Interview with St. Josephs College sociology professor Dr. William Bengston examines his extensive scientific research into hands on healing.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. William Bengston about his book, The Energy Cure: Unraveling the Mystery of Hands-on Healing. During the interview Bengston describes his experiments with hands-on healing:
Dr. William Bengston: …starting from these clinical that, for example, malignant growths respond quickly and benign growths don’t respond so quickly, I thought to myself, ‘How are we going to get a handle on this? How are we going to go from spontaneous clinical experience to very controlled conditions?’ I wanted an absolute air-tight, no question about it, experiment that if it worked you didn’t have a viable counter-hypothesis…
So, we looked at treating cancer in mice. At the time we started this, the longest lifespan for a mouse with this particular type of cancer was 27 days. No mouse in literally thousands of experiments had lived longer than 27 days after injection with this particular mammary cancer. And you knew exactly how many mice would die and what particular day after injection because it’s again, very well documented, found in labs all over the world.
…So I put my hands around the cages of the mice for about an hour a day. I suspected at the time that healing, if it were to work, would be something analogous to radiation. But instead, the cancer started to grow and I thought it was failing. So the tumors grew and I said, “Let’s call it off. Why put the mice through this?” But I got talked into going a little longer. The tumors kept growing bigger and bigger. Then they developed this ulceration on the tumor and I really thought it wasn’t working. The ulceration grew and the tumor imploded and the mice were completely cured.
Alex Tsakiris: And this was unprecedented medically in this particular experiment with these particular mice, right?
Dr. William Bengston: Never happened before for any reason. So the world’s longest living mouse after being injected with this particular cancer was 27 days. In our experiment the mice went through this process of growth then ulceration then implosion, and the mice were cured. I used to say they remitted but that’s the wrong word because remitted means a reduction in symptoms or temporary disappearance. These mice are cured for life. So we watched them and we leave them for two years and they live out their normal lifespan hanging out, being completely happy.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s finish this story, Bill. So, the world changes. You received the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Cancer treatments around the world are revolutionized and this has become the most highly researched area of medicine, right? I got all that right?
Dr. William Bengston: Uh, except for the entire scenario. This isn’t something where because we’ve cured a bunch of mice, therefore the cancer industry folds their tent.
Alex Tsakiris: Today
Today we welcome Dr. William Bengston to Skeptiko. Bill is a Professor of Sociology at St. Joseph’s College in New York where he specializes in research methods and statistics and is the author of The Energy Cure: Unraveling the Mystery of Hands-On Healing.
Here’s the real interesting part: Dr. Bengston is an amazing healer himself. For the past 30 years he’s compiled a series of carefully controlled scientific experiments that challenge not only our ideas about healing and medicine but about energy, about belief, about science in general, and how we practice it, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I hope we can get to.
Bill, welcome to Skeptiko. Thanks so much for joining me.
Dr. William Bengston: Thanks for having me on, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Bill, your work is really quite amazing. It’s paradigm-busting in a number of ways. Too many ways than we’ll probably get to. Mainly because you’re such a stickler for running good experiments and trying to produce good, reliable results and data.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, that’s my passion. So get the work right and see what happens and let nature take its course. Whenever I run an experiment I’m always amazed at the data. It never comes out the way I expect it, which pretty much means we don’t really get this stuff yet. So if we can design some really tight experiments then nature will hopefully give up some of her secrets. She’s a sneaky one.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting. Hey, tell us a little bit about your background, your educational background, particularly in sociology and how that’s served you. Or maybe it hasn’t served you as you’ve tried to wrap your arms around this healing experience that you have.
Dr. William Bengston: Well, I’m traditionally trained in sociology which means you generally have a specialization or two and then it’s pretty much assumed that you’ll become technically proficient in designing studies and data analysis and things along those lines. I actually went a little bit farther down those lines. I’m kind of interested in advanced statistical modeling and things along those lines. I don’t know that the sociology training, other than focusing me on becoming very, very rigorous, really helped in healing. I didn’t see that as a career path.
It did help in terms of interpretation of some data, though. I have to speculate on that. In my experiments I’ve found that some anomalous results, even within the context of the anomalies that I normally get from healing, that sometimes the experimental and control groups become bound together.
I’ve started to think about this in terms of maybe this has to do from a sociological standpoint of group boundaries. Sociologists are interested in groups and how they form and what they do and the consequences of it. In my experimental studies, much to my surprise, I’ve discovered group boundaries that I didn’t see coming so that sometimes there’s—I guess in the popular terminology that becomes almost like an entanglement among members of an experiment. And the anomalies produce even more anomalies.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s interesting and that’s a whole area we could get into. I think entanglement and also this idea of groups and it has to do with experimentally what that means in terms of what is a control group and how the placebo you even say might drift over into the group. But what also struck me and what I was getting at is — here’s a guy when you hear your story, and I want you to tell folks a little bit about your story of how you got into healing, I don’t think many people would go, “Great. Well, let’s run an experiment and let’s run it this way.” You know, the first thing. You had to have been blown away at just what happens when you encounter this healing and yet your first thought was, “Where’s the data? How do I produce the data? How do I run an experiment?” So maybe let me run the tape backwards and tell folks a little bit about how you first encountered the healing phenomenon. I guess you encountered it with someone else, not yourself, and then you got interested in it.
Dr. William Bengston: I ran into a guy who claimed that he had become spontaneously psychic. And I was skeptical. I always begin from a skeptical point of view so I gave him a couple of things very informally to do readings on and such. I couldn’t trip him up. It was very annoying. So he would do readings on personal items, wallets, and rings and things like that and tell too many detailed things. As you say, I then default to how am I deluding myself? How can I make this effect go away?
So I designed, for example, a double-blind study at the hospital whereby patients coming in would sign a blank index card if they were silly enough to do that. That would be put into an opaque envelope which would then be put into another opaque envelope and then I would pick up the opaque envelopes. I wouldn’t have any idea even if it was a male or a female. I gave these to this newly-minted psychic and he would do a physical reading on them. Then I probably broke a whole lot of laws and had somebody on the inside look at the medical records to see if he was accurate.
Alex Tsakiris: Bill, what kind of reading would he give? What would he say if he has an envelope inside an envelope with an index card and just someone’s name scribbled on it? What kind of information could he give you?
Dr. William Bengston: Oh, he would give detailed information. He would say, “You’ve got a gall bladder problem.” Something along those lines. So he’d say, “The lungs are filled with fluid.” He would say, “There’s pain in this area.” Things along those lines. “There’s a tumor that is located here.”
It was practically startling when I went back and got the confirmation of this. I actually thought I had him in a mistake but the hospital had made a mistake. So the person that he had diagnosed was accurate. The hospital had made a misdiagnosis. I came back a month later and found out that his original idea was right.
Alex Tsakiris: Amazing.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. It was pretty nutty. So I couldn’t make the effect go away, which was pretty annoying. And so I started to pay attention to this guy and he was doing these physical readings. This naturally morphed into the people he was doing physical readings on were claiming that the conditions were being helped on their end. And both he and I thought that was nuts.
So let’s say someone has a migraine headache and he does a reading on a person who has a migraine headache. He doesn’t know they have a migraine headache; he’s holding something of theirs and he would get the headache. And the people would say, “At such-and-such hour my headache left.” It was too coincidental. At a particular hour he would get it and it would leave them. We’re scratching our heads going, “What could this mean?”
Alex Tsakiris: You know, one of the amazing things about this whole account, this whole story of you and Bennett is that it’s so counter-anti-New Age-ish. Here are two guys who are saying, “What the heck’s going on? Healing? What does that have to do with anything?” You’re not getting any kind of divine guidance here. You’re not even looking in that direction and yet the data, as you say, is just pulling you there. So what’s the next step for you in trying to make this technique operational? How did you get pulled into it?
Dr. William Bengston: I got pulled into it by having myself fixed, which was my next layer of annoyance. I had had a chronically bad back for a bunch of years and I had previously been a competitive swimmer and had to give up competitive swimming because of the bad back. As this guy, Bennett, he and I are going through doing these readings and such and gathering all these silly anecdotes. Suddenly it occurred to me, you big dope, you’re in pain all the time. Ask the guy to try to help. So I thought, ‘Maybe if I give him something he’ll do a reading on me and maybe he can help my back.’
He picked up the pain just as I thought of that. I didn’t actually give him an object. I said, “Put your hands on my back,” and he said, “And do what?”
And I said, “I don’t know. Fix it.”
And so he put his hands on my back and quite astonishingly he did fix it. I was the first person he ever deliberately healed with hands-on.
So we went from this and said, “What do we do with this?” We started to watch people put hands on other people and see what happens. Sometimes pain was alleviated and sometimes fast and sometimes not so fast. And in watching this on a couple hundred people, patterns started to emerge that for example, malignant growths responded very, very quickly. Benign growths didn’t.
So if he put his hands, for example, on a wart nothing would happen. Nothing at all. If he put his hands on a lump that turned out through medical diagnosis to be malignant, the thing would respond very, very quickly and dramatically. And so it turned out that some things he could do and some things he couldn’t do and among the things he was particularly good at were malignant tumors.
Alex Tsakiris: Bill, let me interject here because from the little bit I know of your work you’re very careful about drawing too many conclusions from what that means or what’s behind that. You’re more or less just seeing the patterns that exist and the personal experience. I mean for example, your healing. You go on and you’re a pretty darned competitive tennis player and I hear Ping-Pong player and all the rest so your back is obviously healed. You’ve got the proof there.
But tell us a little bit about the experiments that you’ve run clinically. People need to know these are experiments you’ve run clinically in university labs. This isn’t just a guy in his kitchen having people come in and do something. You’ve run some pretty rigorous experiments. Tell us about some of those. I think people will be amazed at what you’ve found in some of those. I guess obviously what you were getting to, what drove you to design the experiments the way that you did.
Dr. William Bengston: Starting from these clinical observations and they were kind of case-by-case relatively haphazard observations that, for example, malignant growths respond quickly and benign growths don’t respond so quickly or sometimes not at all, I thought to myself, ‘How are we going to get a handle on this? How are we going to go from spontaneous clinical haphazard kind of experience to very controlled conditions?’
Something along the lines of when I started I designed a double-blind study of doing readings at a hospital. What’s the difference between hanging out in the living room and doing something under controlled conditions? Sometimes there have been in the past some problems trying to make this transition. So the freedom that people have in the normal world, when they bring it into the lab sometimes it gets stymied. I wanted to find out if that would be the case.
I wanted an absolute air-tight, no question about it, test that if it worked you didn’t have a viable counter-hypothesis. So we’re not talking about, ‘eh, that was interesting’, but rather a slam dunk.
Since this guy seemed to be particularly good on malignant growths I thought, ‘Let’s see if we can get a study with malignant growths under controlled laboratory conditions.’ So a friend of mine, Dave Krinsley, was associated with City University of New York in an academic professorship and he called in a bunch of favors there with the biology department and said, “Where can we get really an airtight, no question about it, really tight experimental model?”
They were working for 20 years on a particular mammary cancer in laboratory mice and the laboratory cancers in the mice, they knew exactly what was going to happen. There were literally thousands of published studies on these mice. They get injected with a particular form of cancer, they’re particularly bred—they’re actually pretty inbred—and after they’re injected you know exactly what’s going to happen. The tumor’s going to grow; it’s going to be non-metastatic; it’s going to kill the mouse in a certain number of days.
At the time we started this, the record living mouse was 27 days. No mouse in literally thousands of experiments had lived longer than 27 days after injection with this particular mammary cancer. And you knew exactly how many mice would die and what particular day after injection because it’s again, very well documented, found in labs all over the world. So we said, “This is perfect.”
The mice presumably don’t believe much. Maybe this has nothing to do with beliefs. We didn’t believe much. We were just observing. Maybe this doesn’t make any difference with the healer or the healee’s beliefs. Let’s find out if there’s a real underlying biological mechanism going on.
So it turned out that this original guy, Bennett, was not particularly interested in doing experiments. I’d dragged him from lab to lab and I think I pushed too many buttons. He kind of backed out. Then I was left with we have experimental mice and we have no healer. That was a dilemma. It was actually borderline panic.
Since I had spent the most time with this guy, Krinsley suggested, “Well, you do it.”
I thought, ‘Me? I’m not a healer.’ You introduce me as somebody who has healing ability, I’ve actually never thought of myself as someone with healing ability. It’s just this stuff happens when you do this stuff. It’s not my identity in any way, shape, or form. So I just kind of hang around and you can produce healing if you need to.
So I put my hands around the cages of the mice for about an hour a day. I suspected at the time that healing, if it were to work, would be something analogous to radiation. So if you take mice and you radiate them you can kill radiated cells. I thought, ‘Well, if we get these mice close enough to their injection time and we zap them, as it were, with healing then maybe something like radiation occurs and we’re killing the cancer.’ Something along those lines. But instead, the cancer started to grow and I thought it was failing. So the tumors grew and I said, “Well, it worked. We have it a shot. It didn’t work and so it goes.” And I said, “Let’s call it off. Why put the mice through this?”
I got talked into going a little longer. The tumors kept growing and I kept thinking, ‘Well, this doesn’t work.’ And I kept treating anyway. The tumors got bigger and bigger. Thought it wasn’t working. Then they developed this ulceration on the tumor and I really thought it wasn’t working. The ulceration grew and the tumor imploded and the mice were completely cured.
Alex Tsakiris: Unprecedented medically in this particular biological experiment with these particular mice, right?
Dr. William Bengston: Never happened before for any reason. So the world’s longest living mouse to me was 27 days and it went through this process of growth then ulceration then implosion. And the mice were cured. I used to say they remitted but that’s the wrong word because remitted means a reduction in symptoms or temporary disappearance. These mice are cured for life. So we watched them and we leave them for two years and they live out their normal lifespan hanging out, being completely happy.
And it goes even further than that. We’ve re-injected them with the cancer; the cancer won’t take anymore. So the mice that are cured are cured for life.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, one of the things when you hear that story and the unbelievability of it, it takes you in so many different ways. Let’s finish this story, Bill. So the world changes; you receive the Nobel Prize for Medicine. Cancer treatments around the world are revolutionized and this is the most highly researched area of medicine right now, right? I got all that right?
Dr. William Bengston: Uh, except for the entire scenario, yes. It’s not going to take off as you suggest. That would be my guess, yeah. So this isn’t something that we’ve cured a bunch of mice, therefore the cancer industry folds its tents. We’ve got to find out what’s going on.
Alex Tsakiris: And that’s where it gets even more challenging. What do you think is going on?
Dr. William Bengston: Well, I’ve replicated this experiment now about a dozen times and I use—sometimes, not always—I use sometimes other people who have no experience in healing and who are all skeptics in the real sense of the word.
Alex Tsakiris: Tell us a little bit about your process in terms of screening these folks. I think it’s really funny but also interesting.
Dr. William Bengston: When I was able to cure a bunch of mice I thought to myself, ‘Well, obviously this is pretty curious. The first thing we need to do is see if this replicates. Was there some flaw in the procedure, some fluke?’ And there was in my mind also a lingering fear, what if I can do it and other people can’t? I mean, that would be curious but it wouldn’t be very useful. So what I did is I decided to get some people who had no experience in this, train them in the healing techniques that Ben and I had worked out, and see what happens when they do it.
I went to a number of students and said, “I’d like to do a healing experiment.” If they responded to me, “Gee, that’s wonderful, I like this stuff,” or “I know about this stuff,” I’d say, “Thank you for your interest,” and I left. I didn’t want them. I didn’t want someone who knew. I didn’t want someone who was already into healing.
I wanted a really blank slate and I wanted someone who—my actual criteria was they either had to laugh in my face when I told them what I wanted them to do, or they had to express extreme skepticism, something along the lines of I’d say, “I’m going to teach you for about six weeks on how to do some healing techniques and then you’re going to get cancerous mice and you’re going to put your hands around the cage for an hour a day and we’re going to see what happens.” And they’d go, “No, really. What do you want me to do?”
Alex Tsakiris: One of the things that’s so great about this is that you’re coming at it from such a different perspective than we normally hear. Again, kind of contrasting with so much of the New Age-ish kind of ideas about healing. That’s that you’re not even invested in the term, “healer.” You feel a little uncomfortable, like “I’m not a healer. This thing just kind of happens.”
You took the same approach in turning this into some kind of methodology, a technique that you could train other people with. Again, following the data. And in the process of doing that I think you really give us a whole fresh look on assumptions that we’ve had about alternative medicine and healing in particular. Any thoughts on some of that? On some of the New Ageish beliefs that you’re kind of stomping on here?
Dr. William Bengston: Well, to be honest I don’t know that much about healing. I don’t know comparative healing systems and I’ve never studied healing.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, Bill, because it’s out there, the idea of a positive mental attitude. The idea of visualizing those little white cells and red cells and having this little war. You know all these ideas about belief. And even if you want to pull it over into the spiritual realm, hey, at your local hospital there’s the prayer circle group right down the hall that’s trying to martial all this spiritual energy behind it. So you know in the air there’s a lot of these other ideas that your research really flies in the face of a lot of that.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, it may come really just from my personal orientation. Generically, belief scares me. Belief scares me and believers scare me. That sounds extreme but it actually is the case that believers scare me because they believe and they have the delusion that they have the truth. I don’t care what it is that they think they know or think they have the truth about. They just scare me because I don’t know anybody who has any truth. So you have in believers a tendency to act in defense of those beliefs.
So I, for example, have spoken to skeptical organizations. I’ve been invited by the such-and-such skeptic society and I usually begin a talk to a skeptic society by saying I’m probably the only skeptic in the room. That gets them all harrumphy. Then they fold their arms and legs and contort their faces and things. “No, we’re the skeptic society.”
“You’re not really skeptics. You’re believers. You already believe that the things I haven’t yet said are wrong.”
Alex Tsakiris: How do those talks go?
Dr. William Bengston: Well, they harrumph and harrumph and harrumph and again, they go into pretzel mode and contort themselves. And it’s a very interesting socio-psychological phenomenon because I suddenly present my data and so I have mice, I have many experiments in all sorts of things, many dozens and dozens of experiments in a variety of things in healing, and the experiments of experiments.
So the issue is have I done something wrong? In which case I’m absolutely interested in what I did wrong. If I haven’t done anything wrong and these are the results and it’s a reliable phenomenon, what’s your beef?
And so they’re there contorting and they can’t find a flaw in what I did. Sometimes there are oncologists in the audience and sometimes there’s physicians of various stripes and sometimes there’s biologists and nobody can find a flaw. I’m saying, “Hey, if you can find a flaw I would say ‘Thank you.’ If I screwed up, I didn’t know I screwed up. But if I did, show me how and I’ll make it better.”
So I present this stuff and they can’t find a hole in the stuff that I do. The interesting socio-psychological phenomenon is since this is a skeptic society (it’s really not, it’s a believer society) they have a certain amount of social pressure. They’re not allowed to go, “Wow.” They’re not allowed to convert because they have to defend their beliefs. They’re not skeptical; they’re believers.
So what happens at the end is I’m cleaning up or doing this or that and the hall will start to thin out and one by one they look around to see if it’s safe. They come up to me and they go, “That was great.” Then they run off because they can’t be seen speaking to the crazy guy.
Alex Tsakiris: You’d probably have this same reaction if you went down to the local church group, as well. You’d have the same thing. People looking around and wanting to know if it’s okay to even entertain these thoughts and then most of them deciding that it’s not. A few brave souls walking up and telling you their story of how it relates to them.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. In my experience there are many more believers than skeptics. They just believe different things. The New Age folks are believers. That’s what I’ve run into. Again, I don’t mean to generalize to everybody but my experience is there’s a lot of believers among New Age folks. And there’s a lot of believers among allegedly skeptical societies. They simply believe different things. And my question becomes if you’re simply defending your belief, what’s the point, for openers? Secondly, I think an interesting question would be what would it take for anyone on any side of any fence to convert?
Alex Tsakiris: Right. You want to talk about psychology and sociology and I mean you’ve just jumped right into the soup there.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. So if you are a nonbeliever in this stuff, what would it take to convince you otherwise? If you’re a believer what will it take for you to flip again to nonbelief? It doesn’t have to be for healing; this could be for absolutely anything. Right now it’s politically correct to believe in global warming.
Alex Tsakiris: Hey, more to the point in terms of SSE, it’s politically correct in the United States to believe in biotic oil and Peak oil. That’s one of the first articles I remember reading in the SSE, the Society for Scientific Exploration Journal. It was years ago and it opened my eyes to there’s over 200 peer-reviewed scientifically published articles in Russia, the former Soviet Union, on abiotic oil, the idea that oil is created naturally. They go with that assumption; they drill down a lot further than there could ever be any dinosaurs, and they’re producing more oil than anyone else in the world.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, it’s interesting. Be open, you know? We’re probably wrong about almost everything we believe.
Alex Tsakiris: The real point of all that is just these ideas that run counter to these cherished beliefs that we have personally, or these societal beliefs that are ingrained in the machinery of the way things work are very, very hard to overcome. I guess I have to push a little bit against that whole anomalistic psychology crap that I see out there is that well, gee, why do people believe weird things? And stuff like that. That has gone absolutely nowhere or it’s been counterproductive to really trying to understand in a deeper way what’s really going on.
I don’t know. Why is the Society for Scientific Exploration, an organization that you are the President of currently and is a very serious scientific organization, I mean the mere fact that it’s necessary; the mere fact that it covers such a broad range of topics—and that was my whole reason for getting off on the biotic oil thing. It covers the whole range of topics. The fact that it’s even necessary is a little bit depressing, a little bit frustrating.
Dr. William Bengston: Oh, I would completely agree. The SSE, which any of your listeners can look at at the Society for Scientific Exploration or www.scientificexploration.org is, as you point out, a group of people who are serious about research. They’re not going to sit together and just talk about things in the abstract. You’ve got to show me the data.
They come from all sorts of fields so the actual Society was founded by a combination of folks like the head of astrophysics at Stanford, the Dean of Engineering at Princeton, the head of astronomy at the University of Virginia, and folks like that who came together and said there’s too much scientific straitjacket activity going on. You’re allowed to look at certain things; you’re not allowed to look at other things.
It turns out that a whole lot of scientists have almost like a closet life. In the public, in the peer-reviewed journals, in their conventional day job, you’re only allowed to talk about certain things and there is a canon and you’re supposed to buy into it. You’ve got to toe the party line and if you want to get grants you’d better be getting them for the things you’re allowed to get grants for, etc., etc. And these very, very brave individuals who had already been extraordinarily successful in their day job careers recognized that there were other people like them who also had interests in things that you weren’t supposed to talk about.
So they talked about healing, they talked about UFOs, they talked about all sorts of stuff and said, “Let’s get together and see if we can data-base, have a discussion about things which are off-limits.” And so in order to do this, they created the Society for Scientific Exploration, which is primarily academics but folks who are not academics can also join as associate members.
We have things like a peer-reviewed journal, the Journal of Scientific Exploration. We have annual conferences. We just had one in Boulder in June. We’re about to have one in Ireland in October. We get together and these are data-based presentations on stuff you’re not supposed to talk about. We have a little inside dictum there that says if you’re an academic and you want to look at this stuff and you want to take a chance on some of this stuff and want to actually do research and gather data, first get tenure.
Alex Tsakiris: Right, you’re right.
Dr. William Bengston: A couple of years ago I was giving a talk and some newly-minted Ph.D. from Australia came up to me and said, “Your stuff is the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. I want to work with you. I want to study this. I want to…”
I said, “Get away from me.”
He said, “What do you mean, get away from me? I want to devote my life to this.”
I said, “Get away from me. I’m not going to wreck your career.” I kept pushing him away, pushing him away, I said, “First get tenure.”
He said, “You don’t understand how important this is.”
I said, “I really do.”
Alex Tsakiris: That’s why I’m telling you to get tenure.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. I’ve been in it for a while and I said, “You’ve got to get away from me because you’re a Ph.D. 20 minutes ago and I’m not going to screw your career.”
So he got really mad because I wouldn’t and this and that. About a year later, I got an email from him and he said, “I get it now. Thank you. I’ll see you in a few years.”
Alex Tsakiris: That’s both sad and interesting at the same time. So, Dr. Bengston, that’s fantastic and I really encourage people to explore the SSE more. As you mentioned, in addition to the quarterly, more scholarly publication there’s also an online magazine formatted kind of publication that they do that’s really accessible and really great, so please check that out.
But let’s get back…
Dr. William Bengston: That’s called Edge Science and that comes out quarterly. It’s kind of a magazine written more in English about some of these interesting topics.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. I do want to bring people back to some of the other experiments you’ve done because I think they’re just going to be fascinating and I hope they’re going to inspire people to really dig into this and challenge some of their beliefs that they might have. A couple of them I want you to touch on, the MRI envelope experiment. I think you know what I mean.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. It’s interesting. Among the interesting questions to me is what are the conditions under which healing occurs? What makes it stronger; what makes it weaker? What happens to the healer? What happens to the healee? Things along those lines. It turns out we don’t know a whole lot about this stuff.
What do the states of consciousness matter? Does a particular sense of awareness matter? Or it could even be something we were talking about earlier. Does belief matter? It turns out that as far as I can tell belief doesn’t matter at all, except maybe I think to slightly retard healing. I’m not sure about that. I don’t think there’s enough gain. I don’t know how much there is of a loss from belief. I think a neutral stance is the preferable stance to maximize healing.
What we were interested in is what happens—first of all, it’s a difficult problem to figure out what’s the right question to ask. We have a brain bias so we tend to like to look at brains and think maybe there’s a correlate in the brain, something along those lines. So I’ve done a number of experiments along these lines and just following along with the brain bias.
I published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration I think in 2010 a phase-locking of two brains at a distance. What that really means is we have synchronized EEGs and we’re sampling in 19 leads on each head every 500th of a second. We have this enormous database. It turns out that you can easily—not easily—but you can get two brains at a distance to go into a synchrony.
Alex Tsakiris: Now let me just interject here that if you weren’t—I know you don’t like this term—“a healer,” we’d call this a telepathy experiment. But your work really challenges even our idea of what telepathy means. I mean, if we really understand what that word means. So explain to folks—again, I’m sorry to interrupt you, so finish explaining what the experiment did.
Dr. William Bengston: So you would have Person 1 in one room and Person 2 in another room and Person 2 would be hanging out, hooked up to all the wires and the machines. Person 1 would really do the techniques that I do when we do the mice experiments and then simply, casually think about the other person in the other room. It turns out at the moment that you casually think about the other person in the other room, you get this synchronization of the two brains at a distance. Now that’s interesting. It may or may not have anything to do with healing.
Alex Tsakiris: Bill, explain what you mean specifically in terms of synchronization. How did you measure that?
Dr. William Bengston: We measured it with an EEG, which is taking a measurement of particular cycles per second that a brain is resonating. What happens is when you start the healing techniques you get a very distinct pattern. A very distinct frequency. And then you get a second harmonic to that frequency going on at the same time. And we get a third harmonic and we haven’t measured test that because we didn’t have the equipment. So we have at least three harmonics in a very distinct frequency. A triple harmonic in the brain which is exactly matched in the recipient’s brain in the other room.
Alex Tsakiris: So statistically this is off the charts, right? You have a stream of EEG readings of data and then you apply your visualization technique. It becomes these three harmonics that you measured in your brain and the healer’s brain and then you’re able to transfer that to another individual, the receiver, who obviously doesn’t have this pattern, then all of a sudden has this pattern. The statistics, if you were to do that, would just be off the charts, right?
Dr. William Bengston: Well, we can’t really do statistics because no one’s ever seen this pattern before.
Alex Tsakiris: You could measure that EEG. You could break it down into a statistical analysis of what is the chances that this pattern is merely by chance or something. I guess it just isn’t even worth talking about because it’s not even worth considering that there would be a chance harmonic transfer like that.
Dr. William Bengston: We actually did consider the question and so our EEG head guy, who is Jay Gunkelman, and certainly among the foremost EEG guys probably in the world, he could testify just from his experience that in awareness of at least 500,000 EEG readings—literally 500,000—no one’s ever seen this harmonic. So they’ve never seen it in a single brain, let alone a phase-locking of that to another brain. So the pattern itself is different, at least in his experience of about half a million EEGs. The fact that it phase-locks with another is really interesting.
Alex Tsakiris: Part of what makes this so challenging, Bill, is your work is just so revolutionary. Like you just said, you really wrap your arms around it. The first phase-lock in the healer is off the charts unbelievable, unexplainable. Ten years’ worth of research there and then the fact that you’re able to transfer that “telepathically” is another whole area. How do you begin to even wrap your arms around this?
Dr. William Bengston: It’s pretty interesting. I want to find out, for example—I haven’t been able to pull this off yet—but I want to find out if the phase-locking between two people varies by whether or not that person has a need. So if we hooked up a bunch of people in the other room, as it were, and some of them had a need, meaning a physical need, and some of them didn’t have a physical need—there was at least an obvious—would there be a difference in the connection?
I want to find out whether the connection varies based on whether the two people that we’re trying to link have a previous connection. They have some sort of emotional attachment. So would complete strangers be different than people who have a previous relationship? Would need matter versus those that don’t need?
I have a suspicion. I can’t nail this yet but I have a suspicion that healing is really coming from the healee and that it is more of an autonomic response to need than anything else. So the state of mind of the healer I don’t think is all that interesting or important.
Alex Tsakiris: Except that as you just said, you produced an EEG that is completely beyond explanation from your EEG expert. I don’t know, that’s pretty interesting, too.
Dr. William Bengston: But does that come? What we need to do is follow that up and find out if that becomes—if the signature itself becomes idiosyncratic to the person expressing the need. So let’s say we hooked up mice. You actually can do EEG readings on mice. A mouse with a particular stage of cancer being treated, would the readings be different at a different state of cancer? So as they go into remission, for example, or they’re finally cured. Would these things vary the expression that’s found?
So when you look at an EEG output it’s reasonably static. We’ve frozen it. It actually goes over time but it’s not over a long period of time. So I think one of our problems is we have a tendency to take an extraordinarily complex and dynamic nature and try to reduce it to static images. Maybe if we find the phase-lock different at different stages of the need of the healee.
Alex Tsakiris: Bill, one of the really interesting experiments real quick I’d like you to tell people about because it’s going to send folks off in a whole different mind-thought direction. You’re hooked up to an MRI. One of your arms is left out of the MRI and envelopes are placed on that arm. Describe that. A mind-blowing experiment.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, in this one we’ve done a couple things. The one you’re referring to I was the subject, as it were. I was also the designer. I was lying in an MRI. I spent a whole bunch of hours in an MRI. In a variety of MRIs. So I’m lying in a closed MRI and I can just barely get my left hand outside the enclosed area. What happens is that into my hand are dropped envelopes which I can feel tactilely. You feel when an envelope touches your hand.
So double-blind people are dropping envelopes into my hand. Some of the envelopes are sham envelopes. They have nothing in them at all other than it’s an envelope. Some of the envelopes have pictures and hair samples of cancerous animals 600 miles away which we got from a veterinarian.
It turns out that to 100% accuracy my brain can tell the difference and that there is a distinct outcome when you drop a sham envelope into your hand. You get a particular tactile response. But if you drop one that has a cancerous need, that has a picture and hair sample of a cancerous animal, the brain responds very differently. It responds very differently 100% of the time. So the brain can tell whether the envelope is live or not, as it were.
This is very, very different than conscious awareness and this goes to my statement that I think that healing might be an autonomic response to need. I’m not aware of anything other than I’m in a noisy, ugly environment and that somebody’s putting something in my hand and taking it out of my hand and putting something in my hand and taking it out of my hand. I can’t tell the difference consciously.
I’m not aware of anything. I’m not a psychic. I’m not sensitive. I’m nothing like that. I’m just lying there in a tube. But my brain is responding and it knows. So if a need is expressed the brain does—I was going to say “turns on” but I don’t know what “turns on” means. The brain responds very differently than if it’s just a touch to the brain.
So here again I get to consciously—healing doesn’t require a conscious anything. It doesn’t require belief, it doesn’t require a particular state of mind. I don’t have to be flopping on the floor; I don’t have to be spiritual. I don’t have to be anything.
Alex Tsakiris: Interesting hypothesis. I have to jump on that word “spiritual.” I think it’s just a fascinating topic and it’s something we’ve tried to approach in this show a lot. Let me take this in a slightly different direction and try to make a connection. Very interested to hear your opinion on this.
We’ve looked at the near-death experience research quite a bit on this show because it challenges this idea, this ridiculous materialistic idea that mind equals brain. It challenges directly because these people in an NDE situation don’t have a brain anymore and yet we know from the many experiments that have been done and the many clinical papers that have been published, they do still have a mind. They do still have an experience. They have a consciousness that extends beyond that.
That immediately puts you full frontal with the spiritual because that’s part of the report, too, is that these people have this spiritual experience. Then you have to correlate with other people who have had spiritually transformative experiences. It kind of leads to it.
In your case, you’ve really got to be honest. It leads you in the other direction almost because what you’re saying essentially is that the spiritual doesn’t come into it at all, this area that has often been associated with spirituality and this extended consciousness thing. You’re saying, “I don’t see any link, not that I’m looking for it, but it isn’t presenting itself, this idea of a spiritual connection.” Do you have any thoughts on either what this consciousness extending beyond bodily death might mean or how that’s connected to this? Or how spirituality in general is connected to your work?
Dr. William Bengston: First of all, I think the near-death experience research is just fascinating. It’s beautiful. You look at some of the stuff coming out of the University of Virginia, for example, and Bruce Greyson and those guys. It’s beautiful stuff. You’ve got to sit up and take notice. Something serious is going on there.
I actually have a paper coming out—I don’t know, maybe this month. What I did among other things is I examined the logs of my student volunteers and faculty volunteers. Faculty it’s harder to get to do the logs. Faculty are pretty useless. But students, at least some of them can be a little more compliant.
When I’ve asked people to treat cages of mice under various conditions, I am also asking them to keep a log of their thoughts, experiences, feelings, and so on. It was there that I really learned the extent of the lack of belief of many people. For example, some of the students talked amongst themselves and said they really thought I was doing a study on gullibility. That gives you an idea of how little they actually believed in healing. They thought can I trick someone to put their hands around a cage and think something will happen.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. So I can understand it as I explain it to other folks, you said, “Okay, here’s the protocol we’re going to follow and you have to do this experiment. And oh, by the way, keep this log of just your personal journal of what you went through.” Lo and behold, you look through their personal journal and they say, “I know he’s asking me to do this but I think this is really an experiment on whether I’m gullible enough to follow these ridiculous procedures.”
Dr. William Bengston: Right. They thought I was just screwing with their heads, which apparently I was but not the way I intended. So they really didn’t believe this stuff. Also, some of them after they settled in—the first time you put your hands around a cage of cancerous mice, you’re going to feel a little awkward to say the least.
After a while you get used to it and you’re coming into the lab and you’re doing whatever it is you’re doing and sometimes you’re just alone with the mice. Sometimes you’re with other people and sometimes something happens. I say sometimes. So in the logs and talking to the people, what I have is a variety of subjective experiences that the people have gone through. Some of them feel nothing, think this is complete nonsense. They couldn’t spell “spirituality” if their life depended on it. And others feel a connection.
Something happens sometimes and sometimes it happens at quiet moments. They feel something other in a connection with their mice. So the first statement would be, the people in the experiments have the range of experiences that run from nothing to what is that? Something’s going on. And it turns out the difference among them is not related at all to the success or failure rate of healing. So the people who are feeling nothing at all heal the same as the people who are feeling something. It occurred to me after a while that perhaps we have the causal direction backwards.
Alex Tsakiris: Back to your point of the need.
Dr. William Bengston: Of the need, yes. By now I’ve met a bunch of healers and such and some of them go through healing rituals and some of them go through like clearing their minds and doing all these kinds of things. They’re trying to get what you could loosely call into a spiritual frame of mind. That’s very vague but they’re trying to become spiritual and they think if they become spiritual or experience spiritual things that that will enhance healing. That healing is an outgrowth of a particular spiritual state of mind.
And I suspect that this is backwards. That the causal sequence is backwards. I think that the sense of connection, which I’ll take as generically similar to spirituality, is a consequence of healing, not the cause. Those people who are more sensitive to that experience will feel it and those people who are not sensitive to that experience will not feel it. That doesn’t seem to matter in terms of the efficacy of healing. It seems to matter as simply if you’re open to having that experience. But I think healing occurs nonetheless and is not related directly—it’s not a consequence of healing.
I wouldn’t recommend getting into a spiritual state of mind and try to heal. I would say just heal. It’s just healing, for crying out loud. It’s a natural thing. The sense of spirituality is a sensation you have in your conscious mind. I don’t know that the conscious mind is particularly relevant to any of this stuff.
Alex Tsakiris: But then you’re using “conscious” there in a very narrow way that we understand it, right? The whole work that you’re talking about challenges our understanding of consciousness, especially when we look at how that’s embedded in a scientific establishment that doesn’t even acknowledge that there is such a thing as consciousness. It’s hard to really pin some of these things down.
One thing I want to touch on because it did cross my mind and I’m sure a lot of people are thinking about this. You can at points sound like the ultimate cruel animal-killer experimenter who’s injecting all these mice with cancer. You had just a beautiful little tidbit in an interview I heard where you said you’re morally outraged at the idea as well as the ethicacy of killing cancer cells in a Petri dish than you are with the necessity of performing these experiments on these mice.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. You raise a couple of interesting things. One is I am very uncomfortable with doing animal research just because I’m uncomfortable. I don’t know how else to do it. So the kinds of things that I’ve done, there is no alternative to doing it the way I do it at least as far as I’m aware right now.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s interject something there because it’s a really good point that you make. You do this same experiment with people and you just try and heal people and you’ve run into all sorts of problems experimentally. The main one is that they come to you once and they never come back. They don’t report. So you would not be able to produce results that would have any chance. It’s not that your results in general have any chance of changing the medical establishment because history would suggest that they don’t. But you wouldn’t even be on the radar if you weren’t doing this in a very controlled way that you can do with 1,000 mice in a cage.
Dr. William Bengston: Right. You really can’t make any conclusions from doing people that are worth too much, in my opinion. So let’s say you had 10 people who came to you and you did these healing techniques on those 10 people and they all got better. You don’t know what did it. So you don’t know whether it was their diet, whether they got more sleep, they got less sleep. Who knows? So people are ugly in the sense that they don’t produce clean data and it gets worse. As you point out, they don’t come back so the odds of getting 10 people to follow all the way through are extremely remote.
In the case of the mice and the reason it’s such a beautiful model is you have thousands and thousands of experiments. You know exactly what’s going to happen. You know the conditions which will produce what effects. You know all those things and you can make reasonably hard conclusions. So without the mice you’d have a bunch of people that you hear stories about. People had a condition and then someone said “hocus-pocus” and waved their arms and then the condition left. Well, are you going to tie the two together? I don’t know. Maybe it was the vitamin C they took. Who knows? So a skeptic doesn’t have a way to come to a firm conclusion there.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Bill, back to the moral problems of killing those cancer cells in a Petri dish. I think that’s a really interesting point.
Dr. William Bengston: It sounds facetious but I think that in my crazy way of looking at the world, I think that healing should heal. If you have cancer cells in a Petri dish or a well plate or whatever your storage facility is and a healer comes along and does whatever their healing thing is, then presumably the outcome is to the benefit of that which they’re healing. Cancer in a test tube, we’ll call it, has no need other than to reproduce.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s what struck me about that statement. It immediately shifted my awareness from these mice who are dying, which is really like you said, a terrible, horrible thing to think about to why did I focus on that as opposed to these cells? Why did I immediately jump right into the middle of this assumed hierarchical importance of life?
I think you draw to that and I think taking it in a totally different direction, what are the implications for that in terms of how we do this kind of medical research? As your research suggests, maybe cancer cells in a test tube or a Petri dish have a different need than the cells in a mouse and therefore what kind of crazy experimental effect are we introducing that’s mucking up all our data when we look at the test tube?
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. I actually wrote an editorial about this for the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. They asked me to write an editorial and the real short version was that there was a group of Joray practitioners. Joray is a particular method of healing. I don’t know how to do it but it alleges to produce healing effects. They got a bunch of Joray healers who intended healing at a bunch of cancer cells.
They had six different kinds of cancer, a couple human, a couple mouse, and they were intending to these—we’ll just call them Petri dishes—healing. What they found was they had a significant increase in the death rate of these cells. I got alarmed. And I thought, ‘Whoa. This could be reasonably profound about what this says about healing and certainly what it says about intent.’ If these people were intending healing yet they had an increase in cell death, does that mean that intention doesn’t matter? Is it possible that you intend healing yet killing results?
You could see the direct analogy to something like radiation. Here the healer’s going zap-zap and the cells are dying at a particular rate, an increased rate of death. So I found that particularly interesting that maybe these healers are not healing. Maybe this is more of a psychokinetic effect that they had an intention of what they consider healing which was really to kill cells. I don’t consider that healing at all.
Alex Tsakiris: Yeah. Be careful what your intentions really are.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah. So maybe it’s psychokinetic effect going to see if we can change or kill cells and maybe it works. But the way it was described in the paper the healers intended healing. I thought, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Healers should heal.’
Alex Tsakiris: Of course, the idea of intending harm and intending killing is something that our government has investigated for quite some time. The movie, The Men Who Stare at Goats, and Jon Ronson is somebody we’ve had on this show even though he’s kind of of a skeptical bent. If you talk to the people who really were involved in those projects they say, “Yeah, we were trying to do that. We were trying to focus that ability.” It doesn’t sound like they had nearly the deeper understanding of it than you did but then we’ll never know because we’ll never see that research. But yeah, it does bring up some thorny issues in terms of intention and psychokinesis.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, intention and psychokinesis screw up cells and increase cell death and do all those kinds of things, wonderful. Show me the evidence. But I would just conceptually consider that to be different from healing. So you get, for example, the wonderful experiments done at Princeton Engineering and the PEAR lab for about 30 years. Can consciousness deliberately affect the outcome of a random number generator?
Well, they have 30 years of data that—yes. The answer is yes. Consciousness can affect the outcome of a random number generator. I mean, there’s no question at this point. They have literally millions of trials and you can come in there and we’ll call it an “electronic coin-flipper” come out more heads than it ought to. Or make it come out more tails than it ought to. And when a consciousness inserts itself then the outcome changes. When the consciousness uninserts itself the outcome goes back to chance.
So that’s a psychokinetic effect. I think that’s different than healing. So I did some experiments that I haven’t published yet because I need a whole bunch of replications before I’ll publish anything. Essentially it was treating the medium in which the cancer cells are grown. So these are in vitro. So you have the nutrients, the medium, and then you put cancer cells in them and that’s their food. What happens if you intend healing to the medium in which the cancer cells are grown? That’s the question.
And it turns out that we had at least an increase of 600% growth in cancer cells. Kind of scared the lab a little bit. It ate four of the graduate assistants, things like that. And so the cancer went crazy. Now that’s pretty interesting. I was a little shocked by the strength of the effect because it wasn’t until—you didn’t have to do any statistics. This wasn’t a subtle effect. So the 600% increase in cancer cell growth, that’s healing.
Now what would happen—I don’t know the answer incidentally—what would happen if you took that same super-charged cancer which I would consider having been healed because cancer does what? It divides. If you read the book, The Emperor of All Maladies, which is a biography of cancer, there’s a wonderful line in there saying that cancer is a more perfect version of ourselves. It gets your attention. So cancer divides. It doesn’t know how to stop dividing so it’s got a short-term incredible success rate with not a great long-term strategy.
It hasn’t thought things through. It’s kind of like capitalism. So you’re looking for quarterly profits. Cancer goes nuts and beats out everybody else and has no off switch. If you heal that it should get what it wants. What does it want to do? It wants to keep going. And that’s what happened.
Now if we took that same super-charged cancer and injected it into a mouse, what would happen? I don’t know. I’ve got to do this. My suspicion is it would then collapse because you’d have a lot of energy in the system and the cancer, I suspect, is a group of cells not in communication with its neighbors. If what the organism needs is to communicate with the cancer, you’re not killing you’re healing. So healing in that conceptual model is saying to cancer, “Come play with us.”
Alex Tsakiris: It’s an amazing body of work. I love that phrase, “Come play with us,” because I think the whole body of work invites us to come play with us. That’s what it’s saying. Come figure me out. Come understand what this means.
Give folks a sense for the scope of this, Bill, because you have so many great stories but you have this fantastic book, The Energy Cure: Unraveling the Mystery of Hands-On Healing, but you also have numerous, numerous peer-reviewed papers. Give us a sense for the scope of what you’ve published out there.
Dr. William Bengston: Oh, I’ve got stuff on phase-locking of brains, on cancer emitting in mice, on EEG stuff, on functional MRI stuff. I think I have a pretty novel idea of how placebos work with an actual linkage between experimental and control groups, that kind of stuff. My interests run pretty wide.
One of the things I’m interested in is you mentioned The Energy Cure as a book. I also have a companion CD set which I’m interested in the question of can healing be taught? I published a paper a couple of years ago on the question can healing be taught and I’ve gotten a lot of flak for that. People yelling in my face and stuff, saying “You’re an idiot. Of course it can be taught.”
I said, “Well, do you have any evidence?”
And of course they say, “We don’t need evidence.”
And I said, “Well, I’m scared of you.”
It turns out although most healers, virtually every healer, has been taught by someone, no one has prepost tests.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me just interject something here. It’s not like some money scam thing. This thing is $40 on Amazon. So you’re really trying to engage as many people as you can, obviously, in this work and create this social experiment, as well, right?
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, it’s interesting to me. Can someone listen to this stuff, learn the techniques, and then do it themselves? I have a group in a hospital I don’t want to mention in Delaware that are trying this. So they’re in a particular division of the hospital and they have a group of people listening to the CDs and then trying some healing just on simple things like plants and such. But they’re hoping to get to a full-fledged experimental design with animals.
I have someone else about to do an experiment at a medical school I don’t want to mention because I don’t know how above-board it is there and how much is hidden. But a medical school is about to try a replication of the mice stuff using the healing techniques. So whether healing can be taught and what is the prepost is a pretty interesting question to me. That’s among my publications, too, so it answers your other question.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, Bill, it’s just an amazing body of work. We’ve taken an hour and 15 minutes here but we’ve really, really just scratched the surface. As we’ve talked about, there are so many research possibilities out here. We just have to encourage everyone to go out, get that tenure, and then call Bill up.
Dr. William Bengston: Yeah, get yourself tenure and a lab and I’ll give you hundreds of research questions. I don’t have enough time to do everything that needs to be done. It’s also interesting. And every time we do an experiment it never comes out the way you expect it to, which is the fun.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s been terrific having you on. Thanks again so much for joining me today.
Dr. William Bengston: Thank you very much.