The New Art of Healing

This is the great error of our day in the treatment of the human body, that physicians separate the soul from the body. — PLATO.

SOME innovator in natural science — I think it was Galvani — said that the two classes who impeded him most were the scientists and the know-nothings. It appears also in our own day that the learned and the ignorant are the chief foes of progress. The former, having acquired their learning with some labor, are naturally loath to see it outdated, and the latter, having been perhaps at considerable pains to preserve their ignorance, are not to be startled out of it by any means. But we should not condemn two such valuable things as learning and ignorance because of the resistance they offer to a reformer who happens to be right. Reformers are as rarely right as the wind. We need both resistance and guidance against them, if we are to arrive at any port. The learned and the ignorant are helm and ballast in a somewhat precarious progress.

Wherefore, ranking this paper bravely among the deliverances of the learned, we find that its mission is to offer guidance in a matter about which a great quantity of the general public is very much at sea. In this question of “ mindover-matter,” the reformers have done their work. They have stirred things up. They have bestowed upon the world about a hundred and fifty little religions and a confused idea that there must be some truth in the matter somewhere. The ignorant have done their work. They have persecuted the believers, jeered at them, or damned them with a vacuous smile. This world will never lack ballast. It is only the scientists that have failed of their duty. They have stalked through a routine of elevated lectures, written a few incomprehensible books, and kept the science of Psychology, so far as the hungry world goes, sealed up in their own proud bosoms. In all this uproar of faith-cures, and miracles, and shouting prophets, we have heard few illuminating words from the universities. The consequence is that we are without a helm, and the reform blows now one way and now another.

The religion of mental power has nearly as many formulations as there are individual believers. Christian Science is numerically in the lead, and we may sum up its contribution in these words from Mrs. Eddy’s Book: —

“ Become conscious for a single moment that life and intelligence are purely spiritual — neither in nor of matter —and the body will then utter no complaints. If suffering from a belief in sickness you will find yourself suddenly well.”

Next in importance stands “ Mental Healing,” which one of its advocates in a moment of unfortunate complacency called “ The New Thought.” It can best be summed up, however, in the old words of Plato: —

“ For it is not by the body, methinks, that they cure the body — but they cure the body by the soul, which, while in a diseased state, or becoming so, is incapable of performing any cure whatever.”

There are a thousand varieties of each doctrine, but, generally speaking, the “ New Thought Movement ” represents, besides much simple wisdom, the belief that one powerful mind can, by “concentration” in presence or absence, help another mind to overcome its wrong ways of thinking. When these are conquered, the cause of the bodily trouble is removed, and health ensues. The companion belief that one can secure the Presidency by going into the silence, and holding the thought with sufficient tenacity, we can afford to neglect, because it has nothing to do with therapeutics.

There are, however, a number of Oriental philosophers, Yogi Healers, darkeyed Hindus, and Theosophists, who swim in the wake of the New Thought, and whose business is to treat the sick. They would be called “fakirs” in India, I think, without disparagement; and it is characteristic of our western view of things that we have identified that word with deceit. They are in their own eyes mysterious priests and servants of mankind, and we cannot but recognize an uncommon power in their tradition, arising out of the dark bosom of Asia and the past.

Other forms of this faith, too, are fresh in our minds. The miraculous cures of Alexander Dowie, in the person of Elijah, are reported to have been genuine and of some durability. Then there are the séances, the work of physicians returned from the “ spirit-land,” the laying on of hands in the dark, and cures wrought by this hope of immortality. Magicians of all kinds are to be found, if one searches, casting out demons and calling on the name of the Lord. There are sudden healings of paralysis by the ancient method of prayer and faith; there are the miraculous relics of the saints, the shrines, and fountains; there are mesmerists, evangelists, and crowing little prophets on all sides. Charlatans or genuine believers — who can tell that does not preside at their thinking ? The world is full of tradition and hope.

By the side of, or in the wake of, these more or less mystical practices, a school of physicians has appeared, who combine with their medical treatments a serious attention to the mental condition of their patients. They treat nervous disorders by suggestion, they consider a great many disorders nervous which were not formerly considered so, and use suggestion as a help in the treatment of other troubles. These physicians proceed humbly in the path which a strict science points out. They have found that one truth which underlies the various visions of the enthusiasts. We may safely aver that the whole movement will resolve itself into a momentous reform in the practice of medicine. And the purpose of this paper is to show upon what psychological law this reform is based, how these physicians operate, and how they differ from the wizards of Christian Science and the wielders of “ thought-vibrations ” and “ magnetic fluid.”

The Law of Suggestion, which is one of the great discoveries of modern science, was first formulated by Dr. Liebault at Paris, in a book published in 1866. Since his day the number of physicians who practice “ suggestive therapeutics ” has steadily increased, until to-day no thorough clinical hospital is without a professional suggestionist. This practice does not involve any metaphysical theories, the passage of any hidden force from one brain to another, any “ planes of existence,” or any religious upset, or any poetic physiology, or the swallowing of any occult doctrines whatever. It is one of the simplest and coolest of scientific theories. It is a question of the relation between the brain and the bodily organs. It seems never to have been clearly stated that healing disease by suggestion depends not in the least degree upon any theory of the relation of mind and matter.

Suppose that you knew nothing about politics, but lived in a community of a thousand persons, each of whom believed, and frequently asserted, that “ the Republican party is the greatest party in the country.” It would be only by an effort of will that you could resist believing that yourself. And this would be true, if not one of those thousand persons ever gave a reason for the greatness of the Republican party, and if you knew that a thousand persons in the next county believed with equal vigor in the greatness of the Democratic party. An idea tends to become fixed in your mind by vigorous repetition from another person — without appeal to your reason. Education should make us resist, and submit such ideas to the judgment of reason. Character consists largely in such resistance.

But if we purposely relax our judgment, put ourselves in a passive attitude toward these Republicans, we will find our own politics fixed in less than a month by the politics of the community in which we live. This happens all the time with persons who have not the character to demand reasons. They become possessed without reason of an “ unalterable conviction.” We will say that it might happen to us, if we voluntarily relaxed our customary firmness.

The attempt to fix an idea in the mind without reason is suggestion. It is accomplished usually in medical practice by asking a patient to lie down and relax his body and his mind, and then vigorously stating to him the desired idea. It may be accomplished in a number of ways. The patient may be told that the operator is a wizard and is about to transfer an idea from his own mind to that of the patient. If the patient believes him he will very likely accept the idea. It may be accomplished by gestures or incantations which the patient regards with superstitious awe, provided it is explained beforehand what these gestures are meant to produce. It may be accomplished by telling the patient he has no body, and sitting with him for a while in a spiritual silence, provided he knows what he is to expect. All these methods, if one believes in them, are good, and they prove by their success the law of suggestion. But the method that is based on a sure truth is the method of the scientist. He reasons with his patient, he stirs in him what moral and religious enthusiasm he can, and to these means he adds tactfully the subtle suggestive power of his own presence and eloquence. This force, together with the power which is revealed in a man of correcting his own mental habits, is the greatest practical discovery of modern psychology.

It is clear that, if for a good reason I decide to relax my critical faculty toward a person whom I trust, and make myself open to his suggestion, I have not “weakened my will,”or lost any moral dignity. This is a childish and unthinking superstition. My relinquishment is an act of will. Persons of strong will when they coöperate with a physician are the best patients. Not only is such a voluntary subjection of one’s self to a chosen master an act of will, but it is a high and difficult discipline. It is seen in all the history of religion and morals to be a victory. And, confining ourselves to therapeutics, it is difficult to see why it is any more a suspension of judgment to let a physician you have decided to trust lodge a helpful idea in your mind, than to let him lodge an ominous-looking capsule in your body.

Suggestive therapeutics is the use of suggestion to fix in the mind ideas of health, or healthy mental habits. And we are now in a position to inquire what is the value of a fixed idea of health. My discussion here divides itself into two parts, according to the varieties of human infirmity.

A great deal of alleged physical suffering is primarily mental. A great many people have “ fixed ideas ” of disease, pain, debility, fatigue, dread, inefficiency, and unexpressible woes. Much oftener than we realize, these can be transplanted without surgery or medication. I do not mean that they are not real sufferings. They are as real as the grave. But they are not grounded in physical infirmity, and they are not to be cured with physic. The mind becomes possessed of a conviction that a certain part of the body is infirm, and imputes pain to that part in spite of all the medicine in the world. Hundreds of people refuse to get well after the physician has cured them. It is not his fault, and it is not their fault; but they have simply had disease suggested to them until they cannot think at all except upon that assumption. It is an “ auto-suggestion,” or it is a family-suggestion, and the only way to remove it is by the vigorous countersuggestion of another person. The value of a “ fixed idea ” of health, as being only the removal of a fixed idea of disease where there was no organic reason for it, will hardly be disputed. Yet one cannot overestimate the multitudes that there are of these invalids, sitting in padded chairs and making ready for the hearse, whose trouble is primarily mental; and how many there are again who have a slight organic infirmity, and have increased its effects a thousandfold by what we may call “ household suggestion.”

One is particularly reminded of those victims of so-called nervous depletion, who are denied even the last resort of a chronic invalid — the enjoyment of cultivating a virtue. Patience is too absorbing for these sufferers, and unselfishness a desperate indiscretion. Day in and day out they are taught that they must foster vacuity, which is the one thing the human heart unconditionally rejects. Most of us have sat shuddering at one time or another under the incubus of an idea, and these most pitiable persons are often in a dire extremity of the same plight. This remark sounds, at the first blush, like a personal affront to a self-respecting and properly smothered invalid. But upon reflection we will realize that the mind is no more incriminated than the body by the fortuitous admission of toxic matter. If we respected a psychic ailment more we would cure it more, and we would avoid it oftener. To quote Mrs. Eddy’s best sentence, —

“ When this mental contagion is understood . . . we shall avoid loquacious tattling about disease, as we should avoid advocating crime.”

What we are to avoid is a thousand house-grown maladies of the imagination — a crew of impalpable lemures and blood-sucking ghosts, such as no man can afford to have about his hearth. Many of them now occupy recognized seats in the infernal hierarchy of the Pathologist, and their number has been amply exhibited by Dr. Dubois in his recent book.1 This has been tacitly understood by the less chemical and dogmatic of doctors for a long time. The chief value of many pills lies in the satisfaction of taking them.

Apropos of which subject I am reminded of the silver-haired Dr. Grimesbeckle, a good friend of my youth, and a physician of the old Garden School that is now nearly extinct. For him a few grassy herbs and a pair of shrewd compassionate hands were the main items in Materia Medina. Yet I have seen him load up a cantankerous patient with doses of such portentous-looking pellets — having about the size of a sea-going torpedo — as made my own inwards to quake. And that too, when the diagnosis, as announced by him in the helpful tones of a cheerful auctioneer, was nothing of nobler nature than an “ oldfashioned stomach-ache.” If you ventured to remonstrate with him outside the door upon the abandon with which he had served out physic to your relative, he would look you up and down with a kind of anatomical disdain, and he would grumble this out at you: “ Some people, my boy, never believe anything until they get it stuck in their throat.” Which mysterious formula meant, as I afterward learned, that all he had given the patient was a dose of corn-starch and a slap on the back.

Suggestion is indispensable in curing ailments which are primarily mental. But whether a fixed idea of health or a healthy fixed idea can cure or help to cure a bodily disease, seems to be a different question. There were crutches enough left at the holy shrines, but there were no wooden legs. And many people who believe in the use of suggestion do not believe that any palpable ailments were ever helped by it. They think that such a belief would involve theories of “ mind-over-matter,” and they do not care for these theories.

But there is no difference in kind between a so-called mental and a physical trouble, because every mental condition is paralleled by a brain condition. That brain condition must be removed if the trouble is to be cured. So if we grant that suggestion can affect a physical condition of the brain, we have only this question left — to what degree can it affect the whole nervous system and thereby the body ? I remember seven theories of the relation of mind and matter, and not one of these has more than an incidental bearing upon this subject. At the expense of the reader’s patience I shall try to make this important point clear before I stop.

Psychology and physiology agree that every mental change or condition is paralleled by a physical change or condition within the brain or nervous system. When I say “ is paralleled by ” I mean that they happen together in time, and that is all I mean. No question here of inter-relation, of cause or effect, soul or body - simply that the occurrence of every idea in the mind is accompanied by some physical occurrence in the brain. Physiology has to do with the physical occurrence, not with the idea.

An idea of a healthy stomach is accompanied by a certain brain-condition; an idea of a diseased stomach is accompanied by a different brain-condition. Those are physical conditions. And we may now cease to consider the ideas at all. Our question is: Can those physical conditions of the brain affect the physical condition of the stomach ? We know that the brain-condition which accompanies the idea of raising our hand can affect the condition of the muscles of our arm — and we call that a voluntary function. Now the question is whether the brain condition which accompanies the idea of enlivening our stomach can have any effect upon that involuntary function.

Experiments with suggestion have proved that in some cases it can, if it continues long enough. Persons of a very suggestible nature can, for instance, by concentrating their mind upon a certain part of the body, increase the flow of blood to that part, although the regulation of blood-flow is supposed to be entirely involuntary. The action of the heart also, the movements of the digestive organs particularly, and of the organs of elimination, are almost directly affected in suggestible persons by that change in their brains which accompanies certain ideas. Individuals differ very much in the degree of control which can be established; they differ as much as they do in their ability to move their ears. And this difference in individuals — the so-called psychic and non-psychic types - does not seem to connect itself uniformly with any other characteristics. So it is hard to tell one from the other except by the actual experiment.

Science has established, then, that suggestion can affect to some extent the so-called involuntary functions of the body; but the extent or limitation of these effects is by no means determined. It could not be determined scientifically without years of diligent experiment and tabulation. Any dogmatic statement upon one side or the other of that question is therefore premature and against the spirit of science.

Rev. Samuel McComb, Dr. Worcester’s associate in the church in Boston which has recently inaugurated the use of suggestive treatment, together with religious and moral discipline, writes as follows: “With our present light it must be maintained that suggestion is available only within certain limits. There is not the slightest evidence that when an organic change has taken place in the body, such a change can be affected by mental means.”

The first sentence is unquestionable; the second is highly unscientific and untrue. Those words “ organic change ” and “ organic lesion ” are used very bravely by many persons who have small apprehension of the difficulty they would have in explaining them. An “organic” trouble is one in which there is an abnormal condition of the tissues of an organ; a “ functional ” trouble is one in which there is a failure in the action of an organ, without any discoverable change in its tissues. “ Nervous dyspepsia ” is a functional disorder, ulcer of the stomach an organic disorder. All persons who have been much in the mercy of our physicians are acquainted with this general distinction.

But it is only a distinction of practical language, and must not be overworked, for here again we are unable to draw the line. The brain and nervous system is an organ. The functioning of the stomach is largely controlled by the brain and nervous system. A functional disorder in the stomach therefore often represents an organic disorder in the brain or nervous system. And few things would be more likely to “ affect ” an “ organic change ” in the nervous tissue than the permanent fixation of certain thought-habits in the brain. If the most delicate investigations were possible, we believe we should find that every trouble has its organic manifestation. Even those miseries which I called “ primarily mental,” are probably accompanied by abnormalities of cerebral structure somewhere, though they are too fine for us to discover. But if these slight organic changes can be affected by suggestion, we have no authority for the assertion that greater ones cannot be affected. It is a question merely of the degree of the effect, and not of the kind. If suggestion can affect those abnormalities of the nerves which accompany fixed ideas of fatigue, perhaps it can affect those abnormalities of the nerves which we call neurasthenia — neurasthenia being the name a, doctor gives to his own ignorance. But perhaps it can also affect those greater abnormalities which are called neuritis. What I want to show is that there is no difference in kind between the disorders we can see, and those we cannot see. There is no reason to suppose that suggestion can affect changes which are invisible through the microscope, but that as soon as a change becomes visible, suggestion can no longer affect it. There is a limit to the effect of suggestion even in the most susceptible person, but we have at present no idea what that limit is. That is one reason for objecting to the statement which I quoted.

Another reason is that, given a change in an organ, it is a part of the function of other organs to remove it. Even so small a thing as the increase of blood-supply in the disturbed region can have its curative effect upon an “ organic change.” Therefore if suggestion can increase the bloodsupply, it can affect an organic change. So that if we grant that suggestion can affect the functioning of parts of the system, we have granted that it can indirectly affect the structure of other parts. It is of value in the removal of, or adjustment to, organic disorders. The next sentence in Mr. McComb’s article is an admission of this: “Yet even here the suggestive principle is not without value. It creates the most hopeful atmosphere within which the material remedies may work.” If this is to be interpreted as science and not as fancy, it means that when an organic change has taken place in the body, such a change may be affected by mental means.

Issuing from the sweat of these technical arguments, we shall be better convinced bv an example. Let me cite therefore the repeated experiments of those physicians who have produced in suggestible persons a structural alteration of the skin by suggesting in hypnosis the application of a blister. This may be explained as a high control of the circulation, but it is an organic change produced thereby, and as such is of immense significance.

We have the comfort of knowing that no truly scientific person will for many years attempt to describe the limits of application of the suggestive principle. Each will adopt a general attitude which satisfies his temperament and explains his experience. There is ample support in the brilliant experiments of certain French physicians for those who are quite radical, and there is a mountain of traditional wisdom for those who are conservative.

If I have shown that the new practice of medicine, which takes account of psychology and cerebral physiology, is not dependent upon any doctrine of mind and matter, I have accomplished my reason’s purpose. If in the by-going it has been suggested to some person that his woes can be alleviated by mental means, or, at least, that he can learn from some new prophet the best of the art of being an invalid, so much reasoning will not seem vain. Every sick man can afford to make this venture.

Finally, be it urged that those who believe in suggestion, and have perhaps been helped by it, shall quit their ignominious reticence and say so. It is wrath to the hopeful to see those who have sufficient breadth to go and put themselves under suggestive treatment, not having sufficient ardor of personal honesty and altruism to say they have done so, but hugging their secret like the insane. So long as the unprejudiced are cowards we are wholly damned by prejudice.

  1. The Psychic Treatment of Nervous Disorders. New York : Funk & Wagnalls Co. 1905.