About

“The Heart of Healing” Documentary:
IONS Seminal Research in Mind-Body Medicine Goes Mainstream

The Challenge

In the early 1990s, IONS posited a question in the midst of remarkably rapid increases in autoimmune and cancer disease research. As the steward of decades of consciousness science research, it asked, “Are we not actually hardwired to heal?” In other words, while we’re placing the lens of science on the healing response, shouldn’t we also examine the overlooked possibility of a holistic, internal self-healing system? Until then, research had focused on eradicating disease, zeroing in on separate physiological functions such as the immune and endocrine systems. On the street, a continental divide separated conventional science from the public’s acceptance of a mind-body healing connection. No widely accessible forums, neither books, television, nor mainstream media, fostered such awareness. At the same time, the emerging field of psychoneuroimmunology—the study of the connection between the mind/brain and immune system—was too new and undersupported to help bridge the divide. IONS sought to lay the groundwork for a future medical model based on the whole human experience – the interconnection of consciousness and the body comprising a single “ecosystem” of health and wellness.

The Studies

Throughout the previous decade, IONS had collaborated on and assembled dozens of studies on spontaneous remission, placebo affects, and multiple personalities, a collection that identified some of the most compelling evidence of a mind-body healing connection. Then-Vice President for Research Brendan O’Regan initiated an exhaustive review of literature in these three areas. The review identified frontier researchers from around the world, including, among others

  • George Solomon – Correlations between stress, personality, emotions, and outlook on autoimmune disease progression
  • Robert Ader – Breakdowns in the immune system response of rats subjected to profound stress
  • Norman Cousins – The “will to live” as placebo-induced recovery and “laughter therapy,” both demonstrating emotions influence on healing.
  • Margaret Kemeny – Seminal work on Type C – or cancer prone – personality
  • Jamie Pennebaker – Correlation between journaling, a stress-reducing form of emotional expression, and immune system activity
  • Candice Pert – The body’s ability to produce its own “mood-altering” drugs, called neuropeptides, in response to pain, stress.

Outcomes/Impacts

IONS’ “The Heart of Healing” study produced volumes of research data and anecdotes, which captured the collective imaginations of mass media and medical science at a time when autoimmune diseases and cancer dominated the international psyche. In October 1993 it became a six-hour Turner Broadcasting documentary, delivering the topic of mind-body healing to millions of living rooms. Cox News Service predicted it would be “the most taped, begged, borrowed and shared TV series of the year.” Along with an illustrated hardcover book, “The Heart of Healing” explored how culture informs our ideas about the nature of healing, presented leading-edge research on the mind-body relationship, and expanded views of human healing potential. At the same time, IONS research was also used in Healing and the Mind, Bill Moyers’ pivotal television series, while O’Regan’s work with Caryle Hirshberg and Marc Ian Barasch produced the milestone book, Remarkable Recovery. The New York Times called it “an alluring work of hopeful nonfiction.” Shortly thereafter, Andrew Weil went on to publish Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body's Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself – categorized by Amazon.com as a mass-market book.

These works went on to inspire others, generating a measurable shift in public behaviors towards mind-body medicine. That field of research swelled, and the National Institutes of Health established the Office of Alternative Medicine. In1997 total visits to alternative medicine practitioners increased 47 percent from 1990, exceeding total visits to all U.S. primary care physicians. (JAMA) And by 2009, 38 percent of American adults (and 12 percent of children) were turning to meditation, hypnosis, group support, biofeedback, mental imaging, and simple positive thinking to maintain health and cure illness. (NIH)

Most remarkably, “The Heart of Healing” project assembled the fields of psychology, biology, immunology, psychiatry, and anthropology to identify a healing system that later emerged as the field of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI). While some were initially skeptical, the United States Public Health Service funded hundreds of research grants in the field of PNI. In 1985, Medline, the worlds’ largest medical database, cited no PNI listings but posted more than 100 between 1995 and 1997. New research is still being carried out, and there are several academic journals devoted to PNI.

Conclusion

Today we now know that there are many tools to help stimulate the healing response, and mind-body medicine research is keeping up the pace. For example, the department of defense is accelerating studies on alternative practices in wound healing. Integral practice programs are becoming more commonplace. Stress has become one of the fastest-growing areas of medical research. And survivorship programs that look beyond physical dynamics are sprouting up in major medical programs, including Sloan Kettering and Columbia. As these programs unfold, IONS continues to push the envelope in healing-systems research, looking for more tools and technologies that support human resilience.

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