Until the 1920s, however, scientists considered such ideas no more than superstition or religious folly. The mind and body were believed wholly separate things, and it was considered absurd that mere thoughts might heal. Of course everyone knew thoughts could arouse the body sexually, excite fear or anger with a consequently faster pulse and heartbeat, and so on; but fight illness? Absolutely not!
But in the third decade of the twentieth century, J.H. Schultz, a German physician, created "Autogenic Training," in which patients sitting or lying in a relaxed state would imagine "mental contact" with the afflicted parts of their bodies. In effect, the patients were calling on their unconscious minds to aid them in the healing process. The technique, still in wide use throughout Europe as an adjunct to more conventional medical treatment, has been extensively studied and its effectiveness richly documented. Four separate studies, for example, showed that between 50 and 100 percent of asthma patients who practiced the exercises were able to alleviate all symptoms of the disease. Another study found that 70 percent of gastritis sufferers were significantly helped by autogenic exercises.
In the 1930s two medical researchers named Chappell and Stevenson worked with 52 peptic ulcer patients receiving identical treatment and dietary supervision. The researchers enlisted 32 members of the group in an experiment. Whenever they felt anxiety coming on, they were to visualize pleasant experiences.
Three weeks later the visualizing patients had no more ulcer symptoms. When dietary restrictions were lifted, all but one resumed normal eating habits with no further problems. The 20 patients in the control group, whose symptoms had been relieved only by conventional medical treatment, had their symptoms return as soon as they tried to eat normal food.
Although all 52 patients had suffered from ulcer problems for at least two years prior to the experiment, three years after the conclusion of the test only two members of the visualization group still had ulcer problems!
Another, rather more controversial, visualization-healing method was promoted by American opthamologist William Bates early in this century. Working from the principle that the act of seeing involves both a sense impression on the eye and the interpretation of that signal by the brain, Bates claimed, "When you can remember or imagine a thing as well with your eyes open as you can with your eyes closed, your vision will improve promptly." That’s because, he said, a sharp mental image helps the eye to relax, assume its normal shape and send an impression the brain recognizes as sharper. "Perfect memory of any object increases mental relaxation, which results in a relaxation of the eyes, and both together result in better vision."
Mind over Body
In recent years scientists have sought to document the idea inherent in all visualization-healing techniques that the mind can exercise control over the autonomic nervous system.
As early as the first decade of this century the noted British scholar and writer W. Y. Evans-Wentz visited Tibet and came back with incredible reports of what he had witnessed there. He said he had seen yogis sitting naked in the snow for hours at a stretch, and not only that, but the snow around them actually melted! The yogis told Evans-Wentz that they were able to generate an enormous amount of body heat by visualizing a sun inside them.
Some years later, during the 1930s, a Soviet psychologist named A.R. Luria, along with associates at the All-Union Institute of Experimental Medicine, worked with a talented mentalist. The study involved a patient identified only as S. The study revealed S’s abilities were greatly facilitated by his phenomenal ability to hold vivid mental images he had recorded years earlier.
But what really interested the scientists was his ability to increase his pulse rate from its normal 70 beats a minute to 100, and then to take it back to 70.
S said to the astonished investigators, "What do you find so strange about it? I simply sense myself running after a train that has just begun to pull out. I have to catch up with the last car if I’m to make it. Is it any wonder then that my heartbeat increases? After that, I saw myself lying in bed, perfectly still, trying to fall asleep … I could see myself beginning to drop off … breathing became regular and my heart started to beat more slowly and evenly."
The best scientific documentation of this ability was obtained in the 1960s by Elmer Green, head of the Menninger Foundation’s Psychophysiology Laboratory in Topeka, Kansas. Green and his colleagues worked with Swami Rama, who demonstrated that through concentration he could change his body temperature, increase or decrease (and, in one instance, even stop) his heartbeat, and control his brain waves.