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IONS Returns Consciousness to Healing:
Ancient Wisdom, Modern Medicine, and the Birth of Psychoneuroimmunology

“Civilized” Medicine Dismisses Mind/Soul

For thousands of years, traditional, indigenous, and Eastern medical traditions integrated body, mind, and spirit as a whole healing system. When modern science emerged in the 17th century, it broke down the human experience into measurable components it could label, enshrining the physical body as a biological machine in what became the new model of “Western medicine.” Because the ethereal entity of the mind could only be considered, not recorded, it was associated with that inexplicable, intangible human essence called the soul. When Rene Descartes wanted to pursue his theories of a unitary mind/body system, Church officials limited him to the study of the physical world, instructing him to leave the soul to them. A few centuries after that, germ theory broke down the biological sciences even further, giving the immune system complete autonomy as a healing system.

For increasing numbers of healthcare consumers and professionals alike, the biomedical model has failed to offer a system for understanding the fullness of the lived experience. By the time the Institute of Noetic Sciences was founded in 1973, these frustrations had intensified the call for new research into a medical model that engaged the possibility of human transcendence in the face of illness and disease. The stage was thus set for “consciousness science” to come forward.

Consciousness Science Pushes for Mind-Body Evidence

The first attempts by modern medicine to reunite the mind and body in the laboratory occurred in the 1950s. In response to what a few scientists thought was a misunderstanding that the mind could manifest somatic (cell-based, biological) symptoms during psychological distress, the study of “psychosomatic medicine” was born (Alexander, 1950; Engel, 1977; Salk, 1962; Selye, 1976; Solomon & Moos, 1964; Wolf & Goddell, 1968).

The Institute of Noetic Sciences used this mind-body breakthrough as an invitation to introduce consciousness science into the field of medical research, and began studying the miraculous healings at Lourdes, France, and in Medjugorje, in the former Yugoslavia. It went on to collect evidence of “spontaneous” remission and regression of illnesses from as far back as 1846 – the first such recorded incident – until it had more than 3500 accounts from 830 medical journals in more than twenty languages.

By the 1980s, the study of psychosomatic medicine had revealed new sets of observations that cognitive processes, neurobiology, and the immune system were functionally integrated. IONS seized this “evidence-based” opportunity to push harder for scientific evidence; it initiated a program of research called the Inner Mechanisms of the Healing Response. Under the leadership of Brendan O’Regan, IONS’ then vice-president of research, this program identified formal research on the link between consciousness and health, which included the idea that consciousness-related factors (cognitive and emotional) might play a role in both wellness and the healing of disease. These endeavors helped give rise to a new formal medical discipline called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) (Ader, 1981; Rogers, Dubey, & Reich, 1979, Sklar & Anisman, 1979; Solomon and Amkraut, 1981, Stein et al., 1976).

PNI is the study of the body’s innate healing abilities. It is based on the premise that multiple factors – including psychological, emotional, genetic, endocrine, nervous and immune – affect immune functioning and hence resistance to disease. In other words, medical science was beginning to find its way back to the origins of health and healing: the connection of mind and body.

IONS Ushers Psychoneuroimmunology into Post-Modern Era

Throughout the 1980s, studies continued to reveal evidence to support the PNI premise. IONS bolstered this momentum in 1985 when it sponsored the first international workshop on neuroimmunomodulation (Pardes), where a new generation of scientists met to explore how the brain and immune system communicate with each other. IONS provided additional grants to support four subsequent meetings, which later shaped the first PNI professional society (Rabin, Laudenslager): 1) investigation into the relationship between hypnosis and aspects of the immune response (Locke, Olness); 2) conditioning and the immune response (Ader); 3) the role of a cognitive intervention in the immune responses of colon cancer patients (Levy); and 4) immune system changes in both healer and healee during non-contact therapeutic touch.

By the 1990s, the struggle was beginning to pay off: PNI research had discovered the anatomical link between the central nervous system and the immune system, and provided evidence that immune reactions could be learned and that they influenced behavior. PNI research then began concentrating on biological signaling – neurotransmitters and hormones talking to immune cell receptors. Once PNI began to delve into the cellular and molecular mechanisms where scientists could measure receptors and “second messenger” effects, even stalwart skeptical immunologists began to accept it.

The work of IONS coincided with and even validated this benchmark of acceptance with a six-hour television series called “The Heart of Healing,” produced by Turner Broadcasting. It provided an international audience of healthcare consumers with new language and a new narrative to assimilate mind-body perspectives and approaches into their understanding of wellness.

PNI’s full break into the medical mainstream occurred in the late 90s when science repeatedly demonstrated the health implications of stress on the immune system and published its results in established medical journals – ending the decade when stress became a household word and almost anyone paying attention knew about its connection to illness.

IONS’ Pivotal Role in a New Field of Study

Despite early skepticism and funding shortages, IONS’ bold early work exploring the role of consciousness in healing helped the mainstream medical community accept PNI as an established and credible medical science. The Institute’s persistence led to scientific evidence of a mind-body connection and a return to the wisdom of the holistic human experience. While PNI has a long way to go to establish acceptance and widespread support among all branches of the medical community and among health care consumers, it has ushered in a post-modern era of scientific research. PNI research continues at many major medical institutions around the world, where medical practices based on PNI research – including meditation, hypnosis, and imagery – are being offered as standard treatment protocols.

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