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At first glance, there seems to be nothing new about valuing compassion; it’s an idea that has been around for thousands of years in both the religious and secular worlds. But perhaps it is the universality of compassion that has lulled us into undervaluing its importance. Compassion has largely become a treasure hidden in plain sight, a phenomenon toward which we are selectively blind.
Of course, everyone says compassion is important, and compassion and empathy are widely acknowledged by health care professionals to be characteristics of humane care. However, when serious illness strikes, they are often regarded as less important than physical interventions such as drugs and surgical procedures. But as we shall see, a variety of evidence suggests that compassion and empathy are correlated with positive health outcomes, and they can evoke measurable physiological effects in sick persons, even when the individual is unaware that these factors are being extended to them. As a consequence, compassion and empathy should not be regarded as optional niceties in medical care, but as fundamental factors promoting recovery from any illness.
Mind-body researcher Jeanne Achterberg is a veteran explorer of indigenous healing methods and the role of imagery and visualization in health care. These interests led her to the island of Hawaii, where she spent two years observing the culture and healing methods of indigenous healers, many of whom took her into their confidence and freely shared with her their methods.
Achterberg was interested in exploring whether healers can exert a positive influence on a distant individual with whom they have no sensory contact, as healers universally claim. She and her colleagues at North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea recruited eleven indigenous healers to participate in a healing experiment. The healers were not casually interested in healing; they had pursued their healing tradition for an average of twenty-three years. Each of them was asked to select a person they knew, with whom they had previously worked professionally, and with whom they felt an empathic, compassionate, bonded connection, to serve as the recipient of their healing intentions. Although the researchers referred to the healing endeavors as distant intentionality (DI), the healers themselves described what they did in various ways— prayer, sending energy, good intentions, or wishing for the highest good.
Each recipient was isolated from all forms of sensory contact with the healer and placed in an fMRI scanner. The healers then sent their various forms of DI to their subjects at random, two-minute intervals that could not have been anticipated by the recipient.
When the fMRI brain scans of the subjects were analyzed, significant differences in brain function were found between the experimental (send) and control (no-send) conditions. There was less than approximately one chance in ten thousand that these differences could be explained by chance (p = 0.000127). The brain areas that were activated during the healing or send periods were the anterior and middle cingulate, precuneus, and frontal regions.
When the experiment was repeated, using subjects with whom the healers felt no empathic bonding, no significant fMRI changes were found in the recipients during either the send or no-send conditions.
This study suggests that compassionate, empathic healing intentions can exert measurable physical effects on a recipient, even when the recipient is not aware when the attempt is being made. This study appears to shred the perennial complaint of skeptics that these are placebo effects, due only to suggestion, expectation, and positive thinking on the part of the recipient. Achterberg’s study does not stand alone. Several prior experiments have examined correlations in brain function between empathic individuals who are widely separated and who have no sensory contact with each other.