet Dr. Benson believed that prayer could help at least one sick person to pray. And he was always careful to say that even if his research was 100% accurate, meditation and prayer could never fully replace drugs and surgery.

Medical treatment and spiritual care, he said, was necessary – a fact Western medicine had long tried to ignore, and which he spent his career trying to correct.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Dr Herbert Benson, who saw the spirit as medicinal, dies at 86
Dr Herbert Benson, who saw the spirit as medicinal, dies at 86
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