AIPR Information Sheet: Healing

(The information presented here is not necessarily endorsed by the AIPR)

Psychic, faith and spiritual healing are terms used inconsistently. The term psychological healing (8B) or mental healing (19) covers all three types, including self-healing, though the term healing is simpler.

Common themes in all healing are that no physical curative agent is used, and that healing is holistic, that is, affecting the whole body. “Whole” is part of the definition of “heal”. All healing contains common myths, rituals and procedures that provide meaning and the art of persuasion. The purpose is to remove the demoralisation and lack of personal control that accompanies illness (8B).

However, it is still useful to separate different types.

Faith healing

Healing occurring because of the strong belief by both patient and therapist that the patient will get better. There is now a good scientific explanation of why this can work, in terms of connections between mind, brain and the immune system of the body. Medicine calls this the placebo effect.

Psychic healing

Healing is said to occur by transfer of “energy” or “psychic energy” from the therapist to the patient.

Spiritual (transpersonal) healing

Healing is said to occur by “energy” transfer from a higher spiritual force or Supreme Being, with the healer acting only as a conduit. The healer (in a trance) and patient can become one, and healing automatically transfers to the patient (15). Often carried out as rituals in a specific religious context, such as charismatic Christian, Spiritualist (or Spiritist), and Christian Science. Termed esoteric if based on hidden teachings (14). Revival meetings allegedly produce a healing conversion experience (8B).

Magical healing

Putatively involves a real physical event, as in a pill or medical procedure, or bogus ones (as in psychic surgery), to assist with healing without specific effect. This suits the person who needs spirituality in a concrete form. Termed magico-religious in a religious setting, such as a church, shrine (such as Lourdes) or other holy places or “power spots” (8B). Termed shamanic healing in native cultures (14).

Laying on hands

Involves touching the client (touch therapy). Healing “energy” directly transfers to the client (15).Therapeutic touch is a recent scientific reformulation (6,12,16A), though not without criticism (7).

Absent (or distant) healing

Occurs in the absence of the healer. This is often done by mail. Christian healers often use prayer.

Healing as holistic

All ancient systems of medicine, such as the shamanic, Chinese and Hippocratic medicine in ancient Greece, are holistic. Instead of quantities and objectivity, they emphasise human values, quality, intuition and spirituality. Yogic texts describe prana; a vibrant directional cosmic life force or energy that flows into the physical body. The equivalent Chinese or Taoist term is ch’i. Hippocrates regarded illness as natural phenomena suitable for scientific study. Health is a state of balance.

Physical, mental and spiritual healing are impossible to separate entirely; they complement each other to heal the whole body. Healing is but one of a group of alternative or complementary therapies that promote wellbeing of the whole body, a dynamic balance between the physical and mental aspects of humans, and between humans and the natural and social environment. Chronic or excess stress, for example, produces an imbalance, and thus illness. Positive attitudes, relaxation and body manipulations lead to recovery.

Although holistic therapies are not supported by many scientific experiments, clinical success is claimed. Patients are referred to medical care if necessary.

Historical perspective

In ancient times, healing was the province of shamans, priests and kings. Healers treated their patients as part of their social and spiritual environment. From the 1600s, the medical practitioner emerged, in tandem with science. Our doctors became the wizards of the modern world; their drugs and high technology cured incurable diseases, transplanted organs and raised the dead (1). The success of modern medicine is undeniable, especially the treatment of accident victims and infections, surgery and (to some extent) psychiatry.

However, this biomedical model is narrow. Doctors have become mechanics, viewing the body as a machine (17A). Medicine has not kept pace with the diseases of affluence; heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure – caused by stress, over-eating, drug abuse, pollution and sedentary life-style. Many drugs in common use have dangerous side-effects, if improperly used. The incidence of iatrogenic illness (illness induced by the health-care system) is high (8).

Medicine treats disease only after it manifests; it does little to prevent disease, or to predict the severity of symptoms in an individual. About 80% of clients consulting a medical doctor have a psychosomatic illness or a self-limiting ailment (that gets better spontaneously) (17). The challenge for the doctor is to pick out the 20% of clients with physical problems, such as a broken bone or a virus. With the other 80%, it often does not matter whether a doctor, priest or healer provides the “healers art” (6A).

Both medicine (scientific, allopathic) and holistic methods have benefits and traps. The current trend is for mutual co-operation, and parallel legal franchise of both (9A, 17A).


A placebo is a fake medicine or procedure given with the suggestion that it will cure a symptom, but (unknown to the patient) has no known drug-based effect. Placebos have long been regarded by doctors as either a nuisance, or as a baseline against which to measure the effect of a new drug (18,20) (note 1). Placebos can be better thought of as whole-body healing, or non-specific healing (in contrast to the specific healing of a sore). Placebo effects are similar to that of faith healing.

Placebos can be better thought of as whole-body healing

If a drug increases blood pressure (BP), the placebo drug also increases BP. If a drug effect is given in larger dose, the placebo effect also goes up. Side-effects for placebos are sometimes the same as for the drug itself. Fantasy-prone persons probably respond best to placebos.

Until about 1900, most medicines worked as placebos, their drug composition being unknown. (Medicine is largely the history of the placebo effect.) Even today, perhaps 30% of all drugs prescribed are placebos, and perhaps 30% of patients taking placebos get better. Some placebo cures may be spontaneous remission (note 2).

Are placebos ethical? It is impossible to produce a placebo effect without deceiving the patient to some extent. Such benign deception thus must be tolerated, provided the patient is not financially exploited. This must also be balanced against the possible relapse if a patient uncovers the deception.


Psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) explores the two-way interactions between the mind, the nervous system (including the brain) and the immune system of the body (2,5,15A,16). It provides a scientific basis for holistic health, including faith healing and placebo effects. It can potentially explain; how positive emotions, vivid imagery and touch promote health and well-being; how a “broken heart” can lead to death; how hypnosis can relieve allergies; how stress can produce psychosomatic or psychophysiological disorders, such as ulcers and asthma – perhaps even cancer (9A).

A well-designed randomised study has shown that patients with breast cancer live significantly longer if they receive social support, and self-hypnosis to relieve pain (19C). Norman Cousins was cured of painful arthritis by hearty laughter in conjunction with medical care (7B). Humour stimulates secretion of endorphins, a natural painkiller. Cousins regards humour as a metaphor for all positive emotions, including the will to live.

The immune system is diffused throughout the body as white blood cells. The cells secrete antibodies to protect the body against infection. When immune reactions are suppressed, disease is let in. Many papers have been published on the link between mind/brain and the immune system (16). That such links exist is undoubted, though the mechanism of interaction is disputed. Perhaps endorphins are secreted (brain chemicals that kill pain). Perhaps, hormones, in response to a signal from the brain, are secreted by the endocrine system, initiating an immune response.

Stress alone does not produce an ailment. Stress can also enhance immune response, promoting health. Illness occurs only where the person cannot cope with the stress, or lacks social support.

Illusions and health

Therapists usually insist that healthy people have accurate perceptions of themselves, the world and future events. Recent studies, however, show that the healthiest people exaggerate positive self-evaluations as well as their mastery or control over situations. Such illusions also promote other criteria of mental health, including happiness, creativity and caring for others (19A,19B).

Bogus pills and surgery

Placebo and faith cures are commonly enhanced by physical props, both real and bogus. For example, a doctor often gives a demanding patient a placebo pill. High-profile faith healers often arrange for cured people (real or bogus) to speak out “spontaneously” from the audience.

Psychic surgeons make an incision in the body, or pretend to do so (producing real or fake blood), and withdraw a fake “diseased organ” (17). When the Aboriginal shaman points a bone, the sinner thinks that the bone has been taken from his or her body, and becomes ill (antiplacebo effect).

Medical surgery can be analogous. In the 1950s, enthusiastic doctors claimed an 80% cure rate for angina pectoris by means of surgery (tying up of the mammary artery). In one double blind study, surgeons produced the same high result with skin incisions without surgery. Another double blind study produced a 30% cure rate for both surgery and incision without surgery (the placebo rate) (4). The success of coronary by-pass operations may also be partly placebo, as is the healthy action of popular foods, including vitamins and herbal remedies.

The spiritual spectrum

Spiritual healing and personal growth require the acceptance of spiritual realities. For example, Wilber (21,23) states that consciousness consists of a spectrum or hierarchy of levels: (a) pre-personal (physical body sensations and perceptions); (b) personal (mind) and (c) transpersonal (spiritual, mystical experiences). Each higher level includes all lower levels.

Intense feelings of love are typical of the mystical experiences. Thus, love can be thought of as the motive force behind self-healing as well as caring for others (11A).

Wilber predicts a parallel hierarchy of illness (22,23). If development miscarries, the higher state does not transcend and include the lower, it dissociates and represses it (or aspects of it). The dissociated part throws up pathological symptoms and symbols. Healing involves reintegration of the dissociated, repressed parts.

Psychologists largely work at level (b) (personal). Healing is complete only if levels (a) and (c) are also considered. It is easy to confuse level (a) with level (c) as both are non-personal (the pre/trans fallacy). For example, Freudians wrongly explain mystical experiences (level [c]) as infantile regression (prepersonal; level [a]). (23).

Scientific research

Numerous studies so far failed to find unequivocal evidence of healing (13,19).

Observational studies. These take place in a naturalistic setting, but are more difficult to control. The study by Rose of 92 spiritual healings failed to find a convincing effect (17B).

Experimental studies. These are better controlled, but the setting is more artificial. The beliefs of the subjects and experiments can also affect the result, even for double blind studies (in which neither subjects nor the experimenter knows which of the two groups of subjects is being healed). Many of the studies have assumed that healing is a form of psychokinesis (PK).

If plants are used, the placebo effect is non-existent. Studies by Grad in which Estebany tried to affect the growth of plants show a healing effect. However, an experimenter influence can still not be eliminated.


Is psychic healing more effective than a control group (untreated patients drawn from the same population)? There are two types of control group: no-treatment (NT), and placebo treatment (PT). NT means that patients are placed on a waiting list for treatment; PT means that patients are given only positive suggestions, expectation, attention, and brief healing, such as relaxation and visualisation training, group discussion, lectures, books and brief counselling. NT might produce an unintended reverse placebo effect.

Spontaneous remission is a medical term for recovery from an illness without medical intervention, and by an unknown cause. The term has little meaning. There must be some underlying cause of the cure, but we do not know what it is. There are many possible causes of cures, from physical (for example, a virus dies) to mental (for example, positive expectations).


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New reference:

26) Vaughan, F (1991). Spiritual issues in psychotherapy. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 23, 105-119.